Let me introduce you to the delightful Jennifer Ryan, whose new novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, is in book stores now. It’s a wickedly witty, heart-warming and thoroughly entertaining glimpse at life in an English village in the early part of World War II. When the men from the village choir leave for the war front, the women who are left behind decide the show must go on — but not everybody in the village is keen on the idea of an all-female choir. Inspired by some of the reminiscences of her “Party Granny”, Mrs Eileen Beckley, who “loved nothing more than a pink gin and a jolly good knees-up”, the novel perfectly captures the voices of the women and men who inhabit its pages. Not surprisingly, it has been optioned for a TV show by the makers of Downton Abbey.
Jennifer grew up in Kent, but is now based in the Washington DC area. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jennifer for the cover story for this month’s Good Reading, and found myself wishing I could fly across to DC, to sit down and share a nice hot cuppa (or perhaps a pink gin) and a good, long chat with her. She is as warm and witty as the nicest of the characters in her novel, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy her responses to my Shelf Aware questions.
Q. Jennifer, how would you describe yourself, as a writer?
A. I think I’m a number of different writers. I’m the writer who gets inside people’s brains and pretends to be them, writing down their thoughts and dreams. I’m also the writer who loves those moments when the pen runs away with you, and you’re writing beautiful, descriptive literary prose; sometimes you might even feel like Virginia Woolf during these moments! Then there are those times when I’m cleverly taking something I learnt in college and using it in my work, seeing an allusion fit perfectly, or a mesmerizing twist at the last minute.
And then I’m the writer who’s an editor. I used to be a nonfiction book editor, so I regularly can’t wait for the whole thing to be written so that I can get on with editing it. The transformation of something good into something wonderful happens most often for me at this stage. It’s like a puzzle that needs unravelling.
Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?
A. I have started a new book, which is also set in the Second World War but isn’t all that similar to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It is, however, about women again, as I love to see how much they evolved through the war, being given new freedoms and interesting jobs, having more control over their lives, and of course facing the horrific realities of war. They have such spirit and energy, not to mention their wonderful voices.
Many people want to know if there’ll be a sequel to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and I would love to write one, so maybe in the future.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. We moved recently, so my books are scattered throughout the house, and are rather higgledy-piggledy, with work books mixed with novels and travel books and even some of my kids’ books intermingled. Some of the Second World War books that I’m currently using a lot for research are sitting in a shelf unit behind me here at my desk (which is the end of the dining room table). There are also some in the kitchen as there’s a built-in book shelf there and we don’t have many cookery books. The sitting room has shelf units that house most of my oldies, such as the Dostoyevskys and EM Fosters, and then there’s the inevitable pile next to the bed, which has grown to the extent that there’s a spare pile on the floor.
My book storage is all rather chaotic, and I’d like to say that I know where everything is but, well, that’s probably not the case. In fact, I have a suspicion that some of my books went astray during our move, or that we have a guest who steals books on a regular basis. My husband suggests that I might find the missing books if I simply reorganised them.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. No filing system, no colour coding, nothing. They’re a mish mash of everything, and although I keep thinking I’ll sort them out when I get the time, I’m not sure if I ever will.
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. It’s mostly fifty-fifty novels and nonfiction research books, with a few plays and short story volumes and the occasional travel guide. Of the novels, there are the classics and then a lot that are funny, from PG Wodehouse and EF Benson to Nick Hornby. There are many historical novels too, as I love that genre, especially Second World War books, such as Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. There are a lot of collections of plays, and I still draw on them now for inspiration, such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. The nonfiction are largely Second World War memoirs and reference books. I have my favourites, such as Don’t Forget to Write: The True Story of an Evacuee and her Family, by Pam Hobbs.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. I read in bed every night before going to sleep, and look forward to it with a passion, sometimes going to bed early if I’m reading an especially good book. It could be a novel or nonfiction research material, where I usually take notes on a folded-up sheet of A4 tucked in and serving as a bookmark.
Trains, planes and waiting rooms are other favourite places. When you’re sitting in a train, you don’t need to be doing something else; it’s a time to indulge in the things we love doing the most.
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?
A. I’m reading The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon. I’ve only just started and I’m already hooked. It is, unquestionably, the kind of book I enjoy: rich with humour, a great plot and fascinating characters. I can’t wait to get back to it!
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has to be the best book ever written, and I don’t care that it’s everybody’s favourite too. Every time I read it, I get more from it, and I must have read it at least thirty times. It has a prime position beside my bed, as one never knows when one might be in need of a little Sir William Lucas or, my current favourite character, Caroline Bingley.
My second would be Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I love the way the lyrical sentences carry me into a different world, almost to a higher spiritual plane.
Another favourite is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I just love that compounded passion, the subtlety of the events, and, mostly, the powerful language. Sebastian has to be one of the best characters ever drawn.
It’s frivolous, I know, but another book I go back to time and time again is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. It’s set in north London, where I used to live, and inhabits a world that I miss; the chaos and the creativity blended with the comedic coming-of-age story. I love his use of lists, and have to say that everything I’ve ever written has to contain at least one, good list.
As for authors, Kate Atkinson has to be up there. Her Life After Life is a particularly excellent work. I love the way she plays with concept and form, and takes us into a double-meaning of everything we’re reading.
Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?
A. I’m thinking that the emergency is a nuclear explosion, and I’m trapped in a metal bunker for 15 years with only three books to help me through, so they’d have to be long and/or with potential for re-reading. The first would be Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, then Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and finally Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The last one has been sitting in my book shelf these past ten years, and I really need an excuse to get reading.
Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?
A. The first would have to be Virginia Woolf. I’d just like to get inside her head, work out who she really is, how she sees the world. I think I have an idea of her and I’d like to see if she fits with that. I’d also like to talk to her about sentence construction and the poetry of her work. I don’t think it would matter what we ate and drank. Tea perhaps?
The second would be Dorothy Parker. I think I’d just let her lead the conversation, perhaps prompting her with questions like: What is your favourite memory? Who in history would you have liked to marry? How would you like to be remembered? I’d serve fancy hors d’oeuvres with cocktails, of course!
My third would be Kate Atkinson. I adore her books, and have a thousand questions about them and how she created them, especially her lateral thinking through the concept and plotlines. She always brings so much to the table with every novel, and I’d love some insight into how she does that. My guess is that she’d be a tea and scones kind of woman.
The Childbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan, is published in Australia by HarperCollins, rrp $29.99. http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780008163716/the-chilbury-ladies-choir/#sm.0001e97mifb7kdyuzec2292j7ca4v
Find out more about Jennifer here:
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