Strange how life works. Mary Ann Shaffer, a long-time bookseller, librarian, and book lover, took a trip to Guernsey, a small island off the Normandy coast, in 1976; there, the seeds were planted for a novel she would begin 25 years later. Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an epistolary style, with an obvious wink to the classic 84 Charing Cross Road. But as she began to see her novel take shape, and ultimately sold it to a publisher, she became very ill. As luck (and fate) would have it, Mary Ann was able to turn the book over to her beloved niece, Annie Barrows, who happened to be a published writer, a fellow book lover, former bookseller, editor, and confidant.
Barrows took on the task with a mission to fulfill the promise of the book that she knew would captivate and delight. As she began the project, she could hear the voice of her beloved aunt, lovingly handling the revisions and rewrites, and crafted a novel that has wowed both readers and reviewers. Says Newsday, "I have recommended it to all my friends. I sniffled at various parts and frankly cried at the end." The San Francisco Chronicle writes, "It's as charming and timeless as the novels for which its characters profess their love." The Chicago Sun-Times describes it as "a book-lover's delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary, to libraries personal and public, to bookstores and their owners, customers, and contents..." Well, you get the picture.
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away last February at the age of 73 before she saw their collaboration published. But her niece and co-writer is here to pass along Mary Ann's legacy, story, and, in the end, their mutual love of books and all who read them.
Danielle Marshall: When you answered our Kids' Q&A for PowellsBooks.kids, I never spoke with you directly, so it's great to have the chance to chat with you.
Annie Barrows: Here I am, in the genuine flesh. Are you going to ask me about my favorite breakfast cereal again? [Laughter]
Danielle: As a matter of fact, I'm not.
Barrows: Oh, dang! I love that question. It's one of the best ones I ever got. I have a lot to say about breakfast.
Danielle: I had such a good time reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What an ebullient novel. And I can honestly say I have never interviewed an author who has come down a writing career path in a more interesting way.
Barrows: It is strange. My career path is not what most people do — crossing over from kids books into adult books, and the collaboration with my aunt. It's been a strange trip, but I'm perfectly delighted to talk about it.
Danielle: The book itself is a love letter to book lovers and booksellers. You can guess that I really pored over the passages about booksellers.
Barrows: Because we love you guys so much! [Laughter] Can you tell that both my aunt and I worked in bookstores?
Danielle: Oh, yes! In fact, I wanted you to talk about that a bit. I did pick up that you and your aunt had been very close to books and to each other.
Barrows: Our book paths coincided a lot. I grew up in the next town over from my aunt Mary Ann and her family, so our families were really, really close. Several times, we were employed at the same place. When I was 12 years old, I was hired at the tiny San Anselmo Public Library. I worked in the children's room and Mary Ann worked upstairs. So every time I wanted to see Mary Ann, I would just clomp up the stairs. Later on, we both worked at a bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, which is now gone, sadly, but at one time was a big independent bookstore in the Bay Area. Mary Ann spent some time in publishing with Harper and Row, then at another bookstore, and ended with 10 years at the Larkspur Public Library. "Anything you had to do to be near books" — that's the family motto.
I moved from bookstores into publishing, and became an editor at Chronicle Books. Then I got an MFA, had a baby and decided that what I should really be doing was writing. Since I had gone to all this trouble to produce this baby, I thought I should actually stay at home with it, and being a writer seemed like it would be so relaxing!
Danielle: I did a little research and found you had written several books under a pen name, Ann Fiery, in addition to your well-known children's books, the Ivy and Bean Series and The Magic Half. I couldn't help but think, "This is a woman with a wide variety of interests!" There was opera, divination, urban legends...
Barrows: This was my theory when I first began writing: anything I wanted to know about that I didn't already know about, I would propose a book on it. That would be how I would indulge myself as a writer. I didn't know anything about opera. You could not find anybody more musically ignorant than I. But I thought, "I want to know about opera, and what's more, I really want to buy a lot of operas and I can't afford it, so I'll propose this book!" It was great. At that particular stage in my life, I was having baby number two, so for that whole first year of my second kid's life, I just sat around listening to operas and writing the stories of the operas. What a great project.
Danielle: It's the opposite of the old adage, "Write what you know."
Barrows: I never really thought much of that theory.
Danielle: Because then that second book comes along, and what do you write about?
Barrows: Exactly. You run out of stuff you know. I personally don't really know that many things. I also think if you're not learning anything, where's the joy?
Danielle: Speaking of joy, I consider The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be the most downright joyful and pithy novel I've ever read. Pithy. That's the only word I can think of to accurately describe it.
Barrows: That's a great word. I don't want to take credit for being pithy myself, because my aunt Mary Ann was one of the most entertaining human beings you would ever want to meet. As far back as I can remember there was an imploring from all who knew her, "Write a book, Mary Ann. Would you write a book? Write, write, write!" Everyone wanted her to write a book because she was such a natural storyteller. She was so funny, and delightful, and charming, and engaging.
