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