Interview: Jacqueline Winspear, The White Lady
Writing historical mystery and thrillers, ignoring where you're shelved in the bookshop, and where to hunt for story gold
And now another interview with the wonderful Jacqueline Winspear, who I’ve been fortunate enough to interview multiple times about her mystery series, Maisie Dobbs, her fantastically titled memoir This Time Next Year We’ll be Laughing, and now for her latest, a standalone novel many are calling a historical thriller, The White Lady.
Jacqueline and I have a good long rambling chat about finding gold in your life that can feed a book, why it doesn’t matter what genre you get labeled, and how she used the image of a braid to write a story Lee Child called “a twisty turny thriller.”
This was great fun to record, as I’m sure you’ll hear. Happy listening!
image: Holly Clark
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The White Lady, Jacqueline Winspear
Jacqueline’s appearances on The Secret Library
Bouchercon World Mystery Convention
Griffin Dunne documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Transcript of Episode Eight:
[00:00:25] Caroline Donahue: Jacqueline, it's such a treat always to get to talk to you, so thank you for writing another book, not only so we could read it, but so I could have a chat with you.
[00:00:34] Jacqueline Winspear: It's wonderful. We also have such great conversations and I think we often go over it on alotted time and chat even more , which is great.
[00:00:43] Caroline Donahue: We're breaking all the rules. You mentioned just as we were starting up that a number of reviewers are referring to your latest book, The White Lady, as a thriller when historically, I have, and I'm assume you've considered yourself a mystery writer, so I'm wondering how do those two feel different to you, and what were your thoughts as you were thinking about writing The White Lady and conceiving of that story?
[00:01:09] Jacqueline Winspear: The interesting thing is when I wrote Maisie Dobbs, my first novel, by the way this year is the 20th anniversary of Maisie Dobbs. It's a big, it's a big year, I didn't sit down to think I'm going to write a mystery.
[00:01:21] All I wanted to do was write a story that was in my head, and it just happened to turn out to be a mystery. I didn't even have a series in mind at that point. It was really interesting to me when I saw the book suddenly, when they came into bookstores, and they were being shelved in historical fiction, mystery fiction, literary fiction a couple of bookstores in anti-war fiction. I mean, women's fiction-- it was all over the place. And I thought, well, that's interesting. And I think it's very much been probably a hallmark of my work that it could be described as cross genre because they're very character driven. And I was very fortunate with Maisie Dobbs because when I was then asked about the next book I had time to think about how I wanted to design the arc of a series.
[00:02:09] But with The White Lady, it was a similar situation. I had this story in my head. In fact, it's a story that was germinated in childhood and I never thought of it: "I'm writing a mystery". I thought, I am writing the story of Elinor White. I'm writing this story of this woman who has lived and served in a very dangerous position in two wars, and I wanted to follow not just her, but other characters, what that has done to them. And then of course I plunk her right in another war, which was effectively organized crime in post-war London. Which some people often look back on and see as a almost a quasi-romantic age as if these the crime lords were some sort of, kind of Robin Hood in the working-class areas, and they were brutal guys.
[00:02:57] Absolutely brutal and organized crime is brutal. So that was her story. What happens? What are the lingering effects and what does she do with one big thing in particular?
[00:03:07] It's really interesting that and lovely in a way because it's, it adds a different slant to my work that all the reviewers have said this is a thriller I think Lee Child referred to it as a twisty turny thriller and which is lovely coming from someone like Lee who's a master of the thriller.
[00:03:22] Caroline Donahue: I can see that in this way and I can also see why it doesn't matter. I think this is the theme, it doesn't matter if we're writing already thinking about where someone is going to shelve it, we've already taken our eyes off of the story in a way.
[00:03:37] Jacqueline Winspear: And I never think that I never think, where's this going to go?
[00:03:40] Or what are we going to call it? I it just doesn't enter my head. I, I write a story that is in my head. I just want to get that story down. it's interesting, I was recently asked by someone about, I can't remember the actual frame of the question, but it was along the lines of what is the most important thing for people to know about you and your writing?
[00:04:01] I said it straight away because it came to me, but think it's true. It's to write from the heart. And I think whether, whatever you are writing even if you are you are writing nonfiction or whatever you write from the heart, and it's so a place where your heart is as you are writing.
[00:04:18] And I think that's the most important thing to me. I wanted with all these, with the characters, not just Elinor, who is obviously the focus of the book, but to write from the heart and to get into the heart of a character. That is the most important thing to me. And then I hope the plotting comes along , along, along for the ride.
