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Guest Host: Katherine Lanpher
We’re in the village of Rye – in Sussex, England – and the year is 1914. It’s one of the most beautiful summers in memory. But storm clouds are gathering. This is where Helen Simonson’s new novel “The Summer Before the War” begins. Simonson is the author of the bestselling book “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, and her new work is again a comedy of social manners, a love story, and a look at what it means to be an outsider. But this time, the setting is Edwardian England on the precipice of upheaval…and the stakes are high for her characters forced into a new reality. British-American Author Helen Simonson on her new novel and how World War I forever changed the role of women in society.
- Helen Simonson Fiction writer; author, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand"
MS. KATHERINE LANPHERThanks for joining us. I'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. In 2010, the novel "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" became an international bestseller. The story of two widowed people rediscovering love in their later years. Now, author Helen Simonson is back with a novel set at the precipice of World War I. It's called "The Summer Before The War." And Helen Simonson joins me in the studio to talk about this new work. Welcome.
MS. HELEN SIMONSONThank you for having me.
LANPHERNow, you once said in an interview that "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" was many things, but among those, a comedy of social manners.
LANPHERSo this latest book set in the precipice before World War I, how do you work that into a comedy of social manners?
SIMONSONWell, I suppose I believe that life is a comedy of social manners and I find no distinction between social manners and real life and no real distinction between writing a comedy of social manners and writing realistic fiction. But given that the summer is 1914, obviously, I was taking the form of a comedy of manners and I was determined to see how far it could stretch and whether the form and myself as a writer could indeed go from the bucolic Sussex countryside deep into the trenches of Flanders.
LANPHERAnd in fact, it's a reminder that those of us who are human and engage in the human comedy every day, that doesn't stop with violence or war.
SIMONSONNo, absolutely, and I think also humor has long been used to explain the absurdities of war. Those of us who love "M.A.S.H." and those of us who like "Monty Python," "Monty Python" did some amazing World War I sketches that are available on YouTube, I think humor has been used to poke fun at our leaders and to question war and so I wanted to see if I could dabble in that.
LANPHERYou know, I can't help but think of another TV series that started at the precipice of World War I and had some comedy in it, also some romance.
SIMONSONOh, my goodness. What could it be?
LANPHERRhymes with mountain mabbie, okay? Can you help me there? In fact, you've even been praised for this. The Seattle Times in one of their reviews said, "perfect for readers in a post 'Downton Abbey' slump." Now did "Downton Abbey" come first or the beginning of this novel?
SIMONSONI've been writing this novel five or six years so I think "Downton Abbey" certainly came out while I was writing. In fact, for a long time, I refused to watch it because the fear of influence. In the end, I decided I would watch because the BBC does costuming better than anybody else and so I thought it might be permissible to pick up a few costume hints.
LANPHEROh, my. I was going to say, what a self sacrifice. No "Downton Abbey"?
SIMONSONNo "Downton Abbey."
LANPHERNo Maggie Smith?
SIMONSONWell, I'm a huge fan of Maggie Smith so...
LANPHERWho is not?
SIMONSON...so I did finally settle into watching.
LANPHEROh, what did they call it, a vacation? Now, this novel also, you have direct connection to the setting, to the landscape of the story. Talk about that.
SIMONSONYes. I spent my teenage years in the little town of Rye in East Sussex. It's a very literary town. Henry James lived there and his friend Edith Wharton would come down in her big motor car and take him out for summer afternoons. Rudyard Kipling was nearby. Radcliff Hall was on the high street later in the '30s. EF Benson, who wrote "Mapp and Lucia," lived in Henry James' house. So it's a very literary town.
SIMONSONAnd when I was a teenager, the local book shop had a special book shelf for local authors and these were the local authors. And these were the books I was buying.
LANPHERNow, we have to also advise folks that you sneak in some of these local luminaries into the novel. There's at least one character who I was convinced was Henry James and I had a sense you were laughing while you did it.
