Writer AJ Pearce talks to Cather­ine Conroy about what in­spired her to set her de­but novel Dear Mrs Bird dur­ing the sec­ond World War

Writer AJ Pearce talks to Cather­ine Conroy about what in­spired her to set her de­but novel ‘ Dear Mrs Bird’ dur­ing the sec­ond World War

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE - Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is pub­lished by Pi­cador, £ 12.99 Writer AJ Pearce: “I’m re­ally ex­cited to get a new ca­reer in my early 50s. That’s tremen­dously lucky.” Pho­to­graph: Cyril Byrne

Iwas once at a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val where a panel of se­ri­ous male au­thors dis­cussed how they men­tally and phys­i­cally pre­pared them­selves for writ­ing their nov­els. They talked of di­ets and run­ning and med­i­ta­tion. The room was heavy with rev­er­ence. Then a woman in a yel­low cardi­gan at the back of the room put up her hand and asked, “Do you not think you’re tak­ing it all a bit too se­ri­ously?”

Through­out this in­ter­view, de­but nov­el­ist AJ Pearce re­minds me of the woman in the yel­low cardi­gan. There are no hushed dis­cus­sions of the muse here. Pearce is just get­ting on with it and hav­ing a won­der­ful time writ­ing and dis­cussing her char­ac­ters with the world.

This is all very fit­ting be­cause her novel, Dear Mrs Bird, an op­ti­mistic book set in sec­ond World War Lon­don, is con­sid­ered part of the “up­lit” trend in pub­lish­ing, a new de­mand in a rest­less news- rid­den world for lit­er­a­ture that is kind and up­lift­ing.

Dear Mrs Bird tells the story of Emmy, a young woman with dreams of work­ing as a “lady war cor­re­spon­dent” but who, in a job ap­pli­ca­tion mix- up, ends up typ­ing up the prob­lem- page re­sponses for a no- non­sense agony aunt, Mrs Bird.

Mrs Bird will not re­ply to any prob­lems that are re­motely un­to­ward, so Emmy takes it upon her­self. She is a Brid­get Jones of the Blitz – a lit­tle naive, never un­kind, and thor­oughly unsink­able. Through her, Pearce tells the lesser- known sto­ries of the women at home dur­ing the war, walk­ing to work through bombed streets and vol­un­teer­ing at night with res­cue ser­vices.

Al­though she will not hear of it, Pearce is quite in­spir­ing her­self. At 53, this is her first novel and it is al­ready re­ceiv­ing ac­claim. It was won by Pi­cador in a seven- way auc­tion and is now set for tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion.

“I’m proper mid­dle- aged, I like gar­den­ing and ev­ery­thing,” she says. She worked in mar­ket­ing her whole life but had a propen­sity for evening cour­ses, which led her to writ­ing. “I’d done pho­tog­ra­phy and I tried to learn how to paint.”

A quick google led her to the renowned Ar­von Foun­da­tion cour­ses. She signed up. “I very nearly bot­tled it on the day. I didn’t tell any­one ’ cause I thought they’d be like, ‘ Get you! Who do you think you are?’”

She had “won­der­ful tu­tors” in To­bias Hill and Miranda France. “They said, ‘ You can do this,’ and be­cause of that I thought, I’ll give it a go. That’s 12 years ago. I sup­pose it sounds like a very long, ar­du­ous time. I’ve en­joyed it and I’ve made so many friends.”

She had al­ways found her­self drawn to books from the mid- 20th cen­tury be­cause “they’re gen­er­ally quite short, love that, and per­haps what would be called so­cial come­dies, but the ones based dur­ing the war, ev­ery now and then there’d be one line that just slays you, just gets you in the heart.”

Then one day she came across a 1939 is­sue of Woman’s Own, which set her on course. “I bought it for no good rea­son, and as soon as I read that first is­sue I thought, this is what I want to write about.”

She now has 400 old mag­a­zines, sorted

away in ac­etate cov­ers, dat­ing back to 1848. “There’s ac­tu­ally a lot of depth to them. I’ve got 1944 is­sues of the week­lies and they ask will there be pay equal­ity af­ter the war. We haven’t cracked that one yet.”

She pored over the ad­vice pages. “I thought it would be all, ‘ Come on, get on with it.’ But it’s ac­tu­ally in­cred­i­bly sym­pa­thetic. Some of the prob­lems are ex­tremely mov­ing; peo­ple who haven’t seen their hus­bands for a long time or who aren’t go­ing to see them again.”