[00:04:38] Caroline Donahue: You pick people who live very interesting lives, and so I think that there are exciting events that come along with it.
[00:04:46] as such, with Elinor in particular, given how much effort you put into characters and in developing them, do you feel like this was the end of her story? Because I could see, I was thinking this right as I finished, I wonder if someone's going to ask Jacqueline," what's the next book in Elinor's story?|
[00:05:06] Because obviously organized crime hasn't ended. Like the world isn't a beautiful and perfect place at the end of this book, and I'm sure that she still has opinions and ideas about life. So how do you develop a character that's so interesting and then make it a standalone when they clearly live off the end of the page?
[00:05:25] Jacqueline Winspear: It's an interesting thing you've asked that I've been asked that question a number of times already. Because Elinor, she's only early forties. She's only 42, something like that. And I was, I've been asked the same question about my other standalone, which wasn't actually a mystery, like The Care and Management of Lies.
[00:05:41] Absolutely same question. And I can see a sequel. I could make Elinor's story into a series. I don't want to do that at this particular time. I'm not going to give away the ending, but we know that despite her actions she's got a training inside her that is not going to go away.
[00:06:00] She might have come to terms with it to some extent, it's not going to go away. So we shall see. But if something comes to me and I'd like to do a sequel, then I'll do it. But at this stage, Elinor's in a place on her own. I know. It's just hard to believe that someone like Elinor is going to be happy just digging her roses, someone will come calling.
[00:06:21] Caroline Donahue: But maybe you need to have space so that when they do come calling, it's, you're able to write from the heart in that space.
[00:06:29] Jacqueline Winspear: It doesn't always seem like this, I think, to the reader, but when I was writing it was a very emotionally demanding book.
[00:06:37] Because I'm dealing with a character who as a, effectively as a child a very young person, was taught to kill and in both the World Wars and it's something I'm looking at again and again, but the way that, that children are impacted by war.
[00:06:53] And that's why I use that quote from Eglantyne Jebb, who is the founder of the Save the Children fund, "Every war is a war against the child." I found it very emotionally demanding to write. And I'll even share with you a point when I sat back and thought, I have to figure out something here, how I'm going to treat certain aspects of this book.
[00:07:11] And that was when the tragedy in Yvaldi happened. And when I was I guess I was about two-thirds of the way through writing The White Lady and I just sat back and thought I have to figure out because of the material I'm dealing with, which is a child with a gun. And it's, that's present day that's really happened.
[00:07:30] I'm writing fiction, but sometimes you just have to sit back and think, I have to look at how I deal with this. So that was an emotionally charged moment in, in terms of my creativity and my imagination.
[00:07:41] Caroline Donahue: You have this impulse and there's this character who appears in your head and you're going to follow her. But she didn't become who she is because her life was easy.
[00:07:51] Jacqueline Winspear: Yes, exactly. And that's something I've played with i in all my fiction really, it's that what happens to ordinary people in extraordinary times? What happens when an ordinary family are impacted by war?
[00:08:03] People do things they never dreamt they would have to do. And I often think of my mother who was in she was evacuated at the outset of world War II when she was 12 years old and brought back into London when she was 14, and saw horrible things.
[00:08:20] Which she shared with me when I was maybe too young to hear some of those stories, but you gotta tell somebody and I think that impacted me and I've, it's amazing. It's interesting number of scenes that I've woven into my fiction that were scenes that really happened, if you will.
[00:08:36] And I'll give you an example of that if I may.
[00:08:39] Caroline Donahue: Yes, please.
[00:08:40] Jacqueline Winspear: I think it was in The Consequences of Fear: there's a scene where Maisie sees it. It was after a bombing, a woman literally clawing at the debris trying to get to her daughters, trying to get to her child. And my aunt told me the story of she was 15 and she was working at a factory in South London, and there was a daytime bombing rate, so they were all sent home and it's really interesting that a lot of people just, they always had scars on their legs or scabs on their legs because they you'd fall in the rubble or whatever.
[00:09:13] So everybody was always tripping over , She described walking home and suddenly she's walking past , to get home, the aftermath of the bombing. And she saw this woman literally with her hands, streaming blood, just clawing at the debris, trying to get to her kids and the ARP, which were the air raid precautions guys just trying to pull her off.
[00:09:33] |We'll do it. We'll do it. Love. We'll help you love. Don't worry, we'll find them,| and this woman just screaming. And she said at that point she saw my mom coming towards her with their father because they'd come to look for her because they were worried about her because they knew that where one of the bombs had hit and they were coming to find her.
