An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with A J Pearce
Dear Mrs Bird: A Novel (Scribner; Reprint edition, 7 May 2019)
(Editor’s note: Dear Mrs Bird has just been optioned for television by a production company in London.)
London, 1941. Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a war correspondent but finds herself working for the formidable advice columnist Henrietta Bird, doyenne of Woman’s Friend magazine. When Mrs Bird refuses to answer letters containing any form of Unpleasantness and Emmy sees the desperate pleas from women going unhelped, she decides the only thing for it is to secretly write back.
Irresistibly funny and enormously moving, Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is a love letter to the enduring power of friendship, the kindness of strangers and the courage of ordinary people in extraordinary times. – Publisher’s description
Dear Mrs Bird was shortlisted for The British Book Awards 2019 Debut Book of the Year.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Pearce, thank you so much for your time today. We are looking forward to discussing your writing and your debut novel, Dear Mrs Bird: A Novel, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It was shortlisted for The British Book Awards 2019 Debut Book of the Year and optioned for television by a production company in London. Congratulations! Dear Mrs Bird, is an optimistic book set in second World War London and considered part of the ‘Uplit’ trend in publishing, i.e. books with an emphasis on empathy, that are uplifting and life-affirming. Did you set out from the beginning to write this type of book – or just a book that you wanted to read yourself?
“…I knew I wanted it to be something that might make readers smile.”
PEARCE: Thank you for having me. Please feel free to call me AJ! When I first started writing Dear Mrs Bird I didn’t have a huge plan in terms of what type of novel it would be, but I knew I wanted it to be something that might make readers smile. I know many authors say this, but I think it is absolutely critical to write what you love. Many of my favourite novels are by authors writing in the 1930s and ‘40s, and I love the way they combine accessible writing with emotional depth.
AUTHORLINK: That’s brilliant; well your debut certainly comes across this way. What was it about writing about stoicism through the Blitz that appealed to you? Was it the juxtaposition of life – women trying to run their homes, families, and jobs while London was being bombed day and night?
PEARCE: Dear Mrs Bird is a novel about friendship – about sticking together no matter what. Women in the war in Britain played a crucial role in keeping the country going and winning the war. I wanted to write about ordinary women living in an extraordinary time.
AUTHORLINK: We understand you grew up in Hampshire and always loved reading magazines. In fact, you eventually worked in magazine publishing and marketing before you tried your luck at writing. A few years ago, you came across a 1939 issue of a women’s magazine which opened your eyes to an era you knew a little about – but from a perspective from which you could completely relate. You found yourself wondering where each reader would have been reading the magazine for the first time…Perhaps sitting in a kitchen, or on a bus driving past bombed-out buildings. The adverts were often hilarious (like perming lotion for babies or learning how to knit your own underwear), but the thing you loved the most about reading them, was the problem page. Can you tell us a bit about them? Why is that so?
PEARCE: Yes, when – on a whim – I bought a 1939 copy of women’s magazine it was a wonderfully different way of looking into the lives of women in a world I knew a certain amount about. My parents were children during the War, my grandfathers were in the army and my grandmothers were keeping their families together in London and then when evacuated to other areas across the country. I have always had an interest in the era and I love reading the magazines women were reading at the time. The clothes, food, articles and practical help are fascinating, but as a writer, above everything else the problem pages caught my attention.
“In fifty words or less, advice columnists were helping with life-changing problems.”
In every issue there would be five or more readers’ letters – each a story of its own. Many we could relate to now – families, relationships, work etc – and others could only have been written during a war. As well as that, the advice itself leapt out. It wasn’t the clichéd ‘keep calm and carry on’, but invariably thoughtful, supportive and understanding. In fifty words or less, advice columnists were helping with life-changing problems. I knew straight away I wanted to write a novel about it.
AUTHORLINK: You have said (Pan Macmillan 16 Mar 2018 Youtube) you were inspired by your own very close friendships; friendships you have had for years over the good times and the bad, when you found yourself writing this story, and that sense of “unconditional support without question”. Your novel was also inspired by your mother’s friendship with a woman called Olive who she knew from school and still her best friend for 75 years. What is the key to a lasting friendship do you think that last for more than a season? Is it just history?
PEARCE: Friendship is such an interesting relationship to write about. It can last a lifetime despite the fact that unlike a marriage there is no legal agreement, and unlike family you don’t have to stay in touch because you’ll be spending the holiday season together! One of my favourite things about being an author is that readers come up to me at events and introduce themselves and their best friends. Often they tell me how they’ve helped each other through difficult times. I don’t know what the key is, but I do know that lasting friendships are about far more than just history.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, for sure. Had you ever written to an advice column seeking help? Do you think you could be someone who could run an advice column? If yes, why? If no, why not?
PEARCE: I’ve never written to one – not yet anyway! I don’t think I could be an advice columnist. I’d be too worried about everyone and whether or not I’d given them the right advice.
AUTHORLINK: What kind of writing had you done in the past before you attempted to write Dear Mrs Bird? Had you ever tried writing a novel before this one? If so, what was it about?
