Many writers will tell you their work is no longer theirs once it’s in the hands of their readers. For novelist Jacqueline Winspear, letting her readers bring unexpected meaning to her work has been one of the most rewarding parts of writing fiction. Winspear is the author of the award-winning Maisie Dobbs mystery series, which follow the adventures of the title heroine, a female detective in post-WWI England. Raised in southeastern England, Winspear has lived in the states since 1990 and in Ojai for the past four years. For many years a purely non-fiction writer specializing in international education, she describes her conversion to fiction writing as a ‘moment of artistic grace.’
How did you begin writing fiction?
I was stuck in traffic one day when the idea of Maisie Dobbs came to me—it was like watching a movie. That’s when I started writing fiction. I have found that I can touch truth more readily with fiction than I can with fact.
Can you elaborate on that?
Well for a start, with fiction, no one is going to sue you! But you’re also putting yourself in a situation in your imagination, creatively. For example, in order to write about Maisie returning to the site of her service in France during WWI, I visited the battlefields of the Battle of the Somme. It’s very powerful—you can reach into the ground and pull up ammunition from the war, and that’s over 90 years ago. I imagined how it would feel for Maisie to return to the site of such a loss of innocence. As a writer, you can discover a truth about this for a character. If it’s non-fiction, you have to go with what someone says about how they feel, and they might not tell you everything. Writing fiction is giving oneself license to have deeper knowledge.
Your novels are historical, yet they have a lot of appeal to modern readers.
Yes, I think we write our stories and then we wait to see how they’re interpreted, what they mean to individual readers. I get a lot of letters commenting on the way the books reflect what’s going on today in the world—this time of war. I get a lot of emails for veterans, saying no one else is writing about this. One of the things that comes out in my books is the lingering effects of war. History is a really interesting lens through which to look at the present. I don’t ask my readers to do that, but a lot of them do. All you can do as a writer is tell the story and put it out there. Then the reader has a relationship with the story, and I’m not a part of that.
Are you often surprised by the way your stories are received?
I did a book reading on a book tour, and afterwards a man asked me about my background in post-traumatic stress syndrome, and I had to admit it came from my imagination. I’ve read about it, of course, and then I put myself in that situation and imagine it. It turned out he was a psychiatrist in Vietnam, and now trains doctors going into war zones to work. He said he wanted the doctors to read my books. I was pleased an expert thought I got it right, but as a storyteller I steep myself in time and place—I’m not an expert.
Another lady contacted me who was 94 years old. Her dad took his life when she was a child, because he couldn’t deal any longer with his memories of being in the war. She said she’d tried and tried to understand how it must have been for him, but never could, and then when she read my books, it finally gave her a sense of peace. It really touched my heart, that one did.
Also check out Elizabeths features on other female authors in the February 15 issue of the Independent.