Helen Simonson Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Helen Simonson
Photo: Nina Subin

Helen Simonson

An interview with Helen Simonson

Two interviews with Helen Simonson about her first and second novels: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Summer Before the War.

Two interviews with Helen Simonson about her first and second novels: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Summer Before the War.

In a conversation with Random House Reader's Circle, author Helen Simonson explains why the whole world can be explained in a small town, and how she uses humor to illuminate and process the absurdities of war.

Random House Reader's Circle: In your highly anticipated second novel The Summer Before the War you transport readers to the small Sussex town of Rye. It's the summer of 1914, right before the start of World War I, when everything is on the brink of change. What was life like at this time and why did you want to set your story at this moment?

Helen Simonson: I think of Edwardian times in terms of advances in technology—-the telephone, motor car, invention of electricity and flying machines—-and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It's a society rich in writers, poets, and women's movements for social justice and for suffrage. It's a historical era in which I always thought I could live well. However, that assumes I would be wealthy. Life was still hard for folks without money. Even in a town like Rye, outdoor toilets, cold water, and coal–burning stoves would have been the norm. Female teachers earned less than factory workers. Education beyond elementary school involved fees, as did medical care. There were still workhouses for the poor, and diseases like rickets and tuberculosis were rife. The more I researched, the more I realized I should try to include some of this reality in a world we associate more with garden parties and elegant hats.

RHRC: You have a very personal connection to Rye, a town rich with literary history. Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and E. F. Benson all lived and worked nearby. What does Rye mean to you and when did you know you had to set your story there?

HS: I lived near Rye during those influential coming–of–age teenage years, and much of my Saturday job money was spent at the local bookshop, where a special bookcase held the works of these "local" writers. Rye is such an extraordinary and ancient town that even the fish–and–chip shop is housed in a fifteenth–century building. For a girl raised in a modern subdivision, moving to Rye was like being dropped into history. For me Rye fairly hums with echoes of its past. Publishing my first book gave me the courage to try to bring the world of Edwardian Rye and its writers to life. I did not know whether I would succeed, but I knew at least that it was a setting I would be happy to live in for months and years.

RHRC: In this novel you write about love, family, class, ambition, and social and gender injustices. Everything is magnified by the war. Why was it important to explore these themes?

HS: In this book I wanted to explore what people think is important to build in their lives and what proves to be of real value when it is actually put to the gravest of tests. Does love remain? What does success or independence or family really mean in the end? And how will we weigh our ambitions and dreams against our duty and our compassion when all is falling apart? What does a war destroy and what does it burnish in the fire? These are timeless questions we still ask today, and I hoped we might learn some lessons from a small piece of our history.

RHRC: We're instantly drawn into the lives of your characters. It's hard to choose a favorite because we're rooting for everyone (well, almost everyone)! Did you find yourself relating to one character or relationship in particular?

HS: I'm closer in age to matriarch Agatha Kent than to young teacher Beatrice Nash, but I remember being young, and none too wealthy, and so I identified very much with Beatrice's fierce struggle to be her own woman. I related to Agatha both in her long and close marriage to John and in her love for her two nephews (I've been married thirty years this year and have two grown sons) and I am not afraid to admit that I have served on my fair share of ladies' committees! I had the most fun, of course, writing Mr. Tillingham, the famous American writer with his assured sense of his own literary value. I hope readers will love him in all his obnoxious ego!

RHRC: As in Pettigrew, the quintessential English town becomes the stage on which entrenched tradition, class, ignorance, family ties, and love play out. You've said that "the whole world can be explained in a small town," and you use humor to illuminate and process the absurdities of war. Can you elaborate?

HS: I think life is a comedy of manners and that people are generally much the same in their ambitions and their prejudices. While in my last book I explored how people might be similar across divides of ethnicity and culture, in this book I set out to discover just how much of ourselves we might recognize in the denizens of a small English town in 1914. For me, war just concentrates and highlights this theme. Humor then becomes indispensable in holding up to scrutiny the generals and the politicians who might forget their own fallibility while demanding our blind patriotism. Who was not educated and moved while laughing at M*A*S*H? And if you haven't seen Monty Python's World War I skits, you should go immediately to YouTube. In some of the small absurdities I present about England going to war, I hope to make readers laugh and reflect at the same time.