SIMONSONI was laughing while I did it. I am a huge Henry James fan and I've done a fair amount of research on Henry James, reading biographies, novels and his own letters. And his own letters are an absolute riot. He can be very, very caustic, even to his friends and very witty. And so what I was able to do in completely fictionalizing him into the character of Mr. Tillingham, was that I was able to be completely scurrilous and take what I wanted from Henry James and add bits that had no basis in fact.
LANPHERWhich Henry James did to the people around him.
SIMONSONExactly. So he's merely hoist by his own petard.
LANPHERAs we say.
SIMONSONAs we say.
LANPHERWe've danced around the actual plot device here. Could you give people just a brief idea of what's happening?
SIMONSONWell, it's 1914. It's summer and everyone agrees, it's one of the most beautiful summers ever and somebody asked me recently if that was simply that then the war came and so people remember it as a beautiful summer and I assured them that, in England, beautiful summers are so rare that I'm sure it was factually an extra beautiful summer. And so the book, the first part of the book, is really about people in a small town going about their business and worry about their personal dreams and ambitions.
SIMONSONAnd into this town comes a young woman to teach Latin at the grammar school and the appointment of a woman to teach Latin, which is a serious subject, unlike English or history, which could be taught by women, is somewhat of a shock for the town. And so it's sort of a classic stranger comes to town. And then, in the middle of this beautiful summer while everybody's worrying about themselves, war is declared and a shift happens. Everybody is forced to reevaluate what's important in their lives and to start to think about how their dreams and ambitions should be balanced against their duty.
SIMONSONAnd also, the town scurries to do its patriotic duty and all sorts of ways, which is both hilarious and also necessary. I should point out that while I'm laughing at people, I'm also trying to be compassionate about what they're doing in the face of war. We all have to collect our tin cans and raise our funds.
LANPHERBut it's also heartbreaking. World War I has been much written about and there was so much enthusiasm at the beginning at this war that I think many people looked back after soldier after soldier was mowed down, after people came back with mustard gas poisoning, that that initial flurry of patriotism...
SIMONSONYes, it came to be seen as really naive, but it was interesting, in my research, I discovered that at the beginning of 1914, Great Britain only had a small standing army, which was quickly sent overseas. But I think we has relied on our Navy and so the entire war effort did have to be built from the ground up, essentially using the entire population. And so as I say, this burst of patriotism was not all naive pageantry, but a really amazing coming together of a nation to put together the necessary army to even go to war.
LANPHERWe've been talking about comedies and social manners, but there was a lot of elbow grease in this book, the research that you had to do. What were some surprises?
SIMONSONWell, the surprise was what a lot of work a historic novel is. I thought that I would simply have a go at time travel and it would be fun to walk around Rye in 1914. And I soon realized that every single thing has to be researched, not just the war, not just fashion, not just transportation, but literally if a character opens a window, what kind of window catch? What do they see when they look out of the window? How do they get up in the morning?
SIMONSONAnd so I would say there's a good couple of years of solid research. The most interesting research was probably sitting in the British library periodical section reading printed copies of original magazines and newspapers from 1914. So what I was doing was reading "The Lady" or "Country Life" as my female character, Agatha Kent might do in her own home and to see the war coming through. Not telegraphed on the front pages of the magazines, but there started to be recipes for economical Christmas pudding and discussions of how to tell the servants that there would no longer be a meat course at dinner.
SIMONSONAnd then, finally, the social columns which were engagements and marriages that began to appear the phrase "was to have been married" because the finest of Britain's young peers fell in the trenches immediately.
LANPHERAnd, in fact, this leads to a sort of opening, if you will, for all different members of society. There were changes for women. There were changes for -- in between class.
SIMONSONAbsolutely. Many people rushed to sign up out of a sense of adventure and also because they would get paid. They would get three meals a day. The people who enlisted were found generally to be very undernourished and not in good shape. And I think war has always been a way for people to move social class so there wasn't too much difficulty in putting an army together. Of course, women rushed to help and they were initially batted back as fast as they came forward.
SIMONSONBut as the men departed for the front, women became more useful and soon they were manning the buses and the messenger services and, of course, when it came to war relief and refugee relief efforts, they were very much at the forefront. And once you let women out of the box, we're not going back and that's very much what happened with the first world war.
