An interview with Annie Barrows – co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“To make something is an expression of freedom, no matter what your circumstances.” Annie Barrows, 2019

Photograph of book cover taken by Francesca Tyer

This week I was lucky enough to speak with author Annie Barrows about her co-authorship of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The primary author, Mary Ann Shaffer, who was Annie Barrows aunt, became ill shortly after the book was accepted by a publisher. The book still needed editing and Mary Ann asked her niece to finish it for her. 

The novel is set in 1946 and written in epistolary form, constructed through a series of letters sent between characters. The story explores the German occupation of Guernsey during World War Two and the effect this had on the islanders. It’s protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is an author who compiles the letters into a wonderful novel.

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It is 9:30am in California, where Annie Barrows lives, and 5:30pm in England. I have set up my skype camera and wait a little nervously to begin my interview with Annie Barrows. My first impression is how friendly and chatty she is and after introductions, I launch into my questions. 

What was it like getting into the mind of another writer?

I can’t picture how anybody would do what I was supposed to do unless they knew that other writer extremely intimately. When Mary Ann asked me to finish the book for her because she was ill, I said ‘yes of course’. Inside I was thinking, ‘this is insane, this is crazy, how can I write your book?’ When I sat down to do it, that’s when I realised, ‘oh, well of course I know what to do, of course,’ because I’d grown up with Mary Ann. She’d been in my life forever; just down the street, everywhere. We’re quite the chatty family so I had been hearing her talk for years and that’s why I could do it. I would type the sentence and think ‘oh I know what comes next’ and there it would go. I could hear that voice, but I have no idea how you could do this if you didn’t know the writer.

Had Mary Ann told you about the book before she asked you to finish it for her? 

Mary Ann loved research so for twenty years it was just research about the occupation, about World War Two, about resistance movements in World War Two. Like I said, we’re a chatty family, so of course I knew she was writing it. I found it interesting that for an American, I knew a lot more about Guernsey and the occupation that most Americans. At that point, most Americans knew nothing about it. If you ask Americans what Guernsey is, they would say ‘it’s a cow’. I knew what she was doing, but I had never read the manuscript.

What was your approach when starting to rewrite the novel?

Procrastination… I had a really long conversation with Mary Ann because the manuscript had been accepted by a publisher when I got it. She had a twenty-page letter from her editor about all the changes they wanted her to make. A lot of it was to make the book longer. We had a conversation that lasted about four hours where I went through the letter. We talked about what she wanted and then I said I’d do it and that was the template. After that, I didn’t really talk to her about it. Once or twice, I asked her a question, but she was not well. She didn’t want to talk about the book. I did a lot of research. I had her books that she had collected, and I could see all her notes. I knew what she had found interesting and what she had wanted to use.

Do you have a particular writing method?

I know how the stories are supposed to go but I don’t outline much. Why get up in the morning if you know exactly what’s going to happen? I love to write! It’s the joy of my life and I get a lot of pleasure from the moment of invention. I love invention. I know what’s going to happen in the big sense. 

Had you been to Guernsey before rewriting the book?

No, not at all which was somewhat unfortunate. It would have been really helpful. I would look at the Guernsey island weather cam a lot! I had this wonderful research library just up the street, but there’s some stuff you just can’t find out. I can find out street names but not that sense of how things really look as atmospherics. For example, when Juliet comes to that harbour, what can she see when she arrives? That’s really tricky. I went to Guernsey for the first time after the book was printed but before the book was published. I have of course been since many times.

Did you like it as a place?

Oh, it’s beautiful, I love it. I mean, I keep going back. It’s a beautiful island. Of course, everybody there has been so wonderful to me. It’s got a very rich history in addition to what happened there during the war. There’s a Neolithic burial site and these great Druidical sites.

Have any of your other books been based on a place that you’ve had to explore?

The next novel that I wrote for adults was set in 1938 in a small town in West Virginia, so I did have to go there. Under normal circumstances, I would definitely do physical research.

Both you and Mary Ann evidently did a lot of research on Guernsey. Were the characters in the novel based on people from the island?

Not on anybody on the island. Certainly, when you read the book there are things that happened, but the characters, not so much. They were based on ideas of resistance characters and how people resisted and what it means. There was a guy named Kim Malthe-Bruun, a Danish guy who was a resistance fighter and died. He was inspiration for Elizabeth. Actually, there was a woman on Jersey, who puts words in Elizabeth’s mouth. She saved a Polish kid, but she died and it was terrible. She hid him and did everything she could because he was some woman’s son. That is how Elizabeth felt too. So that kind of spirit was inspired in her character.

