JACQUELINE WINSPEAR:
Author Takes Her Resilient Character, Maisie Dobbs, Into
ďDangerous PlacesĒ



Photo by Stephanie Mohan

By Paul Freeman [April 2014 Interview]

Like Britain itself, Maisie Dobbs is indomitable.

Marin County-based, British-born writer Jacqueline Winspear has created an enormously popular character, Maisie Dobbs. In a series of acclaimed books, set before, during and after World War I, Dobbs has grown into an exceptional woman - a private investigator, psychologist and wartime nurse. She has weathered tragedies. Very human and humane, blessed with sensitivities and vulnerabilities, Dobbs draws on a well of inner strength. So perhaps her most striking trait is her resiliency.

After graduating from the University of Londonís Institute of Education, Winspear worked in academic publishing, higher education and in marketing communications. she moved to the Bay Area from England, her homeland, in 1990. She had a day job and did freelance article-writing on the side. Then one day, sitting in traffic, the character of Maisie came to her. And soon Winspear was acclaimed as a brilliant writer of fiction.

The first in the series, 2003ís ĒMaisie Dobbs,Ē begins around the time of World War I. The latest Dobbs historical mystery is titled ďA Dangerous Place.Ē Itís set in 1937, in Gibraltar, as the Spanish Civil War heats to a boil, presaging World War II.

The Kirkus review states, ďWinspear elegantly weaves historical events with Maisieís own sufferingÖ all while constructing an engaging whodunit. Fans of this long-running series will welcome Maisieís return in this 11th installment while feeling the pain of her losses as deeply as if they were their own.Ē

The novel finds Dobbs trying to stay emotionally afloat in the wake of another personal tragedy. In the exotic locale, murder and political intrigue become her focus.

The Maisie Dobbs books have just been optioned by a U.K. company for television serialization.

For Pop Culture Classics, it was a joy speaking with award-winning author Jacqueline Winspear.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Beyond a further appreciation for the character Maisie, what do you most want the reader taking away with them from ďA Dangerous PlaceĒ?

JACQUELINE WINSPEAR:
Thatís a very good question. When I began writing the first book, I didnít know it was going to become a series. I was simply writing a book that was in my head. And then as time has gone on - and this will answer your question, if you just bear with me - there is a sort of cast of characters, if you will. And, for me, in a way, itís taking them through time, because each book moves on in time. Some series, you can read the book and it can all happen on the same day. These definitely move through periods of time, so that the characters, in a way, reflect the time, but also what has gone before in their lives. So itís a very organic growth process. And for someone like Maisie Dobbs, the main character, here she is, having gone through a second major tragedy in her life, which I might add was not unusual in those days, when people lived through two world wars and children died in childbirth, for example, more than they do now. But itís taking this woman and putting her into quite a different situation, with a different war. And looking at the whole notion of endurance. So I think thatís one thing I would like the reader to take away - the notion of endurance in a certain generation of people. And also, the time period - the time and place - that there wasnít some great big leap from the first World War into the second World War. There was this other war there, the Spanish Civil War, which was almost like a major military exercise, where Germany, Italy, Russia and the other countries involved were really flexing their muscles - What can we do? How can we control another state, so to speak? So itís also shining a light on a piece of history that a lot of people have skimmed over, unless theyíre specifically interested in that era.

PCC:
You must have done a lot of research to capture, in such rich detail, Gibraltar in that time period.

WINSPEAR:
It is a lot of research. Iíve been to Gibraltar. When I go to a place, I tend to walk around and itís almost as if I have special sunglasses on. I try to look and say, ďHow was it, when? How would it have looked when?Ē And even when Iím working, I have a map of today, so I can reflect on where Iíve walked and everything. And then Iíve got an old map. I do this a lot with my work. I use old maps - what was in that street? And I go back to archives. When it comes to time and place, I want to try to convey a sense of how it looks and feels. And thatís not always easy, because, in those days, the photographs were in black-and-white. We forget that there was color involved. [laughs] And how did it look and feel? And what were the mix of people like? What was the mood of the place? And particularly, immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Gibraltar, which is strategically important today, in terms of international geopolitics, was very important then. And I was really curious as to how the British, in particular, tapped danced their way through being right next to major war with people they did not want to get into an entanglement with, i.e. Germany and Italy.

