WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Ms. Winspear, it’s such an honor to get to talk to you about Maisie Dobbs and your books. They’ve brought me such pleasure and enjoyment and, in ways, a form of stability in an otherwise unstable world: what do you think is so important to readers, and to viewers for television shows, and so on, when we consume ongoing mystery series? Why do you think people return to Maisie again and again other than intrigue and the crime or mystery at hand in each novel?
Jacqueline Winspear: A series, whether on TV or in novels, offers a comfort of sorts. It offers a return to characters we have come to know and in whose company we want to spend time – whether the following week on TV or after a year in the case of a book. In a way it’s akin to getting together with old friends. Life became very fractured throughout the worst of the lockdowns – people were apart from families and friends – so to sit down with a book that brings us into contact with beloved characters offers a certain comfort. Mystery has the added benefit of taking the reader through the archetypal journey from chaos to resolution, so there’s the promise of all being well in the world – and we need that promise. I think readers come back to characters such as Maisie Dobbs because they feel safe with her – they know she tries to do the right thing, that she has suffered and survived at the worst of times. They also appreciate her resilience and ability to endure, to come through trials and tribulations – I think readers see her as a heroine in that regard.
MT: What books informed you as to your writing this series, both when starting the series and now? What great books, historical or mystery, or any other genre, helped shape you as a writer, and continue to shape you now? Are there any great heroes or heroines you feel drive particularly fantastic series?
JW: That’s a difficult question to answer, as I have many, many books I’ve collected for reference in connection with my work, however, they are in the main not “general” books on war, or women’s history, but specific – for example on intelligence services in the Great War, or on mental health during the early part of the century. I didn’t know I was writing a series when I wrote Maisie Dobbs – I thought it was my first and only novel, and reflected my interest in women’s history, particularly from the Great War to the end of the Second World war. And it’s important to add that I didn’t plan to write a novel – I had a day job in sales and in the evenings I was a writer of non-fiction, of essays and articles. Maisie Dobbs came to me in a moment of what I’ve called “artistic grace” – a bit like Harry Potter came to J.K. Rowling. But that moment was rooted in an interest in women’s history that goes back to childhood. I can’t think of any great books that shaped me as a writer, however, as a teenager I loved finding the great American writers of the first half of the twentieth century – having been raised on a staple diet of the classics, it was amazing to discover F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, etc. I was sorry when Susan Howatch ceased writing her amazing “Starbridge” series based upon the Church of England – I loved how she took a complex subject and turned it into an extraordinarily well-written character-driven series. It demonstrated intellectual rigor and the best of literary fiction while being incredibly readable and commercially robust at the same time. It was an achievement to aspire to. My current favorite mystery series is Louise Penny’s series featuring Armand Gamache, set in Three Pines, Quebec. I absolutely love her work and cannot wait for each new book.
MT: What’s ideal for you when it comes to writing—time of day, where you are, what is around you in your room or place of choice? Do you like to hear music, write with any snack at hand, and are you a sprinter when it comes to writing, or do you like to take your time? How do you write at your best?
JW: Matthew, these sort of questions always amuse me – they’re never asked of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. The truth is that as a professional writer I have deadlines, and usually I am not only writing a novel, but I also write articles and essays and have people I need to interview. I think it was Richard Russo (not certain) who, when asked about his writing process replied, “Monday to Friday, 9-5.” That about sums it up for me. I work from about 9:00am, I take a break in the early afternoon to ride my horse (I train in the equestrian sport of dressage), and then I come home to start work again. Usually mornings are my creative time for writing, and afternoons are admin, research, conducting interviews or whatever needs to be done. I don’t meditate before I write, I don’t snack, I don’t light candles – I have a job to do and I just get on with it.
MT: In this novel, you manage to incorporate the history as well as current and pressing issues around the world and in America as well, touching on issues of race and sexism in the United States through the mystery central to the plot of A Sunlit Weapon. I love when historical fiction can really get to the heart of something going on in the present. Are there any historical fiction books that have particularly universal plots you think fit well with something going on now, and how do you yourself approach a story or mystery when considering the present?