Everyone in my family tells stories all the time, and as a result, everyone expends a lot of effort trying to drown out all the other people. Mary Ann was, by far, the best storyteller in the family, but she was one of those people for whom starting was easy, but continuing was hard. Now there is a monument, this book, to how completely fun and entertaining and witty she was.
Danielle: Did you hear Mary Ann's voice coming out through the characters' voices when you were doing your rewrites?
Barrows: Oh, yes. The closest to her in tone is Juliet. I can hear pieces of stories I know, pieces of events I know, throughout the book. When I was sitting down to begin my part in writing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I had no idea how to collaborate. It was one of those great mysteries. How on earth do two people write one book? The situation was peculiar, because Mary Ann was very sick.
Danielle: She entrusted her story to you at some point.
Barrows: She said, "I can't do this anymore. You're the other writer in the family. Can you?" And I said, "Of course I can do this." But all the time I was thinking, "How can I do this?" As I actually began to write, it was so easy, because I had been hearing her stories all my life, and that voice was just right there.
Danielle: I think it would have been a lot tougher were it not for the fact that she was your beloved and very close relative and you knew each other so well.
Barrows: Yes. I still have no idea how anybody really collaborates, how you could possibly write with one voice unless that voice was so deeply ingrained inside you, as it was with me. Mary Ann taught me how to tell a story. I understand why the book is structured the way it is, because that's how I would do it, too. I was so lucky.
Danielle: I could hear the characters speaking in my mind. In fact, I came across a book video with actors reading the dialogue, and I had to turn it off. I couldn't stand to hear them read it because...
Barrows: It was not right.
Danielle: Yes, and I'm sure that someone is going to sniff around and want to make a movie based on Guernsey, and how difficult that's going to be...
Barrows: God bless them if they do, but how do you get that element of voice that's such a part of the book? With all these characters and the ways that they talk, how do you turn that into a movie? I don't know. I'm sure there's a way, but the voices are such an elemental part of what I think of as the appeal of the book. Some of these characters I just adore.
Juliet is so Mary Ann, that sort of rueful voice, and yet, with a willingness to be delighted and to be fascinated by all of the people on Guernsey. That rueful tone is Mary Ann, and the engagement with books is Mary Ann. But there are other people I know in there, too. While I was writing Guernsey, I was noticing, "That's my daughter!" Some things about Kit come from my daughter.
Danielle: What gave your aunt the idea to structure the novel as a series of letters?
Barrows: I asked her that once, and she said, "I thought it would be easier." [Laughter] I also think she did that because she loved letters so much. She and I are both mad for reading other people's letters, but also, there are some wonderful books we both loved that are written as letters.
That children's book, Daddy-Long-Legs, and its sequel, Dear Enemy; we love those books. Of course, 84 Charing Cross Road is certainly an influence. But in terms of reading enjoyment, we are major letter voyeurs. Mary Ann was a big fan of Charles Lamb's letters. She gulped all those down, and now I've gulped them down, too. Those are really great. Literary letters are something we both adore.
Danielle: Guernsey made me long to sit down at a table with some beautiful stationary and write someone a letter. In this age of email, these letters hardly exist anymore, so it was fun to read them.
Barrows: I love what you can do with events in the epistolary format, the way you can describe an event from one perspective, and then another perspective, and then another perspective. It doesn't get tired. You don't have to constantly amp up in the description because you don't want to run out of steam before you run out of action. When you move to a different character and describe the same thing from a different perspective, you get a jolt of energy with each change of voice, which is great. You don't have to tie yourself into knots trying to show a different perspective without changing your point of view. It's really fun.
Danielle: What was it like to inhabit all those different voices?
Barrows: It was great! I don't know why everybody doesn't do this. As a writer, you never get tired of them, and you're not going to tire out your reader, either. The maximum amount of time a reader has to be with one person is maybe 10 pages. It's nothing but these little shocks of energy moving along. I think it's extraordinary, from both a writing and a reading perspective.
Danielle: Since I know that you're experienced in publishing and that you worked at Chronicle, I wanted to know what it felt like to be a "big" book for the summer season and have all the publicity machinery behind it.
Barrows: Sometimes I felt like the little girl from the country, but I was astonished at Dial's foresight and their devotion to Guernsey. They loved it. Last November, when I first met the people at Dial, I walked into a room filled with salespeople, and their enthusiasm felt so sincere. I worked with salespeople a lot in publishing. There's a way that they sometimes express themselves to say, "We will give it our best professional work." But I wasn't feeling that; I was feeling real personal commitment from all of those people. I was stunned. I was honored. Some were telling me that they had wept on their recumbent bikes at the gym as they were reading the manuscript. And I thought to myself, "These people really care about Guernsey!" I've gotten proof of that over and over again, to a degree that I have never seen before. I feel incredibly lucky.
Danielle: I would say the same of your readers. I was reading some of the letters posted on the Guernsey website and was amazed at the amount of praise and the feelings and emotions that welled up about Guernsey. How does that make you feel, and have you gotten a chance to speak to any of these readers?
