Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was a New York Times and international bestseller. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is hot off the press and destined for comparable accolades. I am pleased to welcome Helen to Great War 100 Reads today, and honoured that she fit this interview into a busy book launch season.
Why did you write The Summer Before the War?
Helen Simonson: I love the Edwardian era which I think of in terms of advances in technology – the telephone, motor car, invention of electricity and flying machines – and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It’s a society rich in writers, poets and women’s movements for social justice and for suffrage. It’s a historical era in which I always thought I could live well. However, that assumes I would be wealthy. Life was hard for folks without money. There were still workhouses for the poor and diseases like rickets and TB were rife. So being not quite the garden party idyll of our imaginations but truly a time of so much potential makes the Edwardian era satisfyingly complicated. And this particular summer, 1914, is all about unfolding the deck chairs while a devastating war looms beyond the horizon.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing the book?
HS: When I began to research this novel, I had no idea that in World War One Great Britain took in over 250,000 Belgian refugees and housed, clothed and fed them for the duration of hostilities. They were also provided with plenty of amateur theatricals and cups of tea! Did you know that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was a Belgian refugee? The whole country came together to fund this charitable effort through Relief Committees across individual towns and cities. I wanted to bring to light a story that seemed forgotten by the history books. I did not know then that the plight of war refugees would emerge as such a huge issue in the contemporary world.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
HS: In this book I wanted to explore what people think is important to build in their lives and what proves to be of real value when it is actually put to the gravest of tests. And how will we weigh our ambitions and dreams against our duty and our compassion when all is falling apart? What does a war destroy and what does it burnish in the fire? I hope we as readers might be inspired by our courage in past disasters and might take time to reflect on what is truly important in life.
What is your most interesting writing quirk?
HS: Perhaps readers will be surprised to find that I write as little as possible. I used to think this was just procrastination on my part, but I’ve come to appreciate that I spend a lot of time thinking about my novel, and only write stuff down as and when I work it all out.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
HS: I wish they would ask how I like being compared to Chekhov! But I never am. All writers want to follow in the footsteps of the masters – Joyce is another – but I only found success when I listened to my own unique voice. I will never be Chekhov, but I can be Helen Simonson.
Where will your next book take us?
HS: Sorry not to answer this one, but I’ve found the more I talk about it the less I write and the more I describe my plans, the sillier they sound! I think it’s better to write to my vision and have faith that readers will enjoy following wherever my characters go.
So we must enjoy The Summer Before the War and await the next adventure with anticipation. Thank you, Helen, for sharing these insights. I really liked the book.
Watch here to see if Helen’s book tour is coming to your city.
Welcome to several new followers! I hope you enjoy the journey and I look forward to your comments.