She men­tions one let­ter she read, which fea­tures in the novel, where a mother couldn’t bear to have her child evac­u­ated from Lon­don and he ended up be­ing in­jured in a bomb­ing and los­ing the use of his legs.

“One mo­ment you’re laugh­ing at ad­verts for ‘ Odor- O- No’ kind of thing and the next minute you’re read­ing the most se­ri­ous life sit­u­a­tions.”

Pearce was fas­ci­nated with the idea that the prob­lems were of­ten so re­lat­able. “Its a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow in that it’s not the text books, it’s not Pathe news.” Along with mag­a­zines, Pearce’s vivid de­pic­tion of the time was aided by her love of “col­lect­ing ephemera, or old rub­bish no one else wants. I have a pair of shoes that are from that era, I know you could clam­ber through rub­ble with her shoes.”

She also plays Glen Miller loudly while she writes. So why is Pearce so drawn to that world? “My par­ents were chil­dren dur­ing the war and it’s within liv­ing mem­ory. It was the most chal­leng­ing and ex­tra­or­di­nary time when not only the men were away fight­ing ob­vi­ously, but at home ev­ery­one was in­volved.”

Many re­view­ers have com­mented on the time­li­ness of Pearce’s novel. I tell her I ini­tially took this to mean the book em­bod­ied some of the fer­vour for nos­tal­gia that is cred­ited with caus­ing Brexit. This is the Eng­land the Brex­i­teers pine for, surely, im­pe­rial and res­o­lute. Pearce does not like this idea at all. “I am to­tally hor­ri­fied by Brexit. I think it’s tremen­dously sad, and if the char­ac­ters in this book were alive now they’d be to­tally anti- Brexit be­cause the point is it’s set in Bri­tain in the war, but it is not about iso­la­tion­ism. The book is about friend­ship and, I’m try­ing to avoid the phrase ‘ reach­ing out’ be­cause I re­ally don’t like that phrase, but it’s about friends you’ve known for­ever and friends you’ve never even met.”

She be­lieves the time­lines refers to the up­lift­ing note the book strikes in a com­pli­cated world. “It is cheer­ful and hope­ful and about peo­ple stick­ing to­gether through dif­fi­cult times. I think that’s what is meant by timely.”

There is also the idea that books like this write women’s sto­ries back into his­tory, when so of­ten we have heard the men’s sto­ries. We can hear the crunch of glass un­der Emmy’s feet as she hur­ries to bomb shel­ters; see her­self and her friends head into the world at night, to dance in spite of it all.

“I know that at the start of the wars they closed the cin­e­mas, bat­tened down the hatches. Then they re­alised it was ter­ri­ble for morale and ob­vi­ously there was great hor­ror, I never want to un­der­play that, but there’s a line in the book that says Hitler can’t stop peo­ple fall­ing in love and that’s ab­so­lutely true and be­cause you could lose any­one at any time, lots of peo­ple made the most of that and as they said, had rather a good war.”

As for the tele­vi­sion adap­tion, Pearce is keen to keep her hand in.

“They’re happy to col­lab­o­rate with me, which was very im­por­tant be­cause the char­ac­ters are the best imag­i­nary friends I have so I am quite pro­tec­tive. Prob­a­bly makes me sound night­mar­ish, doesn’t it?”

She is very fond of the hero­ine she has cre­ated and plans to keep her around for a while in se­quels. “She’s try­ing to go some­where in her life. They are all try­ing to achieve some­thing, not just to ex­ist but to live and that’s the sort of char­ac­ter I wanted to write about. A good hero­ine is some­one who gets off their chair and does some­thing.”

Sort of like Pearce her­self, hav­ing set up a whole new life in her 50s?

“Sort of. I’m still sit­ting there eat­ing bis­cuits. She’s far pluck­ier than I am. I’m re­ally ex­cited to get a new ca­reer in my early 50s. That’s tremen­dously lucky.”

She’s not thor­oughly con­vinced that ‘ up­lit’ is a trend, al­though she is a fan of books with kind­ness at their core, like last year’s smash, Eleanor Oliphant is Com­pletely Fine.

And while Dear Mrs Bird “works on a cheer­ful, hope­ful, ac­ces­si­ble level, I very much hope that it’s clear it has back­bone. It’s not just a nos­tal­gic, ‘ wasn’t ev­ery­one ter­rific.’ It’s all about, this is aw­ful, how do we get through this? And the only way we can get through this is stick­ing to­gether and even if we lose faith in our­selves, if we still have faith in our friends and each other, than we can do this. ”

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