The Globe 100 books of 2020 is coming out Friday, Dec. 4. Until then we’ll be publishing conversations between authors about the different genres on the list, starting with Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny talking about mysteries, Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson exploring science fiction and fantasy and, coming up, Margaret Atwood and Ian Williams recalling the poems they first read and wrote.
The Globe Up Close podcast episode about the Globe 100 is now available. The Globe’s Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, features editor Dawn Calleja, writer and critic Emily Donaldson and books editor Judith Pereira shared details of their conversations with some of the country’s leading authors about the books that got them through 2020, how the pandemic will shape the literary world and their thoughts about genre.
Dive into research about plagues and flus to accompany this annus horribilis, or seek escape in the pages of a juicy bestseller? If you’ve chosen to lean out of the pandemic in 2020, you’re in great company. Marissa Stapley and Jennifer Robson each have a strong standing as fiction writers – Stapley’s Lucky is due out next April, and Robson’s Our Darkest Night, a novel set in Italy in the Second World War, will be published in January. Stapley is also co-authoring a rom-com, The Holiday Swap, which should be available next fall. The two writers, and friends, talk with Judith Pereira about escapism, travel and why they’re so prolific.
JP: So how has your year been going?
MS: It’s a lot of family time.
JR: It’s the children, the loudness. [Laughs] My lovely publicist at HarperCollins asked me yesterday if I could do a video for booksellers and I had my whole script and the neighbour fires up the leafblower so I had to e-mail and say: I’ll have to do it later.
JP: Tell me about your new books.
MS: Well, Karma Brown and I wrote a holiday romance together. We came up with the idea this time last year and it was a whole different world and we were both working on different books and we were at different stages of it and wished we could switch places and then we just kept going – what if it was twins who switched places? And one twin was in L.A. and the other lives in one of those snowy Hallmark towns. And we thought of all the tropes and then we just started writing it. Then we were in lockdown and we were lonely and we wrote it really fast and we’ve never had more interest in anything. We sold two books to Putnam and Penguin Random House Canada. I was also writing this other book, Lucky, but that’s a different story.
JR: I was a witness to all of this because we have group chat where we exchanged hundreds of texts a day and it was such a wonderful distraction from frantically finishing my own book. It was exciting to watch it happen.
MS: Yes, it was a huge excitement and it happened in April. My mom was sick and she passed away in the spring, so she was along for the ride and it helped so much with all of that. We jumped on this project and abandoned our other projects for a little bit of time because all the editors were stuck and what do they want? They want this holiday romance. They all got so excited; they would call and say, “This just made me feel so much better.” I never thought I would write something like this. Plus, we’ve been subversively feminist and it’s our kind of holiday romcom.
JR: It was just delicious with none of the stuff that makes you feel gross. I love reading romance but I’m picky about it.
MS: So, we were sending this fluffy romance to Jen and she was writing a gut-wrenchingly amazing book about the Second World War. I would send her pages of The Holiday Swap and she’d say, “Would you like to read Our Darkest Night?”
JR: [Laughs] Can you have a lookie-loo at the concentration camp scene now?
MS: It was so harrowing and yet so good.
JP: Jen, when we spoke last year, you said you were working on a book about Hollywood …
JR: Yup, I totally abandoned that. I was almost ready to start and really dig in and something in me just hit the hit the brakes and was like, “No.” It was around the same time that my son asked if the stories about Daddy’s family were true; we were in Italy in 2016 and were talking to one of my husband’s aunts and she mentioned that her father had hid Jews during the war and I was: stop, stop, stop. What did you say? And we got it out of her bit by bit. The parish priest had come to them and asked if they would hide fellow Italians who were Jews or they would be deported. It was 1943 and they did. They stayed in touch with the people who survived and the priest was later named Righteous Among the Nations and his name is inscribed at Yad Vashem. So, I ended up creating a fictional version of this village and wanted to do a book about what it meant to be in northern Italy in the Second World War. We went to Italy in January just as I was finishing the first draft, to retrace my steps. I thought we would go back in the summer but then the pandemic hit.
JP: How does that change what we can write about now? If you can’t go.
