Skip to main content

Interview: August 12, 2005

August 12, 2005 Co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald and contributing writer Shannon McKenna interviewed Jacqueline Winspear, author of PARDONABLE LIES, the third installment in her Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Winspear talks about her fascination with history and the social, as well as emotional, resonance of setting her novel during the tumultuous period between the two World Wars. She also sheds light on aspects of her writing processes, her "influences," and the future of her literary heroine. What was it about penning a detective series that appealed to you? What made you decide on the character of Maisie Dobbs as the protagonist?

Jacqueline Winspear: The character chose me, I think! I didn't spend any time thinking hard about a character in the sense of "I need a character, who will she be?" Rather, in what I call a moment of "artistic grace" the character came to mind while I was stuck in traffic. OK, I confess, I was daydreaming! Having said that, character development was a two-way process in that as I added more depth and history to the character, so she revealed herself to me. And as I have said before, I have always been inspired by the spirit and resourcefulness of the generation of women who came of age in the Great War. Indeed, the time does lend itself to mystery, and opportunity to explore the question of what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times.

BRC: How would you describe the books to those who are new to the series?

JW: I thought Maureen Corrigan's description of Maisie Dobbs (in her review on NPR's "Fresh Air") serves the series very well --- she said that it was a tale of terror, a war story and a love story. To that I would add that the series reflects the time and place, with characters living at a crossroads --- the wounds of one war are not yet healed, society is changing rapidly, and a fragile peace suggests that another war looms in the distance. And at the center is Maisie Dobbs, a woman who is both of her own time, yet easily recognizable in ours.

BRC: Did you enjoy studying history when you were in school?

JW: Absolutely! However, rather than dates, monarchs, generals and the macro issues, I have always been far more interested in social history, the details of how ordinary people lived, how they were impacted by the events of the time. For example, I could easily sleep through a whole lesson on the parliamentary acts of Elizabeth I, but tell me that her teeth were completely black, and I'm listening!

BRC: PARDONABLE LIES and the two previous books in the series, MAISIE DOBBS and BIRDS OF A FEATHER, are set in the years between the two World Wars. What drew you to this particular time period?

JW: It was a time of such change socially. Had there been no Great War, there may not have been the Roaring Twenties, no war debts crippling nations, and no Second World War in the distance. Of course, historians will argue until the cows come home about what might have been, and the international alliances that would have led to war in any case, but as the historian Niall Ferguson said in THE PITY OF WAR, the Great War ended "the first great age of globalization"; that comment alone leads in so many interesting directions. I have always been curious about the time between the wars --- the fact that on the one hand you have such innovation (it's interesting how many new inventions come about due to conflict), such movement in people socially and geographically, yet there was the General Strike in Britain in the mid-twenties, then the Depression, followed by war again. Social boundaries began to break down, to change, the geo-political map altered, attitudes were challenged --- the list goes on, and that's before you even look at the creative spirit in design and the arts. I find it fascinating.

BRC: How does Maisie's understanding of psychology influence her work as a detective? Is her ability to connect with people one of the characteristics that makes her such an effective investigator?

JW: Yes, most definitely. Being able to make a connection with a person opens doors and breaks down walls --- Maisie uses her intuition and training to her advantage, but in a manner that is respectful and compassionate.

BRC: What new territory does Maisie traverse in PARDONABLE LIES, physically as well as emotionally?

JW: In PARDONABLE LIES, Maisie goes through what might be described as a "dark night of the soul." If readers did not know before, in this book they will understand that Maisie has suffered her own kind of shell-shock, and must come to terms with the past, with the terrible experience of war, in order to recover, to move on (as we might say). The cases she takes on challenge her to look back and face the past, for it is in the process of truly accepting what has gone before that she will be released to the future --- though it is also clear that she can never completely forget those who have touched her heart individually and collectively.

BRC: Your attention to detail is one of the things that makes the books feel so authentic. For example, in PARDONABLE LIES two disparate references are made in the same scene --- one is about Coco Chanel making "sun-kissed skin a desirable accessory" and, in a bit of foreshadowing, the other is about the publication of Hitler's MEIN KAMPF and the rise of his party in the German polls. Where do you turn for information about the popular culture and political aspects of the time?

