An Interview with Jennifer Robson
Elise Cooper: Can you describe your characters?
Jennifer Robson: I write about women I would like to be friends with. People have to understand during the World War I era many women were not brought up to be decisive and assertive. I want to write plausible characters based upon the world they live in. Through quiet perseverance Daisy and Helena achieved their goals. I also do not write alpha male characters that are bossy and will not listen to their female counterparts. I was influenced by my grandfathers and dad who admired their wives for their achievements. They valued intelligence, strength, and ambition in women.
EC: Did you have any other influences?
JR: The women in my family taught me to balance motherly duties with the professional ones. My creative hours usually come at night after the laundry is done, the dog is fed, and my children are taken care of. I had the great fortune of being surrounded by strong women. My grandmother was a newswomen, starting in the 1930s. My mother who died when I was twenty-one was such a positive figure in my life. She was a family court lawyer and towards the end of her life became a judge. She and my grandmother never let circumstances stop them. I consider both trailblazers. I will use these influences in my next book about a female staff writer who is sent to London in 1940, during the Second World War.
EC: Why did you decide to write about the subject matter in the FALL OF POPPIES?
JR: I read about it obsessively for months. As a historian I never throw out my notes, thinking I might use them someday. I had researched it for my latest book that just came out, but could not make the dates work. I knew I wanted to set a story in that studio because of the fascinating work. I could have written a full-length novel, maybe I will. Through my research I read some of the letters written to Anna Coleman Ladd, a renowned American sculptor, who set up the studio. The letters expressed such gratitude of being able to get even a part of their lives back. They said how they were able to go home and not see disgust on the faces of their loved ones. Ladd is someone I would have liked to be friends with.
EC: You once said, “If reading one of my books gets people to learn more about the World Wars then I feel I have accomplished something.” Is that what you want readers to get out of your books?
JR: Besides good entertainment, yes. I wanted to write about the World Wars in a way that would make people interested and have the history come alive. I hope they see how the events and people are not so radically different than us today. My dad gave me a great compliment, ‘You ended up as a great teacher after all.’ He taught me to be fascinated with the World Wars, which is a great legacy for him.
EC: The book explores The Lost Generation. In it you have this quote by Ernest Hemingway, “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it?” Please explain.
JR: It is a quote that spoke to me. I had been working as a copy editor. After looking at my life I was propelled to start writing. I think that is what propels my heroines Daisy and Helena, that there is an idea worth exploring. I also have a quote at the beginning of this novel by Paul Valery, ‘The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.’
EC: Why the Paris setting with some members of the Lost Generation?
JR: I think it was a case of Paris being Paris, to be perfectly honest. I spent a lot of time there in my teens and 20s, and I’ve been in love with the city ever since. I wanted Helena to occupy the role where she is not the center, but an observer. She is more like a fly on the wall for the readers as she watches and hears what the artists are saying and doing.
EC: As a historian, has your research become easier in the computer age?
JR: Yes! My next book is about WWII. I found a map of London that traces every single bomb that fell during the blitz. It is a delight to have these tools at my disposal. I remember as a doctoral student having to go through pages and pages of newspaper and magazine clippings to get the needed information. Compare that to now where all I have to do is keyword searches. I know I would not have written a book a year before the digital revolution. There is no way I would have been able to do all that research.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
JR: I am moving away from the First World War. My next book takes place during WWII in London. My heroine, Ruby, a staff writer for a news magazine in 1940, is inspired by my grandmother. I studied the period pretty intensively while working on my doctorate, and I’ve always wanted to write about life in Britain during World War II. I think I want to stay with WWII for awhile. As much as I loved the period of the Great War it’s nice to have a change to keep things fresh.