I write to meet and follow the characters who show up on the page—the time period in which these characters happen to live is less important to me than who they are, what they want, and what they are hiding from me.
Please tell us a little bit about Bloomsbury Girls. What drew you to explore the lives of women in post-war London?
Bloomsbury Girls is about three very disaffected women working in a 1950s London bookshop who are engaged in a battle of the sexes with their male department heads and decide to band together to try to take over the shop. All I knew when I started to write the manuscript was that I wanted to find out what happened next to Evie Stone, the youngest and least settled character from The Jane Austen Society. That story happened to take place in the aftermath of the Second World War, so in a way the time period in Bloomsbury Girls chose me. But as I researched, I learned what a critical time those first few years after the war were for the British people. From the easing of Commonwealth immigration, the return of men to the workplace and women to the home, the increased buying power of the British consumer after a time of prolonged rationing, and the decline of centuries of aristocracy, the 1950s triggered much of the tumult of the years ahead. Women in particular were faced with an interesting conundrum: how to return to housewifery after the heady experience of sudden personal and professional freedom while the men were away at war. I was intrigued as to what this might have done to their mood, so to speak, and saw the capacity for a (hopefully) fun and caper-like tale with underlying social complexity.
In addition to being a bestselling author, you once owned an independent bookstore. After publishing The Jane Austen Society to great acclaim, did it feel like a natural next step to write about a bookstore and the people who work in one?
It felt very natural as I wrote, but the idea was actually sparked by two reasons that were unrelated to having owned my own shop. First, seeking distraction during the initial wave of the pandemic, I turned to a favourite movie of mine, 84 Charing Cross Road, which is based on the years-long correspondence between a bookshop manager in London and a New York writer. As I watched the behind-the-scenes bustle of the many different employees in the shop, I remember thinking to myself, there’s a whole other story in there about them. The second reason for choosing to write about a bookshop was simply because the character who inspired Bloomsbury Girls, Evie Stone, would most likely be working at either a bookshop or as a teacher due to the limited workplace opportunities for women at that time. It was only in the editing of the manuscript that I saw that with many scenes I was personally and vicariously experiencing a “do-over” of setting up a shop from scratch (which is an itch that all bookshop owners know never leaves you).
What interests you about the historical fiction genre?
The historical fiction genre is something else that has chosen me. I write to meet and follow the characters who show up on the page—the time period in which these characters happen to live is less important to me than who they are, what they want, and what they are hiding from me. In fact, of the nine books I have written so far, several take place in our time. But as a constant reader of classic literature and old movie buff, I am definitely drawn to the past, and as a former career coach, I have always been attracted to works of biography and memoir. One of the perennial lessons of that genre is how serendipity works its way through our lives and the impact of one’s era on personal, social, and economic opportunity. It is easier to explore all of that, at least it is for me, from the vantage point of knowing how important certain things are going to later turn out to be.
How much research did you do for the book?
I tend to get a basic idea for a book and then dive into very intense but random research for several months. This helps me get a feel for a particular time in history and the legal, political, economic, and social issues at play. I start writing the minute that I feel assured of my sense of the time period, the setting, and the stakes for the people who will end up populating my story. Once I start typing and the characters come to life, I tend to do just-in-time research from that point on. Because most of my manuscripts were written as a working mum from five until seven in the morning, I have learned to write and research at the exact same time. I am immensely grateful for the resulting skill of being able to zip back and forth between the creative writing and the many Wikipedia rabbit holes that I have fallen down.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I recently sold a third novel and am currently completing its first draft. Tentatively titled Every Time We Say Goodbye, it picks up on the continued adventures of Vivien Lowry, one of the new characters in Bloomsbury Girls. I think that this connective tissue between my books stems from using omniscient third-person multiple point of view (now there’s a mouthful!) to tell my stories, which enables me to go into the consciousness of several different characters and explore their individual needs and development. The next book allows me to revisit a favourite character whom I am missing or wish I knew more about, while maintaining the illusion that all of my characters’ lives are continuing merrily along without me in some alternate universe. But I might keep it to a nice tight trilogy after this one!