Lovers of British mysteries and historical novels will find something to appreciate in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs books. Maisie, a housemaid-turned-student-turned-nurse-turned private investigator in early 20th-century London, manages to straddle Britain's class system by being a woman of exceptional "bearing" and intellect who happens to come from working-class stock. As an investigator, she's green, but sharp and ambitious. She's also surrounded by vividly sketched secondary players, such as her benefactor, Lady Rowan, and mentor Maurice Blanche.
In Winspear's first Maisie story, we learn the character's background: Forced by family circumstances to go to work as a housemaid at an early age, Maisie Dobbs' curiosity and intellect are noticed by her employer, Lady Rowan. Rowan takes care of her education, and she makes it to university – but the Great War interrupts her ambitions. She serves as a nurse in France, then returns to England and starts her career as a private investigator in 1929. Her first case seems like a simple investigation into infidelity; it grows into something larger when it leads realizes there's something amiss at a convalescent home for war veterans called The Retreat.
Winspear's talent didn't go unnoticed when her first novel was published in July 2003. Maisie Dobbs was named in "best" lists in both the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. It was also nominated in the best novel category for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. There was an almost palpable sense of relief in the reviews, pleasant surprise that someone had offered not only a solid addition to the historical mystery genre, but had given it further depth and breadth. As an NPR reviewer put it, "[The book's] intelligent eccentricity offers relief."
Telling Maisie's stories using a warm third-person narrator, Winspear charms with her ability to convey the historical context surrounding her characters, particularly regarding the impact of the Great War. For this reason, and because her mysteries steer clear of graphic violence or sex, her books are often recommended for younger readers also. Far from hardboiled, Winspear's characters are very human, and she delivers a little romance and heartache along with the criminal wrongdoing.
Part of the appeal in Winspear's books also lies in her ability to bring a deeper, more philosophical atmosphere to the proceedings. Maisie is trained in Freudian psychology and is as interested in helping as she is in solving. A case referenced in the second Maisie story, Birds of a Feather, for example, "would not be filed away until those whose lives were touched by her investigation had reached a certain peace with her findings, with themselves, and with one another." Reading Winspear's Dobbs series may not bring inner peace, but there is something relaxing about spending time with her appealing characters.
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Winspear also works as a creative coach. She writes on her web site, "As a coach I am engaged by those who want to establish clear intentions for their artistic endeavors, to support and encourage so that they sustain a level of energy and empowerment which is demonstrated in work that is rewarding, inspiring -- and finished!" Winspear also writes about international education.
Winspear loves outdoor pursuits such as horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and mountain biking; she's also an avid traveler, according to her web site bio.
In our interview, Winspear shared some fun facts about herself:
"My first ever job after college was as a flight attendant. I wanted to travel and could not afford it, so I decided to get myself a job where I could travel. I did it for two years and had great fun."
"My worst-ever job was in an egg-packing factory when I was 16."
"I love dogs, horses and generally all animals. I will always stop to check on stray dogs -- I once ended up in the emergency room with a tick embedded in me which had jumped off a dog I had rescued from a busy road. It was a deer tick, which carries Lyme Disease, so I wasn't taking any chances. Funnily enough, when I opened the only magazine in the emergency room, it was to a page carrying an article on tick bites and disease. It stated that you have six hours after the tick embeds itself, before it begins to release the bacteria that cause disease. I counted the hours from rescuing the dog, and by the time the doctor came in I was pleading, ‘Get this thing out of me!!!'"
"My favorite way to unwind is to go for a walk with my husband and the dog at the end of the working day, then we go to our local health club for a swim and to sit by the pool and read for a while. I love time with family and friends, but completely relish time on my own when I have no agenda to follow, no to-do's, just me and time alone."
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In the summer of 2004, Jacqueline Winspear took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books and her life as a writer:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I love to read and have been an avid reader since the age of about three. However, I cannot say any one book ever impacted my writing career. I never read a book that made me want to be a writer per se; rather it was the love of words and what I could do with them that made me want to be a writer. So in that way my reading and writing were inextricably mixed. I cannot say that a book has ever influenced my life in a broader sense. This is always a tricky question, because "influence" suggests that it made you do something differently, or take a path not previously considered. Certainly there are books that have touched me, books that I thought about for days on end, but not that influenced me in the grand scheme of things, or made me do things differently.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Call of The Wild by Jack London -- I was about 11 when I read this book, and I cried so much that my mother threatened to take it away from me. The sense of time and place is extremely intense.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- An archetypal journey to the promised land. Again, a great sense of time and place. It sealed my fate as a fan of John Steinbeck.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell -- I was a horse-mad girl, so this book was a favorite. Who could ever forget the description of "Poor Ginger"?