LANPHERAnd we'll be talking more about that later. We'll also be taking your comments and questions. Please call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org or join us on Facebook or Twitter for this conversation with the writer Helen Simonson, the author of "The Summer Before The War." I'm Katherine Lanpher and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
LANPHERI'm Katherine Lanpher sitting in for Diane Rehm. Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Helen Simonson. She -- her first novel was "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." It became an international bestseller. We're talking to her now about her new novel, "The Summer Before the War," a gentle comedy of manners set in the summer before the beginning of World War I, a war that affects us to this very day. We'd love to have you join this conversation. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or send us your email at email@example.com. Or join us on Facebook or Twitter.
LANPHERHelen, let's continue this conversation about how the role of women changed because of World War I. There were wars before then. Why do we think it was this particular war?
SIMONSONWell, that's a very good question. I think, for Great Britain, most of the wars before -- directly before, were fought in the colonies, very far away. So there's distance from what's going on. And perhaps you get a letter saying your loved one has fallen in a desert somewhere. But it's not really brought home to roost. This war was taking place across the Channel, 12 miles from the shores of Sussex. And I think that proximity brought the war home to everybody.
SIMONSONIt's similar to today. Today we have TV and Internet, and any kind of war we are all involved in. This was the era, in 1914, of the rise of the illustrated news periodical, photos for the first time. And so the war was brought home to everybody, even as Belgium refugees were flooding across the Channel in advance of the German Army.
LANPHERThe presence of refugees, the question of refugees seems a prescient one in what should be a gentle comedy of social manners. I think you were also trying to make some other points.
SIMONSONYes, the refugee issue. I started writing this book not knowing that the question of refugees would become so much part of current affairs. In World War I, Britain took in 250,000 Belgian refugees and hosted them, fed them, clothed them and took care of them for four years, entirely though private charitable efforts in multiple cities and towns across the country. It was one of Britain's finest hours. And it was a story that had been forgotten largely by the history books. I hadn't heard of it before I started researching Henry James, who was involved in Belgian relief. And so I thought it was a story that deserved to be brought to the fore. And little did I know that we would be talking about refugees every day.
LANPHERAnd, in fact, women were a major part of that effort.
SIMONSONAbsolutely. In my book, the ladies of Rye rushed to take in, not as many Belgians as they can, but a good selection of good Belgians, preferably. And they all vie for who's going to get the best kind of Belgian refugee.
LANPHERI'd love -- I always love to hear authors read their work. If you could read us just a small excerpt and set it up for us, please.
SIMONSONOkay. This small excerpt concerns a young teacher who's arrived in town, Beatrice Nash. And though she came with a promise of a job, she has found out that it's little more conditional. And there is one more meeting of the school's board of trustees to decide whether she will get the job. And there is, in fact, another candidate as well.
LANPHERAnd also, just to give a little more context, this is in the era of the suffragette, when it was still shocking to see a woman riding a bicycle.
SIMONSONAnd shocking to see a woman working and leaving her late father's aristocratic family, who would have been happy to keep her on as the poor relation and abuse her in that position. She's actually taking a big step down socially to take on the salaried work of becoming a teacher.
LANPHERAll right. So, here she is.
LANPHER"Beatrice has declined one other teaching offer in favor of Rye. A northern mill town had offered just the productive life, the challenge of public service that she craved. But her heart had failed her at the thought of soot-blackened streets and rows of tenement cottages running across the hills. She had been forced to laugh at her own hypocrisy in choosing seaside Sussex over the surely greater educational impact she might make among the children of factory workers.
LANPHER"Now she wondered if she would have time to write again and ask them to reconsider her. If not, she might eke out a few weeks at a friend's home near Brighton. But her chances of finding some other position immediately were not good. She had no romantic notions of becoming a parlor maid or an actress. And she had never had patience with those more literary heroines who solved their problems with a knife or an oncoming train. She would have to write to Marbly (sp?) Hall at some point and ask to come back.
