The best-selling author’s beloved heroine, private investigator Maisie Dobbs, is celebrating her 17th case. Here, the writer shares her love for historical fiction.
I’d say you know Maisie as well as your own family at this stage. What other facets of her life would you like to show readers?
That’s a tricky question to answer, because as much as I have created a character who has matured over time, so she has revealed herself to me. There’s definitely more of her story to be told. Readers have come to know Maisie Dobbs largely through her responses to the events and revelations impacting her life, how she conducts herself personally and in her work, and how she sees herself and her past — which means how she imagines her future. Needless to say, I can’t reveal any future experiences at this point. You’ll have to wait to see what might be revealed!
Maisie is such a popular character — what is it about her that you think readers enjoy?
From the many emails and letters I receive, I believe readers respect her integrity and are inspired by her perseverance, her ability to endure. She always tries to make good choices — though, like all of us, sometimes those choices represent a challenge or she doesn’t get it right. She has been trained to view any situation from different perspectives — though in A Sunlit Weapon there’s a situation involving someone close to her that challenges her innate ability to forgive. Maisie Dobbs is a compassionate person and I believe readers are attracted to her desire to see the best in even the most difficult encounter.
Why has historical fiction been of such interest to you?
I have always been interested in social history, how ordinary people are impacted by the significant events of the day. I want to delve into those great events to find out what happened to the people. When I was in school studying history, I found the lives of kings, queens, political leaders and the famous all very well and interesting, but what has always fascinated me is mining the personal that resides amid the broader and deeper landscape of history.
Adding mystery to the history provides another dimension — the archetypal journey through chaos to resolution. Characters unfold against a backdrop of recorded history that we might think we know, but the personal experiences wrought by events are compounded when you add a level of formal investigation into something amiss nd that gives the writer an opportunity to create more pressure for the characters, so we can see how enhanced challenges can impact behaviour and what leads people to act in ways that they might never have thought possible unless they were in a situation of extreme psychological tension.
How do you find the process of writing historical fiction?
It’s probably the same as writing any other fiction. I have a nugget of an idea, the ‘kindling’ if you will, and then, with my research and understanding of my characters, I load on the fuel and look for that all-important spark that sends me off along the path to another novel.
How long will Maisie’s investigations continue?
Oh, that’s a secret!
How did the pandemic hinder your writing, if at all?
The pandemic had no impact on my writing at all. I have always been used to working alone. From my first career job (in sales), I was not in an office, but either working from a home base or travelling. That seems to have been a hallmark of my life. The discipline required for writing largely a solitary enterprise was already in place, not only through my previous jobs, but in writing articles and essays on assignment. I have a rhythm to my day, which wasn’t impacted much by the pandemic.
However, I should add that 2020 was an incredibly busy year for me: I was writing my novel The Consequences Of Fear (published 2021) and also gearing up for publication of my memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing (and, of course, I had no idea how prescient that title would be!).
To add to the pressures of the year, mid-year I sold my house and had to pack up everything and put it into storage.
The interesting thing about publishing the memoir was that my book tour had to be virtual, so suddenly there was the challenge of communicating with readers via Zoom, etc, instead of in person. Of course, we all became used to it pretty quickly, but there was always a certain fear that the internet might go down mid-presentation.
In Maisie’s books, her secondary characters are vital (my favourite is Priscilla). How important do you consider them?
The secondary characters are indeed incredibly important. After all, we have families and friends who are important to us and who have an impact on our lives. They question us, comment on our choices, laugh with us, cry with us. Plus, we are involved in their lives, families, etc. Those connections are all part of who we are and make a huge contribution to the richness of life.
I’ve always liked stories, films and TV with an ‘ensemble’ cast: there are the personalities in the foreground, but the background characters are just as vital to the story and to the development of the leading characters. The essence of who a character is at heart can be seen through the people who they love and regard, and who love and regard them in return their interactions reveal so much. It’s interesting that your favourite is Priscilla.
One of my aunts phoned me after she read Maisie Dobbs and warned me that Priscilla had to return again if I wanted her to read my books! I wanted her to be a constant in Maisie’s life anyway, so it wasn’t a problem.
She wasn’t inspired by any one person, but my best friend’s daughter started calling her ‘Priscilla’ after she’d read a few of the books.
My friend is pretty no-nonsense, in the same way that Priscilla is forthright. Mind you, her clothing choices are far more low-key than Priscilla’s!
A Sunlit Weapon (Maisie Dobbs book 17) by Jacqueline Winspear, Allison & Busby, £19.99, is out now