JACQUELINE WINSPEAR TALKS TO GRETCHEN HAERTSCH
I must admit that before I met fellow blogger Sandra Carey Cody I wasn’t a very regular mystery reader. Then Sandy introduced me to Jacqueline Winspear and her wonderful heroine Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, and my life has been the richer for it. Initially I was attracted to the series because of its setting and time period: England, from before the Great War into the 1930s. Then I became intrigued by Maisie’s intelligence and fierce independence. Jacqueline’s 8th Maisie Dobbs novel is due out on March 22 and my copy from Amazon is currently in transit with an anticipated delivery date of March 23. It can’t come soon enough to feed my passion! That’s why I’m so excited that Jacqueline Winspear agreed to be interviewed for Birth of a Novel. Jacqueline was born and raised in Kent, England, but has been living on the West Coast since 1990. The first book in the series – Maisie Dobbs – was a New York Times Notable Book in 2003. All of her books have been nominated for awards since that time with the Agatha Award for Best Novel going to Birds of a Feather. An Incomplete Revenge (2008) and Among the Mad (2009) were both instant New York Times bestsellers. In a future blog, I will review her latest book: A Lesson In Secrets.
GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: You’ve gone from a career in higher education and academic publishing to life as a best-selling novelist. How did your academic publishing and essay writing prepare you for life as a fiction writer?
JACQUELINE WINSPEAR: When I was in academic publishing, I was responsible for the sales and marketing of books in the “hard side” sciences, so there is no way that graduate level books on mechanical engineering, electronic control systems or artificial intelligence were ever going to prepare me to be a fiction writer – academic publishing is a very different industry to general book publishing. But I love the personal essay with a passion, and I learned much from writing creative non-fiction that I have been able to draw upon to write fiction.
HAERTSCH: The Maisie Dobbs novels take place mostly in the late 1920s and 30s but are grounded in the Great War of 1914-18. I know your grandfather’s service in the war inspired you. What else speaks to you about this period?
WINSPEAR: I’m interested in what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the period of time from – roughly – 1913 to 1954 (the end of WW2 rationing) in Britain can be counted as an extraordinary time, when society changed dramatically. And I am inspired by the lives of women, not only throughout the period 1914-18, the Great War, but afterwards, when women really began to blaze a trail. The 1921 census revealed that, in Britain, there were 2 million “surplus” women for whom there would never be a husband and children. Of course there were many who faltered, who were impoverished throughout the depression, who perhaps lived with elderly parents, or alone in a bed-sitting room and who tried desperately to find work. But there were those who blazed a trail, moving into public life in a very visible way. The women of this generation in Britain earned and demanded freedoms that had not been known before.
HAERTSCH: Do you find the research portion of your projects as pleasurable as the drafting? How time-consuming is the research and what is your process?
WINSPEAR: My process is that I just get on with discovering more about those things I need to know to bring color and depth to my story, and to anchor it in time. I love research because I love history, and the era I write about fascinates me. Research is ongoing, so it never seems as if it is time-consuming – it’s part of a life-long passion, so it is never a weight in terms of my work.
HAERTSCH: Maisie Dobbs is able to leap across the boundaries of class to rise from the Lambeth-born maid to a Cambridge-educated psychologist and private investigator working at the highest level of government. What intrigues you about these class issues?
WINSPEAR: The aspect of class in my novels is something that happens organically, so to speak – you can’t write about Britain, especially between the wars, without class being part of the social landscape.
HAERTSCH: Dr. Maurice Blanche, Maisie’s mentor, teaches her to use Eastern philosophy and intuitive practices to solve mysteries. This theme adds so much richness to the novels. Does your own work as a life coach influence your character, Maurice Blanche? What inspired you to use Eastern philosophy in your novels?
WINSPEAR: I think my coaching background added some color to several characters, however, this aspect of Maisie’s background and the lessons she receives from Maurice really came about in a very natural way. Indeed, this aspect of Maisie’s background – an immersion in eastern philosophy – is very much of the time, when there were those in what we might call the “chattering classes” who were fascinated with the philosophy that made its way back to Britain due to the British involvement in the Indian sub-continent.
HAERTSCH: Maisie tries to ensure that her clients are left at peace at the end of her investigations, even when that means she may not be able to reveal the whole truth to her clients. In fact, secrets are a major theme of your novels. Does your new novel, A Lesson In Secrets, underline this theme?
WINSPEAR: To some extent, yes it does – but more than that is a secret ….
HAERTSCH: You have spoken about being very fortunate in so quickly finding an agent for your first novel. What advice would you give to today’s new writers looking for that first big break?
WINSPEAR: Send your work out to as many agents as possible – never one at a time. First of all, buy a book such as the one by Jeff Herman – the Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Then go through it carefully, making a note of those agents who are most likely to represent a book such as yours; you find that out by paying attention to what they say they are looking for and what they’re currently representing. Follow their submission guidelines to the letter and prepare your work and cover letter accordingly – just send it out.
HAERTSCH: It occurs to me – and I’m sure to many of your fans – that the Maisie Dobbs novels would make a wonderful television series. Is anything in the works for film or television?
WINSPEAR: Not at the moment – but if it happens, readers will see an announcement on my website.
HAERTSCH: Raised in Kent, England, you’ve been living on the West Coast in the U.S. since 1990. Will we see more American influence in future Maisie Dobbs novels?
WINSPEAR: Probably not, but I’d never say never ….
HAERTSCH: Can we expect more Maisie Dobbs novels? What’s ahead for you?
WINSPEAR: I’m working on the 9th novel in the series, and there will be more to come after that. In addition, I am working on a non-series novel that has nothing to do with Maisie Dobbs, as well as a non-fiction book.