SIMONSON"'Excuse me, miss,' said a serving girl peering around the door. 'They're ready for you in the green banqueting hall.' 'Thank you,' said Beatrice, rising reluctantly from her chair. She shook out her skirts and smoothed a hand across her hair, looking at her face in the over-mantle mirror. She would face the board of governors with her very best smile and a forthright presentation of her skills and qualifications. She would not let them see that she knew the answer was already decided. They would pick the man over her. But she would make sure they knew, in their hearts, that she was the better candidate."
LANPHERThat is Helen Simonson reading from her new novel, "The Summer Before the War." I want to talk about the role of the outsider. Beatrice is an outsider in Rye. The refugees are outsiders. In your first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," we have an outsider who is a main part of that love story. What is it about the role of the outsider that appeals to you?
SIMONSONWell, I think perhaps just all writers were picked on in high school. So I've always felt a little bit of an outsider, though I have no cause to feel that way. But I think the writer's imagination is about observing. And one can probably observe any social group-esque from the periphery. And so I enjoy being in that position. I love the fact that I'm an American citizen and also a British subject. And I can stand somewhere between those two worlds and claim either, as I see fit, and get away with things with my British accent here in America.
LANPHERBoy, is that true.
SIMONSONAbsolutely. My mother thinks I speak like an American. She says I've become a dreadful Yank. But Americans think I have a lovely British accent.
LANPHERI was going to say, I've often thought that, you know, a good polling question would be, could a British person hurt someone and get away with it in this country?
SIMONSONOh, I could absolutely hit someone on Fifth Avenue with my handbag and get away with it.
LANPHERNow I'd like to see that. Talk about the national dialogue that we're having here in this country about outsiders. We touched on it once before. But I'd like to have you talk about it a little more because I'm wondering if how you thought about what's going on now changed as you plumbed the history of the Belgian refugees in World War I.
SIMONSONDefinitely. I did some research into refugees. And given how much it's in the news lately, I began to wonder, well, why don't we just do what Britain did in 1914? Why don't we just take in 250,000 refugees or a million refugees and take care of them and send them home? Partly, wars don't seem to have an end these days. And so the use of temporary status for refugees is not the first option these days. But the most interesting thing I found was -- what's going on today is we're afraid to let in war refugees, in case there are terrorists among them.
SIMONSONIn World War II, in 1941, America cut off all Jewish refugees from Germany for exactly the same reason, that there might be German spies and saboteurs among them. And it made me very sad to think of how many thousands of people may have gone to the gas chamber for want of an exit visa. And so here we are doing the same thing again. And so I'm not quite sure why things were different in 1914. But, again, I definitely became more and more interested in writing about it, just to demonstrate the human compassion involved in taking on such a project.
LANPHERI'm always fascinated by the fact that World War I stays with us to this day. Something I'm not sure everyone understands or realizes.
SIMONSONWell, certainly, coming from Great Britain, we are. We continue to be greatly affected by World War I. Our day of remembrance in November, where we all wear the poppy, that is a World War I reference to the poppies of Flanders Field. I think what shook people up was the image of countless young men coming from peacetime occupations and suddenly thrust into trenches with a rifle and bayonet in hand, to be essentially mowed down by the thousands. People were shocked to see -- and, again, it may be because photography was now happening. People were actually seeing photographs of the dead. And the war was so close that the wounded and maimed were coming home and walking among the civilian population.
SIMONSONBut especially in my book, I also feature a poet. And so I think that's what's lived on, certainly in the U.K., the image of all these young poets being sent off to war.
LANPHERI was just going to say, the -- when you mentioned the poppy, I couldn't help but think, I believe it's Rudyard Kipling, the poppies "In Flanders Field." The poppies grow.
SIMONSONYes. In Flanders Field, the poppies grow row on row. And that's as much of a quote as I can remember.
LANPHERI was just going to say, I sadly don't have it printed out next to me.
SIMONSONBut it lives with me so much that I actually own a tiny, Siegfried Sassoon book of poems. Because it was entirely battered and the spine was broken on a bookstore at a rummage sale. And I could not leave Siegfried Sassoon injured on a bookstore.
