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
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.