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A conversation with Helen Simonson, author of MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Major Pettigrew TP cover smallRandom House Reader’s Circle: You had a successful career in advertising and then raised two children. What motivated you to pursue writing at this point in your life?

Helen Simonson: Being a stay-at-home mom is a 24/7 job with very little time off for good behavior! It’s been at once the most wonderful experience of my life and the most demanding. Between the baby gym classes, wiping up apple juice, and trying to ensure both sons learned Latin and piano by kindergarten (I’m joking!), I was ready for some small intellectual and creative escape. When modern dance and gardening failed to satisfy (I have two left feet and I hate weeding), I turned to a writing class. Beginner Fiction at New York’s 92nd Street Y saved my sanity.

RHRC: You were born in England and raised in a small village in East Sussex, but relocated to the United States twenty years ago. In what ways did your own homesickness, or yearning for home, come into play in the writing of the book?

HS: Perhaps home is more precious to those who leave. Away fromthe everyday annoyances of town and family life, we are free to recollect only the good bits and pine for a landscape that we remember as always bathed in late- summer evening light. I miss the English countryside with the nostalgia of someone who does not have to put up with the rain, the price of petrol, and lukewarm beer. But seriously . . . I feel a longing for England that is very present and immediate in my head. When it came time to write something just for me— without regard to what others might think— it was natural to write myself back into an English village. Writing my novel was a wonderful way to spend time in a landscape I can never forget.

RHRC: In an age of increasing impersonality and brief digital communication, Major Pettigrew is something of a love letter to civility and person- to- person conversation about books and ideas. Was this your intent, or a product of the personalities and locale of the novel?

HS: This is a hard question to answer because the act of writing and the later interpretation of what the writing meant are mostly disconnected. There are ideas and patterns in this book that my husband or writing group had to point out to me. Of course, I always claimed that I meant to write just the thing they admired, but I was usually fibbing. I do love books. I was taken early and often to the library as a child and I filled all those teenage gaps of loneliness and isolation with adventures to distant lands and worlds through the books I read. My mother would still tell you there is no point talking to Helen when “she has her nose in a book.” I do worry that “civility,” or the civilized world (that which includes free education, libraries, and solving our problems through discussion, not violence), is under threat from all directions. While we can’t do much, as individuals, about the threats to nations, I wish we would all do a little more to tone down our own rhetoric and reach out to our neighbors. As someone over thirty, of course I blame the digitalization of the world for some of the disconnection and lack of civility. It seems to me that we communicate much too often but with no depth whatsoever. LOL!

RHRC: A large part of the novel is devoted to exploring the idea of Englishness. The Major, in some ways, personifies its dynamism: He lived in Colonial India as a child, served in the English army, and has a very strong sense of nationalism; but in the end he is able to accept change in a way that others in the village are not. How do you think he fits into the archetype of an Englishman?

simonson_helenHS: My intent (in retrospect) was to present an English stereotype and then peel him apart to show that even we, the English, are individuals. Just because we all wear wellies and we like those waxed cotton jackets doesn’t mean we all live in a BBC drama. The Major’s appreciation for the long and enduring history of England and Great Britain is, I think, what gives him the strength to accept change. I also think the Major has a deep connection to the land where he was born (Lahore, which is now part of Pakistan). It is an unexplored part of being British that, no matter the rhetoric, we maintain an enduring sense of connection to the Indian subcontinent.

RHRC: Edgecombe St. Mary is painted so vividly in the novel. What is your relationship with the village, and with Rose Lodge in particular?

HS: Creating Rose Lodge was one of those small miracles of being a writer. In writing the Major’s home, I got to enjoy the English cottage I have always wanted— and it came free of ants, dry rot, and taxes. I worked very hard at creating the characters and the ideas in my novel, but the descriptions of landscape and homes were pure indulgence for me. It was a wonderful feeling, close to that of being a child with a new box of crayons and a big stack of construction paper. The vivid quality you see is, I think, the result of some very happy and uncensored creativity.

RHRC:What is your writing routine?

HS: I struggle to maintain a proper writing schedule. It has been a shock to discover that now that I am a published writer, I am still a mother and have my full plate of mom obligations, plus the appearances, writing assignments, and office work that comes with promoting a published book. Who knew being a writer was work! I know that to write, I need to start first thing in the morning, with a mind empty of anything else, and to get out of the house. I’m sharing an office space with some other writers, and going to “work” seems to help. I have slowly come to the conclusion that this struggle to find consistency and a good routine, and to pile up creative work, is the challenge of all creative people. It is what separates the writer from the person who has an idea for a novel if they could just find the time.

RHRC: The relationship between the Major and Mrs. Ali beautifully evokes the agelessness of love. What prompted you to write about a romance between mature characters, territory often overlooked in contemporary novels?

HS: I started thinking of them as friends. I later realized that this is my view of passion: It is rooted in genuine friendship. Chemistry may be two strangers exchanging smoldering looks— but passion has to be able to survive at least a twenty- minute conversation! I feel sorry for young people trying to find a true and lasting love in this age of the excruciatingly casual hook-up. I hoped that the Major and Mrs. Ali (and Grace) might be good examples for us all.

RHRC: On that note, what do you think could have possibly kept Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali from finding each other in the end?

HS: I think (and hope) the danger of losing each other was always very close and real. In real life, change is hard, inertia is easy, and it is all too possible to decide that new experiences and opportunities are not worth the trouble. I was always nervous about whether Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali would prevail.

RHRC: You once said in an interview that Mrs. Ali is the kind of woman all Englishwomen should aspire to be. Yet she is rejected and branded an outsider in her home country. What inspired you to explore this idea of otherness?

HS: With her Pakistani heritage, Mrs. Ali is easy to brand as “other,” but I believe many of us have felt like outsiders at one time or another. (Did we not all endure high school?) I am interested in how we define our communities by who does not belong, subjecting each and all of us to the misery of being excluded. At the same time, I hope that perhaps such experiences are the grit that makes a pearl in the oyster.

RHRC: Critics have commented that you use a level of satirical storytelling that creates an almost Austenian comedy of manners. How do you feel about such comparisons?

HS: Jane Austen was able to take the tiniest of villages and the most circumscribed of lives and create satire that reflected the whole world. I am honored by even the slightest comparison.

RHRC: Just as the Major has Kipling and his works, is there a particular author or book that you hold most dear?

HS: I am a huge fan of Edith Wharton, who wrote of the bitter side of social manners in a way that is also timeless. Her The Custom of the Country should be required reading for all those contemplating a career in reality television.

Click here to learn more about Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Click here to buy the book.

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