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri -- My favorite novel from last year. So many of the immigrant experiences were familiar to me, and I am sure they spoke to those who have come to the U.S. from many other countries.
The Roses of No Man's Land by Lyn MacDonald -- MacDonald is a First World War historian who brings a real sense of depth and feeling to her books, which have been invaluable to me in my research for Maisie Dobbs. I read this book some 15 years ago and was the first book I read on the experiences of nurses in The Great War.
Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion -- My favorite Jane Austen novels. I love everything about Jane Austen's work, what an amazing observer of people.
The Starbridge series of books by Susan Howatch -- This series and the one that follows about the St Benet's Healing Center are amazing. Howatch blends a depth of research and scholarship with an incisive wit and wonderful storytelling. I adore her work and as soon as I get my hands on a new book, I do not move from my armchair until I have finished. She is brilliant.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Enchanted April
The Guns of Navarone
Breakfast at Tiffanys
The King of Hearts
Oh What A Lovely War
Out Of Africa
I love films with a sense of time and place. My husband is a real film buff, so we watch a lot of movies, especially foreign films. You will note that some of the films are war films -- they are not chosen because they concern war, but because of the characterization, story, time and place essentially. I confess that I also really enjoyed the two Bourne thrillers -- the pace, the car chases, clever story, just great movie fun. I loved the original Italian Job with Michael Caine too!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never listen to music while writing. I love all sorts of music, from the blues, to jazz to rock. Favorite artistes/bands include:
Nat King Cole
Julia Fordham (I'd pay serious money to listen to her live anywhere)
The Rolling Stones
I also love classical music and the voice of Renee Fleming. And my husband plays acoustic guitar, so you could say I listen to John Morell more than anyone else!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Oh, gosh, I give all sorts of books and do not have one particular type of favorite book. I have just given my brother a book on ancient roses that I found at an antiquarian booksellers -- he's a landscape gardener/designer and an expert on roses, so he enjoys such books. I love to receive books on places, people, and architecture -- and tend to give such books, unless I know that someone is yearning for a particular book. I like to give unusual books, perhaps that I have found at an antiquarian bookseller or something that I know will appeal specifically to the recipient.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have decided that after all this time, I will never have a tidy desk. I am the feng shui expert's nightmare. I have way too much on my desk -- I'm thinking of leaving it and starting all over in another room! And no particular writing rituals, except that I like to start early. I also do some hand exercises before I start, mainly because I now get sore fingers from the repetitive motion of using a keyboard. The exercises warm up the hands ready for a few hours of work -- you wouldn't think twice about warming up for running, and people forget that writing is a physical job. Be warned -- look after your hands!
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
In terms of Maisie Dobbs, I was exceptionally fortunate, but perhaps that evens things up as I was in my mid-forties before I began my first fiction since primary school. Prior to writing Maisie Dobbs, I was a nonfiction writer working mainly on essays and articles. After completing Maisie Dobbs, I referred to Jim Herman's book on literary agents, editors, and publishers. I selected 30 agents that I thought might be interested in my novel, and then sorted them again into my "A" list, "B" list and "C" list. I sent out proposals along with sample chapters to the "A" list about three days before 9/11, so after the disaster happened, I thought my chances of even being read were miniscule -- with a national tragedy, who would be interested in a mystery rooted in a terrible war? I was therefore surprised when I had several phone calls within a couple of weeks of sending out my proposals. By the end of November, I had signed contracts with my agent, Amy Rennert, and Maisie Dobbs was sold in the early spring of 2002, then published in 2003. I've been extremely fortunate.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My main piece of advice is this: Have a vision. If you can "see" something, you can make it happen. Use props if necessary. I really mean this, and the advice is not given in a flippant manner: From the minute I began work on Maisie Dobbs, I saw a book -- not a manuscript. I could see the cover in my mind's eye, the pages laid out. To this day, when I am working on a book, I print the pages as I go and set them in a binder with a title page, a cover design (and I'm no artist, the cover design will probably bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything a designer will come up with!), and even the dedication and acknowledgement. Remember the film Field of Dreams, and that legendary phrase, "If you build it they will come"? Well, if you can see your book, it will be published.
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