Today, I'm interviewing Jennifer Robson who is the bestselling author of five novels set during and after the two world wars including Somewhere in France and Goodnight from London. Her fifth novel, The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding, came out December 31st, 2018. A graduate of King’s University College at Western University, Jennifer got her doctorate in British economic and social history from Saint Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. A former editor, she currently lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and children.
Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I'm thrilled to be interviewing you today.
Jennifer Robson: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: Jennifer, could you please tell listeners what The Gown is about?
Jennifer: The Gown is about what happened to the people of Britain, generally speaking, after the end of the second world war. Where I started, I was really interested in finding out what happened the day after VE Day because my previous book, Goodnight from London, ends on VE Day. I wanted to know when everyone woke up the next morning, with a terrible hangover of course, and had the mess to clean up -- just think of what a mess Trafalgar Square was the next day -- and the dust cleared and people are able to think of what lay ahead, what were they imaging? I think they were probably imagining that life would get better, that the bombs wouldn't be falling on [indiscernible], they wouldn’t be learning of their loved ones in service being killed or wounded. That indeed stopped. In every other respect, life continued on as it had done during the war. In many respects, actually, it got worse in terms of the daily hardships, the rationing, the shortages, the cueing up for things, the lack of housing. Everything was very, very difficult. I wanted to write a book about that period. I also knew that would be a pretty grim book to read, four hundred pages of misery and woe. I was looking for a counterpoint.
The counterpoint I found was in this great, glittering event towards the end of 1947 when Princess Elizabeth, the heir to the throne, married this very, very dashing and handsome young naval officer who was a distant cousin of hers, Philip Mountbatten. Seventy-two years later, they're still married. I wanted to set the book in the world of the royal wedding, but not from the point of view of the queen herself, or as she was then, the princess, but from the point of view of the people who are behind the scenes. We all love stories that are set behind the scenes or the upstairs/downstairs aspect. There's the people in the aristocracy or in royal families, but who are the people that we never see, the servants who take care of them, the people whose work makes their lives unfold as if they're on oiled casters? I wanted to look at who the people were behind the scenes of the royal wedding. Of course, the one aspect of royal weddings that we all, then and now, get really obsessed over is the gown that the bride wears. I knew that it had been designed by Norman Hartnell, but I didn't know anything about the women who actually made it.
When I started looking, that's when I discovered there was this whole hidden, anonymous world of the seamstresses and embroiderers. Their stories had never been told. That's where I knew I found my book. My book is about two women who are fictious. I didn't want to appropriate the stories of real women who worked at Hartnell. Besides, when I make people up, I can do anything I want to them. I have Ann Hughes, who’s a young, British woman from a working-class background who was apprenticed at age fourteen to Norman Hartnell’s embroidery studio and who, more than almost fifteen years later, is still working for Norman Hartnell and has risen to become one of the most senior embroiderers in the [indiscernible]. She becomes friends with a young, expatriate French woman, Miriam Dassin, who has escaped the holocaust -- we know this very early on -- and who’s trying to make her way in post-war Britain. She has come to Britain because she no longer feels safe in France. Her entire family was murdered at Auschwitz. She’s trying to make a new start. Ann, in her own way, is also struggling. Her entire family has been lost to her. Her parents died before the war. Her brother was killed in the blitz. She really has no one left. They strike up a friendship. They end up living together sharing a very modest, little council house in Essex and travelling into London every day. They are given the task of embroidering the princess’s wedding gown. It’s as their stories unfold, we see the construction of the gown but also the development of their relationship and how work on the gown affects their lives in a really profound way. It really changes the course of their lives.
The scenes in 1947 are woven through with scenes from, more or less, the present day, from 2016 when a young woman called Heather MacKenzie, who’s Canadian -- I finally put a Canadian in. Heather, her grandmother has passed away. Her grandmother, she was very, very close with. I even think with my own grandparents, how much do I actually know of their lives before I was alive and was aware of them as people? It’s really a mystery. I think that's true of our parents as well often. Heather knows very little about her grandmother and is very surprised when she's left a box of these exquisite embroideries of beautiful flowers that are embroidered with pearls and what looks like little diamond chips. She's a journalist, so she starts investigating. She realizes that these flowers are identical to the ones that decorate the queen’s wedding gown. Her interest is piqued. That sends her to London in a search for answers about not only the embroideries, but her grandmother.