[00:09:51] And she said, and you know, this is an elderly lady telling this story, and she said she was so distressed. She said when she felt their arms around her, she just broke down, you hear about the stiff upper lip and, and absolutely people went through hell as they did in Germany, in Poland, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and so on.
[00:10:10] And people just got on with it, but it doesn't mean they didn't cry, and so that was a story from my aunt that scene worked its way into a. because it was a very emotional scene, , but it helped anchor the book in its time and place. And I think that's one of the things we look for as writers, particularly when we are dealing with times past, we are anchoring the narrative with detail so that the reader can, feel that they are there as if they are watching the scene themselves.
[00:10:40] Caroline Donahue: And it gives you a way to use those stories that you've heard.
[00:10:45] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah. As I did with The White Lady, there are just some scenes in there and some of them quite amusing scenes as well I guess I could share this with you. It's There's a scene where Elinor is training to jump out of an aircraft.
[00:10:58] They don't just take you up and make you jump out of an aircraft-- you have to get used to the idea of jumping and you have to get used to the idea of jumping with something on your back. And initially that was done inside an aircraft hanger or some other training center, and you'd go up to the top of a trestle and there's a great big mattressy kind of thing at the bottom that's going to catch you.
[00:11:20] Or they had other means of catching you. And there's a sergeant who's training these agents who are about to be deployed to different places in Europe to run resistance operations. And I'm not giving away a massive part of the plot by saying that because it's on the back of the book.
[00:11:35] But I'll have to tell you that it was many years ago when I was in my early twenties. My boyfriend at the time was in the Army And it was one of these fun things that they did at the weekends. And it was not just for a small group of soldiers, it was also for friends or whatever, and it was to do a para ascending exercise on Salisbury Plain. Now a para ascending was where basically you've got a parachute on and you're attached to by lines to the back of a Land Rover , and your parachute is out the back of you. And the parachute. The parachute, the Land Rover speeds. And goes down like this and basically the parachute lifts up behind you.
[00:12:16] Caroline Donahue: Oh boy.
[00:12:16] Jacqueline Winspear: And then you go up to, I don’t know how many feet. And then when you get to the maximum height you punch the sort of the button here that releases the parachute or not releases. The parachute obviously not releases you from the Land Rover. And you the line down. And you land.
[00:12:31] Just as you would land if you jumped out of an aircraft. So it's actually, that's often the first part of their training for parachute jumps. We were doing this training and the sergeant's standing in front of us and he's explaining how to put your hands in like this and curl when you roll. And he said, "And, if you don't put your arms in and you put your arms out, you're going to end up like a shorthand typist."
[00:12:53] And he put his, he did this. And it was a joke.
[00:12:56] Caroline Donahue: he tucked his little hands, so they were coming outta his shoulders.
[00:12:59] Jacqueline Winspear: "You're going to end up like a shorthand typist.| And actually that's what stopped me doing the jump. I thought, I am going to kill myself if I do this.
[00:13:07] Caroline Donahue: So you got out of it.
[00:13:09] Jacqueline Winspear: I just said, you know what, I'll just watch [even though] I did all the training.
[00:13:12] Caroline Donahue: I was going to, I know I was waiting to hear. I was like, how did you do that? There's no way I could have.
[00:13:18] Jacqueline Winspear: No I'm a very adventurous person, but there are times when you just know that little voice on your shoulder says, I don't think you should do this.
[00:13:25] And it was the, i, it was the thought of, I just suddenly thought, if I do this, I might break my arms and I won't be able to write or do anything, you know? Although I have broken my arms quite badly, horseback riding, but so I didn't do it, but I remembered him. I remembered that little sergeant and you know the scene.
[00:13:42] Caroline Donahue: Yes
[00:13:42] Jacqueline Winspear: When when Elinor is training to do her parachute jump.
[00:13:46] Caroline Donahue: I love, love this.
[00:13:47] Jacqueline Winspear: And I saw in my head that little bloke saying to me, looking at me, teacher, I think I was only one of two women doing it, two of the girlfriends that came along and said, you're going to end up as a shorthand typist, I don't think so.
[00:14:01] Caroline Donahue: And you said, you better be nice or I'll put you in my book. And there he is.
[00:14:06] Jacqueline Winspear: Years later, he is in the book. It's interesting. But then Elinor herself was inspired by a woman that I saw when I was just a very small child. We talked when I published my memoir, didn't we?
