Rhys Bowen and Jacqueline Winspear in Conversation
Rhys Bowen: Jackie, you and I bonded instantly when we met, and every time we compare notes, it’s like talking with my clone. We’re both British, both expats who live five miles apart in California. We write about female sleuths in the 1930s. We seem to share a similar approach to our writing. We both feel passionately about the things we write about. So let’s start with being British expats. We’ve both lived much of our adult life in America and yet we choose to write about England. Do you think this is a nostalgia for home, or we are more comfortable writing about the place where we grew up? For me, I think it’s a little of both, especially because I choose to write about England in the past. It’s the nostalgia for cream teas, country fetes, a kinder simpler time. And I feel more comfortable being able to get under the skin of my characters, to know how they would think and react, based on my own upbringing. And yet in many ways that time we both write about mirrors what we are going through today--the desperation of a depression, the threat of extremism, the disparity between haves and have nots. It’s interesting to me that so many readers write that they identify strongly with Lady Georgie--when she’s a twenty something royal!
Jacqueline Winspear: I don’t think there’s a nostalgia for home, or for the past as such; however, the fact remains that, although I have lived here in California for over 20 years, I don’t think I would attempt to write a novel with American characters because there is something I could never touch because I was not raised here–-and when that ring of authenticity is broken in a novel, it spoils the story for the reader, so I don’t want to risk it. If anything, my work is inspired by my love of history, and more particularly, the question of what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times. Fiction is the best way to explore that question; I like to weave the stories of ordinary people into some of the bigger events of the day, like zooming the camera in on a scene. Mystery is a great vehicle for telling such stories, given that arc through chaos to resolution.
Bowen: Do you think its harder or easier to write about a place where you don’t live? I find that when I’m in England I’m a keen observer and I notice things I’d probably take for granted if I lived there. This is especially true about the class system, which is the focus of my Lady Georgie novels. I’m fascinated to find that upper class relatives and friends still see themselves as the ones who matter, still a them and us mentality.
Winspear: I think it’s easier for me to write about Britain from a geographical as well as generational distance. In California, I am not distracted by the Britain of today--there’s a clear delineation--so I am able to write about the past and immerse myself in the essence of that time. The class system is alive and well in Britain; it has changed in some respects, though you can’t change a system entrenched over centuries overnight, and I’m not sure if people would like it if it was changed. Which is great, because it gives you a lot of material for the Lady Georgie novels.
Bowen: We have both chosen to write books set in the 1930s. You approach yours from the grim reality of the lingering aftermath of war, while I focus on the bright young things, the Bertie Woosters, who still act as if nothing has changed in England. I choose to see the funny side of a worrying time, while reminding the reader that Fascism, communism and a second war loom ahead. And I am fascinated by the 1930s, not only because they mirror our time but because they were one of the great turning points of history. Even in England society was poised on a knife edge. Extremists were battling for control. Nazi power was swallowing up Europe and yet the bright young things still lived as if there was no tomorrow.
Winspear: The 1930s offer so much for the writer, with those of one station in society barely affected by the economic woes of Britain at the time, and another living in the most dreadful conditions--yet it was also a great age of house-building in Britain, and you started to see a middle class (as we know it today) emerging. You’ve done well to use humor in your novels, Rhys, because that British sense of humor has brought the country through some terrible times. Though she has many very heart-wrenching memories of the war, some of my mother’s funniest stories are of things people said to buoy each other along during the Blitz.
Bowen: Do you ever get letters saying that it was unbelievable to have a female sleuth at that time, when women were largely confined to the home? I get them even more about my Molly Murphy books, that take place in the early 1900s. But even then women were doing extraordinary things--traveling around the world in 74 days, going to the North Pole, and becoming detectives in the NYPD. By the thirties I’m well aware when I’m writing that women were doing amazing things--Amy Johnson was the first person to fly solo from England to Australia, in an open cockpit plane that was literally held together with paper and string.
Winspear: I am more likely to get those sorts of letters from American readers. The experiences of women between the wars were quite different in America, for an assortment of reasons. In fact, the women of Britain who came through the Great War had more in common with the women in America’s south after the Civil War, when women--many of whom were widowed, or would never marry--were left to fend for themselves, running family farms etc. In Britain, women gained an independence during the war that they were not about to give up--though there are definitely gray areas--and they could please themselves, to a certain extent. If they wanted to wear trousers, they could, because who was going to stop them? Women were moving into public life as never before, with a very visible independence--though they had to be responsible for their financial security, which your Lady Georgie knows only too well!!
Bowen: When we compared notes about our writing experience the other day, were you as amazed as I was to find that we work in exactly the same way? We both start a book knowing very little and we work in flat out panic mode for the first fifty pages, convinced that this book will be our first abysmal failure and nobody will read us again. Then by page 50 the story seems to develop a life of its own, doesn’t it? I’m always amazed when characters say things I never expected or the story goes in a direction I never foresaw.
Winspear: I felt quite relieved to know that you have those same fears when you first start out. Yes, the initial 50 pages are terrifying, and I am usually convinced that I will never be able to write another book ever again and that the truth will finally be out! But at some point you “lock” into the story, and it starts going along at a good clip, and if you are interested in your story and excited by it, it soon gathers momentum. But I remember you telling me that when you wrote your first Lady Georgie novel, the opportunity to write something funny really inspired you. There’s a terrific energy in humor, and in creating memorable funny scenes, and I admire you for having created such a delightful character while remaining true to the time.
Rhys Bowen writes the humorous Royal Spyness Mysteries (Naughty in Nice, September, 2011), as well as the Molly Murphy series, (Bless the Bride, March, 2011).
Jacqueline Winspear is the creator of the acclaimed Maisie Dobbs series.
(Photo of Rhys Bowen © John Quin Harkin)
(Photo of Jacqueline Winspear)