I don't want to give too much away. That's, broadly speaking, the introduction I can give to the book. I consider myself a failed academic in that I trained to become a university professor but never taught. I still have this lurking desire to tell people about the social history, the material history that interests me. I sneak it into my books and then put a nice candy coating of royal wedding on top to make the social history a little more palatable.
Zibby: I am not sure I can allow you to call yourself a failure in any context. You're going to have to retract that part of what you just said.
Jennifer: I did a speaking engagement the other weekend. One of the other people speaking there was an amazing historian called Cecil Foster. He said I should really think of myself as a liberated academic. I get to do all the fun stuff. I still get to talk to people. I wouldn't say I have students as such. I feel I get to do a little bit of teaching. I have none of the committee work. There's a pressure to publish, but it’s a good kind of pressure. I don't have to worry about losing tenure if I don't get a book out on time, all of these things. My life has turned out, from where I'm standing, as perfectly as it could've done. I have no regrets.
Zibby: I also think you are a history teacher. I learned a lot. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know that much about what it was like in London after the war. I didn't even know about the rations. I actually read quite a bit about World War II, but not about the aftermath. I learned a lot. By writing these books, you are absolutely teaching. I don't know what you're talking about.
Jennifer: Thank you. You know what? I knew about it because my doctoral thesis was focused on the history of the period. It’s pretty typical that most people, including very well-educated people, haven't learned a lot about post-war history. On the surface, it doesn't seem very interesting. If you contrast it with what was happening in the United States at the same time where life was very quickly becoming quite good, generally speaking, for the majority of people, in Britain and in continental Europe and anywhere that had been ravaged directly by the war, it was a long, long time before people were able to get off their knees and to stand tall again and really resume their lives. We tend to gloss over this period in popular history. There are not a lot of movies that focus on this period, not a ton of books. I'm guilty of that with my previous book. I ended on VE Day.
I didn't answer the question of what happened to my characters when they had to look around and ask, “What has this war done to our world?” It had left the world in shambles, not just materially speaking, but in the emotional lives of the people who had survived. The trauma was profound. No one lived through that war without bearing the invisible scars of it for the rest of their lives. That was something that I also wanted to talk about. What was it like to survive and to then have to pick up the pieces and get on with your life? The answer is that it was a very bittersweet time for many, many people. Even as their lives began slowly to improve, there's the memory of all that was lost and the people that they loved who were killed, who suffered. That's something that haunts my characters. I wouldn't say The Gown is a sad book, far from it. I certainly encourage people to think about the cost of war, and what it does to people, and how it lingers long after the celebrations for victory are over.
Zibby: Your love of history, is it the stories? You're obviously a great storyteller. I'm wondering have you always been interested in writing? Have you always been interested in history? Is it just the combination of where great stories come from?
Jennifer: That's a good question. For the longest time, I never considered writing fiction. I always assumed I would write nonfiction. I worked as an editor for many years helping other people with their writing. It was really only once I was at home with my little ones -- when I say little ones, it was a newborn baby and a two-year-old. I was casting about for something to do that I would find more intellectually stimulating than watching Teletubbies and going on long walks to try and get my children, who refused to nap, to settle down for a few hours.
This came from growing up in a house where my father was a history professor. My mother, who was actually a lawyer and later a judge, was also a history buff. It was something that was very present. We talked about things like this at the dinner table, and not in a precious way. My dad is one of these great anecdote tellers, not just anecdotes about his own life. He can take historical events and describe them in a way, he would bring them to life in the way that the great tellers of narrative history do. I think the germ of the idea of writing fiction as a means of telling stories about our past was born when I was a child and probably really more when I was a teenager. Then I had years of university and years of making my way in the working world. That kind of got buried. It was only when I was at home with these little ones and feeling really -- I hate to say it. I love being a mom. I still do. It was boring at times. Let's face it. There are long stretches of times with little ones that can be quite boring.