Did your own career as an author help inform your rewriting of Juliet’s character?

Yes. I mean, unlike Juliet, I don’t ever suffer from writer’s block. Her feelings about publishing I can relate to. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. It’s all been worked out of me. In my first job, I was on a newspaper and had to write on deadline. No more writers block, you just do it. I’m not very precious, not much of a perfectionist.

Was the epistolary form difficult to navigate?

I didn’t find it difficult. I thought it was a brilliant solution to the problem of getting a number of different experiences into the book viably. Mary Ann has twenty-six first person characters reporting in. Some of them just come in for one letter where they report their experiences and there’s a rational for it and its great. The first-person voice is fun to write. The problem is conveying information and I think the way Mary Ann set it up, with people talking to Juliet because she’s writing a book, telling her things that happened and then once Juliet comes to the island her reporting back to various friends on the mainland, works. The one thing you can never do in a letter with any kind of grace is direct dialogue. I think that is something that was part of Mary Ann’s choice. I don’t think she liked to write dialogue. I do like to write dialogue, so I consider that to be a loss but overall it was a great form and it was interesting to write.

Do you have a favourite scene or part of the book?

My favourite part is Juliet’s voice which I just love. I love it because it sounds like Mary Ann, because it sounds like that sort of ebullient willingness to be interested in other people’s lives and to care, to really care what happened to these people on the island. That’s a great quality. Any kind of reserve Juliet had made her more driven to know these people and that I think is a beautiful quality, and it’s very much like Mary Ann.

How much did you have to change?

Nobody can tell what’s me and what’s Mary Ann, not even my mother, and that is how I’m going to leave it. All I’m going to say is that essentially, my job was to make the book longer. The plot was the same, but it was shorter before I got there.

What was the biggest challenge you faced whilst working on this project?

The biggest challenge was what happened afterwards. I thought that I was finishing Mary Ann’s book, making it better, and the book would get published and everybody would be happy. But that’s not what happened. What happened was that Mary Ann died before the book came out and then the book became this major international best seller and I spent the next year on an airplane. I have a whole other career; I had a working life exclusively as a children’s book author. In 2008, I had four books published. Never do that, it makes you insane. I had never experienced anything like what happened when Guernsey was published. You just end up going all over the place and that was hard. It was not what I thought I was going to be doing. It was thrilling in some ways and I really felt like I loved to write for adults too. But it was really not what I thought was going to happen. 

Are you still glad you did it and were a part of it?

Oh, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I loved being the co-author of a major international bestseller. I get a lot of respect and it’s always fun to go to movie premieres. Honestly, I think one of the huge things is that this book has meant so much to so many people. In some part of me, I don’t take this very personally because I think of this as Mary Ann’s book. I think it’s wonderful that I could have something to do with this book that meant so much to all these folks. That’s great, I love that.

That sounds like something quite special to be part of.

Yes. This was Mary Ann’s lifelong dream. All she ever wanted as long as I could remember was to write a book that somebody would like enough to want to publish. It was so tragic, so unbearably tragic that she didn’t get to see it happen. But it did happen and that’s wonderful.

What do you think the ultimate message of the novel is?

Well I know what Mary Ann would say. Mary Ann would say that the ultimate message of the novel is that nobody has yet devised a way to keep people from making art that expresses their freedom. Art is ultimately always about freedom and power and no matter what kind of oppression you live in, no matter what liberties have been taken away from you, that will never go away. That is a perpetual, eternal aspect of the human psyche. To make something is an expression of freedom, no matter what your circumstances. To love the thing made. What books meant to the people in the literary society is that they could not be taken away from them, even when they were eating nothing but potatoes.

With many thanks to Annie Barrows

©francescatyer2019

A reading list

Brilliant fiction that must be read 

  • Atonement – Ian McEwan

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A coming-of-age tale which focuses on thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis and her aspirations to be a writer. It is written in three parts, beginning in 1935 and ending in 1999, and covers themes such as love, loss, innocence, guilt, war, and identity. Although a modern novel, the language and plot capture the pain of war and the passing of time.