RHRC: At the heart of this book is a love story—-a few love stories, actually. There's love between spouses and friends, new loves and old ones. There are relationships that transcend social and cultural barriers. Why was it important to explore these relationships? How do these relationships grow, adapt and survive?

HS: Love has a funny way of sweeping aside prejudice and breaking down barriers. The ability to love is perhaps our most redeeming quality. It transcends time, politics, and even religion. As my characters struggled to love in difficult circumstances I hoped my readers would share their joy and their pain and come away reflecting on the place of love in their own lives.

RHRC: Let's talk about your strong female characters. You've given us two inspiring heroines in Agatha Kent, a sharp–witted force for progress, and Beatrice Nash, the town's first female Latin teacher, who faces numerous challenges. Two women at very different stages in life, from different backgrounds and with different ideals. Why do we connect with both?

HS: I had to do some quiet sitting and thinking about how I as the writer could be loyal to two women at such different stages in their lives. In channeling Beatrice I was forced to revisit myself as an awkward young woman, and it was an eye–opening experience. I think we forget to look back at where we came from. I was glad of the chance to be kind to my younger self and to recognize her achievements while chuckling at her failings. Agatha was an immediate connection, though I am now laughing, because she has failings I did not see in first writing her, and that's surely a function of not seeing my own flaws.

RHRC: Speaking of women, how did the war affect the position of women in society when men began to enlist? How challenging was it for women to do any work of importance, especially during the war, when men controlled almost everything?

HS: As a novelist and not a historian, I can only remark on what resonated with me during my research. The war effort in the U.K. seemed to be built almost entirely from scratch, and so it was funny that the vast efforts of Britain's women were still initially considered "amateur" while men received official credit. The Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Red Cross, for example, were staffed by full–time female volunteers who left their families for the dangerous work of nursing. Women raised funds and set up mobile first–aid stations and canteens, and were laughed at even as the troops in transit to the front gratefully accepted hot tea, food, and medical attention. Large efforts such as the national system of War Relief Committees and Refugee Aid were all nominally headed by important men, while the bulk of the work was done by the ladies. Only as the dearth of men became more apparent did Britain realize it had a resource in its women, and so they began to fill in at munitions factories, on the buses, and even in quasi–military messenger services such as the one Alice Finch sets up.

RHRC: What was the research process like for you? What did you find most surprising about this time in English history? And when was it time to leave the research behind and listen to the characters in your head?

HS: Writers are lousy and distracted researchers, but I've always loved magazines, and my most compelling research experience was sitting in the British Library's periodicals section and paging through original copies of Country Life and The Lady for 1914 and 1915. The war was not telegraphed on the front pages as in the news-papers, but it began to show up: in recipes for economical Christmas puddings and how to make do without a meat course at dinner. And of course it also made it into the social columns, when notice of engagements and marriages began to be replaced with the words "was to have been married" as Britain's finest young peers began to fall in the trenches. And the more I researched, the more I became aware—-and surprised and horrified—-at how much the war galvanized the cause of women. In 1918, British women got the vote—-as a thanks for their work and presumably to make up for the lack of available husbands. They got to wear pants and drive buses and eat in the street and go abroad without a chaperone...and though at the end of the war most of the paid work went away, women were never going to go back to the strictures under which they had lived before.

RHRC: In Pettigrew, you wrote about contemporary England. In The Summer Before the War, you take us back to 1914. Is it more of a challenge to write about the past? How was writing this novel different from your first?

HS: As a child, what I loved most about books is that they take us to places and times we can not visit ourselves. I wanted to be shipwrecked on a Pacific atoll and to join an expedition to the planet Mars; and I wanted to time travel to the past and the future. As an adult I am still fascinated by the power of fiction to stretch the imagination and to transport us. Casting about for a setting for my second novel, it struck me that perhaps I was now qualified to attempt a bit of transporting. Of course, it was much harder work to try to fully research the time period, and then to set all the historical notes aside and allow the story to emerge on its own. I tried to transport myself back in time, and I hope readers will feel they are walking beside me in Edwardian Sussex.