LANPHERWhen we talk about the injured in World War I, I'm fascinated by how many serious topics are contained in your absolutely delightful novel. And PTSD -- we didn't call it that then, but that also plays a role in your book.
SIMONSONWe -- in 1914, '15, which is when my book takes place, we had not even learned to call it shell shock. There was some question about whether it was connected to neurasthenia. And so one of my characters is a surgeon and he specializes in head injuries. And he's out at the front trying to repair all of these head injuries. But basically, if you were shell shocked and you had a brain injury and therefore you were stumbling around in the wrong direction, you would be shot for desertion. And it's an injury that still, today, we don't seem to understand fully nor to recognize as an injury fully.
SIMONSONSo you can imagine all these young men who were coming home, essentially people considered them insane and really they were suffering traumatic head injury.
LANPHERBefore we go any further, I just need to take this pause and say you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Katherine Lanpher and we'd love for you to join our conversation with Helen Simonson. She is the author both of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," and her novel, "The Summer Before the War." You can join this conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. We're talking about how this modern -- book written in modern times about a social comedy of manners can also link to a world war that still haunts us now. Wanted to also talk for just a moment about your outsider status when you were a teenager dropped in Rye.
SIMONSONYes. I had grown up in a very modern suburb west of London. And my family achieves the English dream, which is a detached house in the country. My father got a job down in Rye and we moved there. And it was both wonderful and terrible to be dropped into a rural village where the busses ran every two hours and stopped at 6:00 p.m., where there was no movie theater. There was nothing to do until you were old enough to sneak into the pub and join the darts team. And so it could be very lonely. There was a wonderful "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" quality to being able to walk the fields in one's wellies and imagine oneself a romantic heroine. But I coped with this change by spending a lot of time reading.
LANPHERBefore we get flooded with calls of angry literature fans -- poetry fans, I should say -- the first stanza of "In Flanders Fields," it's by John McCrae. I apologize for handing over a beautiful poem to Rudyard Kipling. "In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow between the crosses, row on roe, that mark our place. And in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly, scarce heard among the guns below." One of the major poems of World War I.
LANPHERLet's go and have someone else join us here. We have Aline, calling us from Oroville, Wash. Aline, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
ALINEOh, good morning. Thank you very much. I did read the Major Pettigrew book and I loved it. And I'm very much looking forward to this book by the author. And I wondered, are you aware that Agatha Christie fashioned her Belgian detective after the Belgian refugees? I was -- he was -- in the first book, "Mysterious Affair at Styles," he was living among the refugees. And he was one of them.
LANPHERAline, could you possibly be referring to Hercule Poirot?
ALINEYes, Hercule Poirot, indeed. It was a surprise to me. I had not heard about these Belgian refugees before, having read that book. And now to find that you are going to be writing -- or you have written about them now in your book on World War I, I'm very much looking forward to reading that.
SIMONSONWell, thank you, Aline, but you've stolen my best story. I was saving that for the end of the show. Because, yes, when I began writing, I did not realize that Agatha Christie had indeed fashioned Hercule Poirot as a political act. Because towards the end of the war, some British people -- and this will sound familiar to us all -- were getting upset that perhaps the refugees were taking British jobs or the refugees were being housed at public expense, while ordinary British people were being left to starve. And so there was what seems a very familiar discussion on refugees. And so she actually deliberately created Hercule Poirot to promote a better image of the refugees and to show everybody how useful they can be.
LANPHERAs I recall, one of Hercule's major irritations was that everyone thought he was French.
SIMONSONOh, I can imagine.
LANPHERI am not French, I am Belg. You are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to continue our conversation with Helen Simonson, author of the bestselling novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," and also her new one, her second novel, the sophomore effort, called "The Summer Before the War." Please do join us.
LANPHERI'm Katherine Lanpher, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're continuing our conversation with Helen Simonson. Her first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," became an international bestseller. We're speaking with her now about her second novel, "The Summer Before the War." I want to make sure while we have you here, Helen, that you have both British citizenship and U.S. citizenship. We've mentioned "Downton Abbey" before. But can you explain why Americans love -- people who love democracy, people who don't believe in royalty, and yet just the faintest glimmer from Lord Grantham, and we're putty, putty in the hands of British artists.