PCC:
The time span that the entire series encompasses, what so fascinates you about it, that you want to immerse yourself in it?

WINSPEAR:
Well, the first book, ďMaisie Dobbs,Ē opens just before the outbreak of the first World War. I say it opens then, the first book in the series has flashbacks so you meet Maisie in 1929 and then the book takes you through her experiences in the first World War. And then several subsequent books deal with stories that have their roots in that war. And then time moves on. So it is, broadly speaking, from the first World War. And thereís several reasons for choosing that. Number one, Iíve always been really curious about that particular time period - and for very personal reasons. My grandfather - and he was an older granddad, he wasnít a young man, when I was born - he had been severely wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shell-shocked and gassed. He had previously seen action in the first Battle of Ypres. And he bore scars of his battle until the day he died, age 77. He was still removing shrapnel from his scarred legs. His lung, had this rasping. And he displayed signs of shell shock - what we today would call PTSD. And he always liked to be in a quiet place. He didnít like sudden noises, sudden movements. He didnít react badly, but it stressed him. And, as a child, I was very aware of that, because I adored him. All my questions were - Why do Granddadís legs hurt? Why do Granddadís lungs hurt him? Why does he want to stay in the quiet? What do I have to be quiet around him? Things like that. And that childhood curiosity inspired, I suppose, an adult inquiry. And my parentsí experiences in the second World War. The first World War, I think truly was the start of the twentieth century. It was the true start of different kinds of wars. And the way the weaponry was used, the terrible toll it had on the civilian population, in both World Wars, was phenomenal. In my books, it took me a while to realize why I was doing it, actually, what was compelling me. Really, itís that old chestnut - War happens to ordinary people. When you read history books, itís all dates, isnít it? Thereís the first World War, 1914 to 1918. Then the second World War, depending which country youíre in, 1939 to 1945 or í46. Thereís a finite date. My grandfatherís war never ended. When I see Vietnam veterans on the street, their war hasnít ended. It didnít end with a certain date, because the wounds live on within people. And thatís what Iím interested inÖ and how we deal with that. And using an historical mystery, for example, you can write a book thatís an entertaining read on the one hand, but on the other, with a mystery, thereís that archetypal journey through chaos to resolutionÖ or not, as the case may be. As a literary avenue, itís a terrific way, a really interesting way to explore all manner of societyís ills and foibles.

PCC:
Do you think that one of the things that attracts the readers to Maisie is, amidst all this chaos and destruction, she has a strong sense of responsibility, viewing herself as an advocate for the dead?

WINSPEAR:
I think what attracts people to Maisie is her endurance, the fact that sheís not a perfect character. Sheís a flawed woman. And a hurt woman. But itís that she tries to do the right thingÖ sometimes to her detriment. She has a hallmark that Iíve seen in a lot of veterans and a lot of people whoíve gone through traumatic experiences, in that they try to control their outcomes to the nth degree. And she has tried to do that. And, not in this particular book, but the one before, readers realized that she was letting go of that - I canít control everything. But there is a question of honor, as well. And wanting to be a voice for the voiceless. and, at the end of the day, thereís no one more voiceless that the dead person.

PCC:
In the new book, opening with Maisie dealing with personal tragedy, does that add a different sort of texture to her investigation?

WINSPEAR:
Yes, it does. And how we deal with tragedies is messy. And I think readers got that with this book. Our reaction to seeing something terrible, it can be quite unlikable sometimes. I think we maybe all, in our way, experience some sort of tragedy. And it completely upends your life. And you donít always say and do the right thing, as much as youíd like to, but we all try. And Maisie is trying. Sheís getting involved in some things sheís never done before, to ease her pain, but thatís what people do. But also, as someone said to me - and I didnít think of this, funnily enough, you donít always realize what youíre writing, when youíre writing it - she said, ďThis book is a journey through grief.Ē And I think, in a way, it is a journey through grief, because right at the end, you know that there is - without giving the game away - there is hope.