JW: The extraordinary thing is that the seeds for my novels are usually several years old and growing roots by the time I get around to writing each book. Given the time lapse between starting work on a novel and publication day, no writer should reconsider a subject because you never know what might happen in the world while the book is in production. I don’t consider the present at all when I’m writing – I can’t, because my focus has to be on the time I write about. I have to hear the language of the time, I must maintain an awareness of how people would address one another, and the mores of the era. My task is to anchor the story in its time – if I even consider the present while writing, I risk forfeiting my connection to my characters and to the rhythm of the story.
MT: When writing an ongoing series with Maisie—a fantastic character who functions as such a great driving force to the series—how do you come into each new mystery? What comes first in developing a new book: where Maisie is in her own life, what the idea for the mystery might be, or something else?
JW: I have no prescription what comes first when setting about developing my story, other than considering the year and putting my characters into position, as if I’m moving around pieces on a chessboard. To be honest, it’s hard to describe what I do, because I just get on and do it – I think a lot of writers are like that. I have a rough plan for the journey, but I don’t have a set itinerary because I might like to go off down another route – but having that rough plan means I have somewhere to return to. A first draft is just the clay on the wheel – the next draft is where the work really starts and I pull it all together.
MT: Which of your books are you most proud of for any reason? Is there one in particular you hope to be remembered for?
JW: I think I am stunned every time I manage to write a new book, so they’re all very important to me. Holding that first book in my hand was an amazing feeling – I was shocked that I’d managed to write a novel and that someone wanted to publish it. So, of course Maisie Dobbs is one book I am particularly proud of, and the other is my memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. Memoir is my first literary love, so to have published a memoir was very exciting - I was thrilled to see it in print.
MT: Do you feel Maisie is a lot like you, someone you might want to be like—or someone you might want to know? When you create important characters for yourself, where do you begin in drawing them out, and what are the important parts of a character that help you decide if they should stick around? Have any characters been harder to say goodbye to than others?
JW: No, Maisie isn’t like me – definitely not! That would be so boring, a bit like writing about what I do all day! I don’t think I would like to be like her, but of course as her creator I know her very well indeed. I know this sounds strange, but I can’t describe how I create characters, because they come to mind and I do my best to get inside them, to find out who they are – I don’t think too hard about it either. I write the characters into form as I go along, almost like drawing an outline and then filling it in with color. Some characters are more realized than others, but that is intentional – some characters sing the song and others do the do-wop in the background. In a way I don’t say goodbye to my characters – they’re still there, in the books.
MT: If you had to write another type of book—genre, or tone perhaps—somehow different within the mystery genre—what sort of book would you picture yourself writing? Is there anything drastically different from Maisie’s world you’d see yourself writing in?
JW: That’s an easy one to answer, as I’ve been “working” on it for a while, which basically means I have my thoughts in a notebook. I want to write something light-hearted, and this character is a fast-talking, very smart, somewhat mouthy young woman who can really take care of herself – and she has a big heart. The themes will still have a certain level of gravity, but my character in the wings is definitely not Maisie Dobbs!
MT: What do you have planned next for Maisie? Is there already another book in the works?
JW: I’m currently working on a non-series book set in 1947 London, focusing on the intersection of organized crime, the intelligence services and morally corrupt politicians – it will be published in 2023. Nothing firm in the works for another novel featuring Maisie Dobbs at this point – I’m too busy with next year’s novel.
MT: Are there any parts of Maisie’s past you feel you’d want to focus on in particular, maybe even at length in whole books, which you haven’t had the chance to write about at length yet? Might we see any characters from past books emerge—major or minor players here—in future books of yours?
JW: I’d like to explore her apprenticeship with Dr. Maurice Blanche. I’m not sure I will ever get to it though.
MT: Ms. Winspear, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you regarding A Sunlit Weapon and the Maisie Dobbs series. I’m so grateful to be able to pick your brain about your work and find out more about you as a writer and person. I am so hopeful that this book will continue to open up even more readers to your wonderful talents, and am delighted to read what’s next from you—and from Maisie—as well.