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Author Talk: February 20, 2009


February 20, 2009

Jacqueline Winspear's most recent publication, AMONG THE MAD, is the sixth novel in her award-winning and bestselling Maisie Dobbs series about a female psychologist and investigator in post-World War I London. In this interview, Winspear recalls some of her first-hand experiences with psychiatric disorders, which figure greatly in the book, and discusses her fascination with the fine line that separates madness from "normal" everyday behavior. She also draws parallels between 1930s England and today's political and economic climate, reveals surprising statistics about women during the early decades of the 20th century, and hints at what's in store for Maisie in the next installment of the series.

Question: You are well known for your superb portrayal of post-World War I England, a fact that you’ve stated requires research along with imagination. In AMONG THE MAD, certain mental disorders are described and readers are taken inside of a few of England’s post-war mental institutions. What sort of research did you have to do to be able to write about these things?

Jacqueline Winspear:
Some of my "research" was based on personal experience, some on observation and obviously reading. The "personal experience" came when I was about sixteen. I transferred to another school to do my "A" levels (pre-higher education exams in Britain) and at that school, which one attended six days a week, we were expected to engage in some sort of activity or community service on Wednesday afternoons. I joined a small group involved in social services, so we helped in different care situations --- initially a home for abused children and later a psychiatric hospital. The hospital had once been the original lunatic asylum for the area. Built in 1830, it was an imposing and rather gothic red brick building, still with bars at the windows and a wall around the grounds. My role as a volunteer was to talk to the patients, make their tea, walk with them and offer general companionship and conversation. Of course there were the wards where the patients were all elderly, some of whom were men damaged in the mind in one war or another. It was also disturbing to note that a few of the elderly women were never psychiatric cases, but had been sent to the asylum for being pregnant out of wedlock, and had been kept in so long that they could not live outside the hospital.

For the most part, I spent those Wednesday afternoons with patients who were probably in their middle years, and who at first glance might have seemed as "normal" (and I use that word with care) as anyone you might meet in your daily round. But they weren’t. I spent many hours chatting to one man who had once been an eminent doctor. But he was a murderer (though probably charged with manslaughter, otherwise he would have been in an even more secure situation). I was at an impressionable age, and upon reflection, spent a lot of time wondering about that fine line that separates what we consider to be "normal" behavior --- because to me at that time many of the patients seemed no more unhinged than the average person --- and the point at which that line is breached according to individual and collective opinion.

I think those early thoughts gave way to the observation mentioned in the first sentence. Writers are, I believe, innately curious people-watchers. There are behaviors one observes in everyday life which are passing --- road rage, a temper tantrum in a shop, a person overcome by some seemingly small slight, the depression that follows loss --- but which make observers uncomfortable if the behavior is continued because it does not come within what is accepted to be a normal range of behaviors. Those madnesses in everyday life are interesting to the writer --- and we’ve all crossed that line at some point.

Q: AMONG THE MAD portrays two types of mental instability resulting from highly stressful situations. The first is the criminal Maisie is searching for, who turns out to be a war veteran scarred by the trauma of war. The other is Billy Beale’s wife Doreen, who readers have seen slowly deteriorate since the death of her young daughter. Why did you decide to pair these two types of mental instabilities in this novel?

I think the reader will see that "madness" extends beyond the criminal or Doreen Beale. It is there in various subtle ways with other characters: there’s Detective Chief Superintendent MacFarlane, a man who tends to keep people on edge with the odd tantrum; there’s Priscilla Evernden, who is finding life in London more of a challenge than she thought and who finds solace in her cocktails, and then there’s Maisie herself, who is apt to detach from those she loves --- her father, for example --- when she is steeped in her thoughts.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to have one or two types of madness; some things just happen organically as you write. However, Doreen’s descent into melancholia seemed to just flow onto the page, and comes as no surprise to the reader who remembers MESSENGER OF TRUTH and AN INCOMPLETE REVENGE --- the poor woman could not bear the loss of her youngest child and was burdened with a grief so deep that she needed help to navigate her way out of the abyss. Unfortunately, though there were advances in treatment of the mentally ill in the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were also practices steeped in the treatment protocols of the Victorian asylums.

Q: AMONG THE MAD deals with issues that are all too familiar in today’s world, namely war, economic crisis, terrorism, and the poor treatment of veterans. Are you ever surprised by the similarities between Maisie’s time and the present day?

James Joyce famously said, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." No, I am not surprised by those similarities. You only have to walk the battlefields of the Somme Valley in France and to know something of the history of the place to lack surprise at such repetitions in the experience of peoples across the ages. Terrorism is nothing new, though the tools of terrorism change with time, and economic crisis is never new, and has made news ever since the South Sea Bubble almost three centuries ago --- and probably before. I am not surprised by the similarities of Maisie’s Day, though I am saddened by them.

Q: Why did you decide to set AMONG THE MAD during the final week of 1931?

Again, it came about organically, as I wanted to set the book in a specific and limited period of time, and Christmas/New Year seemed a good place to start, especially as it is a time that brings its own emotions --- and many would say madness.

Q: Maisie is a woman ahead of her times. She is single, she manages her own business, and she has no trouble going head to head with men who attempt to intimidate her. AMONG THE MAD also features another strong and independent woman in the character of Dr. Elsbeth Masters. Meanwhile, Maisie’s friend Priscilla could be considering more of a traditional woman. What inspired you to include female characters that exemplify a range of social and cultural roles in post-World War I England?

Because that is exactly how women were at that time --- and though Maisie may seem ahead of her time, as I said earlier, she is very much of her time. There’s more information on my website on this subject, however, in 1921 a young woman in Britain stood only a one in ten chance of marriage, given the loss of young men to war. The census of that year revealed that there were almost two million "surplus" women of marriageable age who would never marry. Of course there were those who floundered, and those who married, but there were others, the "bachelor girls" of their day --- across the social strata --- who blazed a trail in all areas of endeavor.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to share about the future of Maisie Dobbs?

Ohhhh, I’d better not be a spoiler...but I can say that Maisie’s personal life takes on a rosier hue in the next novel.

© Copyright 2009, Henry Holt and Company, an imprint of Macmillan. All rights reserved.

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