PCC:
Maisie trying things sheís never done before, do you see her as symbolizing the women of her generation in that way?

WINSPEAR:
I absolutely see her as symbolizing the women of her generation. And thereís a couple of things here - number one, my interest in the Great War has always been with me, since I was a kid. By the time I was a teenager, I was getting more into it and reading lots of poetry. You get that way, when youíre a teenager. And then I was starting to realize that what really fascinated me was particularly the women of Britain who came through that war, because their lives changed dramatically, absolutely dramatically. And they were a really extraordinary generation of women. And, when I was a kid, I knew those women, because they were the elderly ladies in my village. And so many of them were single, what we would call ďspinstersĒ in those days. And for every single one of them, there was a sepia photograph on the mantlepiece of a young man lost to war. Or young men. Brothers, cousins, a sweetheart, a young husband. And yet those women, so many of them, absolutely blazed a trail. It was as if they thought, ďWe have just got to get on with it.Ē Thatís endurance. And that generation became quite a force. I created the character of Maisie Dobbs and, as she revealed herself to me, I wanted to honour that generation of women, because, to go further than this, one of the things I was further interested in broadly - and this is not just from a historical point - is women and war. And how women become involved in war and how they deal with war, and because women often have to deal with the aftermath of war. You only have to look at the people coming home. And thatís probably why, particularly with my first several books, there was a fair bit about what we would call PTSD, what they would call shell shock. Those books are actually used quite widely to start talking points with both veterans and veteransí families of more recent wars. And that came completely as a surprise to me, when I found out that was happening. And then it made sense, because ever since the myths and the legends, weíve always been inspired by story. I think theyíre universal truths about the nature of war and its impact on humanityÖ Does that sound bit highfalutin? [Laughs]

PCC:
Not at all. So the past does continue to teach us, if we pay attention?

WINSPEAR:
Absolutely. ďThe Uses of the Past.Ē Who wrote that book? [Herbert J. Muller]

PCC:
With each new Maisie novel, are you learning more about the character?

WINSPEAR:
You know, I am. And thatís the interesting thing Iíve discovered about character is that, as I said before, as much as I create the character, so she reveals herself to me. And obviously thatís how itís developing, but itís as if all my research, all my understanding of women of that era comes into play. I know where sheís going. And one of the things I always wanted with this series was to have an overall arc to the story, so that we would follow the life of Maisie DobbsÖ and the other characters - her friend Priscilla; her assistant Billy Beale, her parents, her stepmother, those who are in her circle, and follow them through time so that they have, if you will, a life cycle. Each story will have its arc of story. But the series has a very definite arc. And I certainly know where itís going [Laughs].

PCC:
So has that been a rest benefit to you, having that all mapped out in advance?

WINSPEAR:
I wonít say I always had it mapped out in advance. Iíve had an awareness of it. And itís only been recently Iíve thought I want to put some of that down now. So I have my notes and I have certain stories that I want to explore. Or certain things Iíve found out. For example, I do a lot of reading, a lot of research, and Iíll come up with one little thing and think, ďAh, thatís something Iíve not seen explored before. I want to explore it, because itís interesting. And this is how it can be part of a storyÖĒ Because first and foremost, Iím a storyteller. And first and foremost, my books are incredibly character-driven. Theyíre not plot-driven books. Theyíre character-driven books.

PCC:
When you put this character in a different time and different situations with each new novel, are you then always presenting yourself with new challenges?

