Barbara Peters hosted Cornelia Read and Jacqueline Winspear at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale last night. She asked Cornelia to talk a little bit about the background of her books.
Cornelia said her mysteries, A Field of Darkness, and the new book, The Crazy School, have been sort of autobiography, with serial killers. She said she does have a happy marriage despite what happens in the books. She said her husband doesn't want to read her books because he says he lived through it the first time. Her first book included her family background, and Syracuse, where her in-laws live. She patterned the farmer in A Field of Darkness after her father-in-law. And, she said, yes, she really was a debutante.
Jacqueline Winspear then talked about the origin of Maisie Dobbs. Maisie is inspired by Jacqueline's grandparents' story, but she is an invention. She's based
on Jacqueline's grandfather's memories, what he said, and what he didn't say. That inspired her. Everyone lost someone during the Great War. She understood her grandfather still suffered years after the Great War. She writes of a time of change, from before the war to just after World War II. The books are about ordinary people in extraordinary times.
She then talked about the cleanliness, and the bug factor. She said there was a lack of soap in England. She mentioned the Nitty Noras, the women who checked heads for nits every week at the schools.
Without giving anything about the book away, Jacqueline said An Incomplete Revenge looks back at Maisie's romance. Simon, her young man, was injured in the war. She said emotionally it's hard to write about Simon. But, when she was last at the Somme, she wondered how would it be if you'd gone through that battle. She's read about shell shock. She also said the difference in station between Maisie and Simon loaded that relationship. After Simon's injury, Maisie avoided his mother. She doesn't know what to say, and has a remembrance of possibly being judged. She felt that she wasn't quite the girl Simon's parents might have picked.
Read's The Crazy School is based on a boarding school that Cornelia taught at for one semester in 1989. She said it was the closest she ever came in life to seeing pure evil. The founder of the school was a con man who didn't have the doctorate he claimed. That school finally closed when a girl swallowed razor blades, and staff waited ninety minutes to call for help because they thought they could cover it up. The school closed after thirty years. The students were abused at the school. Because they were teens with drug or alcohol problems, troubled teens, they often were not believed even by their parents when they reported abuse. A man stood up at one of Cornelia's book signings and said, if anything, Cornelia was sugarcoating the situation.
Cornelia said that mystery writers get everything out when they write. It's romance writers you have to watch because they have to have happy endings, and their shoes hurt. Whose convention would you want to go to? Barbara said that Cornelia's Maddie mobilizes the troops. She just doesn't know who the troops are she needs to mobilize. Cornelia said even though the school was closed, when the man died in 2003, there were glowing obits in newspapers. The fall of 1989 was about the last time that talk therapy had that power. Prozac came into use just after that. The school just hammered on the kids. Cornelia told another teacher this is how the Holocaust or Jonestown started.
Jacqueline's An Incomplete Revenge is set in rural Kent. She wanted to do a mystery set in the rural tradition, with a gentler arc. The book is set in a small community. Jacqueline was raised in a small community, with the big house, and a
number of smaller houses. Everything happens in a small village. She said the story uses the hop picking time in Kent because she adored that time of year. There have been hop gardens since the 1600s in Kent. The major pickers, along with the villagers, were people from the East end of London and gypsies. September was summer holiday for Londoners, and they took it as a working holiday, because they couldn't afford not to work. Winspear's grandparents went hop picking every year from London. Whole families worked together, packing up to go on the hoppers specials trains.
The gypsies were the other group that picked hops. At that time, gypsies were real gypsies, Roma. Jacqueline was born and raised in Kent. She went hop picking at three. There was prejudice and bigotry against the groups that came in to pick. She remembers the odor of the hop bines, and the rhythm of country life. She went on to tell her story. Her parents were married after World War II. They had to live with her father's parents, but they really wanted a place of their own, and to get out of London. They loved Kent. They didn't want to live there, where the bombs had dropped, and raise a family. They bought an old gypsy caravan, and moved it to Kent and got work on a farm. However, as Londoners, they were always outsiders in Kent. But, a tribe of gypsies extended the hand of friendship. They lived with the gypsies, and moved with them until Jacqueline came along. So, she understood a great affection for people that others disparaged. Her mother always stopped and talked with the gypsies, even years later.
Cornelia said in 1976 her father, a former stockbroker, moved into a VW camper in Berkeley. He lived there for thirteen years. He really dropped out. He's now a mailman in Malibu.
Jacqueline's parents missed the gypsy life, and after retirement started working on farms. An Incomplete Revenge is a book about identity, prejudice, bigotry and wanting to forgive.
The Crazy School is set in 1989, the same timeframe in which Cornelia's husband said to her, "If you stay another week, they'll shave your head and make you sell flowers in the airport." Her first book, A Field of Darkness, is her story about her East Coast upbringing.
In response to Barbara's question about their next books, Cornelia said hers is tentatively called Invisible Boy. It's set in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens in 1990, and is based on her cousin's story of an old cemetary there. She was working with a group cleaning the cemetary when they found the skeleton of a three-year-old boy. Her cousin helped to solve the mystery of the child's identity, and worked to turn the cemetary around. She said that's the next Madeline story.
Jacqueline Winspear's is another Maisie book, Among the Mad. It's about different types of madness, and what we deem mad, and what we don't.
Cornelia was asked how she ended up teaching at that school, and responded that a friend had a part time job teaching commputers there. Cornelia said she needed a job, and the friend suggested there. She wanted to work with troubled kids. She just stayed one semester, and the hardest part was leaving the kids.
When asked how she works out her mysteries, Jacqueline said she doesn't know how. She starts with a basic plan, but it's organic. Things happen that she doesn't expect to happen. She thinks she writes really simple plots. She doesn't read her books afterward. Neither author can remember the plots of their books since they're always writing the next one.
Winspear summarized her books in response to a question. Thus far, the mysteries have roots set in the Great War. Her protagonist, Maise Dobbs, was an eighteen-year-old who worked as a nurse in France during the war. Readers meet her when she's completed her education and training, and is striking out on her own as a psychologist and investigator.
She views the mystery as an archetypal journey through the chaos to the solution. Mystery allows her to write about that, and tell what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times. There was great pain during that period.
Barbara mentioned the Golden Age of mysteries, and authors such as Dorothy Sayers, who wrote during the period that Jacqueline writes about. However, Jacqueline's gives the tone of the Depression. Rhys Bowen, who was in attendance, said that Dorothy Sayers and the others were upper class, writing at the time, with no hint of the Depression in their books. Jacqueline, though, understands what it feels to be an outsider, and for those of us reading her books now, there is a shadow of what is to come in world history. The Golden Age writers were writing about as oasis between wars, and they were lifting spirits as well. This was also a great age of women writers. They could write at home, with no training. Women at that time only had a 1 in 10 chance of being married because of the young men lost in war. They often turned to writing, or to teaching. It was one way of having children in their lives.
The DeSisto School was the actual name of the school on which Cornelia based The Crazy School. Michael DeSisto was the founder.
Jacqueline lives in California, and she said in Britain she's viewed as an outsider because she was published in the U.S. first. It's part of the NIH syndrome, Not Invented Here.
Barbara Peters ended the outstanding program by asking both of them to discuss their blog, NakedAuthors.com - the naked truth about literature and life. They said they can say anything on it. Cornelia blogs on Wednesday, and Jacqueline on Friday. Patty Smiley asked them to join. James Grippando blogs there, along with Paul Levine and Jim Born.
Cornelia Read's website is www.corneliaread.com
Jacqueline Winspear's website is www.jacquelinewinspear.com