SIMONSONWell, I think it probably has to do with distance. I similarly have rose-colored glasses about Great Britain because I only visit perhaps once a year, and therefore I don't have to consider the daily annoyances of warm beer and endless rain, but every time I visit it can be a celebration. And so in effect in America, you know, you've been gone a few hundred years, there's still that connection.
SIMONSONAnd we are, after all, we have a special relationship. We are like cousins, and so we are free to make ridiculous fun of each other, but underneath there's a very great warmth. And it's amazing at home, even though British people may criticize American government policy vociferously, there is this feeling that the Americans are our cousins in some way, and British people absolutely value that special relationship.
LANPHERWe have an email from Matt in Round Lake, New York. First of all, I have to share with you that he says, as a British expat myself, I find your transatlantic, hybrid accent a pleasure.
SIMONSONOh thank you. I thought the end of that sentence was going to be a completely different sort of word.
LANPHERThat was very English of you. Now his question. Why does World War I seem to be less recognized in the U.S. than it is in Europe? Why do you think that is?
SIMONSONI'm completely unqualified to answer that question. The Americans did come into the war at the end and helped us out. I believe they had tanks towards the end of World War I, which were very useful. But I think perhaps World War II was just a much bigger commitment for the United States, and you did so much good in the world in that war that I think it's -- it's just taken the lion's share of attention.
LANPHERLet's go to Ralph, who is joining us from Birmingham, Alabama. Ralph, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
RALPHWell good morning, and good evening. Good morning here. But anyway, what I was going to ask her was, in her book, does she go into any detail about any of the colonial troops from India and other colonies that England -- building up the English army? Is there any reference to that?
SIMONSONThat is -- that's a very good question, and I have to say no, it largely didn't make it in. The final third of my book does go to the trenches with Hugh, this young surgeon at war. But in order to confront how I was going to write about the war, I kept the focus very tight on Hugh and his cousin Daniel and a few other characters in the trenches. So I did not have occasion to mention larger issues about the war.
SIMONSONBut I should say what was absolutely amazing is the British government announced that it was going to war with Germany because treaties demanded that it protect the honor of Belgium, and all the British colonies under their governor generals immediately up and sent troops, which is one of the more bizarre aspects of colonialism.
LANPHERWhen you write about the trenches, you also have an interest in juxtaposition of class. One of the young lads from the village shows up in those trenches. Talk for a minute about how World War I also upset notions -- a notion of class, as well as gender.
SIMONSONAbsolutely. This was the first time, I think, that in the British arm, as far as I could tell, everyone died together, and the barriers between officer class and the men became somewhat swept away. They were really perishing in large numbers, side by side, and I think this was a bit of a shock to the British class system. The character you reference is a young boy. He's actually half-gypsy. His father is from a gypsy family. And so he is not only poor and of a low social class, he is pretty much a pariah in the town of Rye, and yet he enlists.
LANPHERThe last thing I expected in a gentle novel of social comedy and manners was to see the Roma appear.
SIMONSONWell, they've always been there, and I did a lot of research into the history of British gypsies and into the plight of the ethnic Roma worldwide, and then I realized of course I'm not writing a book about the plight of the ethnic Roma worldwide. But in the character of Snout, this boy, and his family, I tried to let everybody know that alongside the rest of Britain, Britain's gypsies served. They served in World War I. They served in World War II. They've served alongside their fellow British subjects in every major war. And that is the kind of image of the Roma that does not get spread about. Instead we have terrible negative stereotypes about an ethnic minority that good-natured people wouldn't dream of espousing about any other ethnic group.
SIMONSONAnd the more I -- the more I learned about how shamefully the Roma are treated worldwide, the more I wanted to make sure that they were properly represented in my novel. And they're a stand-in for, you know, racial prejudice, all kinds of racial prejudice, because it's hard to get all that in to a novel set in 1914. So they're my stand-in, including, with my apologies for not including more of the soldiers from the Empire, but my Roma char is a stand-in for everybody who would be persecuted in that way.