RHRC: Helen, you published your first book at age forty–five. Tell us a little bit about your life before writing and the moment when you knew you had to become a writer.

HS: I was in advertising for a while, and then I decided to become a stay–at–home mom. I was looking for some small intellectual escape from the diapers and baby–gym sessions when I stumbled into a friend who said he was writing his screenplay. I remember being very taken aback that an accountant would dare to try to be some sort of writer. But then I realized that this is America, where everyone is -allowed "a dollar and a dream," as the New York Lottery used to promise. The next day I signed up for a beginner fiction class at New York's 92nd Street Y. It took me many years of struggle before I published my first book, and though I wanted to be a writer from that very first class, I don't think I believed I would be one until I saw my novel in a bookstore.

BJ Nathan Hegedus interviews Helen Simonson about
her first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand offers an enlightening view of the divide between provincial and cosmopolitan, traditional and contemporary. What made you want to write about this? Was there a Major Pettigrew or Mrs. Ali in your childhood village?

Major Pettigrew may look, at first, to be the very image of the tradition-bound, English man who would live in a village like mine.  Yet I wanted to show that none of us is our own stereotype – not even the English!  The Major is an individual and he reflects the struggle we all face between daily life and ethics, between cherished traditions and the desire to be free. I wanted to show how humor, and some truth, lives in the gaps between our intentions and our actions in this regard.  

Mrs. Ali fascinated me because she is everything an English woman like me would aspire to be.  She is educated, cultured, gracious, open - and she lives in the country.  Yet her Pakistani heritage brands her as a permanent outsider.  I wondered how it must feel to have grown up in England, just as I did, but then to have fellow citizens, deny you your place.  Mrs. Ali's dignity, in the face of all the petty insults of provincial life, seemed a story worth telling.

Which came to mind first: the story you wanted to tell or the characters with which to tell it?

One day I sat down to write a story just for me; not written with regard to how it would be read by others.  My thoughts went home to the countryside I miss and the Major simply showed up; opening the door of his home, Rose Lodge, to Mrs. Ali from the village shop. 

There were many ideas stored in my mind: how inheritance corrupts families; the urge of communities to define themselves by excluding outsiders; what 'family' really means and what we might really be prepared to give up for our principles.   I tried to set all these 'big' ideas firmly in the background and just let people walk about in the village of Edgecombe St, Mary.  I always tried to follow the action, not dictate a particular story line.  Of course, there came several moments where I had to sit the Major down and ask him, ever so politely, to please hurry up and decide what to do next! 

You say that Major Pettigrew first came to life as a short story. At what point did you realize that you had a full-length novel on your hands?

I was very nervous to show this story to Clark Blaise, the short story writer with whom I was studying at the time.  Because it is so deliberately NOT a gritty, contemporary tale, I really thought he would hate it.  Instead he met me with a huge smile and told me, very excitedly, that he thought I had found my novel.  I showed it to a few other people and their happy response and eager questions about what the Major would do next, seemed to suggest that I was on to something.  It seemed an alarming but wonderful responsibility.

After a career in advertising along with raising a family, you're now publishing your first novel.  What led you to pick up the pen at this juncture in your life?

As a stay-at-home mother with two young children, I missed my busy advertising job and I wanted some intellectual or creative activity to balance my life.  Ballroom dancing didn't do it for me, but when a young man from class mentioned taking his vacation to write a screenplay, it was a light bulb moment.  I had always wanted to be a writer, but had been too practical to chase such an impossible dream.  As the New York Lottery ads used to say, everyone has 'a dollar and a dream.'  The very next day, I signed up for Beginner Fiction at New York's 92nd Street Y.  

Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali are such wonderful rich characters. How does it feel to leave them? Are there more of their stories to be told?

I am horribly opposed to sequels of all kinds.  I’m the kind of person who only likes the original Star Wars; also Narnia, Harry Potter, and The Godfather.  I mean, what was Shakespeare thinking with that Henry IV Part II? 

I also love Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali, and I hate to leave them.  But in my mind, I have intruded quite enough on their private lives and will leave them alone to stroll the cliff tops of Sussex and sit down every Sunday to tea and books.  I am on to snoop into other characters' lives.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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