  • Book Thief, The – Markus Zusak

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This book is set in Germany during the Second World War. It follows the story of Liesel a young girl who steals books to read as a source of comfort. The book is narrated by Death which gives it a unique tone. The novel tells of history and struggle but also of knowledge and growing up.

  • Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

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Set between the 1920’s and early 40’s, this novel explores the life of Charles Ryder and his involvement with Sebastian and Julia Flyte. The book contains a deep sense of nostalgia whilst also exploring themes of romance, Catholicism, homosexuality, and the aristocracy. It is a classic and a novel which speaks of a certain time with assurance and skill.

  • Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

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This novel is set in Georgia during the time of the American Civil War. This coming-of-age tale follows the struggles of the fiery Scarlet O’Hara and her attempts to escape a life of poverty. It is a large book and contains a wonderful amount of depth and detail.

  • Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows 

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This novel is written in epistolary form and is constructed through a series of letters sent between characters. The story explores the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII and the effect this had on the islanders. It’s protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is an author who compiles the letters to create a novel. It has a unique style and the characters are easy to fall in love with.

  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

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Bronte writes of Jane Eyre, a tormented orphan who becomes a governess at a large house named Thornfield. The story shifts from Jane’s life with her aunt to an orphanage and then onto her life at Thornfield under the master, Mr Rochester. The novel contains struggle and heartbreak but also a profound sense of romance and love.

  • Lord of the Ring’s, The – J. R. R. Tolkien

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A summary couldn’t do justice to The Lord of the Ring’s. Filled with excitement, the fantastical, and great adventure, it is one classic series that should never go unread.

  • Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

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This fantasy novel follows the story of an unusual and special girl named Lyra. It begins in Oxford before moving to London and eventually to the cold, icy North. The mystery and intrigue of the novel keeps every page exciting, filled horror and adventure but also  friendship and love.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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Another classic that a description cannot do justice to. A novel filled with family, sisterhood, love, wit, and charm.

  • Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

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Rebecca begins with the meeting of the nameless protagonist and Maxim de Winter. She is shy and innocent and he is a widower with an estate. The new Mrs de Winter is continually haunted by reminders of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. The story traces the newlyweds romance which is tainted by dark secrets which are slowly revealed. The beautiful writing and mysterious happenings instantly make Rebecca a page turner.

All about reading

What author doesn’t like to read? I certainly do and this post offers an insight into my reading world.

What am I reading?

The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. The series, His Dark Materials, has been sitting on a shelf for years. I have often looked at the books and thought I should read them one day, but I just never did. Now, I’ve finally decided to give The Northern Lights a go and I’m loving it. The depth of language creates an engaging style and the story itself is unique and thrilling.

What is my favourite book?

This is a difficult question to answer. I have favourite children’s books and favourite fiction. Several of my most beloved series include The Dragon Keeper by Carole Wilkinson, The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown, Harry Potter, and The Lord of The Rings. My favourite classic novel would have to be Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. However, I also greatly admire Ian McEwan, Jane Austen, the Bronte’s and many, many others.

Which of my books is gathering dust?

Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly. I’ve tried reading it but I couldn’t get through the first quarter. I always find that there is a ‘right time’ and a ‘wrong time’ for a book and a reader to come together. If you’re not in the mood for a certain book then there’s no good trying to make yourself read it. This happened to me with Little Women Letters – I just haven’t been in the mood. I will finish it sometime but have decided to read a few others first.

What am I waiting to read?

There are too many to list here. I don’t know what I’ll read next, so I’ll just have to see what strikes me. I might try another classic or maybe something more modern which my list is often lacking.

Why do I read?

I read to learn about writing and how to build places and characters from those who already know. Like most people, I also read to escape into another world different to my own. Reading feeds the imagination and nurtures both stillness and creativity.

What is my reading method?

I used to be a slow reader and would deliberately look at every word. If I ever missed something, I’d have to go back and read it again. I’ve now learned to read quickly which enables me to get through more books! However, sometimes it’s still nice to take the time to indulge. I have been known to have a few books on the go at the same time, but this is usually because I start one and then replace it with another.

Where and when do I read? 

I most commonly read in bed, either before I go to sleep or in the morning. I find that mornings and evenings are good times to reflect on stories, issues, and ideas. Train journeys are also a good time to read as there are limited distractions. However, more often than not, I prefer to read in absolute silence.