Interview with Author
Conducted via Email
ByTrip-Wire Editor Mike Hanlon
April and May 2006
1. Hello Jackie, please tell our readers, what came first for you: did you decide to write fiction with a First World War "anchor" or to write mystery stories?
I didn't decide to write fiction, it decided for me. The idea for MAISIE DOBBS came to me in what I have called my moment of "artistic grace." I was daydreaming in traffic when the scene that became the first chapter unfolded in my mind's eye, a bit like watching a film. However, had I planned to write fiction, I would most likely have chosen that time from the start of the Great War, probably up until 1950 or so. I am fascinated by the era, particularly the Great War and its aftermath. However, what I am interested in is the experience of ordinary people - what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times.
2. Why is the Great War so meaningful for you personally?
First of all there's the family connection: my grandfather was severely wounded at the Battle of The Somme - and certainly his disabilities sparked my curiosity as a child. There was something about the way that people talked of "Granddad's war wounds" that touched me deeply, and I think even then - though I could never have explained why - I had a sense that when they spoke of "wound" it was as much an injury to the soul. Then of course I began to read, to understand more about "the war to end all wars" and found that my deepest question could never be answered, and that is, "Why?' Of course, on the face of it, there are many responses, but nothing can explain terror on such a scale. As Winston Churchill notes in 1924, it was the first war on a global scale wherein humankind realized it had the power to obliterate itself.
Jackie & Masie #1
3. When did you start visualizing and shaping the biography of your heroine Maisie Dobbs? Did any historical or fictional personalities contribute to Maisie's character?
Maisie Dobbs continues to reveal herself to me as much as I develop the character, and it is that ongoing knowledge and understanding that keeps me curious about her. There was no one person upon whom the character is based, but rather I wanted her to reflect the spirit of the women of Britain at that time: the first generation of women to go to war in modern times.
4. Maisie seems exempt from the British Class system. Her early biography features both "downstairs" experience as a maid and a move "upstairs" when Lady Rowan Compton sponsors her education at Cambridge. This is obviously very helpful for a sleuth. Comment?
She's not exactly exempt, however, her experiences have given her tools to be able to move socially between the classes. There's something in Maisie, however, which will always be the girl who started at the bottom and worked her way up. She realizes her good fortune,, but walks a very careful line in her relationships - it's part of the reason why there is an "alone-ness" about her. Frankie Dobbs was always afraid that his daughter would never find her place, because she was betwixt and between, neither completely of one class or the other - and that is certainly true to some extent.
5. How did Maisie's World War I experience as a nurse change her?
Maisie lost her innocence at an early age in seeing death of a most terrible kind. It changed her forever, and has defined who she is, how she works, and what moves her. Certainly, if readers had not realized it before, when they read PARDONABLE LIES, they will know that Maisie is as shell-shocked as any man who went to war.
6. Maisie's character keeps evolving, will she ever decide it's time for her to move beyond the events of 1914-1918?
That's already happening, though in the way that life always dishes up events that force us to face up to our demons, so that has happened to Maisie. And now, even though there are cases that have roots in that war, events of the present day (1931 in the case of MESSENGER OF TRUTH), conspire to add tension to her work. Readers will see that Maisie is definitely a different person at the end of MESSENGER OF TRUTH.
7. Maisie's personal relations with the men in her life: her father, Maurice Blanche, Basil Khan and Billy Beale seem crucial in all your novels. What can you tell us about them?
Whether male or female, as well as being characters in their own right, people like Blanche, like Billy Beale, or Frankie Dobbs provide a mirror through which we can see Maisie from another perspective. How a person is with an employee is likely to be different than with a parent - I want to know who she is with other people, how she reacts to Priscilla's brutal down-to-earth challenges, how she deals with an aging parent, or a mentor in whom she has lost trust. We are defined, to an extent, by who we are in our relationships - as both reader and writer, I want to know who my characters are.
8. How do you research all the details and about London in the post-war period and the specifics of the battlefield experiences critical to each story?
In so many ways! Basically, before I begin work on each novel, I draw up a list of research requirements, aspects of the story that I need to look into, to broaden my knowledge. For PARDONABLE LIES, my list included, but was not limited to: British intelligence in WW1, particularly the work of the Intelligence Corps; Biarritz between the wars, and the fact that it was a place where convalescing French solders were sent; the battlefields some 12-13 years after the war - what did they look like; aviation in WW1, etc., etc.