[00:14:18] Caroline Donahue: Yes.
[00:14:19] Jacqueline Winspear: This Time Next Year We'll be Laughing and I, and I told the story of her, I told the story of Elinor, but when I wrote the memoir I knew eventually I'd be writing The White Lady, but she was a little way off.
[00:14:29] Caroline Donahue: I think that people often have this sense of which is the correct book to write, or how do I know I have the right idea when in reality it's like you and Elinor have been approaching each other for this book to happen and you can't really make a wrong choice. If you feel pulled to write a story, then that's the story that's ready right now. It's not like you should have written it before This Time Next Year We'll be Laughing. This was the order it was supposed to happen.
[00:15:01] Jacqueline Winspear: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it's interesting because the story has has gathered from a very slow start when I was a very young child, the story has gathered moss over the years, long before I was a writer. And it's interesting you mentioned the word themes because I recently, in my newsletter -- I do about three or four pre-pub newsletters, I wrote about base themes in writing
[00:15:23] Caroline Donahue: I must have kept it in the back of my brain.
[00:15:27] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah. And John Steinbeck wrote about themes in, in writing and I can't remember his exact quote.
[00:15:32] But what he pointed to was that, and it's something I've. I've spoken about before, and he pointed to the fact that it is the themes in writing that draw people together and that aid us through our writing aid and through our reading to understand one another to a greater extent than we might.
[00:15:52] And, it's interesting because what I've referred to in the past is touching upon universal truth. Which means that when I'm reading a book, there's a, there are universal truths there that anybody from any cultural economic or geographic background can look and see that.
[00:16:11] I've just been in the midst of reading Jonathan Kellerman's new thriller, and there was just one passage on I had seen, because was actually reading it on my pad that lots of readers had actually underlined that point, because grief is something that we all feel, whether we are in Turkey or New Zealand or New York, San Francisco, or wherever, or London grief is a universal truth of how we feel about that, which has happened. And grief has many different faces, but we all know grief. So it's something that, it's one of those anchors in a book that any, anyone, if you touch upon a universal truth, then the reader is with you. The reader is with you. And and I think that's something that Steinbeck was pointing to in terms of basic themes.
[00:16:59] What he called base, he called them base themes. it's that which brings us together. And he actually referred to it as "it's the love that brings us together", which I thought was very interesting. And certainly if I look at themes in The White Lady, there is the theme of childhood engagement in a time of war.
[00:17:18] There's the the position of women, and not only in war time, but generally in society, and at certain times being very underestimated. Or as one of the characters refers to it as underesTEEMated and even your readers will meet Val, the secretary at Scotland Yard, and she's quite a little firebrand.
[00:17:36] Yes. And yeah. And. she has a, not quite, a little bit more than a walk on part.
[00:17:41] Caroline Donahue: She could carry a book maybe.
[00:17:42] Jacqueline Winspear: I like Val. I liked Val.
[00:17:44] Caroline Donahue: I think this thought about the base themes is really important because I love that you've highlighted how it brings the reader and the writer together and how it can bring anyone together around a theme.
[00:17:59] Because going back to what we started with, this idea of where we're shelved, there's often this incredible pressure that people feel while writing to come up with something entirely unique and I have to come up with 100% different than what anyone has done before. And as soon as they see any theme that seems similar to their own work, they panic.
[00:18:20] Mm-hmm. . And so this idea that it's universal and it's a good sign is a lovely antidote, I think.
[00:18:29] Jacqueline Winspear: I think people make a lot of errors with following the market and for example think. A few years ago, memoir became the big thing. When Frank McCourtBrittle wrote Angela's Ashes, suddenly everybody couldn't wait to get the memoir out.
[00:18:47] And there was a lot of activity in that market. And it was interesting to me because I've always loved memoir, as opposed to autobiography. I loved memoir and I love the personal essay. And again, it goes back to touching the universal with the personal. That's what I love and I knew that one day I really wanted to write a memoir but I didn't want to write it because it was the right time for the market. It just was when I chose to do it.
[00:19:14] And the funny thing is about writing, I was just thinking about this recently because I'm going to be one of the guests of honor at Bouchercon this year in August and I went to my first ever Bouchercon when Macy Dobbs had not long been published.
[00:19:29] I didn't even know there were such conferences. I had a shock . I didn't I hate to say I was not one of those people that went to these things. I thought it was great that people did, but I had never been to anything like it in my life. But anyway, when I wrote Maisie Dobbs, I wrote the story that was in my head and I wrote it in the way that I wanted to write it.