That’s when I started feeling what the great writer Anne Lamott has talked about, the tug on the sleeve of your heart. It was this little tug, this little voice almost saying, “I have an idea. I feel like I have an idea. I want to write about it.” The idea was to tell the story of one woman’s experience of the first world war, but from her point of view, not the point of view of a man. This is ten years ago. So many of the books that I'd read about the first world war were uniquely from the male point of view. They were interesting and some of the books that I cherished. They were really great, monumental works of fiction like The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. I wanted to know what it was like to be a woman at that time. The only way I was going to get an answer was to do the research and to tell the story myself. That's where my first book came from. It was a long time before I could get it published. Once it was published, and to my absolute astonishment, did well, that gave rise to the next book and the next book.
I keep finding these stories that come to me, quite often, out of the blue. They always begin more or less with the question “What if?” What if this happened? What if a certain person found themselves in a certain situation? What would happen? With my previous book, Goodnight from London, I was really interested in the idea of what if a young woman were a journalist and she found herself caught up in the great story of the second world war? If she found herself living in London during the blitz, what would that story look like? With this book, with The Gown, it’s the question of what would it look like if I told the story of the people, the anonymous, voiceless, to some degree faceless people who have been largely forgotten by history? What if I told the story of the women who made this very iconic gown and in so doing honored the work that they had done? It wasn’t mechanical, repetitive, mindless work, this embroidery. It is artistic work of the highest order. I really do consider the people who do such work to be artists. Very rarely are they accepted as such. Certainly, the case was true with the women in Hartnell’s workrooms. This wasn’t a case of them being given templates or blueprints, effectively, that told them exactly where to put every stitch. They were given sketches. It was their job to interpret those sketches and to bring Mr. Hartnell’s ideas to life. They did so in a way that required them to have artistic sensibilities.
I feel they should have been honored at the time. They should have been recognized. They weren’t for a number of reasons that involved not only just issues about class divisions, but also this notion that there's difference between an artist and an artisan. I think a lot of people who study material history or are interested in it realize that if there's a line between them, it’s a very, very fine and porous line. It’s an interesting backway into considering issues of misogyny, of the emotional toll, as I was saying before, of a long-running conflict and the lack of any chance at the time for a person to talk through -- today, I certainly would think nothing, if I went through a traumatic experience, of going to a professional and undergoing some form of therapy to help me with my experiences. Very, very few people had access to that kind of help then. To go through the rest of your life with these kind of burdens upon you is something I don't know if those of us who are alive today feel enough for the burdens carried by our parents and grandparents and great grandparents.
These are ideas that are all swirling around in my head whenever I'm writing these books. The reason that my books to this day have all been set in the first and second world wars is because everything is heightened. My wonderful editor at HarperCollins, Tessa Woodward, one of her questions she always asks me is, “What are the stakes? What's at stake?” If nothing's at stake, then there's nothing to care about if you're a reader. If everything's at stake, if a person’s future and happiness and survival is at stake, then it gives us something to root for. In periods of war, of course everything is at stake. That's where I find these stories. They're typically not stories about grand people or well-known people. They're about ordinary people, the way I'm an ordinary person, and I think most of us are, really, when it comes down to it.
Zibby: I feel like I need to call up the place where I got my wedding gown and now go try to find the people who made it.
Jennifer: That's the thing. I first had this thought when I was watching the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge get married in 2011. I got up at the crack of dawn. I had all my girlfriends over. We were wearing our fascinators and drinking champagne at four in the morning. I baked scones. We were having strawberries and cream. It was a delightful experience. I treasure that little tea party I had that morning. I still remember when we saw Kate’s gown. I was blown away. I still am. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, not just a gown, but a statement, a historic treasure, as it will be in the future. They said it was Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen who designed it.
Then I kept waiting to find out who were the women who worked on it? Who made it? We never really learned. The embroidery on the gown, there's quite a lot of embroidery on it. Because it’s tone on tone, it’s not as noticeable as the embroidery on the Queen’s wedding dress. It was done by the women at the Royal School of Needlework. I know that. Beyond that, we don't know their names or faces or experiences, I think largely for reasons of privacy. The gutter press in Britain would love nothing more than to get people's names so they can steal their cell phone numbers and all of that. In The Gown, one of the characters who’s a journalist says, “I'm not interested in details of the royal waistline.” There are a lot of people today who are, unfortunately. I think that's why we don't hear the stories of these people. It’s out of an abundance of caution to protect their private lives. That doesn't mean I'm not curious. I'm so, so curious.