Barrows: Oh, yes. I get a lot of emails and I answer every one of them. I have been doing a lot of events, so I have been meeting a lot of people. It's astonishing, and touching, and lets me know that having had Mary Ann in my family was an incredible stroke of luck for me. Now, finally, everyone has Mary Ann in their family. That's wonderful.
I also think that this is a book that feeds the hunger we have for charm. There is also a hunger out in the world for books about people getting chopped up by chainsaws, too. But this is a book that charms, and it charms unabashedly. It's about being beguiled. It's about enchantment, and I think that is something that people want in their lives, especially readers.
Danielle: Dawsey and Juliet are brought together by a book in Guernsey, and now you are bringing people together with the book itself.
Barrows: I love people who can be touched by books. That's what the book is about. There is a community of readers, and Guernsey is a microcosm of all the people who are reading this book and being pulled into that sense of community by it. The real readers' community is the macro of the book's micro.
Danielle: Not that there's not suffering in the book. It is set in such a horrific time — the German occupation in Guernsey during World War II. It reminded me of the Roberto Benigni movie, Life is Beautiful, in how these beautiful moments can happen in the darkest times.
Barrows: It's in those extremities that you find that the freedom of your mind becomes the one that they can't take away. Mary Ann was always fascinated by World War II. She started several different research projects and potential book projects around World War II, and I knew this was a setting that she was always interested in exploring.
Danielle: You have been contracted to write two more novels. How are you going to merge all the different things that you have done — writing your nonfiction works, your children's books, and this novel's process — when moving forward?
Barrows: I've been thinking a lot about that. It's got to be different from the way I normally do things, but it's got to have some similarities, too. I wrote a book called The Magic Half, a chapter book for older kids, and it's the thing I have written that is the most similar to writing an adult-sized novel. It began where I think all things have to begin, with an image or an idea that is interesting to me. You go through about 500 of them and investigate them for strands of story. I am going to keep a diary when I start the new adult book, because I want to remember how I do this one. There are these little pieces of images and ideas that I have been writing down for years. They are all in this unappealing folder in my office.
It has to come from a scene or an image that seems right, and then the story grows out of that. If I try to start from something too big, it will make me insane. The kids' books always begin with stuff I think is funny, things I see people doing, and from there I start to think about character, and the little pieces of story start to grow like bean sprouts. Then all the little pieces start to mix together and take shape.
Danielle: It seems to be a very organic process, and you take the time to let things germinate and grow.
Barrows: During this current period of "Guernsey love," it's all so time consuming, I think I need it to calm down a bit before I can start a new project. I don't think you can do those two things at the same time. People ask me often, "What is your creative process?" My creative process really is just staring out the window — I need the space to just stare out the window for a long time and think about scenes and characters and images and let them all mush together in my mind before I can go forward with the next book.
Danielle: A lot of people think of writing as a magical process: you think of an idea, you write it down, and you're done! They don't know about the grind of it.
Barrows: And the days that you write and it's all bad! You have to have those days to get to the stuff that's good. It's impossible to describe because it is so ridiculous.
Danielle: You've said you would rather write about something than really talk about it.
Barrows: But here I am! [Laughter]
Danielle: You've described yourself as becoming a children's writer because you had become "weary of grown-ups." Did your experience with Guernsey and the people who love it...
Barrows: Reconcile me to grown-ups?
Barrows: How can I say this? Normally, I find grown-ups so problematic. But the way that readers are responding to Guernsey is very childlike. This is a characteristic I can deal with. They are letting themselves be delighted and feel the joy in the novel. My objection to regulation grown-ups is how rarely they do that, how much they talk about real estate and "important things." Juliet is a perfect example of someone's willingness to be delighted, to have new experiences, to make new friends. The readers that are loving her are that kind of people as well. Those are the grown-ups that I love, the ones that haven't lost what children have in spades.
Danielle: Tell me about the Mary Ann Shaffer Memorial Fund.
Barrows: After Mary Ann passed, we were thinking about what would be an appropriate memorial for her, other than the book, which is this great beacon of Mary Ann-ness in the world. It is so hard to have time to write when you are working, especially for women who have a lot to do taking care of their families as well. You scrape and rip the time loose from all your other commitments. And when you do find the time, you are so frantic and frazzled, and you think, "Well, I can't write anything!" Then you spend a lot of time castigating yourself for that, especially when the time is sometimes not rewarded by any product at all. People tend to scoff at you.
It was always so hard for Mary Ann to find time to write, and I think it's no coincidence that this book wasn't born until after her retirement, 25 years after she first went to Guernsey. So the idea was that we would create a scholarship for women, particularly older women, to Soapstone, the writing retreat for women. To give a woman writer the gift of having the time to think, to stare out the window, to get something done — that would have been something that Mary Ann would have loved. It's a proper memorial.
I spoke with Annie Barrows by telephone on August 21, 2008.
Books mentioned in this post