If you're an occasional visitor here you already know I'm very fond of Jacqueline Winspear's novels featuring Maisie Dobbs. I've been a fan of the series since it's inception back in 2003 with Maisie Dobbs, which introduced the investigator/psychologist. I first discovered Maisie whilst browsing the 'new books' shelves at my local library. I had a good feeling about the book and judging from the many accolades Maisie Dobbs and subsequent books have garnered, I wasn't wrong. Now every year I eagerly await each new installment (no longer waiting for a library copy, I have to have my own). I was fortunate enough to read Jacqueline's sixth Maisie novel Among the Mad last month, though you'll be happy to know it is officially on sale today. Jacqueline Winspear kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work.
By way of introduction would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
I am originally from the United Kingdom and came to the United States eighteen years ago (though I had visited the USA many times from my late teens onwards, it wasn't until 1990 that I came here for a longer period of time, which ended up being much longer than I expected!). I live in California, and as well as writing every day, I also train in the equestrian sport of dressage - I have two horses.
Maisie Dobbs is one of my favorite characters, and I know I'm not alone in enjoying the Maisie Dobbs novels. What was your inspiration when you created her, and how would you describe her?
As many of my readers know, I did not actually plan to write a novel - Maisie Dobbs chose me! The "idea" came to me whilst I was daydreaming in very heavy traffic that had backed up at a stop-light. However, as I continue now to create the character, and as she reveals herself to me, I am always inspired by the spirit of that generation of women in Britain - women who came to womanhood in the years of the Great War, and for whom everything changed. As I have said on my website: Maisie Dobbs is very much a woman of her generation. She has come of age at a time when women took on the toil of men and claimed independence that was difficult to relinquish. It was a time when many women remained unmarried, simply because a generation of men had gone to war and not come home.
Why did you choose the post-WWI era as a setting? And what are the biggest challenges writing historical mysteries?
I have always been fascinated by the period from, say, 1913 - just before the Great War - until 1954, the end of the post WW2 rationing in Britain, but I find the Great War and the period between the wars particularly compelling. The war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War.
From my point of view, I think the challenges are the same for any novelist, whether their work is set at a time in history, or in the present: Essentially the writer, through story, is shining a light onto a time, place and certain group of characters - and facts don't necessarily help you there.
I love reading about the period, and the details ring true when I am reading other books about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. How much research goes into your books?
It really depends, but the truth is that I have been "researching" the background for my books throughout my life, through personal experience (for example, my grandfather was shell-shocked and wounded in the Great War, and because he was older when he married and elderly by the time I was born, I remember him well). But I do a fair amount of research too. I visit the UK three or four times a year, and invariably to do some sort of research, whether walking the area depicted in a given novel, or using reference libraries and archives I cannot access online.
How do you approach your writing? Do you have set writing times when you're working on a book? And do you have a general idea how the mysteries will work out or do you decide as you go?
I write every day, though when I write depends on the weather! If it is really hot, I have to get my horses out early in the morning, so I write after I ride. In winter and spring, the writing comes before riding!
I have a general idea when it comes to plot, but I also allow unexpected inspiration to take me down unanticipated paths.
The characters have really changed and developed over the course of six books. Can you already visualize what will happen to Maisie in the future? And out of curiosity might she ever travel to America?
Yes, I can visualize what happens to Maisie in the future, and though America will be featured in the novel I am working on now, Maisie will not be traveling to America.
Can we have a sneak peek of Maisie's next msytery? What about any other writing ventures, do you have any plans to write any non-Maisie Dobbs novels?
If you mean Among the Mad, to be published on February 17th, here's the advertising blurb:
It's Christmas Eve 1931. On the way to see a client, Maisie Dobbs witnesses a man commit suicide on a busy London street. The following day, the prime minister's office receives a letter threatening massive loss of life if certain demands are not met--and the writer mentions Maisie by name. After being questioned and cleared by Detective Chief Superintendent Robert MacFarlane of Scotland Yard's elite Special Branch, she is drawn into MacFarlane's personal fiefdom as a special adviser on the case. Meanwhile, Billy Beale, Maisie's trusted assistant, is once again facing tragedy as his wife, who has never recovered from the death of their young daughter, slips further into melancholia's abyss. Soon Maisie becomes involved in a race against time to find a man who proves he has the knowledge and will to inflict death and destruction on thousands of innocent people. And before this harrowing case is over, Maisie must navigate a darkness not encountered since she was a nurse in the wards filled with shell-shocked men.
I have already written a non-Maisie novel. It's not a mystery and I have no plans to publish yet.
Who are your favorite mystery authors? Did any one in particular inspire you to write mysteries? And as I'm always curious, what books are you currently reading?
No one mystery writer inspired me to write a mystery. I just began writing a story that was in my head - and it just so happened it turned out to be a mystery. As I wrote the novel, more ideas were coming to me so I knew I had a series character - in fact, as far as I'm concerned, Maisie Dobbs is the mystery. I'm as interested as anyone else to find out who she will be by the end of the book, how she has changed and developed as a person through her work and the associations that come with it.
As far as mystery authors are concerned - I have broad tastes, from P.D. James to Patricia Cornwell. I think most mystery writers might say the same thing.
I am currently reading about three non-fiction books about life in the 1930's. I do not read fiction when I am writing a novel (but I have HUGE pile of books to read as soon as I've laid down the first draft of my next novel).
One more good piece of news, Jacqueline's publisher Henry Holt is offering three freebie copies of Among the Mad to be given away here. I'm afraid the books are only available to readers in the US and Canada. So, if you'll leave a comment on this post by Saturday letting me know you're interested in being included in the drawing, I'll be happy to drop your name in the hat. I'll draw three names on February 21, Saturday morning.
Many thanks to Jacqueline Winspear for taking the time to answer my questions, and Henry Holt for copies of her new book to give away.