WINSPEAR:
Oh, absolutely. Iíll say! Putting her in the Spanish Civil War - that was a new challenge. I had to do a lot of reading and looking at old footage of films. Itís funny, because, at the end of the day, like I said, Iím a storyteller. Iím not writing narrative non-fiction. And I donít watch things and then write. I watch a documentary or I read a book and what Iím trying to do is to take in that understanding, so that when I write, something will flow from there. Because to me, research is sort of like an iceberg. You should only be able to see about 70 percent of it above the surface. The rest just informs every word. But yes, itís a risk. I actually like risks, in a way, because I donít want to do business as usual in my writing. Last year I published a complete stand-alone novel about the first World War. Very different to Maisie Dobbs. People were very surprised. ďOh, whereís Maisie Dobbs?Ē ďNo, Maisie Dobbs is not anywhere in this novel.Ē But it was something I wanted to do for more years than I care to admit. And it was a book that looked at the juxtaposition of love and war. And that was a risk, something of a calculated risk, but a risk. And then coming back and telling this story, especially with how it begins, how it opens, thatís a risk. And then putting her into a place she hadnít been before, with a burden on her heart, is another risk. And it did test me as a writer.

PCC:
And thatís part of the fun?

WINSPEAR:
Part of what you need to do, isnít it, really? For anybody. If youíre a hairdresser, try something new. [Laughs] I think we all need to shake ourselves up a bit. As a writer, Iím a great believer, actually, in cross-training. I like doing workshops on other types of writing, poetry. Iím no poet, believe me, but if you study poetry, it gives you a different sense of rhythm. Every single book, every single word you write has to have a rhythm. And I love memoir. I love writing the personal essay. I have a blog that I get to contribute to. And I like writing journalistic essays, as well. Itís not my job. But I like the challenge. And I think it makes us look at the world and our writing in a different way, shakes things up a bit. Itís like, you always take the same route to work, you always do the same things. Sometimes itís a good idea to just drive the car in another direction.

PCC:
Have you always been fascinated by this particular genre, though, the historical mystery?

WINSPEAR:
I like historical. And I like mystery. I donít like all eras. I think what Iíve always been interested in is good, character-driven stories. And I read a lot. I read very broadly in that regard. I actually canít stand the phrase ďgenre fiction.Ē I think itís very limiting for readers and writers. Really, I donít think it does a service to readers in many ways. But Iíll read anythingÖ anything thatís well written and with good character.

PCC:
Having created this wonderful character, do you envision Maisie being adapted for film or television?

WINSPEAR:
Thatís a really good question. Actually, the TV serialization rights have recently been optioned. Thatís happened before. An option is just the first step. But it has been optioned by a new U.K.-based production company - really, really, really nice people [SLAM TV, headed by actors Stephen Mangan (Episodes) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead)]. And I love the way they see Maisie. Itís just how I see her. And thatís how they want to bring it to the small screen. So Iím very, very encouraged.

PCC:
When you say they have the same sort of vision for the character, what do you mean, exactly?

WINSPEAR:
That a TV series would not be just - Well, hereís what she did this week. And then thereís what she does next week. That there is an overall arc to the story, in the same way that there is to the books. So viewers, readers, will follow the lives of Maisie Dobbs and her fellow characters. And the vision of the way the character is portrayed. One of the problems sometimes, when you have a character set in that era, is that people want to portray the character as a little flapper. And sheís not a little flapper. Sheís a woman of great depth. And they see that. And thatís how they want to see it portrayed.

PCC:
And if it does go into production, would you have some creative input?

WINSPEAR:
I will, actually. Itís actually been a very collaborative process so far. Itís very early days, so I canít say too much. The people involved are actually very interesting, because theyíre quite well known TV and film actors that have formed a production company.

PCC:
Obviously, they really appreciate character then.

WINSPEAR:
Yeah, and it was really interesting how they came to find Maisie Dobbs, because the principal, his uncle was the head of the English department at a major university. So they called him and said, ďIf you had to adapt a TV series, what do you think is worthy?Ē And he said, ďThereís no two ways about it - itís this series.Ē So they all went out and got the books, read them and said, ďWow, heís right!Ē [Laughs] When I first found out about this approach, I was a little bitÖ well, youíre always a bit leery, as a writer. You always think, ďWell, I donít know about this.Ē But then when I heard this whole story, I found it very compelling that it was actually a professor of English that had recommended the books to the TV company, that he just happened to be the uncle of one of these guys.

PCC:
Itís meant to be.

WINSPEAR:
Well, weíll keep our fingers crossed. Iím very fatalistic about these things. It would have to be right for me to get really excited about it. So Iím looking forward to the collaboration and Iím looking forward to what they come up with.