PEARCE: I wrote a draft of a romcom which was really helpful in terms of learning how to write. The plot was awful but it was a way of finding my voice and learning how much time and effort goes into a finished novel. It was invaluable.
AUTHORLINK: You credit the Arvon courses with turning you into a writer – particularly a commercial women’s fiction course led by Katie Fforde and Judy Astley. We understand the novelist Julie Cohen became your mentor. How did that come about?
PEARCE: I love courses, and learning in general. The Arvon Foundation in the UK is fantastic, running week-long residential courses tutored by published authors. I met Julie Cohen on a tutored retreat she ran at a brilliant place called Retreats For You in Devon. Like Katie and Judy, Julie is a very successful author, and she also occasionally takes on writers for mentoring. I was enormously lucky when she agreed to mentor me. I am a huge fan of them all.
AUTHORLINK: What a dream come true! You are a relatively new writer, but have you already worked out whether you are a plotter or a pantser? Did you create the full story about Dear Mrs Bird first in your head and then drew an outline, or did you just start to write and see where the story took you?
PEARCE: I’m definitely a plotter. I write an outline of around 10-12,000 words and that is my satnav. I’ll probably deviate from it and certainly hope to improve it, but it gives me a starting guide.
“…writing is a craft like any other – you have to practice a lot.”
AUTHORLINK: What was the hardest thing about writing Dear Mrs Bird, or writing in general. What was the easiest?
PEARCE: I find writing dialogue the easiest. But in general, writing is a craft like any other – you have to practice a lot. The more you write, the more you learn. I think the key is to enjoy every positive you can as you go along and don’t be too hard on yourself when things go a bit wonky!
AUTHORLINK: Great advice! How did you go about getting published? Would you be kind enough to run us through it? Were you happy with the edits, if any, or were they difficult to accept?
PEARCE: Wow – that’s a big question – I could rattle on for hours answering it! I wrote several drafts including taking on board the edit notes from my agent and UK and US publishers. They are all hugely experienced and equally, very gracious, and they stressed that their notes were suggestions and not dictates. I didn’t have to make any changes that I wasn’t totally happy with. I’m tremendously grateful for that. We are all on the same team.
AUTHORLINK: They sound like a dream. Your agent is the acclaimed Jo Unwin of JULA based at Somerset House, who was shortlisted again as the Literary Agent of the Year in 2019. A week after submission and following a seven-publisher auction in the UK, Dear Mrs Bird was acquired by Picador, and in the USA by Scribner after a similarly competitive auction. How did you celebrate when you found out?
PEARCE: Jo rang me when the first offer came in. I will never forget her saying, ‘Hello, I’ve just called to say you’re going to be a published author.’ Then there was lots of shouting!
AUTHORLINK: We bet! We understand you have already started working on the second book of your two-book deal with Picador which is a sequel to Dear Mrs Bird. Can you tell us a bit about it yet? Are there any future stories that you might be interested in telling? Do you still work full time?
PEARCE: Yes, I’m currently writing the sequel to Dear Mrs Bird but I’m sworn to secrecy about the details. All I can say is that Emmy and quite a few of the other characters are back. I’m a full-time writer and have loads more stories to tell about Emmy and her friends. If people want them, I will write them!
AUTHORLINK: That sounds great. Dear Mrs Bird has just been optioned for television by a production company in London. How exciting! It would be great if it turned into a series. Who do you think could play the young lead characters and Mrs Bird?
PEARCE: I can’t say too much about it but it would be lovely if it happens. Readers often ask about possible casts and I always ask them what they think. I’ve promised I’ll write scenes in the next book that need tons of extras so we can all be in it!
AUTHORLINK: Terrific! Well, it’s been an absolute treat talking to you. We know you’re going to provide the world with even more wonderful books and can’t wait to read the sequel to Dear Mrs Bird. Best of luck to you AJ and thank you once again for your time today. It was an absolute pleasure.
PEARCE: Thank you Authorlink. It’s been a dream to see Dear Mrs Bird published in the USA and I would like to say thank you to everyone who has supported it and spread the word. I’ll do my best to make the next book as good as I can!
About the Author: AJ Pearce was born in Hampshire, UK. Her favourite subjects at school were English and History, which now (finally!) seems to be making some sense. She majored in American History at the University of Sussex, spending her Junior Year at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA. She began writing as a hobby in 2005.
In 2012 she came across a 1939 copy of a weekly women’s magazine and had the idea of writing a novel set in wartime London. In 2016, following a seven-publisher auction in the UK, Dear Mrs Bird was acquired by Picador, and in the USA by Scribner after a similarly competitive auction. Dear Mrs Bird was published in hardback in the UK in April 2018, becoming a Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller two weeks later. It has been sold for translation in thirteen other countries. It was shortlisted for the Debut of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards as well as many other awards. AJ is currently writing her second novel, the sequel to Dear Mrs Bird.
You can learn more about her at her website: www.ajpearce.com, or on social media: @ajpearcewrites on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.