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Nina Subin

Helen Simonson's debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, became a New York Times bestseller and sold more than 50,000 copies in Canada after it was published in 2010. Born and raised in Britain, Simonson spent her teenage years in East Sussex, near the coastal town of Rye – the setting of her just-published second novel, The Summer Before the War.

Why did you write your new book?

After the completely surprising success of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I was faced with the task of taking on a second novel and almost immediately, the character of matriarch Agatha Kent walked into my head. She seemed to be standing on the Sussex Bluffs, overlooking the ancient town of Rye, and in the landscape of marshes spreading out below, I saw two young men heading for the beach and a steam train arriving at the town station. I think that in my creative anxiety about beginning again, the landscape of Rye and Sussex welcomed me home, while the tradition of Rye as a writers' community gave me sort of an encouraging shove forward.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through?

I always thought I could be an Edwardian. I think of Edwardian times in terms of advances in technology – the telephone, motorcar, invention of electricity and flying machines – and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It's a historical era in which I always thought I could live well, wearing an elegant hat. However, the more I researched this period for my novel, the more I saw how life was still very hard for folks without money. Even in a town like Rye, outdoor toilets, cold water and coal-burning stoves would have been the norm. School involved fees, as did any medical care. There were still workhouses and diseases like rickets and TB were rife. Pining for history may therefore be an exercise in delusion.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

No self-respecting British person could answer other than time travel. Don't you know Doctor Who is embedded in our DNA? My American husband fails to understand why I and our two grown sons will drop everything to hurl ourselves onto the couch for a new episode of the Doctor. Me, I love the historical visits – to Queen Elizabeth I, to Agatha Christie, to Pompeii. But per my smaller interest in being stuck in even the most interesting of periods, my time-travel ability would have to come with a TARDIS for quick escapes back to the present. Do not underestimate the value of central heating, democracy and, oh yes, grocery delivery services.

What's your favourite word to use in a sentence?

That is a paradox isn't it? The more enamoured I am of a word the more careful I must be to use it sparingly. The image of birds "tumbling" is one I have to avoid. Also "dyspeptic" which is a wonderfully Pickwickian way to slide over a plethora of emotions and bodily upsets. I adore the word "oleaginous," for oily, which I try to use once per novel. I first used it as a 12 year old and was corrected by a teacher who thought I had misspelled unctuous. I brought her the dictionary to show her I was correct but strangely enough this did not endear me to her. I love the full range of the English language, the musical sound and the feel of rolling unusual words around the mouth like fine wine. I do not believe in the modern penchant for the stripping down of language to its simplest expression. But not everyone agrees. A friend's college-age daughter read my novel and complained to her mother that "Helen uses a lot of SAT words."

What's a book every 10-year-old should read?

I'm not sure how precocious 10-year-olds are now so let's just say all young girls should read Little Women. Jo March was a revolutionary figure for me – a tomboy who accepted no boundaries, who read Dickens and Shakespeare and who turned down "love" for a career as a writer. Could never get my boys to read it but I made sure they read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gave me a lifelong metaphor for the creative struggle … sometimes you go to Narnia and sometimes it's just the back of the wardrobe!

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