JR: I’ve been fortunate that the places I write about, I’ve been to. I typically do two to three research trips. The book I’m working on now is set in London and I can’t go. And I can’t even ask my friends who live there to go because they’re in lockdown.
MS: Jen actually taught a course about how to do research if you’re stuck in the house.
JR: If this were happening 10 or 15 years ago, people who write the kind of books I write, I think we would be screwed. But since then, all the big archives that I relied upon back in the nineties, they’ve all been digitized and there’s a vast amount of resources about British history.
JP: Is it going to change the way we write?
MS: I’ve talked to friends about, how do you write when you’re not engaging in it? I felt that way at first because it’s a lot of eavesdropping on people in coffee shops and listening to the way they talk. But it causes you to dig deep as an author. And I think the isolation has been able to offer something – depth and darkness, perhaps or deep comfort.
JR: Definitely it’s made me think about things. In my first draft, I killed a character and it just made you want to cry and cry and it was really depressing.
MS: I loved it, but I thought it was too dark.
JR: I ended up changing it because I’m pragmatic enough to know that my readers want a comfort read. I had to return to the history and be true to the savagery of what was done there. But there were moments of hope and people who survived against all odds and so I wanted to show that, too. I met one of them who had survived and returned back to his village, changed forever, but he had survived.
JP: Marissa, going back to your other project and the other book you were writing at the same time as the one with Karma.
MS: An idea came to me about what if there was someone who won the lotto but couldn’t collect it. And I told my mother, who loved it. And she was insistent that I start to write it. She’d tell me to come visit her and write and if she didn’t hear the clacking of the laptop, she’d get agitated. So, I’d read the drafts to her and I think it was her gift to me in this pandemic. She knew that after she was gone that I’d be … she knew what would happen and so she wanted me to have this. I finished it before she died. So she did read it; the book is called Lucky and it will come out in the spring of next year.
JP: Talk to me a little bit about writing so many books as commercial fiction writers. Jen, you wrote The Gown, which came out in the beginning of 2019, and Marissa, The Last Resort also came out that year.
JR: I did a book a year for four years and it’s debilitating. But between the fourth and fifth book I was not working at the same speed because there was so much travel and so many speaking engagements. I don’t think readers will forget you if a book comes out every two years. The Gown benefitted from having another six months on top of what I usually spend and it’s a better book because I had the time.
MS: When I started out writing commercial fiction, that was my goal – a book a year.
JP: How do you decide you’re going to be a commercial fiction writer?
JR: I think it was decided for me since I was doing historical fiction. My agent steered me towards the editors in New York that she worked with closely and that’s how they’re publishing it. I think of it as upmarket commercial fiction.
MS: We have a lot of discussions about what that means. Everyone knows how opinionated I am about the commercial fiction label. At the end of the day you’re just trying to write a book that people want to read.
JR: I’m trying to write fiction that’s entertaining but there’s an element of being informative. The best e-mails and letters I get are the ones where they say that it’s piqued their interest in the First World War or the Second World War. But they have to be entertaining and I think that’s true of good literary fiction as well as commercial fiction. Look at Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s wrote this fantastic historical fiction novel, but nobody is pegging it as genre.
MS: It’s amazingly researched and she will be getting readers of the historical fiction genre.
JR: Nobody wants the dreaded info dump, where you suddenly learn everything about baking bread in the 1860s even though it has nothing to do with the story or the development of the characters. I learned how to do embroidery when I did The Gown and, in fact, in the first draft that I never showed anyone, had pages and pages about embroidery.
MS: When you told me you did this one little thing for eight hours, I was like please, please let the embroidery part not feel like you’re reading for eight hours long.
JR: I wanted to have a sense of how the person felt. That crick in your neck and the eyes are burning after you’ve just stared at something for so long – these women were working white on white. And I needed to know what they felt like.
MS: What I’m hearing in this pandemic is that people are reading a lot, but a lot of it is fiction. I mean, I love non-fiction, but this year I don’t want to be a smarter, better person. I just want to escape.
JR: Yeah, challenging is fine, but I need escape. I’m not looking for happy endings and rainbows and sunshine. I just need something that transports me, even if it’s reading literature set in World War II that’s worse than what we’re going through. I actually find that uplifting, because at the end of the day, we survived it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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