[00:19:48] I love playing with time as reader. Of my books might have discovered, especially with Maisie Dobbs, especially with The Care and Management of Lies, different locations drawn together and very much so the weaving of time with The White Lady I love. That challenge. I love that task and I love doing it because we all do that.
[00:20:08] We look back and forth. We look back and forth and into the future and what have you. Anyway, so Maisie Dobbs did not follow any particular laid-down way of writing a novel. And I went to Bouchercon, and I was sitting in one of these seminars and they were talking about the three-act narrative or whatever.
[00:20:26] And what should happen by page 10 and what should happen by page 50. And I, my eyes were getting wider and wider. I thought, oh my God, I didn't do that. I don’t know how to do that. And I came out of that and I phoned my husband and I said, “You'll never guess what there's a thing, and it's called the three acts! What am I going to do? I don’t know anything about that.”
“Just carry on as you are dear. Just write what you want,” he said, “I think you're doing okay.” And after that, I've never followed that because I still don't quite get it because it's just, I'm one of these people that I can't read manuals I have to get someone in to to show me how to use something.
[00:21:00] I just, I haven't got that kind of mind, and I don't I haven't got a very prescriptive mind either. If someone asked me to do something to a certain pattern, I would I try to knit, I knit scarves because it's one long run. I can't be prescriptive or I follow a pattern and I end up with something completely different.That's okay.
[00:21:18] Caroline Donahue: Oh yes.
[00:21:18] Jacqueline Winspear: You know?
[00:21:18] Caroline Donahue: Yes, yes.
[00:21:20] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah. And anyway but I can still remember that panic at my first Bouchercon and thinking, oh, and these people all know what they're doing and I haven't a clue. I don’t know what I'm doing. And I still sometimes think one of these days people are going to find me out and realize, I don’t know what I'm doing,
[00:21:36] But what I love is character and I love getting into characters. I love exploring character. I love putting someone in a position and saying, "now what are you going to do with that? Let's see what you do with that." And I'm going to go and I'm going to see what you do with that. I know roughly where I'm going, but I have to leave room to dance with the moment, cause I don’t know. I don't know, .
[00:21:59] Caroline Donahue: That's the fun part.
[00:22:00] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah. I did with The White Lady because it I knew that I had a challenge and the challenge was braiding these stories together and it was a loose braid until I came into a close weave. And that's my best way of describing it.
[00:22:16] And for the first time ever, I did my own version of story boarding something. I wrote all the key scenes on cards, on the index cards. I got myself an easel one of those that you stick your big post size post-it notes. I'm looking at it now and. I, and it was after I'd started, I was a few chapters in and I thought, I don't want to lose track of anything.
[00:22:37] Caroline Donahue: Right.
[00:22:38] Jacqueline Winspear: And, and I put all the scenes on the board.
[00:22:42] Caroline Donahue: Yeah.
[00:22:42] Jacqueline Winspear: And then I started moving them around as if I was moving threads around to braid.
[00:22:48] Caroline Donahue: Cool.
[00:22:49] Jacqueline Winspear: And you know what it reminded me of? When I was at college, I did two, what you would call majors, and one was English and the other one was textile art.
[00:22:59] So I was working on very big looms or I was working with different fabrics and I was doing a lot of things like screen printing and oh gosh, all manner of working all manner of media to create pictures, if you will.
[00:23:15] Caroline Donahue: Yes.
[00:23:15] Jacqueline Winspear: And it was so much like you create a tapestry on a loom on those big looms.
[00:23:21] What you are working from is a design that you've created and it's underneath, it's called a cartoon.
[00:23:27] Caroline Donahue: Oh.
[00:23:28] Jacqueline Winspear: And you can see that underneath. Not everybody works with that, but that's something we did as an exercise. And so
[00:23:34] you are, you are looking through, at something that's just black and white, and you are then putting in color on the threads here, and then you are using your bobbin, if you will to create the pattern. It was like that. I was braiding the story until I came into a close weave. That was the only way I can describe it.
[00:23:52] Caroline Donahue: I can see it, So my question is, did you write it chronologically as it appears in the book?
[00:23:59] Jacqueline Winspear: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm not one of these people that suddenly thinks I think I'll tackle chapter 13 today, because what I wrote there might affect chapter 13. So I can't be descriptive about chapter 13.
I'm going to use another sort of metaphor here that I also used. I went to a girls’ school.
