Alexander McCall Smith Talks with Jacqueline Winspear
Alexander McCall Smith: Characters, once created, have a way of staying on. Maisie is an attractive character--when did she say to you: "I want a series?"
Jacqueline Winspear: As I was writing the first novel in the series, Maisie Dobbs, I realized that scenes and ideas were coming to me that were not part of the book. I started keeping notes on those other scenes, passages of dialogue and so on, and when I had finished Maisie Dobbs, I went through those notes and realized I had rough plans for another five or six books. Indeed, as I was writing the second book in the series, Birds of a Feather, I really had to push any thoughts of the intended third novel from my mind, so strong were the images for Pardonable Lies that kept popping into my mind's eye. I had to be very disciplined not to be distracted by those images--it was rather like being nagged by one's own characters.
Smith: Maisie Dobbs is firmly placed in the past. Would you be comfortable writing about contemporary Britain?
Winspear: That’s a very good question, and indeed, I have a more contemporary novel on the proverbial "back-burner." However, although I visit my parents in Sussex many several times each year, for me there is a certain detachment from everyday life in the UK. I am not as familiar with various aspects of life there, so it might be difficult to get that ring of authenticity. On the other hand, one could argue that the lack of transparency could act in my favor, because I now take notice of so many things that might have passed me by. I believe one of the reasons I am so comfortable writing about the past is that when I was a child we lived in a small hamlet with very few children, so it was a world of adults, many of them elderly, and all of them ready to tell a story of their own youth.
I have always been drawn to the past through family history, a curiosity that has its roots in my grandfather's experience in the Great War--he was wounded and shell-shocked at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Even as a very young child I understood the extent of his suffering and struggled to fathom how something so terrible could happen to a beloved grandparent. And I am sure my interest in the women of that generation--the first generation of women to go to war in modern times--is rooted in memories of the ladies of a certain age who lived in our neighborhood as I was growing up. They were typical of that generation, very independent women who had remained single due to circumstance, for the men they might have married had been lost to war.
So, to the question of writing about contemporary Britain--I think I'll find out more about my level of comfort with modern times when I pull that contemporary novel off the back burner. In the meantime, there's so much that I want to explore from the past, though when I immerse myself in the preparatory research for my books, I am always reminded of the old adage: "history repeats itself."
Smith: You and I both started as novelists rather later than is perhaps usual. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Winspear: When I was sixteen I rather precociously announced that I would write my first novel by the time I was thirty--it seemed such a formidable age of adulthood, I suppose. Of course, thirty came and went with no novel to show for it, and in the meantime I was becoming more and more interested in nonfiction writing. I was in my late thirties by the time I made a real commitment to getting my work published, and I concentrated more on essays, articles and other creative nonfiction. I believe my writing at that time represented something of an apprenticeship in that I was really working at the craft of writing, of building my understanding of framing a scene, of bringing the reader along with metaphor, and with developing scenes that were something like the literary equivalent of a zoom lens on the camera; I was trying to find out what worked in terms of drawing the reader in and placing them at the center of the action. Though I had no plans to write a novel until the idea for Maisie Dobbs actually came to me, upon reflection it seems as if I had been preparing for the task with my literary cross-training in the same way that an athlete prepares for the big event.
I believe the journey to becoming a writer is one that is very personal to the individual and is neither good or bad--it's just what it is. There are times when I think it would have been so much more fun to have started writing fiction earlier, but had that happened, the stars might not have aligned to bring the character of Maisie Dobbs into my life. And I think that in embarking upon being novelists in our middle years, we’ve probably both brought something to our work that we might not have been able to offer in younger days, either due to other responsibilities, or simply who we were at the time (though having said that, I am sure your readers wish the wonderful Precious Ramotswe had been created many years before you decided to write The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency!)
Smith: Have you written anything about Maisie that you would like to unwrite?
Winspear: No, not at all, although I should add that I have never gone back and re-read any of my books, a prospect I find rather daunting. Of course, I dip back into the books to check a point here and there, but I have never read the books from beginning to end--if I had done so, I might have a whole list of things that cause me to shudder.
Smith: Do you think that transplanting oneself--in your case from the UK to California--helps one as a writer?
Winspear: Another very good question! Many years ago, during a visit to New York, I went along to an exhibit at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue--it was called "Writers in Exile." The focus was on writers who lived in a place other than the land of their birth, "by will, or by compunction." I spent ages going around the exhibit taking copious notes, and remember it left me with a real sense of the power of being transplanted, whether by one’s own choice, or by circumstance; and I have to say, I often think of it when people ask me if being here in California contributes to my work as a writer--and it does. To give an example, I can immerse myself in the time and place about which I write--Britain from the Great War on up to the 1930s--and I am not distracted by British life as it is today. Yes, of course, there is contemporary life here in California, but it is different (the way people speak, interact, shop, travel, work, etc.) so I can draw a firm line between life here and the world about which I write. I should confess that one of my recent challenges came when I started writing The Mapping of Love and Death. The opening is set in California in 1914, so I had to ensure that my knowledge of that region today did not seep into the story. To that end I immersed myself in old books about the region, and managed to procure some vintage photographs to pin on the wall so that the past was very much with me as I wrote.
When I write, the time and place of my imagination becomes very distilled, very sharp in my mind's eye. In terms of the series featuring Maisie Dobbs, it has definitely helped to be living here; when I sit down at my desk to write, I step from my world into her world, and I’m aware of nothing else until I stop writing. And when I drag myself back from a morning spent in the smog-enveloped London of the 1930s, it's not bad to be able to walk outside into the garden and warm my bones in the California sun for a while.
From Publishers Weekly
Set in 1932, bestseller Winspear's endearing seventh Maisie Dobbs novel (after 2009's Among the Mad) centers on Michael Clifton, a young American cartographer during the Great War, whose remains turn up in a French field. Evidence suggests to Maisie that Michael, rather than dying in a shell blast, was murdered. Michael's parents arrive in London with letters from an unnamed English nurse that raise disturbing questions about the nurse's relationship with their son. The plucky inquiry agent embarks on a search for this woman, following a trail that leads to Chatham, home of the School of Military Engineering, which Michael attended. There she learns about the vital role that cartography played in the war. At times, subplots involving socialite James Compton, a frustrated suitor, and the family problems of Maisie's assistant, Billy Beale, slow the pace. As often in this winning series, the action builds to a somewhat sad if satisfying conclusion. 10-city author tour. (Apr.)
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