It seems only a minor exaggeration to say that the many, many fans of Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, have been breathless in anticipation of her new work, The Summer Before the War. Pettigrew – the tale of a very buttoned-up British widower and the “inappropriate” woman with whom he falls in love, was a contemporary romance and a comedy of manners, both. The new book is much the same, and yet very very different. Weightier – both in topic and in fact (it’s a much longer book) – and somewhat lighter on the laughs, it is also a crisp, intelligent, knowing, and warm look not at the way we live now, but at the way they lived then: the Edwardians, on the eve of the Great War. Simonson, a British-born mother of two now transplanted to Brooklyn, is, in person, every bit as charming and witty as is her work. Here are some of what she might term the “choicest bits” of our conversation.
The Summer Before the War is a selection for Amazon’s Best Books of March in Literature & Fiction.
On why she wrote a historical novel this time:
We all like Edwardian stories – it’s garden parties and big hats – but it quickly became obvious to me that it would not be truthful to write about the Edwardian era and not take the story into WWI. In this book, I’m putting my characters in jeopardy by presenting this incredible summer and we, the readers, know what was coming – but the characters don’t. How could they? If you read the newspapers from that summer it’s the same old “foreign disturbances” and “tensions.” There’s nothing being telegraphed that War is Coming, War is Coming.
On whether Summer is less a comedy of manners than Pettigrew:
I would say that life is a comedy of manners. I’m interested not so much in the past but in the way people in whatever era treat each other and how incredibly funny that can be, even though people may be insulting each other whether they mean to or not. I think I set out to see how far the humble comedy of manners might stretch when dealing with a tragedy as big as WWI.
On finding her voice as a writer:
When I was beginning, I thought I was a literary writer and I thought that meant you could never be funny…. I used to tell my agent I wanted to be Chekhov and she fell off her chair laughing, literally fell off her chair. You have to give that up. Because there was Chekhov and there was Hemingway and I can only be Helen Simonson. I tell my students: You’re not going to be another James Joyce, you can only be you.
On her first epiphany as a writer:
I was writing post-modern stories [for a writing class] and getting nowhere. One week, I was totally behind, and I thought "Why don’t you write something for you and it’ll be a disgusting box of chocolates but who cares?" So I wrote [what would become] the opening chapter of Major Pettigrew as a short story – and they all loved it – from the Hemingway in the corner to my crusty old professor.
Her best advice on writing:
You have to be a great reader to be any kind of writer.
On how she developed her characters, particularly Agatha, the matriarch in the story:
My characters tend to walk into my head fully formed and I don’t know where they come from… but I can see a similarity between Agatha and Mrs Ali [from Pettigrew]. I’m obviously very interested in women of substance as opposed to women as foils or ingenues, madonnas, or whores. I’m interested in women who carry their own substance with them and present themselves to the world without apology.
You might also like:
- The Best Literature & Fiction from March
- Amazon’s Best Books of March: Parts One and Two
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