LANPHERLet us turn to Sally, who is joining us from Fairfax, Virginia. Sally is joining us. Hey, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SALLYThank you, thank you for taking my call, longtime listener.
LANPHERAnd what did you have to say, Sally?
SALLYI just wanted to say thank you to the author today, Helen Simonson, because recently -- it's just sort of a coincidence, last night we were driving back on a long car trip, and we were listening to Hardcore History. They were talking about World War II and -- I'm sorry, World War I. And growing up in at least in the school system that I grew up in, World War I was almost glossed over in history. You talked about -- we talked about the Civil War, Civil War, Civil War, and of course it was very important for American history, but then we, you know, then we jump directly -- we talked about World War I, World War I happened, I mean, that was almost the way it was.
SALLYAnd then World War II, we paid a great deal of attention to that in the class, and it almost seemed as if it really, at least for the American school system I grew up in, that World War I just really didn't matter for us. And then years later, when I went into -- when I was getting my master's degree in 20th-century British literature, I read "The Great War in Modern Memory," and that just really affected me. And I had no idea how, just because of my experience and the education that I'd received in the American school system, what a huge effect that World War I had on the British people, on subjects on the ground.
SALLYAnd I ended up becoming very interested in the field and ended up dedicating a lot of work toward it. And I was just very interested in hearing the guest today talk about the novel by -- I mean, the book by Siegfried Sassoon and (unintelligible) collection of poetry, and I just wanted to hear about other influences that she had from that period, other poets, and just anything -- anything she could add to about her hearings with literature of the pre-, post- and -- pre- and post-World War I period, and that -- and what went on during it. Thank you.
LANPHERSo what authors, what literature did inspire you?
SIMONSONWell, I hope everybody's read Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth," her memoir about being a woman in World War I and leaving her home to become a nurse, another BBC movie that I watched in order to get costuming advice, the World War I poets, there's so many of them, and I have always -- I have always read the poets. Of course Rudyard Kipling is writing around this time. Henry James is writing around this time. And so I was more, I would say, interested in the Edwardian era generally than anything particularly related to the war, but yes, I actually would like to add that America should go back to its history books and look at your very large contribution to World War I.
SIMONSONAfter the sinking of the Lusitania, you did come in, and you had a very big impact. And I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the Civil War was so large, and then as I said before, your contribution in World War II was so large, and perhaps you have, you know, skipped over your own history here, and it would be worth taking another look.
LANPHERLet's get a quick question in from Dave from Oklahoma City in Oklahoma. Dave, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
DAVEYes, actually it's more of a comment. I'm a retired Air Force officer, and 20 years ago in Saudi Arabia, at Prince Sultan Air Base, we had French air force, the RAF, Canadian forces and U.S. forces. And on November 11 at that date, we had a Remembrance Day ceremony for all the nations that were combatants. It is not a totally lost thing, World War I. It was constantly reminded in my house as both my grandfathers were World War I veterans. I come from a military family. I went to a military college. So it's not entirely lost, and it is still a significant part of our heritage.
DAVEAnd in the U.S. when I was a kid, we, too, disseminated or sold, or gave away I should say, gave away for donation, poppies. We still do that to some extent with the American Legion, but it's still there.
LANPHERAll right, thank you.
SIMONSONYes, Poppy Day is huge in Great Britain. We all sold poppies when we were kids, and actually I remember my favorite English professor, perhaps the person who had the greatest influence on me becoming a writer, Professor Chadwick, I remember I must have been 12 at the time, and I actually wrote in a notebook that my mother had kept that it was Poppy Day, and in a sea of children running in the playground, I had spotted Professor Chadwick standing with his cardboard tray of poppies. He had served in India, and it was a very important day for him.
LANPHERYou are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we're continuing our conversation with Helen Simonson. Her new novel is "The Summer Before the War." Now this is a sophomore novel.
LANPHERYes, and every writer fears the sophomore jinx. How did you do?