[00:24:16] Everybody had to do needlework. But I could, but we had needlework teachers that were very prescriptive that you cut out your fabric and then you do your tailor tacks, and then you do your real tacks and then you get to the machine or whatever. And we had this new teacher one day who, I will never forget her, she was a brand new teacher, but she wasn't sort of a young, brand new teacher. She wasn't straight out of college. She had worked in couture at one of the major couture houses, and she just found that she couldn't handle getting a collection out when she had two kids at home. She said, you're working 24 hours a day for weeks.
[00:24:51] She said you're sleeping at this studio. She said, no, you know, can't do that. But when we were talking about tailor tacks, I mean, she just rolled her eyes. She said, this is what you do, and however I will add. She said, “I am used to couture.” She said, “Every stitch will be -- you cannot go one eighth of an inch outside of where that should be.”
[00:25:09] we had to do French seams. We had to really she taught me, I tell you, because I was the one that didn't really want to do the class. So of course she aimed at me. But anyway, and this is really interesting because I see it in my work.
[00:25:21] She'd take the two pieces of fabric and instead of doing the tailor tacks and the other tacks and the pins in horizontally. And she said, as you are stitching in the machine, you can move the fabric. you can manipulate the fabric. She said, you just pull out those pins as you go.
[00:25:37] Yeah. But you can always work with the fabric. Whereas our other needlework teachers they'd say, oh, that's not right, and you'd rip it. And what you end up with if you keep messing with fabric is holes. Mm-hmm. and gray fabric, weathered fabric.
[00:25:50] I don't want the fabric of my writing to be weathered. I want it to be fresh. Ah. and I want to be able to, that's why I'm not too prescriptive in my planning. I have to be able to work with the moment, I have to be able to work with the fabric. And I've often thought about Mrs. Musgrave and her pins and the way she was a stickler for everything being tight I mean, it had to be absolutely correct.
[00:26:15] Caroline Donahue: It sounds like she's still here. We don't even realize it, but her scenes are present in your books.
[00:26:21] Jacqueline Winspear: Uh, yeah, if only Mrs. Musgrave knew. Yeah. It's and just an aside, I mean, we were a group of teen girls that because it was a girls' school, you had to do a a practical subject in your exams.
[00:26:33] And I didn't want to do cookery because I couldn't stand school cookery. I knew how to cook anyway. And and so I, my friend Anne Marie was doing needle work, so much needle work as well. And on the first day, we were sitting there and I was being an adolescent 15 or saying, and I'm sitting there thinking, I don't want to be here.
[00:26:49] And Mrs. Musgrave put a series of Vogue patterns in front of us and she took this one of pictures and she said, “How would you embellish a garment like this?” And I sat there and went “ricrac.” And I don’t know if you know what ricrac is.
[00:27:02] Caroline Donahue: No, I do.
[00:27:03] Jacqueline Winspear: It's the, it's the cheapest.
[00:27:05] Caroline Donahue: Yeah. They put it on like raggedy ann.
[00:27:08] Jacqueline Winspear: Yes. And she looked at me, raised an eyebrow, leaned towards me and she said “I never want to hear the words ricrac in my classes again.” And then she said, “You will create a garment.” She said, “There will be, it will be to exact da, da da da da. You will do french seams, you will do a lining.” She said, “If they are not French seams, I want every seam finished in a blanket stitch.”
[00:27:36] I thought, I wish I'd kept my mouth shut. Ricrac. But she was brilliant. Oh, I got the needlework prize that year.
[00:27:45] Caroline Donahue: Of course you did. Of course you did.
[00:27:49] Jacqueline Winspear: I've still got the book on my shelf somewhere. I'm going to show you and I tell you why. I'm going to tell you why. She knew that I liked reading about things. So this old book is a history and she knew I loved history, a history of fashion, but everything is a story. And uh, there you go. Form senior needle work, the prize for senior needle work. I couldn't believe it.
[00:28:17] And then and I still, I've referred, look, it's tatty. I've referred to that over the years and if I want I want to get the clothing right for one of my books or referring back to clothing I go to this book. Yeah. Mrs. Musgrave.
[00:28:32] Caroline Donahue: I almost wonder because Elinor has a relationship with a teacher in the book. Where she shows a little bit of attitude at the beginning because she's
[00:28:41] Jacqueline Winspear: Miss Doncaster.
[00:28:42] Caroline Donahue: Yes. Yeah, because Elinor was quite good at math and didn't need as much time to do the test. Yeah, I just, I feel like there's a little echo of Ms. Musgrave in that moment, maybe.
