By Jenn Watt
Published by Oct. 24 2017
The story just wasn’t working for author Jennifer Robson as she worked on her fifth novel Goodnight from London. Set in England during the Second World War the book initially followed a family of actors but the story wasn’t gelling.
“That’s when my editor took me aside one day … and she said I just want to know why you’re not writing this book about your grandmother. Why not make it about a journalist? Not specifically my grandmother but why not use her as the starting point? I just looked at her and thought I don’t know why not” Robson said in an interview.
Her grandmother Nikki Moir a career journalist had recently died.
“One of the ways I found to work through the grief and missing her was to create a character. Ruby the heroine of my book is different from my grandmother but there’s some qualities they share. Those natural qualities of a journalist which is to ask questions and be interested in the people you’re talking to and to look beyond the easy answers” said Robson.
“That’s where the genesis of the book began. I just asked myself what must it have been like to be a woman in a newsroom in the 1940s?”
Goodnight From London follows American journalist Ruby Sutton as she travels to England to report on the Second World War. Finding herself with few contacts she has to trust strangers to survive.
Robson’s other novels are based in and around the First and Second World Wars including Moonlight Over Paris After the War is Over Somewhere in France and Fall of Poppies.
Robson’s passion is history and in particular the history of the early 20th century. She graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a bachelor’s degree in literature and history followed by a doctorate in British economic and social history from Oxford University. (And as is frequently noted her father Stuart Robson is a well-known historian who teaches at Trent University in Peterborough.)
Placing her characters during times of upheaval and strife not only creates conflict that makes for a good story but it also allows for discussion of social and political change.
“If you look at it in a cold-hearted way there’s so many opportunities to make your character suffer. And suffering is one way to move a narrative along. Also for people to grow and to learn. As much as I would never seek to minimize the horrendous effects that war has on people and our world it changes people and quite often it can change them for the better.”
Robson likes to contemplate how war brings out humanity to try to understand how anyone could live through so much death and destruction.
“How did you cope where night after night you’re hiding in an air raid shelter? How did people manage? The fascinating answer is they manage really really well” she said. “I think human nature’s pretty tough. I think in the wake of disasters … people really do come through in a wonderful way.”
Her books are anchored by strong female protagonists but Robson said she doesn’t stretch their behaviour too far outside the norms of the time. The lives of ordinary people hold just as much interest as the vanguards.
“It’s moving away from the spotlight of history into the shadows and asking who were the women who changed the world in this period” she said.
Through their stories the major changes wartime brought can be explored such as the advancement of women in the workplace and the improvements in medicine including the advent of antibiotics.
Being a history buff means the author already has a deep pool of knowledge to draw from while she writes but there are always details that need to be sought out – how much did it cost in 1947 to ride public transit in London for example?
When those questions come up Robson often relies on collectors and history enthusiasts.
She’s found people who collect train schedules and used tickets uses online chat rooms and emails people out of the blue with questions.
For historical points she relies on her thesis supervisor from Oxford and for medical items she calls up a friend who’s a doctor. (And yes she is aware her characters don’t smoke as much as they should for the time but she said she just can’t do that to their lungs.)
When she was writing her thesis on household economy and clothes rationing Robson conducted interviews with about 16 women who had been teens or young mothers during the 1930s and ’40s. As she was writing her novel it occurred to her that the transcripts were a treasure trove of details of women’s daily lives.
That research laid a rich foundation of detail to support the narrative. In her interviews for her thesis Robson had come across a common concern for women of the time: they weren’t sure of what meat they were being sold.
“It was a fairly common thing at the time people would get very concerned once a rabbit had been chopped into pieces and the fur was gone it was hard to tell [it was a rabbit]. People would be paranoid about buying it at the butchers” she said.
And so in her book she wrote a character who would not eat rabbit meat due to concern it might be a cat.
“By the end of the war people were eating whale meat for example which the Ministry of Food tried to convince the British public was yummy delicious and good for you” she said. “And in fact it was just vile. Nobody wanted to eat it.”
Robson is based in Toronto where she lives with her husband and children but she grew up in Peterborough. She said she’s been to the Highlands in the past visiting friends’ cottages and is looking forward to the chance to be here again. She will be the featured guest at the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library book gala at Pinestone Resort on Sunday Oct. 29. Silent auction and refreshments begins at 1 p.m. with the presentation at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 cash or cheque and can be purchased at Master’s Book Store or by calling Brenda at 705-457-2695.