SIMONSONWell, I thought I would not be jinxed. I remember after my first book came out telling people, well, now my writing's been validated, plus I'm a mature woman, I know who my family and friends are. The second novel will be no problem. And it was an absolutely terrible shock to me to come back to the blank page and find that I had all the self-doubt and self-criticism that I had had the first time around. But a relative of mine actually assured me last summer that there was no pressure about my second novel.
SIMONSONWe were in the buffet line at a wedding, and he said, Helen, you should have no fear about your second novel because everyone knows second novels tank. He was sure I would come back strong with the third, so...
SIMONSONVery reassuring, but what can you do? All I did in the second novel was try to set myself bigger challenges, what with the historical aspect, that was a huge challenge, with three narrative voices instead of the single narrative of Major Pettigrew, and with just considering larger issues with higher stakes.
LANPHERLet's go to Kim in Indianapolis. Kim, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show. Hi.
KIMHi. I got very excited. I ordered the book. I haven't read it. It sounds fascinating. I come from a very British family. I think my great aunt was very much like Violet in "Downton Abbey." We always had to use the right fork and the right spoon and everything. But I recently discovered letters from my grandmother, who apparently had a beau in World War I, and they're all the letters from when he enlisted from New York, went to Texas and ended up in France.
KIMAnd I have all these letters of his experience as a pilot in World War I, and as I read them, it's just -- it's a fascinating story, and unfortunately it ends badly. I thought, I wish I was a good writer. I wish I could write well enough to make this a book. So when you were talking about why America isn't very interested in World War I, it made me think of these letters from my grandmother to her beau. And I'm, like, do you want these letters? Could you turn these into your next book?
SIMONSONWell let me tell you that I tried to use primary sources wherever possible, and certainly in the U.K., there has been a huge push to put personal accounts of the war that were sitting in people's dusty drawers online. And there are plenty of professional and amateur databases on the Internet where people are collecting things like the letters you're talking about. And so I would urge you to offer to post to one of those or to set up your own blog. As soon as you put them out there on the Internet, they will be searchable by researches and writers.
SIMONSONAnd I cannot tell you how important the personal letters and the personal war diaries were to me in putting this particular book together. So you don't know who would be able to use your grandmother's letters or when, but I would urge you to put them out there in some way.
LANPHERWe're going to go to Gabrielle, who is in Lakewood, Ohio. Welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
GABRIELLEHi, I love your accent, and your stories are just mesmerizing. Thinking about the Middle East and the xenophobia that has stirred our nerve and given rise to people like Trump and Mr. Cruz, who want to carpet-bomb the whole Middle East, we must remember a little bit about the history of Iraq, how the Twin Towers didn't come down because of single Iraqi persons getting involved with it. It was Saudis. And then we retaliated, and we killed, according to National Geographic, 500,000 Iraqis. Then we wonder why is the Middle East like a hornet's nest trying to slit our throats.
GABRIELLESo with this backdrop, I ask you, we are not in war with the Middle East anymore. What it is that we are so xenophobic, and what can do to change this tide because the drums of war are beating in people's hearts, and if we get these people who are saying we must carpet-bomb, this is not going to be second world war, it's going to be third world war...
LANPHERAll right, thank you, Gabrielle. All right, in 60 seconds or less, please?
SIMONSONWell, I think the most important thing you can do is read a lot of fiction about war because fiction is where we tell the story of human existence, and fiction is where we can explore in great detail and very up close and personal what war is, how it affects us, how we might do better in the future and how we might remain open to each other with human compassion.
LANPHERI'd like to have us close on another note, and that is that you write about love in both novels.
LANPHERWhy is that?
SIMONSONWell, I think while I'm busy poking fun at human flaws and foibles, I believe that love is one of the most redeeming qualities of humanity. And so I can think of nothing better than to keep it front and center in our minds. And I'm always looking for ways to push love on people.
LANPHERAnd with that, thank you, Helen Simonson, for joining us today.
SIMONSONThank you for having me.
LANPHERHelen Simonson's first novel is "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," but we've been talking to her about her next novel, "The Summer Before the War." I'm Katherine Lanpher, in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for joining us.
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