Many thanks to Helen for participating in this interview. I loved reading the answers as much as I loved reading the book. Please enjoy the following interview where we get an insight into Helen herself, as well as her book, and her humour shines through 🙂
MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND QUESTIONS
After reading the book I believe the Major stood up to a number of things; some which had been brewing for a while, others that were thrust his way. What do the words “Last Stand” in the title refer to?
The title of my book came early and unbidden. I think it represented a lot of issues that were in the back of my mind and it helped keep me on track whenever the writing process seemed complicated and uncertain. The fact that it seems to refer to more than one thing is somewhat deliberate. Obviously it does refer to a last chance at love; more than his physically heroic stand at the end. However, I feel strongly that life is a continuing series of chances – and who is to say when our last chance has come and gone?
I have seen a couple of different covers for your novel, which one do you prefer and why?
You are trying to get me into trouble with this question! My individual publishers and their marketing departments get to choose the covers they think will represent the book in their marketplaces. They asked my opinion and I was happy with all so far. I love the vintage Life Magazine image used in both the US and UK markets, while the Australian tea cups and folkloric icons design is very friendly and inviting – and both designs have been equally bestsellers. Book design is a field unto itself and I’m thrilled to have had excellent design teams assigned to my novel.
Who is your favourite character in “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” and why?
I love to claim that my favourite character is Roger, the Major’s obnoxious son. People love to hate him and I slyly accuse them of finding Roger a little too familiar to be comfortable! I can tell you that my parents did not take kindly to my own offer to buy them a phone with bigger buttons. Don’t we all have to watch out for our personal ‘Roger’ moments?
Are any of the characters based on real people and any of the places based on real places?
The landscape is very real to me. Even though the village and town are imaginary names, the shape of a village lane, the long stretch of a seaside promenade – these are visions of ‘home’ that live in the forefront of my imagination. I try very hard to make up people. I dislike the idea of taking a real person and simply changing hair colour or name to disguise them. I would find this lazy and if I feel a character approaches too close to someone I know, I will work hard to change direction. At the same time, nothing is really new, is it? I think all imagination is made up of small shards of experience, recombined in a new pattern.
There are quite a few different relationships in this story, relationships between community members, between family, romantic relationships. Which was your favourite relationship to write about?
The Major and Mrs. Ali proved to be a wonderful relationship to craft. It required a delicate balance of slow but increasing familiarity, and a lot of thought about the ways such a friendship would be universal, but also made different by age and background. Sometimes I felt like a sculptor; shaving away tiny phrases and wondering whether I had cut away too much from the natural effusiveness of attraction.
I believe there is a lot to learn from Major Pettigrew, an upstanding member of the community who is charming, witty and wise. What would you like your readers to take away from his character; what lesson, moral or value do you think is the most important one the Major represents?
Readers have commented on the Major’s decency and civility, and some have called these qualities ‘old-fashioned’. Heaven help our society if we are all too modern for such values! But to me, the most important value the Major represents is that he sees clearly the times that he fails to be kind or decent or patient. The next day, he always picks himself up and tries again. The attempt to be a good person is all we can really ask of ourselves or each other.
I loved the humour throughout the book. The Major actually reminds me a little of Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino”. Was it easy to include the humour or did you find it a little difficult to add those gems of wit?
No, no – my problem has always been trying to suppress my ventures into humour. I wanted to be a ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ writer and I got into trouble all the time because in the middle of some scene of degradation and grittiness, I would suddenly see a twist of humour and start adding jokes! I am much happier being allowed to show how funny the world can be.
There are a group of ladies in the book who are, shall we say, part of “the club”, a group of women who consider themselves social experts and who can be judgmental and look down their noses at certain people and situations. Have you had any experience with ladies of this ilk? Was it fun to write about such a group?
As the politicians would say…I do not recall ever meeting any such dragons and if I did, I trust I was wearing an appropriate hat. Having helped out on a few charity committees myself, it was certainly fun to stick tongue firmly in cheek and try to treat the ladies’ efforts seriously. By the way, I just received an email soliciting volunteers to loan saris and other props for a “Bollywood” themed charity party this fall. I must see if I have some stuffed chickens lying about!
How long did it take you to write “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”?
Five years – four years of procrastination and a final few months of panic!
Was it a scary process getting your first book published?
It was extremely hard to send the final manuscript out because I expected rejection and I feared my five years of effort would be in vain. I lived with a sense of impending doom until the day my soon-to-be agent emailed to say she loved it. Once I had an agent who believed in me, the rest of the process was so much fun and I never doubted that she would find me a publisher.
Where is your favourite place to write?
