For some reason, the mention of anything British seems to pique our interest. Perhaps it’s due to our country’s English roots, or maybe we just feel a sense of obligation to check in every once in a while with the other side of the pond. Whether it concerns politics or pop culture, our countries remain connected. Even the upcoming royal wedding has been a hot topic in the U.S. as media sources vie for inside scoop concerning what surely will be dubbed the wedding of the century.
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Jill Paton Walsh knows firsthand about the bond shared by our two countries. A Brit herself, her latest historical fiction novel THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS aims to entertain as well as delight all of her fans. Continuing the storyline of Lord Peter Wimsey begun by the famous British detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, Jill conjures up a masterful tale set in London in the 1950′s. From start to finish, it’s a fascinating read.
As part of this interview, Minotaur Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: From children’s literature to adult novels, your career has been quite extensive. So that my readers may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please give us a brief overview of your educational and professional background.
Jill: I was born Gillian Bliss in London on April 29th, 1937. I was educated at St. Michael’s Convent, North Finchley, and at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. From 1959 to 1962 I taught English at Enfield Girls’ Grammar School.
I won the Book World Festival Award, 1970, for Fireweed; the Whitbread Prize, 1974 (for a Children’s novel) for The Emperor’s Winding Sheet; The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award 1976 for Unleaving; The Universe Prize, 1984 for A Parcel of Patterns; and the Smarties Grand Prix, 1984, for Gaffer Samson’s Luck.
I held an Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowship in 1976-8; was a ‘permanent visiting faculty member’ of the Centre for Children’s Literature, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts from 1978 to 1986, was Gertrude Clarke Whittall lecturer at the Library of Congress in 1978, was a Whitbread Prize judge in 1984, was Chairman of the Cambridge Book Association from 1987 to 1989, and have served on the management committee of the Society of Authors. I have contributed articles and reviews to many journals served for many years as ‘adjunct British board member’ of Children’s’ Literature New England.
More recently I have written for adults; in 1994 my novel Knowledge of Angels was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 1996 I received the CBE for services to literature, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Jen: Please describe for us your “Ah! Ha!” moment when you knew writing would become your career.
Jill: I had always wanted to be a writer, and always assumed it was impossible. Then, when I retired from teaching to look after my first baby, I thought that just about the only thing I knew anything about was what had amused the children I had been teaching, and what had bored them.
I thought I could write a novel if in my mind’s eye I addressed it to form 2b. And that gave me my start as a writer.
Jen: Your children’s books have received numerous awards such as the Whitbread and the Smarties. In terms of the creative process, which is more challenging…writing children’s literature or adult? And, how so?
Jill: It’s much harder to write for children, and also more interesting. Don’t get me wrong –like any adult I am more interested in the subjects one can write about for adults. But when one writes for children there are more people in the room. Writing for adults is talking to a single reader, one’s equal in age and understanding. Writing for children involves the adult writer, and the child that writer once was; the present child reader, and the ultimate audience – the adult that child will become. Between those four one can with luck contrive to say something worth saying to the present and to the future world.
Jen: Having written four stories about a part-time college nurse named Imogen Quy, the mystery genre seems to be your niche. For those readers not familiar with your work, please give us a brief synopsis of the plot.
Jill: All four crime novels involve a college nurse, living and working in Cambridge. She is very old fashioned, not at all the macho, gun wielding, or gruesome forensic expert which some of my colleagues use as their detective. My Imogen is quiet and kind. She listens to people, and therefore knows quite a lot about them. I write crime fiction in very much the spirit in which people read crime fiction – largely for fun. But one can make quiet points about the real world on the way.
Jen: Your latest endeavor THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS is quite an undertaking. Before we talk about the novel, let’s first begin by explaining who Dorothy L. Sayers was and how her writing pertains to your work.
Jill: DLS is thought by many people to have been the best of the British Golden age of detective fiction, between the wars, when the genre flourished. She wanted to move the crime novel away from the formal puzzles offered by her rival Agatha Christie, and towards a more literary form, like the work of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins who had invented the mystery novel in the late nineteenth century. She still has a passionate world wide following. In 1936 she left abandoned an unfinished Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominatons which her trustees invited me to finish. When that book was well received, they wanted more. THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS is the third Wimsey novel I have written for them.
Jen: While writing the book, how did you manage to put aside feelings of intense pressure having to measure up to Ms. Sayers’s reputation as a superb crime writer? Or, did you approach it merely as an extension of her work and not a comparison?
