A Conversation with Jennifer Robson
Jennifer Robson is the international bestselling author of the novels Somewhere in France (2014) After the War is Over (2015), and Moonlight Over Paris (2016). Her books have earned praise from Publishers Weekly, Huffington Post, and Booklist. She holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where she was a Commonwealth Scholar and an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow. Robson lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children, and shares her home office with Sam the cat and Ellie the sheepdog. In this conversation with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Maria Scala, she discusses her writing influences and mentors, the Downton Abbey effect, connecting with her readers via social media while still getting work done, and how important it is for a mother writer to escape to a room of her own.
Maria Scala: First off, let me say how happy I am, personally and professionally, to speak with you today. I was so delighted, back in 2013, to receive the invitation to the launch of Somewhere in France. I recalled visiting you at your home a few years earlier, and while our preschoolers ate ice cream and your newborn settled down in the swing, you took me aside to whisper, “I’m writing a book.”
That book, Somewhere in France, was the first in a series of historical novels set during the Great War, and features a headstrong heroine, Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford (Lilly), who joins the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and becomes an ambulance driver in France. Who or what inspired you to write about Lilly and this period in history?
Jennifer Robson: Some writers can tell you the exact moment a book or character popped, fully-formed as it were, into their brains—but I’m not one of them. I wish I could pin down an “a-ha” moment when I first knew I would write a book about the Great War, but it’s something that came together slowly and almost imperceptibly. I had a two-year-old and a new baby, and I was slowly realizing that the work I was doing—mainly editing and some copywriting—was not something I loved, and I wanted to do something that, at a bare minimum, interested me. I also felt that I wanted to set an example for my children, and especially my daughter, by doing work that I adored. My mother, who died when I was only 21, was a family lawyer and then a judge for the last years of her life, and I was very, very proud of her. I wanted my kids to be proud of me in the same way, and I knew I had to make some changes if that were ever to happen.
I’d always had the ambition to write fiction, but something had always held me back—I think mainly I was afraid of failure. Only after watching a documentary on J.K. Rowling, and being reminded of her struggles as a single mom on social assistance, did I see that I had nothing to lose by trying—and that if I didn’t try I would absolutely fail. The day after watching the documentary I bought a blank notebook and started scribbling down ideas while my daughter was napping.
I was drawn to the idea of writing about a woman living through the First World War, and initially I thought of a character very much like Vera Brittain, whose memoir, Testament of Youth, I had inhaled and all but memorized as a teenager. Simply fictionalizing her story didn’t seem right, though, so I set about creating a narrative that would have elements of Brittain’s story—a young woman, rather unformed and naïve, is torn away from all that is known and familiar by the horrors of war—but would be populated by original characters and have an entirely different plot.
MS: How did you stay motivated to keep writing, despite the obvious challenges and demands of raising a young family?
JR: Some days were tough, since your schedule is never really your own when you’re caring for little ones. I was blessed, however, with a completely open-ended timeline—at that stage I was writing only for myself, with no expectation beyond finishing the manuscript and knowing that I had written an entire book. I wasn’t sure I could do it, to be honest, and I told hardly anyone—I think you were one of the few people I confided in while I was writing it! I suppose I had always thought of myself as an editor, and also an academic, but never primarily as a writer. Writing a book was a step into the unknown for me, and I still have moments when it hits me like an anvil. I’m a writer? How did that happen?!
MS: Your publication story is one that is heartening for me, as I read that your first novel was rejected around 25 times the first time you sent it out for consideration, but Downton Abbey changed things for you, didn’t it? And given the commercial and critical success of your first book, I can imagine that writing and publishing After the War is Over and Moonlight Over Paris, your second and third books, respectively, was a bit different.
JR: Somewhere in France recently went into its 14th printing, and now has almost 100,000 copies in print, but for the longest time I thought I would never get it published. I completed the manuscript in early 2009 and submitted it to about two dozen literary agents in the United States and Canada, but everyone rejected it. It was only after Downton Abbey hit TV screens in 2011 that publishers started looking for books set in the period—and that was my big chance. I sent it out again in the spring of 2012—the exact same manuscript that had been so roundly rejected before—and within days I had received an offer of representation from the woman who is now my literary agent. In that moment I felt like I had won the lottery—I still do.