[00:28:52] Jacqueline Winspear: Definitely with Ms. Doncaster. Yeah. Mrs. Musgrave turned up there. She was she was a lovely lady. And and of course Ms. Doncaster gets, definitely gets the measure of Elinor. Oh, definitely. It's the measure of Elinor and later, when the relationship develops in a different way.
[00:29:08] She knows who Elinor is and she knows what Elinor could become as well. Yes. And her friend Sophie. I liked Sophie .
[00:29:16] Caroline Donahue: I did too. I did too. I liked all the characters and think even the ones I wouldn't want to hang out with personally, I liked them as characters and I felt I could feel The way they would appear in a room like they took up space.
[00:29:29] Jacqueline Winspear: And I think, how can I say I often think I'm not just dealing with characters, I'm dealing with human beings, and human beings have their space. Even the human beings that don't want to take up space, they take up some space, but what's the space they're taking up?
[00:29:41] Is it the shyness space? Do they have a secret space? Are they scared space? What is that space that a character takes up? And for the amount of time the character's on the page they can't overwhelm the page because they have a place in the story. But I want to know what space they're taking up. Yeah, I think that's a good way to put it.
[00:30:01] Caroline Donahue: I like it. Everyone took up space and they, in a way that I can feel that weaving together of all the space that they're taking up--
[00:30:08] Jacqueline Winspear: thank, thank you.
[00:30:09] Caroline Donahue: --into the story that formed.
[00:30:11] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah. It was a challenging book to write in many ways, but it was the challenge that I wanted to write at that particular moment.
[00:30:18] It was the right time. And it's amazing that it was the right time because the my, my former editor I told her about it. This is a book that's been on my mind for an awfully long time. I mean, I didn't tell her exactly how long, but it really came together when I Was doing research for one of my books in the series, A Lesson in Secrets, and I suddenly saw a way to create Elinor. And how long ago did I write that book? That's a long time ago. and my editor loved the idea. And and so that was I think I talked about that in 2018. Yeah. And so I only got to write it this last it's interesting.
[00:30:55] I was writing about this the other day that people that have read my memoir will know that Elinor, the initial inspiration, I was only three years old and she was a lady that would walk past us every day as my mom and I went down to the farm where my mother was the bookkeeper and.
[00:31:13] She was a child is always, they can't put it into words. They don't have the words for it and even the intellectual thought for it. But children can feel things from adults and I had a feeling about her secrecy. I had a feeling about this deep need for privacy, and this lady and my mom always said good morning to her and eventually she started saying good morning back. And then one day she smiled at me and said, good morning.
[00:31:37] And as we walked past, when we got well past her and she suddenly had vanished over a stile or something, my mother leaned down to me and said, she's one of those women who parachuted into France during the war.
[00:31:48] And I looked up and said, what's a parachute ? And I think that's when my mom thought maybe we can wait on that one. But, it's something that the villagers knew, but no one talked about it. No one talked about it. And she lived in what was called a grace and favor home, but it was interesting because it obviously stayed with me because one of my favorite games as a kid, once I was a little bit older and I realized what these women had done because they started, I mean, the government.
[00:32:15] Not just the government, but filmmakers were making movies about the SOE and resistance work. Even before the end of WWII. And in fact, there was a one movie where literally one of the former operatives was the actress.
[00:32:29] Caroline Donahue: Oh, wow.
[00:32:31] Jacqueline Winspear: So people knew what had gone on even though a lot of detailed information remained classified for 50 years.
[00:32:38] But one of my favorite, there was a disused railway line near my house and one of my favorite games with the other kids, there were just a few other kids in the area was to pretend that we were working for the resistance and we were running along the railway of lines and trying to sabotage trains and running through the woods and everybody got fed up after about half an hour.
[00:32:57] But I wanted to keep on playing. We don't like, can we play another game now? And there was me still wanted to be the secret agent. It was funny really when I look back on it. But it all came together a few years ago. Yeah.
[00:33:11] Caroline Donahue: It did. It really did.
[00:33:13] Jacqueline Winspear: But I think the key element is, and it's something I wanted to explore in The White Lady, what does it mean to live in secret?
[00:33:20] What does it mean to keep these really big secrets which many people have. And I was reading something just recently because a lot information has come out about the way that young people were trained in World War II in Britain Let's say deal with an invasion.
[00:33:38] Caroline Donahue: Yep.
