Julia interviews Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear, born and raised in the County of Kent, England, now lives in California. Creator of the bestselling Maisie Dobbs novels, PARDONABLE LIES, published by Henry Holt, has been nominated for the Agatha Best Mystery Award. Visit the author's web site.

What inspired you to choose Maisie, a feminist in the best sense of the word, as your lead character, and to place her historically in the inter-war period?

To tell you the truth, Maisie chose me. I did not plan to write the book, instead it was an idea that just came to me when I was stuck in traffic, rather like an enhanced daydream. I’ve called it my moment of “artistic grace.” However, as I continue to create the character, and as she reveals herself to me, she is very much a woman of her time in Britain. I’m very interested in the lives of women in Europe at that time – their experience differs somewhat from that of American women, in that they were the first generation to go to into war work in large numbers (for America, it happened a generation later, with the Rosie The Riveter generation). In Britain the Great War was effectively responsible for the fact that two million women of marriageable age would never marry or have children. They were an extraordinary generation, and I believe an archetype was born at that time – a very independent, opinionated, capable and spirited woman.

Tell me a little bit about your blog?

I am one of six authors who comprise “Nakedauthors.com”– Patricia Smiley, Cornelia Read, Paul Levine, Jim Born, and James Grippando – James is now a sort of pinch-hitter who posts whenever one of us is traveling, or cannot post for some reason. The blog’s sub-title is The naked truth about literature and life,” and essentially, we each write a full-length essay about anything we like on our “day.” I’m the Friday author, and I’ve written on everything from the war in Iraq, to America’s libraries, to riding horses, and the plight of the polar bear – you name it, we cover it, one way or another. We really do fit together very well, because we’re all quite different, and we lark around a bit, and support and comment on each other’s essays. We have an eclectic – and growing – readership too, which is interesting.

The Maisie Dobbs books have a fantastically compelling sense of time and place. How do you do your research? And has your family played a role in handing down stories?

I have always been very interested in the period in which my novels are set, so in a way, I’ve been immersing myself in the time and place for most of my life. I’ve only ever used one story from a family member as a “seed” for a novel, and I’ve used my parents knowledge of London when they were youngsters, for streets and directions, that sort of thing. More than anything, I think it is just knowing about my grandparents’ experiences in the Great War that has always inspired my interest in the time, however, that generation didn’t actually tell their stories readily. Once the war was over, they just wanted to try to forget it.

What’s your process? Outline or organic?

Bit of both, really. I start with several scenes that have been rolling around in my imagination for a while, and a theme, then I sort of roughly scope out my story. And I mean “roughly.” Then I begin writing at the beginning, and I end at the end. My outlining is really like a map, if you will, and the wonderful thing about a map, is that you are more likely to be adventurous on the journey, as you’ve a place to come back to when you’ve made a wide turn or two.

How has your career in marketing influenced your writing, craft-wise or commercially?

My career in writing has had no effect on my actual writing at all, they are two completely different fields of endeavor. Where it has made a difference for me, I think, is in my dealings with publishers. Just having a career in business gives an appreciation of the fact that you are in a very competitive commercial world, and I know that, once that manuscript is out of my hands and with the publisher, I am no longer the artist creating my story in the comfort of my own home, but part of a team bringing something new to the marketplace, and I have a quite different role to play in that second phase, if you will. I take my deadlines very seriously, and I try to respond quickly to requests (for information, etc) from my publishers, as they have a lot of planning linked to me doing what I am supposed to do in a timely fashion.

What pithy words of advice would you offer for newbie crime fiction writers starting out.

I think my best advice is the advice I would give to any writer starting out, no matter what the genre: The art an craft of writing demands that you use a certain set of creative muscles – so work them, cross-train, don’t just get stuck in one genre. The more you push yourself to write in other fields (whether poetry, non-fiction, short-story, personal essays), the more tools you will have at your disposal.

My second piece of advice is to do your best to understand the publishing industry. It’s a very incestuous business, for a start – people stay in the industry for years, moving from publisher to publisher, so in some ways, it’s like a big old club – it’s as well to remember that.

And my third piece of advice, is to celebrate every success. I sent out my proposal and sample pages for MAISIE DOBBS to ten agents (having selected thirty from Jeff Herman’s directory of agents, publishers and editors), and was shocked to receive interest from three of them. My husband said to me, “If you don’t get any further with this, at least you got this far – let’s celebrate.” So we did. And we celebrated again when I signed with an agent, and again when that first book was sold. When you think of how many writers there are out there with manuscripts, and how many books are published each week – you celebrate every single step forward. I’ve just celebrated finishing the first raw draft of my next novel.

Do I understand that you are a certified life coach, and that you work especially with writers? Educate us on how that works.

Unfortunately, I do not do much coaching at all now, at least not with individuals. When I first launched my coaching practice, my clients all seemed to be women aged (roughly) from about 30-55, who wanted to make a significant change in their lives. But the thing is, you can’t necessarily change one thing without everything changing. A coach is someone who guides you through that process, however, what s/he is really doing is drawing your attention back to the knowledge you already have. We all know what’s best for us, but we don’t necessarily act upon it – a coach draws that out, keeps you on track, while you work on such issues as diverse as being clear on the values that underpin your life, to planning your week in such a way that there’s time for your writing – which may sound easy, but there are requests to be made, promises, and so on. I have always been in awe of my clients – who ranged from the director of a big financial services firm who really wanted to become a vet (at 37), which she is now, to a woman who wanted to finish a book and needed a coach to help her keep on track, to a TV producer who really wanted to be a professor – which she is, now. My work with writers was essentially towards them finishing the manuscript then doing something with it – making that dream come true, and facilitating the emergence of a different set of possibilities.

What’s next for Jacqueline Winspear? What projects are occupying you at the moment? In the near future?

Right now I’ve just completed the first draft of my fifth novel. As soon as I have finished the revisions, I will be embarking upon a novel that is not part of the series featuring Maisie Dobbs, and it’s not a mystery, either. It’s a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and I think this is the year it will happen. I also have another mystery series on the back-burner, more of a humorous venture – it came out of the blue when I was writing PARDONABLE LIES, probably as an antidote to some of the dark places I had to go to write that book. And I am also writing non-fiction.

Jacqueline Winspear


“The art an craft of writing demands that you use a certain set of creative muscles – so work them, cross-train, don’t just get stuck in one genre. The more you push yourself to write in other fields (whether poetry, non-fiction, short-story, personal essays), the more tools you will have at your disposal.”