Five Fast Questions . . . with Helen Simonson

Five Fast Questions is Rakestraw’s irregular interview series. This week, we talk with Helen Simonson, a bestselling novelist. The author of the beloved bestseller Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, she has a new novel, The Summer Before the War, publishing in March 2016. Born in England, Simonson now lives in Brooklyn. Helen Simonson visits Rakestraw Books on Tuesday, 29 March 2016 at Noon.
1. What inspired you to write The Summer Before the War?

  The Edwardian period was such a glamorous time, filled with elegance and the stirrings of social progress - and amazing technological advances including the telephone, the motor car, electric light, the flying machine.  It also ended in the crushing horror of World War One.  For a writer this sense of a brief idyll doomed to destruction would be an irresistible draw, but I always start with character and it was Agatha Kent and her nephews, walking into my head, that inspired this story

2. Setting plays an important part in this new novel. Do you have a particular connection to this part of England?

I spent my formative teen years living in the Rye area.  I was inspired by the history and atmosphere of this ancient town and spent my Saturday job money on books by local writers - Henry James, E. F. Benson, Rudyard Kipling, who all lived and worked nearby. Living in the USA , Sussex remains an emotional home for me.

3. What are you currently reading?

I'm currently re-reading Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton.  The first time I could not put it down but I knew I was reading it too fast.  So now I'm taking my time in order to thoroughly examine the masterful way she uses language and builds voice through the very structure of her paragraphs.  I've just finished Melanie Benjamin's The Swans of Fifth Avenue which offers a fascinating new angle on Truman Capote and I also read an advance copy of Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a wonderful love story set in World War Two, coming in May.

4. Do you have a favorite book of all time? If so, what is it and why?

I have a favorite author, Edith Wharton.  She was a friend of Henry James and visited Rye, and I've been reading her books since I was a teenager.  She's a master at analyzing social mores and manners and I think The Custom of the Country is the world's most searing indictment of social climbing. 

5. Are you working on a writing project now? Can you tell us about it?

I'm making a new pledge not to talk about my next novel.  The more I talk about it the less actual writing I seem to do.  And the more I describe it, the more I doubt myself.  But I'm stubborn in pursuing the characters that come to me and so I am going to shut up and work!