[00:33:39] Jacqueline Winspear: And this guy that I guess was probably about my age was writing about it. And he said he knew there was something different about his mom when he was a little boy. And I guess his mom must have been in her thirties or something at the time.. And this would've been in the sixties something like that.
[00:33:58] She was a young woman in the war and a traveling salesman came to the door and was very pushy and then tried to get in the house and he said, I couldn't believe what happened next. He said, my mother not only attacked him, but she knew how to attack him. And the next thing you know, he's rolling down the path.
[00:34:18] And he said it was the way she used her hands and her knee and she just dispatched him and he said it stayed with him. And it was only when she was elderly that he said, how did you know how to do that? And she said, I was trained and that to me, oh, that's gold.
[00:34:33] Caroline Donahue: That gave me the chills.
[00:34:35] Jacqueline Winspear: Yeah, that's gold. You know, as Joan Didion would say, you know?
[00:34:38] Caroline Donahue: Yes.
[00:34:38] Jacqueline Winspear: When you discover something, When you hear something, and as writers, we're always on the lookout for gold. I wrote about that just recently. I'm just, I'm sure your your subscribers and followers will have read that. Many of them would've read this.
[00:34:52] It was in a book about Joan Didion, it was repeated a lot After she died. And it was when she wrote about being in Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco during the hippie heyday 1967, 68, and she was writing about it. She was at a party where literally everybody was as a high, as a kite,
[00:35:12] Caroline Donahue: of course.
[00:35:12] Jacqueline Winspear: And suddenly she saw a little child, a toddler running around. And I think the kid hardly had any clothes on or was unclothed and had been given drugs. And the kid was high and crushing into stuff. And and the, the reporter had said to her, and it was actually, it was in the documentary that I think it was Griffin Dunn had made, because she was this aunt.
[00:35:34] And how did you feel at that moment? And she gave this wry smile and said “It was gold.” And you know what it was journalistic gold. It was something she could work with. It was the fabric. And I think we're, as writers we look for the fabric. We look for the fabric in our past. We look for the fabric every day when someone says something to us.
[00:35:56] And certainly with this book, there was what became gold for me happened at a very interesting moment in my research. We're was looking for gold.
[00:36:06] Caroline Donahue: Always. Always.
[00:36:08] Jacqueline Winspear: And I've used elements in my past, and not even my parents' past, but something someone says to you. When I was writing I think it was when I was writing The Consequences of Fear. I was having some medical tests and they'd said, oh, everything's fine. And I went, oh, that's great to know and I said something, I can't remember what I said.
[00:36:26] I said, oh, I said I said I was, I'm fairly easygoing about these things. I try not to worry too much. And the technician looked at me and said that's a really good attitude because if you're brittle, you break. And it's just please let me remember that until I get to the car.
[00:36:40] Please let me remember that.
[00:36:41] Caroline Donahue: I know. Let me hold onto it. brittle, It's a great line.
[00:36:43] Jacqueline Winspear: If you brittle, you break. And I used it in the novel. that's gold. We look for these nuggets and we look for the, we remember you'll be a shorthand typist if you don't fall correctly.
[00:36:55] And it's what brings humanity. It's, it brings humanity into the narrative because it's something someone really said. So we can imagine a character saying it. I think that's right. I don't want to speak for everybody.
[00:37:09] Caroline Donahue: I think you are right, and I know that everyone will take so much from having heard this, and I hope that everyone who's been able to listen to this conversation keeps looking for gold out there and that you've been inspired by what we've talked about today.
[00:37:24] I know I've been inspired, as always.
[00:37:27] Jacqueline Winspear: Thank you. And I think this is one of the reasons why so many writers carry notebooks with them. You don't know what you're going to overhear you know, that you have to remember because it's not because it's funny or what is, it's a line that you can use or there's something you see. it's an event that you can share.
[00:37:43] There, there are just things that touch, it's the things that touch us. You don't know if you'll ever be able to use it, but you have to remember it because you might be able to -- it's the, it's like the cement between the bricks on a building and when you're writing a book, you're building.
[00:37:57] You're building a building, you're building something and you know it's anything that can add to the mortar between the bricks and that's what gold can be. Yeah.
[00:38:06] Caroline Donahue: Definitely.
[00:38:08] That's a beautiful point for us to end on because I think that image, I think it holds the whole conversation together. So thank you Jacqueline for coming on.
[00:38:18] It's a treat and an honor as always.
[00:38:21] Jacqueline Winspear: Well, thank you. It really is a treat for me. It's it's one of my favorite conversations I have every year. So thank you. Thank you very much indeed.