Writing my subsequent books has been an entirely different experience, since I am committed to very tight timelines. Currently I’m writing a book a year, and plan to do so for the next three or four years at least—and that leaves very little room for dithering (my default setting). Right now I’m not only promoting the publication of Moonlight Over Paris, which involves a fair amount of travel through the United States and Canada, but I’m also neck-deep in work on my fourth book, which comes out in early 2017. Really, the only way to manage that kind of schedule is to be extremely disciplined about work, and I’ll admit I struggle with it every day. It’s hard to shut out everything else and just sit at my desk and write, but that’s the only way the work gets done. The great Neil Gaiman said it best: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
MS: You have quite a loyal following on Facebook and Twitter, and book club visits are a big part of how you promote your work and stay connected to your community of readers. How do you do all this, yet still have time to conduct research and write, let alone look after your family? Do you have a writing routine and a “room of your own”?
JR: I do a lot of juggling, and in that sense I’m no different than any other working mom. Some days I manage to keep all the balls in the air, but most days I end up dropping a few, and I’m learning to live with that. My house is always messy, and my study—a small room just off the master bedroom that is crammed with books and baskets full of paper and two very smelly pet beds for my dog and cat—perpetually looks like a brisk storm just whipped through. As long as I can carve out a space for my laptop and a mug of tea, though, I’m fine. Sometimes I feel like a change of pace, and I’ll walk to one of the coffee shops in my neighborhood (the Junction in west Toronto) and work there for a few hours, but I prefer to work in my study with Ellie and Sam to keep me company.
If I go back to Neil Gaiman’s advice, that’s really the governing principle of how I get the work done. I walk my kids to school at 8:15 a.m. and try to be back and at my desk by 9:00 a.m. at the latest. I work straight through until midday, when I take the dog for a walk and rummage in the fridge for leftovers that I can heat up and eat at my desk. Then it’s back to work until just before 3 p.m., when I pick up the kids and start the after-school routine: ferrying the kids to various classes, homework, dinner prep, and bedtime routine (and here I should add that my husband helps with everything). Once they’re asleep I get back to work, though I’m too tired to write effectively; most evenings I catch up on social media, although I limit that to no more than an hour, and then I read until eyestrain takes over and I can’t see straight. I always have two or three books on the go: usually things I’m reading for research purposes, and I always have a notebook nearby if I need to jot down stray ideas.
MS: Was there anything during the process of writing and promoting your books that surprised you?
JR: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how painless the entire process has turned out to be—once I’ve completed my first draft, that is; the work of writing never gets any easier! Being included in the editorial and production process is an utter delight, and that’s because I’m part of a team that really understands my books. I have never, not once, disagreed with anything my editor (Amanda Bergeron) has asked me to do, and that makes editorial revisions a pleasure rather than an ordeal. Every step of the way, including cover design (where I know authors are often not consulted) is just so exciting and inspiring. I’m very aware that I am only one person out of a large team of people working really hard to bring my books to the world, and—this may sound trite but I do mean it—I am so, so grateful for the help I receive from everyone at my publisher.
MS: What are you currently working on?
JR: My new book, which I’m calling “Ruby’s War”—a terrible title that will certainly be replaced by something much catchier—is set in Britain during the Second World War. The heroine is an American magazine journalist, Ruby Sutton, and is inspired by my grandmother, who was a journalist in Vancouver at the time and who shared many stories with me of her experiences during the war. She even interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt! Among other responsibilities, Grandma was expected to write about issues of wartime home economy—how to stretch leftovers into one more meal, how to bake a decent cake without any eggs—which never fails to amuse me, since Grandma was a terrible cook and practically allergic to traditional domestic activities. I’m hoping to include this in Ruby’s story, too, if I can find a way to make it fit. I’ll let you know!
MS: That sounds fascinating! I look forward to reading it.