PCC:
What brought you to the Bay Area in 1990?

WINSPEAR:
Iíve been here nearly 25 years. I actually came here on a bit of a sabbatical. I knew America very well. Iíve got friends here. Iíve traveled a lot here ever since I was old enough to get on a plane on my own and go travel that way, as a teenager. But I decided that I wanted to spend a few months here. And one thing led to another. I had previously worked for an American company in the U.K. They got in touch with me and said, ďWe understand youíre in the United States and weíd like to talk to you about a job.Ē So one thing led to another and I ended up working for them here. I got my working visa and everything. And then you stay for a few years, then a few years more and a few years more and next thing you know, youíve been here 25 years.

PCC:
And the next thing you know, Maisie comes into your mind and everything changes.

WINSPEAR:
And thatís exactly what happened. Thatís absolutely exactly what happened.

PCC:
Does that make it seem like fate, that she really did just spring to mind out of nowhere?

WINSPEAR:
Iíve often referred to this as a moment of artistic grace. Literally, I was stuck in traffic and this woman walked into my mindís eye, so to speak. But I donít think those moments happen in a vacuum. Iíve always been interested in that era, always been interested in the subject of women and war. I was not a fiction writer. I had never been a fiction writer at that point. I had a day job plus I was doing articles and essays, freelancing on the side writing on assignment for a couple of very specific journals, doing all that sort of thing. I thought, if anything, my future would be in non-fiction. I always wanted to find that great biographical subject. And then this idea came along and I realized that I really enjoy writing fiction. And not only that, I found that I could touch truth more readily with fiction than I could with fact. So it was fate in a way. What was really fate was when I had my riding accident [horseback], when Iíd sort of put the book to one side, because I was so busy. And then I had this riding accident and one of my friends, Bay Area writer Adair Lara, said to me, ďNowís the time for you to finish that novel.Ē And I said, ďHow can I finish my novel?Ē My right arm was in this structure. Iíd had a very bad accident and major surgery. And she said, ďYouíve got a left hand, havenít you?Ē [Laughs] I was living down at the coastside at the time, Montara. And if youíre living in Montara, youíre not going anywhere quickly unless you can drive. And I couldnít drive. I couldnít go anywhere for six months, except when my husband took me to my physical therapist three times a week. He had to take time off from work to do that. And it was really foggy through that summer. And I thought, ďIf I donít do something, I will go mad.Ē And I literally got up every day and I worked on my bookÖ with my left hand. [Laugh] And I think having the accident was a big turning point for me. Iíd been working for a company and I elected not to stay on. I didnít want to do the whole disability thing. I thought, ďIím never going to go back to that job,Ē because I thought I would always hurt, to tell you the truth. And I remember the HR person saying to me, ďI think this accident happened for a reason.Ē And I can remember, the first thought that went through my head at the time, was the reason was that I have to finish my book. And I did. And got my arm back, as well [laughs]. So I wrote my first novel at 45. I come from a long line of late beginners.

PCC:
What have you found to be the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of the writing life?

WINSPEAR:
I love writing. I love telling a story. I love the research. I love weaving a story. And I love weaving a story into history. And I just enjoy that process. Iíve always just enjoyed working with words, ever since I was a little girl. And when I realized you could string five words together and make a picture. I still remember the first time I ever used a metaphor [chuckles]. I was about eight. Of course, one doesnít know the word ďmetaphorĒ then. I didnít know it was a metaphor. But stringing words together to describe something - not ďIt was a lovely day,Ē but this is how the day was. Iíve always loved just working with words. I think language is the most amazing thing. And the most challenging? Writing is a physical business. YouĎve got to have the staying power to sit there and write. People donít realize itís quite a physical job. And if youíre not up to it, it can be very frustrating.

PCC:
But like Maisie, you have the endurance.

WINSPEAR:
Iím trying [laughs]. Iím really interested in the notion of endurance. I think previous generations understood endurance in a way that perhaps we donít today.

Visit www.jacquelinewinspear.com.