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.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Karen! I was so intrigued by the concept and idea behind Booth, and even more thrilled that someone so tremendously talented as you would be writing it.
Karen Joy Fowler: Hello, Matthew! Delighted to be talking with you and aren’t you kind!
MT: Do you mind talking a little about the novel and its conception? What brought you to write a novel like this and why is it so relevant today?
KJF: I had no idea when I started that the subject matter would become so relevant. Obama was president and I thought the Civil War was over. I thought the moral arc of the universe was bending towards justice. The idea that Donald Trump could ever be elected president struck me as too preposterous to worry over. What I was thinking about initially was the very special relationship the US has with its guns.
I’d written two short stories (three, now) centered on the Booths and had gotten to know a bit about them. John Wilkes Booth is arguably the most famous shooter in all of US history, but I wasn’t so interested in him. My attention was on his family – what the assassination had done to them and what, if any, culpability they might have for it.
But then the 2016 election happened and I didn’t write again for at least a year. When I picked the book back up, everything had changed for me. It became so clear that the war has never ended. I guess most wars don’t.
MT: Your last book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a smash hit, and so incredibly different from Booth--but all of your books are so incredibly unique and different. What was it like writing that book, and how are you able to take on such vastly different voices and styles in writing different novels, moving book to book? If I didn’t know, I’d think your novels were written by incredibly different writers!
KJF: It pleases me so much to have you say that! I can’t see it myself. I always start out thinking that this book will be a real departure for me and I always end up thinking, well, there I am again. My subject matter certainly changes drastically, but my voice, my sense of humor, my sensibility – they don’t change. I’m always striving to do something different, but it’s not clear to me that I succeed on that. I’m absolutely thrilled you think so.
MT: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves concerns a grand mystery about the protagonist’s siblings in particular. I have spent years writing about crime fiction and mysteries, and feel there are some essential elements of the genre here. What are your favorite mysteries—and in particular, in literature, what unconventional mysteries have you been most interested in dissecting and understanding and reading about?
KJF: I do love a good mystery, conventional or otherwise. Where even to start? Recently I’ve been on a Tana French kick. I started with The Searcher which had been highly recommended to me. I just really like her prose. I always read whatever my beloved Elizabeth George is doing. I started with Agatha Christie when I was just a slip of a lass, but I can’t read her anymore. Josephine Tey has held up better.
Some unconventional mysteries that I have loved? Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (I just love the math), Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case.
I recently survived a long sad period in my life by rereading most of Mary Stewart’s books. They are very similar in terms of plotting, so maybe not best to read them back to back as I did, but they were just what I needed. And a year before we all went into lockdown, a woman I didn’t know in a restaurant in Norway leaned across her table to mine, to say that I must read all of Louise Penny’s books. And I must read them in order. It was so Hitchcockian, this random command.
But I am nothing if not obedient. I am all caught up now even to the Hillary Clinton collaboration.
MT: Booth focuses on the siblings of John Wilkes Booth, really bringing to life a crowd of characters who are all so different and so richly detailed. What was it like researching these characters, and how did you occupy each mind and bring them to life on the page?
KJF: The research was an adventure. There is a lot of material. But much of it is quite suspect. For example, if you are reading an interview with someone who knew John Wilkes, it’s necessary to know whether the interview took place before or after the assassination. People’s memories are unreliable under ordinary circumstances. Throw in a national tragedy and you can’t believe a word even from the most unimpeachable source.
I had a most helpful guide throughout. Terry Alford, author of Fortune’s Fool, a magnificent nonfiction book about John Wilkes was helpful to me in ways I could never have imagined or dared ask for. He’d already spent 30 years researching this family and I owe him a so much.
Edwin Booth left behind a great many letters and Asia Booth wrote books as well as letters. I had their own words concerning many of the events in their lives. But Rosalie, the oldest daughter, left only the faintest mark on the world.
My father used to play a game with me in which he would scribble something on a piece of paper, and I was supposed to turn his scribble into a picture. Creating Edwin and Asia was like that – the scribble was there to get me started. For Rosalie, I knew the things that happened to her, but had to completely make up her thoughts and feelings. It was more like creating a fictional character, something I’m quite used to doing.
MT: What was most important to you in writing Booth when concerning the different characters and how much you’d feature John Wilkes Booth as compared with his siblings? Why did you decide to focus less on the aftermath of the assassination? Did you ever write a draft that fleshed out different parts of these characters stories?
KJF: Initially, I did picture a book in which the bulk of the story would take place after the assassination. The main question in my mind then was what the assassination had done to his siblings. But I changed my mind; there was too much that happened first, too much necessary set-up and by then the book was becoming quite long.
And, just as a point of composition, the impending assassination created a tension that the aftermath didn’t have.
