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Interview: AJ Pearce talks about Dear Mrs Bird

Photo: credit Alexander James

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are trying to stay cheerful despite the Luftwaffe making life thoroughly annoying for everyone. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance - but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt of Woman's Friend magazine. NZ Booklovers talks to AJ Pearce about her wonderful debut novel.

Tell us a little about Dear Mrs Bird.

Dear Mrs Bird is set in London in 1941 and is the story of a young woman, Emmeline Lake, who dreams of becoming a war journalist. Emmy gets an interview at a newspaper publishers but the job turns out to be working as a typist for a formidable agony aunt, Mrs Henrietta Bird.

Mrs Bird has very clear views on the sort of readers’ letters she will respond to: any form of Unpleasantness will go straight into the bin. As Mrs Bird’s moral code hasn’t really changed since 1903, it means that the vast majority of readers are ignored. As Emmy sees readers facing desperately difficult challenges without help, she decides the only thing she can do is secretly write to them herself.

Of course, as Emmy is totally unqualified, things don’t exactly go as she plans.

That’s the main story, but most of all, Dear Mrs Bird is about friendship. Emmy and her best friends are sticking together, doing everything they can to get each other through the war. It’s one of the reasons she feels compelled to try to help complete strangers: she knows she couldn’t do it without her mates and hates to think people are struggling along on their own. The novel is about never giving up on your friends. I always say that if you’ve ever had a best friend, you’ll totally understand Emmy’s world in Dear Mrs Bird.

It’s an emotional novel. People have said it’s made them laugh out loud and there have been quite a few instances of tears on public transport too!

What inspired you to write this book?

A few years ago I came across a 1939 issue of a women’s magazine and just loved it. It was like a door into an era I knew a little about – but from a perspective I could completely relate to. Features, advice, fashion and recipes – it’s what I could read in a magazine today. The adverts are often hilarious (perming lotion for babies, anyone?) and learning how to knit your own underwear is always fun, but the thing that I loved the most about reading them, was the problem page.

Quite often the problems could be something any of us might experience now – worries about partners, children, parents, work, health etc, but obviously being faced in the most challenging of times. And of course, there are so many letters with problems that were specifically caused by the war: women missing their husbands, feeling lonely and falling for the wrong man, or ending up ‘in trouble’ with no one to help. Some readers were trying to keep going through almost unimaginable tragedy. I have read hundreds of magazines and probably thousands of problems, but they can still stop you in your tracks.

As soon as I started collecting the magazines, I knew I wanted to write a novel about them. It all fell into place when I read a volume from the 1890s, when the advice was to say the least, ‘robust’! That’s when I decided to bring Mrs Bird – a fictional doyenne of the 1900s, into the very modern world of 1941.

What research was involved?

I read hundreds of magazines – which doesn’t actually feel like research, but I think probably is! And obviously reference books to ensure I got my facts right. But more than that, I think it is really important to be authentic, so I try to collect everyday objects that my characters might have owned. Bus maps, air raid advice leaflets, diaries and calendars, and letters written during the war that have been kept for decades. I even have blotting paper from 1939. I’m beginning to think I’m the person that bids for things online no one else wants!

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I had to fit writing the novel around my day job, so I wrote a lot in evenings and at weekends. Sometimes I managed to get a week away with other writers to really get the words down. The biggest challenge was not getting side tracked by online research. That thing where you look up the weather for a certain week in 1941 and two hours later are still online and now reading an obscure biography about someone who has absolutely nothing to do with your novel, but is enormously interesting.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

What a great question! I listen to film soundtracks a lot when I write. I also have a record player so I can play the kind of records my characters would have liked. There’s nothing better than putting on a scratchy 78 of In The Mood by Glenn Miller to get you into the minds of your characters as they get ready to go out to a dance! And Moonlight Serenade, although that makes me stop writing and just listen. I always feel quite heartbroken about it.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Well, funnily enough I’m really excited as Dear Mrs Bird has just been optioned for television by a production company in London. I would love to see it as a series. I think the lead characters could be played by newcomers as they are quite young, while Mrs Bird herself is a scene stealing Margaret Rutherford character. And if it becomes a tv series, just about everyone I know wants to be in it as an extra!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Getting to know and living with the characters. They’re the best imaginary friends ever.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book? I had a very large glass of wine!

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why? I’ve just finished reading Kate Riordan’s The Stranger which is set in Cornwall in the war. It is hugely atmospheric and you just can’t guess what is going to happen. I am still totally in love with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman from last year. I thought it was perfect.

What’s next on the agenda for you? I’m going on a book tour in the UK, talking about Dear Mrs Bird at bookshops and festivals which I can’t wait for. And I’m writing the sequel too. I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the details, but it’s a joy to be back.


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