Jill: Well, I was very daunted initially. But I do have certain things in common with DLS although I never met her, and she is a different generation from me. But I have always loved and admired her work –or to be more truthful I have adored Lord Peter ever since I me him when I was about 14. I was brought up very High Church, as was she I got into Oxford at a time when scholarly women were still looked askance at, I have met some of the problems in life which confronted her also. But the point of the job was not to write a book which was what I would have written with her materials –I have plenty of ideas of my own. The point of the challenge was to write something which she might have written.
Jen: Did you feel as if your writing styles were similar? Or, was it necessary to adapt a new way of writing so to speak? And, how much research was needed in order to make the story ring true with your readers?
Jill: Of course I was trying to capture her tone, her sense of humor, her love of quotation. But the language itself was not difficult. She wrote what used to be called “The King’s English” and that is the language which I was brought up in. More formal than contemporary English, and more expressive in some ways. I loved a chance to use it.
Jen: The lead character in THE ATTENDBURY EMERALDS is a brilliant aristocrat turned detective named Lord Peter Wimsey whose career catapulted to the headlines in 1921 when he helped recover the Attenbury family’s emerald. Fast forward to 1951, he now must help the family prove ownership of this notorious gem. Why does Lord Peter choose to take on this case?
Jill: He is helping an old family friend who is in a difficulty.
Jen: Lord Peter’s wife is the prolific crime writer Harriet Vane. What makes these two such an extraordinary pair? And, who is the better sleuth and why?
Jill: They don’t compete as sleuths; they cooperate. This is a wonderful device of DLS’s, and as far as I know original to her. Most detective side-kicks are inferior to the Great Detective – Holmes has Watson, Morse has Lewis. Before he met Harriet Peter had his valet, Bunter, but with Harriet he is working with an intellectual equal. Since readers tend to identify with the side-kick character, at least until they have the mystery all worked out, being offered a bright, dignified not over-impressed person to identify with transforms the experience!
Jen: There is a definite distinction between the social classes in England during this time period which plays a vital part in the storyline. Would you say Lord Peter is viewed as an equal to the Attenbury family? Does his title enable him to gain access to more information than an ordinary man? Or, is it a hindrance?
Jill: Peter’s title has been a help, and gradually as time passed, is becoming a hindrance. Peter’s family titles go back to the middle ages and his brother is a Duke; he is superior to the Attenbury family. We don’t know how their title arose, but they behave like a newer kind of posh.
Jen: An interesting dynamic in the story is the relationship between Lord Peter and his manservant Mervyn Bunter. What was the defining moment that enabled their friendship to evolve into something much more than just Lord and manservant?
Jill: The defining moment in that relationship, which I did not write, but is genuine DLS is the moment when Peter as blown up and buried in the First World War, and Bunter dug him out. The fact that he works for Peter is a cover for a very British, uptight, man to man deep friendship, based on mutual respect. They are very interesting to write about.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about you! Please take us on tour of your website.
Jill: Well, my website is a bit primitive. That’s because I took a week off about a dozen years ago, when web sites were new –yes, there was such a time! And learned enough HTML to write it myself. It is complicated because it covers my work, in three sections –for children, adult literary novels, and detective fiction, which also includes both my own detective, Imogen Quy and work written in association with Dorothy L Sayers.
There is also a section covering the work of my husband, John Rowe Townsend. Further, at the time this web site was constructed we were running a small publishing concern, very amateur, called “Green Bay Publications” and selling a few books for friends, and a few surplus copies of our own. That adds up to a lot of stuff, which a patient person could click their way through.
The address is www.greenbay.co.uk I really must get around to updating the site –but I prefer writing fiction!
Jen: Are your other works available in the U.S. market? If so, where can we purchase them?
Jill: Very nearly everything I have written was published in the US as well as in Britain, and in various other countries. A search on Amazon.com will produce my detective fiction readily available. I have even won prizes in the US for three of my children’s books, though they are now out of print. A second-hand bookshop might manage something. And of course, in such a shop if you couldn’t find anything by me, you would surely find something else you wanted to read!
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next novel? If so, what can you share with us?
Jill: I am musing at the moment. I don’t like talking about a work in prospect, since somehow talking about it takes the kettle off the boil. But it might be a historical novel, and it might be set in Massachusetts,
Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. I wish you all the best in 2011.
Jill: Happy New Year, and happy reading to all your readers. There are wonderful things to read in the world.
I hope you have enjoyed my chat with Jill. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win!
What is the name of Lord Peter Wimsey’s wife?
Next month, I will be bringing to you my exciting interviews with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. You won’t want to miss them!
Until next time…