Zibby: When you have all these ideas floating around and you decide, “I'm going to make a whole book about this,” what do you do next? Do you make an outline? Do you develop the characters? What's your process like? How long does it take for you to write these books?
Jennifer: Once I've had the idea fall out of the sky -- I've described it as an anvil just bopping me on the head -- my next step is to go to my editor and quite often my literary agent as well because she has such a great sense of, is this is a good story? Is this something worth pursuing? Her sensibilities as a reader are wonderful. Quite often, we’ll have an ongoing discussion by email or conference call as I talk out the idea in its earliest stages. I’ll present them with four or five ideas at once. Immediately, it’s clear which is the idea that's worth chasing. Then I will typically have a reasonably long period of very intensive research where I vanish into the books and the online archives and dig, dig, dig until I know where I'm going to find the story. It’s usually around that time the characters start talking to me, which I know sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s true. I know I'm not the only writer that experiences this. Characters start presenting themselves. Along with the characters, it’s the question of what is at stake for them? What is happening in their lives? What kind of tension is there in their stories? Really, it all boils down to what do they want? What are they searching for? What do they hope for?
Where a good story is found, there's the disconnect between what they have and what they want or need. It’s in those spaces that I find the stories, which I know still sounds very vague. Once I have, broadly speaking, the characters sketched out, I start building them up. I will fill out a modified Proust questionnaire for each of my major characters. For people who aren’t familiar with it, if you look to the back page of Vanity Fair every month, they have the Proust questionnaire, which again, it’s a very selective version of it. The original questionnaire that Marcel Proust devised -- I think it was as a parlor game, really -- it has many, many questions in it along the lines of what is your greatest fear? Who do you most despise in the world? What do you treasure the most? If I can answer those questions, I have a pretty good sense of who these people are to the depth of their being. If I can't answer those questions, I have to keep thinking.
Roughly at the same time, I start building an outline. I have to work with an outline. I can't be one of these fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers. I've tried it. It doesn't work because underpinning everything is the scaffolding of the known history. Even before I start, more or less, there's an outline in the sense that in over the given period where the book takes place, there are known events to which I have to conform. Then I build my book around those known events. In a way, the history is the foundation. My books are built upon it. By the time I start writing, in the sense of the creative writing that actually starts looking like a book, I will have been working on the book for something like six to eight months. Then probably about the same amount of time goes into writing it. Along the way, quite often I move away from the outline and have to, not really start over, but rethink what I'm trying to achieve.
The whole time, I should add that I'm constantly going back to my editor for feedback and guidance. Ultimately, she has, and she will, work on many more books than I will ever write myself. She knows so much more about the process of writing a book than I do. I've only written five books. She's worked on hundreds of books. She really knows her stuff. I'm always surprised when people say they don't work closely with their editor or they don't have a close relationship with their editor. Then how do you do it? I find her advice extraordinarily useful. In some ways, books are a collaborative effort. You can't sit in a closet and write a book from start to finish by yourself and hope to write a book that's as good as it could be. I know it’s all over the place. I wish I could say I have a scientific method. Every book, it changes a little bit. The book I'm working on now, I'm at the stage where I'm so excited about it I can barely even breathe. I can't even talk about it because I'm so worried the ideas are going to vanish before I can extract them from my brain. In some ways, that's almost the best part of the whole process.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring writers? I know we’re almost out of time.
Jennifer: It’s the basic advice. Put your bum in the chair and start writing. I see a lot of writers -- I don't want to say that I disagree with them. I just worry about how much time they have in a day, which is the same amount of time I have in a day. We all have the same amount of time. I think if you spend too much of it on social media talking about writing, discussing writing with other people, snapshotting your life and what you're doing, you're not actually writing a book. You're writing about writing a book, but you're not doing the work of writing a book. It’s very tempting. It’s very easy to slide into that. I have been guilty of it so many times. Ultimately at the end of the day, the only way you're going to write a book is by putting your bum in the chair or wherever you like to work and turning off everything, and listening to the words in your head, and extracting them from your head, and putting them down on paper or on the screen. It’s a pretty lonely job at those times. The only consolation is that the characters you're creating are standing alongside you every step of the way.
Zibby: Aw, that's beautiful. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Jennifer: It’s a real honor to join you. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Zibby: Of course. Thank you. Take care.
Jennifer: Thanks. Bye.