On the last Saturday in January, Jennifer Robson's third novel, Moonlight Over Paris, debuted at No. 3 on The Globe and Mail's Canadian Fiction bestseller list. By the following weekend, not only had the novel crept up a spot, but it was joined in the top 10 by her previous two novels, Somewhere in France and After the War is Over, a trifecta that was repeated again the following week. It was an incredible achievement: Every book Jennifer Robson had ever written was on the list.
"In a week when you know Yann Martel has a book coming out … to have your book on sale at the same time as someone that big is a little bit daunting," she says, sitting in the living room of the west-end Toronto home she shares with her husband, two children, a dog and a cat. "I keep having these moments of pinching myself and thinking: 'How did this happen?' I feel as if five minutes ago I was sitting at home with two little kids, dreaming about writing a book, and working up the courage to start it."
One of the themes that emerges when reading Robson's fiction – thoroughly researched historical novels all set in the shadow of the First World War – is that of women dreaming of more, wondering if the life they are living is one they truly want. Although they are marketed as historical romances, with pastel-hued and sepia-toned covers showing couples locked in a mournful embrace or staring longingly into the distance, "romance isn't at the heart of any of these stories," she says. "What I'm interested in seeing is a woman go from a place of relative powerlessness to a place of relative strength."
In the little more than two years since publishing her first novel, 46-year-old Robson has quietly become one of Canada's bestselling authors (she managed to break into the competitive U.S. market at the same time) with a book-club-friendly mix of post-Edwardian-era history, Hollywood-ready plotting and will-they-or-won't-they love stories. And although she concedes, "I know it doesn't last forever, and there are going to be books that flop," the end isn't in sight: This weekend, two of her novels are still among the bestseller list's top 10.
"I keep getting friends and family going: 'What does it feel like, Jen? It must be amazing!' And I'm still completely dumbfounded," she says. "I didn't get here by anything that resembles a traditional, or expected, route."
Robson was born and raised in Peterborough, Ont., where her father taught European history at Trent University. Her mother, a family lawyer who later became a provincial court judge, died when Robson was 21. After earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario, Robson received a PhD at St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford (her father's alma mater), writing her thesis on "The Role of Clothing and Fashion in the Household Budget and Popular Culture in Britain from 1919-1949." A life in academia awaited.
"If you'd talked to me when I was 20 about what I thought I'd be doing with my life," she said, "I thought I was going to end up teaching history like my dad, and that would be that."
The job market put an end to that idea. Instead, Robson worked in journalism (she served as executive assistant to a former Globe editor) and publishing (she spent a couple of years as a copy editor at Penguin Canada before going freelance in 2003). While she enjoyed the work, it didn't exactly inspire her.
"I wasn't sure that my kids would ever look up to me in the same way that I looked up to my mom," she says. "I thought: 'I have to do more, I have to make some kind of a change.'"
Change came in the form of a documentary called J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life, which Robson caught on TV late one night while up with her newborn daughter. In it, an emotional Rowling returns to the small Edinburgh flat where she wrote the first Harry Potter book. "I just thought, well, I want to write," says Rowling in the film. "What is the worst that can happen? It gets turned down by a big publishing group. Big deal."
"You feel like an anvil's been dropped out of the sky," says Robson of watching the film. "If she could be brave enough to do that, what's holding me back?"
The next day, Robson began writing a novel called Out Of All Knowing, about a young woman who defies her aristocratic parents, becomes an ambulance driver in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and falls in love with a poor Scottish surgeon. It was her first attempt at fiction and, like many first-time writers, she couldn't find an agent. After 30-odd rejections, she set the manuscript aside.
In 2011, Downton Abbey, about a family of British nobles coming to terms with the modern age, premiered in North America and immediately became a cultural phenomenon. One of Robson's friends, who'd read the manuscript, suggested she try to publish the novel again, as it shared much in common with the TV series. Her friend's hunch was right; Robson landed an agent and soon sold the novel – now called Somewhere in France – to Amanda Bergeron at William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.
"It was perfect [timing] because Downton Abbey had just really taken off, and so I was able to say: 'Listen, I can see exactly how we'll sell this, I know what the cover needs to look like, I know when we need to publish it – in January, at the beginning of the next Downton Abbey season,'" Bergeron says. "That gave us a real advantage in launching her."
"Right now, you can shake a stick at all the World War One fiction that's around and you'll hit a thousand different books, but at the time when [Somewhere in France] happened, there wasn't a lot out there," says Sandra Leef, senior sales director at HarperCollins Canada and an early champion of Robson's work. "It was the right book at the right time."
Somewhere in France arrived in bookstores on Dec. 31, 2013. A career in publishing had taught Robson that, even if you ink a book deal, most novels sink without a trace. "I'd prepared myself for the worst-case scenario," she says. "I thought if I could just sell maybe a few thousand copies to people who aren't blood relatives, old friends or neighbours, then I would feel I'd done well, and I wouldn't have to hang my head in shame. And then the first book just took off."
There are approximately 100,000 copies of Somewhere in France in print in North America, a tremendous number for an unheralded debut. In Canada alone, Robson has sold a combined 100,000 copies of her three novels, not including e-book sales, according to HarperCollins Canada, which distributes her books here.
"That's a hard number for me to wrap my head around," Robson says. "I really worry, sometimes, that I'll get a swelled head. My sister knows, my husband knows, my closest female friends – the minute [I] get any sense of entitlement, or ego, or suddenly start to demand that all the red M&Ms be picked out of the candy bowl in my waiting room, that's when you need to slap me silly."
Robson peppers the interview with this sort of self-deprecating humour; she answers with qualifiers that seem to betray an insecurity – or at least uncertainty – about her relatively newfound success. She'll mention writers she admires – both Margaret Laurence and Joseph Boyden come up – but then quickly add something like, "I would never dare to compare my work." She suffers, she says, from an "inferiority complex."
In some ways, she's similar to the heroine of her latest novel, a would-be artist who fears she'll never achieve greatness. After recovering from a near-fatal illness, Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr moves to Paris and enrolls in one of city's most prestigious academies. There, she falls for an American foreign correspondent you might think is a stand-in for Ernest Hemingway, except that Hemingway shows up along with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others who came to define the lost generation. Robson's a writer with an obsession for detail, conjuring up the fashions, the foods, the manners of the era, and she populates her fiction with characters both real and imagined. ("I feel if you can create characters who people care about, then you can get people to care about history, and keep it alive somehow," she explains.) In some ways Robson has become a history teacher after all.
"If reading one of my books then propels someone to want to learn more about the Great War, for example, then I feel I've accomplished something," she says. "I'm very happy to say if you love this book and you want something that really digs in, here are a handful of books I want you to read: I want you to read Three Day Road, I want you to read The Wars, I want you to read Pat Barker's first trilogy.
"And maybe, some day, I'll write something that's worth standing up among those other writers," she adds. "But even if I don't, I'll feel I've tried."