But I do regret leaving so much of the later story untold. Edwin Booth had a second wife and quite a miserable second marriage. Asia had eight children, two of whom became actors, one of whom joined the British merchant navy and drowned. Nothing further happened to Rosalie, because nothing ever happened to Rosalie.
MT: What are your favorite historical novels? Is it more difficult drawing out the fictional lives of real people, or creating characters completely on your own?
KJF: Creating characters, whether based on real people or not, has never been the part of writing I find hard. Plot is my nemesis. In the case of the Booths, the plot was already laid in, so for once that was easy.
As for my favorite historical novels, you must be kidding. This is an infinite set. Aren’t most novels historical novels? If they weren’t historical when written, do they become so fifty years later? Plus anytime I make a list, I wake up at 3 in the morning realizing I left something crucial off and now look a fool.
So I’m going to go easy on myself and list only my favorites of the ones I’ve happened to read quite recently. These would be: Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Meg Waite Clayton’s The Postmistress of Paris, Robert Jones, Jr.’s The Prophets, and Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. All so very very good.
MT: What books and writers inspire you most, and what books do you constantly return to (if any) for inspiration? What are some books and writers more people should read?
KJF: I’m inspired by writers who do things I can’t possibly do, whose minds work in ways that fill me with delight, but are beyond my comprehension. Into this category, I would place Kelly Link, Elizabeth McKenzie, Ted Chiang, Nicola Griffith, André Alexis, Gish Jen, Kim Stanley Robinson. And I’ve written more than one story in direct response to the work of my good friend John Kessel.
It will not surprise you to learn I reread Austen often. I return to books that are funny. I love a book that breaks my heart, but I’m not as likely to read it again.
I wish everyone would read E. Lily Yu’s debut novel On Fragile Waves. It’s extraordinary. I wish everyone would read Molly Gloss’ The Dazzle of Day. Or really anything by Molly Gloss. It would be a better world if everyone did.
MT: What are the books that shaped you growing up? How did you find your way to writing, and what was that journey like, especially for aspiring writers reading this interview?
KJF: I found my way to writing by reading, like most writers. I was one of those children who had to be forced to put the book down and come to dinner. Much of my life has been an annoying interruption from whatever book I’m reading.
The two books I’m most aware of having shaped me are Charlotte’s Web, which my mother read me when I was quite little and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I read when I was about fourteen. Charlotte’s Web was the first book in which I saw a major character die. And The Once and Future King is great protection against any class or workshop that tries to persuade you there are rules you must follow in writing your stories. I can’t think of a single rule anyone anywhere tried to saddle me with that T.H. White doesn’t violate to perfection.
But I didn’t decide to be a writer until I turned thirty. There’s a lot I could say about that to aspiring writers. Prior to thirty, I wasn’t tough enough to survive years of rejection. I knew that, if I were to ever succeed – big if – I was going to have to offer my whole heart and that there was an excellent chance my whole heart would be unacceptable. Dear Writer – unfortunately your heart is just not for us. And this did happen and was painful and discouraging. I had 23 rejections on my first novel alone. But looking back, I’m as proud of those rejections as I am of the book’s eventual publication. Look how many people tried to stop me! I just would not be stopped.
MT: What interests you most in the characters you create, and the characters you look to read as well? How did you decide which characters not to focus on when writing Booth?
KJF: I’m interested in characters who are not like me, people, human and nonhuman, who have different experiences, different dreams, different ways of thinking about the world. Obviously, these are easier to find in books I didn’t write than in books I did. And there’s a potential difficulty now that the identity of the writer seems to have become a key component of the work, and we are so often being told not to stray too far from our own lane.
As a matter of craft, I have a pantheon of fictional characters I love from children’s books and I imagine most writers have their own lists. These compressed characters often serve as a starting point when I’m creating someone new. They provide me with a first essential element around which I’ll try to build a fuller person. Examples would be: the bringer of chaos – i.e. the cat in the hat. The person who never expects things to turn out and is therefore unsurprised when they don’t – i.e. Eeyore. The person who thinks quite well of her/himself for reasons opaque to others – i.e. Mr. Toad. The sidekicks who find themselves inside someone else’s story – i.e. Charlotte, Tonto, Spock, Chewbacca.
In Booth the only character I knew I didn’t want to focus on was John Wilkes. I knew he would dominate the story no matter what I did, but there was no need for me to help him do so.
MT: Do you have a current work-in-progress, something you are mapping out or working on that may be your next book? Can you talk about it at all, or anything you might want to write in the future?
KJF: I’m working on a book which is simultaneously for my grandchildren and for every librarian I’ve ever known. It’s just a fun little project I hope won’t take me the usual forever to write.