JW: I have many sources of such information, but the truth is that my life-long interest in this era has led me to retain so many details about the time. I think I first read about Chanel's impact on women's looks and clothing when I was in my early teens; I even kept a scrapbook of articles about her. Then when I had my first job --- as an assistant in the sales department of a publishing company --- I was surprised to know that the company published MEIN KAMPF. I was even more surprised to know that all royalties were paid to the German Red Cross.

BRC: Why do you think the character of Maisie has resonated so strongly with readers? When you began writing the first book, MAISIE DOBBS, did you envision such an enthusiastic response from readers, reviewers, fellow writers and booksellers?

JW: I don't know that I envisioned anything, really. I just wanted to write my book. However, I always saw it as a book --- from the time I began, I could see the cover in my mind's eye, could see it as a book, not a pile of papers on my desk. I have to confess that I never imagined that the books would have such a diverse readership --- men and women, teens and seniors, and even adolescent boys! As I have said before, Maisie is both a woman of her own time, and a woman of ours. She is alone and independent, but goes through familiar emotions. For example, she knows that her loneliness is in part due to her concentration on her work, but doesn't really know how to change things.

For many women of the day, life was never to be as they might have imagined it to be when they were younger --- the 1921 census revealed that there were almost two million "surplus" women of marriageable age in Britain, for whom there would be no husband, no children, for the men they might have married had been lost to war, dead or with terrible injuries. Those women had to then forge a life alone, take care of their financial future, build community and nurture companionship. If you read any women's magazine today, you will see that so many women are facing the same challenges --- and men, for that matter. For many readers, the attraction of history is compelling. And there's another thing: we are living in very uncertain times, as uncertain as the times in which the novels are set. I have heard many readers say that they are drawn to the novels by that similarity, and are heartened to know that "life goes on."

BRC: Does writing these books make you feel connected to England, your native country? What brought you to live on this side of the Atlantic?

JW: Fate brought me to live on this side of the Atlantic! I don't know if writing the books makes me feel closer, in fact I think I am better able to write the books from this distance. I can look back at England in the time I have created and not be distracted by the truth of the country today. The place where I grew up was quite rural and at that time had changed little, in the grand scheme of things, since Edwardian times. I can remember back --- to the people, their language, their ways of moving, of addressing each other --- and I can create Maisie's world with a blend of those recollections, my research and my imagination. Oh, and I go back to England several times a year for research purposes.

BRC: Do you enjoy the research aspect of the writing process? You mention on your website that you visited World War I battlefields in France to research PARDONABLE LIES. What is your most memorable experience from that trip? How important is it for a writer to conduct hands-on research?

JW: I love the process of research, though I am very judicious in my use of the information I gather --- use too much and I might as well be writing something completely different. I am a storyteller first! For me, hands-on research is important, but that is of course dependent upon the demands of the story. In PARDONABLE LIES, I knew that Maisie had to go back to France, and I wondered what that might be like for her. Part of that "imagining" was to go to the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium. The journey was part research and part personal pilgrimage. My grandfather was badly wounded during the Battle of The Somme in 1916, and to walk those fields almost ninety years later, to reach down and pick up live ammunition from that bloody battle, to stand at the place where thousands died in hours, was a deeply moving experience. There were many memorable experiences from that visit, but the most moving inspired a pivotal scene in the book, so I had better not recount it!

BRC: Where will your travels take you next?

JW: Have just come back! I have mainly been in Kent and Sussex, back to the Romney Marshes and the area known as the High Weald.

BRC: How long had you wanted to be a writer? What finally made you take that leap to writing a novel?

JW: I've wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old, but when I began writing professionally (of course, while having a day job!), I was more interested in nonfiction, with articles and essays. It was Maisie Dobbs that made me take that leap to writing a novel. The character --- and other characters --- came into my life with a story, and I had to write it.

BRC: What authors have influenced your work?

JW: There are writers I admire; however, I wouldn't say they influenced my work. My influence is the time, place and character of Maisie Dobbs as she develops in my mind's eye. It is people I know, people I have met, people who have touched me, or made me think twice about a thing, who have influenced my work --- and not other writers. However, writers I love include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Arnold Bennett, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark... (how long do you want this list to be?). I admire Susan Howatch immensely --- the way she blends spellbinding storytelling with fact and philosophy is something to aspire to.

BRC: Are there more adventures in store for Maisie? If so, when can readers expect to join her on the next one? Is there a set number of titles in the series?

JW: Definitely more adventures, no set number of titles, and the next one will appear in a year or so.