I divide my research into Primary and Secondary - that which I have to do myself with a lot of legwork, and that which is already written - consulting already-published books and papers. I obviously do far more research than I actually need, and often think that research is like an iceberg - only 7% of it is visible, the rest is underneath. I am a storyteller first, so my research has to support the story. If my book becomes research-driven, then I should probably be writing non-fiction.
9. What can you tell us about your next Maisie Dobbs novel?
I'll make it easy for myself - here's the inside cover copy:
London 1931. On the night before the opening of his new and much-anticipated exhibition at a famed Mayfair gallery, Nicholas Bassington-Hope falls to his death. The police declare the fall an accident, which doesn't satisfy the dead man's twin sister, Georgina. When the authorities refuse to conduct further investigations and close the case, Georgina - a journalist and infamous figure in her own right - takes matters into her own hands, seeking out a fellow former graduate of Girton College: Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator.
Soon the case takes Maisie to the desolate beaches of Dungeness in Kent, as well as the sinister underbelly of London's art world. And while navigating her way into the heart of the aristocratic yet bohemian Bassington-Hope's, Maisie is deeply troubled by the tragedy of another, quite different family in need.
In Messenger of Truth, Maisie Dobbs again uncovers the dark legacy of the Great War in a society struggling to recollect itself in difficult times. But to solve the mystery of the artist's death, Maisie has to remain steady as the forces behind his fall come out of the shadows to silence her.
10. Both your critical and popular receptions have been wonderful. Clearly both reviewers and readers are charmed by Maisie, but what other things about your novels do you think make them such a rewarding "read"?
I can only repeat what fans have told me in emails and letters: The time and place are intriguing to many readers, along with the detail that "transports" them to that era. Many love what they call the "philosophical" elements, and I have had a lot of emails from veterans, and from people who have gone through difficult times, who have found some solace in the books. There are those who are inspired by Maisie's character, her resolve. And there are readers who have become fascinated by the Great War, so reading the books inspires them to find out more. I had an email from one young woman who said that reading my novels made her realize that war leaves scars on the individual and collective soul, something she hadn't really thought about before and was now thinking about in some depth. That's the sort of response that makes me feel as if I've done a good day's work.
11. If a young person were to ask you to recommend some books on the First World War, which would you suggest?
It depends on whether they were male or female, and how young. My more serious interest in the time began when I read Siegfried Sassoon's "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man" and "Memoirs of an Infantry Officer" when I was about 16. The former was particularly compelling because the author grew up in the area of Kent where I lived, so I knew the area very well indeed. I followed that with "Goodbye To All That" by Robert Graves, then of course I became immersed in the war poets - Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Sassoon.
I think young people are particularly engaged by the stories of ordinary people with whom they can identify, rather than the more academic books. Lyn MacDonald's books would therefore be top of my list - "The Roses of No Man's Land" for girls in particular, along with "The Virago Book of Women of the Great War" by Joyce Marlow. For boys I'd recommend Lyn MacDonald's "The Somme", especially as this year marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I hope that doesn't sound sexist, in saying what both boys and girls might like, but when you see personal experiences recounted and realize that the person was only a couple of years older than you when they went to war, then it becomes more intriguing. A group of adolescent boys came to one of my readings last year (and that's one thing I love, there often seems to be a real demographic mix at my readings), so I talked a bit about the boy soldiers of WW1, and about the blind eye that was turned when boys enlisted, because so many soldiers were needed. They were fascinated, though I think at first they came because they were assigned a school project - of course, I have found that Billy Beale is a character that draws the teens.
Dependent upon age, again, I would recommend a young person watch the movie, Gallipoli as well as The Officer's Ward (which might not be available in the USA). And as humor is often an excellent vehicle for learning, I think it does no harm to watch the British TV series Blackadder, the one set in The Great War. That final episode where the characters go over the top is poignant in the extreme, and is often shown on Remembrance Day (as Armistice Day is now known) in Britain.
It's a pity that the British documentary series, "The Trench" is not available here, (or is it?) as it was excellent in terms of what it set out to do. I think some Great War buffs might have written it off as "reality TV" without watching an episode, but it was far from that, instead being a serious project to try to understand the emotions of men at the Front, the men who lived in rat-infested trenches and lost their pals one by one. The veterans of the war who contributed were marvelous, as were the men who gave up time - and in one case, a job - to be able to take part. I won't go on about it here, but the integrity of the series is underlined by the involvement of the Imperial War Museum and the British Army, and it was supported by a major exhibition at the museum, as well as a very good book.
I have two bookcases full of books about the war and its aftermath, so I could go on and on - but I think my recommendations are good places to start.
Thank you Jacqueline, speaking for your fans--if I may--we wish you continued success with your wonderful Maise Dobbs Series.
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