I have to leave my home and go to an outside office space. Much of my procrastination with my first book resulted from my being a busy stay-at-home mother. I could not separate writing time from grocery time, or waiting-in-for-the-cable-guy time. Nor can I write anywhere beautiful – no views, no green lawn, no sunny nooks, please. I love my blank corporate-looking office and I enjoy waving to the writers down the hall in their offices as I come to ‘work’.
Are there any future books currently in the making?
I am working on a second novel and, as other writers will tell you, the second is no easier than the first. I guess the self-doubt, the blank page and the dead ends are what make up the creative process. Writers are those who can stick it out and overcome these barriers again and again.
Do you get much time to read? What types of books do you like reading and who are your favourite authors?
I love to read really good fiction. I was not an English major in college so I still have many classics to go. My older son has to read 900 pages of David Copperfield this summer, and I may borrow it when he’s done (he’d be happy if I took it away right now!). I also like contemporary novels. I like a good serious read – books with substance and ideas wrapped up in a great tale. My favourite authors would be ‘old school’ – Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Henry James and Somerset Maugham. But if I have the flu, you may find me tucked up with a copy of “Little Women’, reading again about Jo and her desire to be a writer.
What do you do in your spare time when you aren’t writing?
I have two teenage boys – what spare time do you mean? As a family, we love hiking and have just hiked Hadrian’s Wall; eighty-four miles coast-to-coast across England. I love all kinds of travel – from foreign cities to a one night road trip to some down-at-heel local attraction. I love the theatre and concerts and odd lectures (‘the mathematics of film animation’ was a recent excursion). My sons groan and roll their eyes when I produce yet more tickets – but they indulge me.
Who would you most like to meet (dead or alive) and why?
I would love to meet Shakespeare and Agatha Christie and see if the world’s two best-selling authors would get along – perhaps over dinner and a jug of ale.
I understand you’ve been on tour recently. Did you enjoy the experience? Is there a lot of preparation work that goes into a book tour?
I LOVED being on tour. The hotels, the mini bars, the media escorts. What’s not to like about friendly audiences and people asking for your signature in their books? It was a fairytale for a new writer. I did not know that writers have to be prepared to be entertaining and that often audiences prefer to hear writers talk rather than read. I’m grateful and amazed that people want to come out to listen to me so I try to work hard and be prepared to speak in a substantive way. Meanwhile, it is my PR team at the publishing house that does all the hard work of lining up tour dates, booking travel and arranging media interviews. They have been amazing and very hard-working.
Who/what is your favourite:
Author? Edith Wharton (also a great interior designer)
Book? Custom of the Country
Genre to read? Literature (the capital “L’ kind)
Quote? “How’s the novel coming?” – Stewie from ‘Family Guy’ to Brian the dog. Really, you should Google this segment.
Movie? Ouch – I hate to confess but I own multiple copies of all versions of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Film star? If I say Helen Mirren, do you think she’ll agree to a cameo role (any role she likes) in a Major Pettigrew movie?
TV show? OK, time to admit that, except for my husband, we’re a rabid ‘Dr. Who’ family. An episode of this British TV science fiction staple is guaranteed to mean my teenage boys will make me a cup of tea and squash on the couch with me for an hour.
Holiday destination? Westhampton Beach, NY is our local favorite escape. In the UK, everyone should visit East Sussex and enjoy beautiful walks on the Downs, ancient smuggling towns, sleepy villages and the pebbled shores and piers of the local seaside towns.
Animal? The fifth member of our family is a pug, called Sir JJ (but he prefers not to use the honorific). He would be suitably disgusted if I picked any other animal.
Band? I refuse to date myself or admit my English folk music habit.
Song? See above.
Meal to cook? If I cook roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with sherry trifle to follow, my entire family will kiss me. However, it’s more usual for me to order in Chinese! I do love to make Christmas dinner and the best part of living in the USA is that we get to do it at Thanksgiving as well!
Drink? A good cup or mug of black tea, made in a TEAPOT, please. I’d like a proper tea cosy over the pot. Good quality tea or tea bags and a biscuit (preferably shortbread) on the side, would just make my day.
And last but not least, what one question would you ask yourself in an interview and what would the answer be?
Did you ever expect to publish a novel?
It’s so easy to say ‘it’s a dream come true’ but I never thought I would actually see a book with my name on it in bookstores. Even as a writing student I always felt I was tilting at the proverbial windmill! It is truly humbling to have been granted my life’s dearest wish and to be able to list my occupation as ‘writer’ on all government forms.
Thank you so much for participating in this interview.
Click here to visit Helen’s author profile on my site where you will find various links including the blurb of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, my review and a link to Helen’s website.