Helen Simonson on Writing Her Bestselling Novel

Photo Credit: Nina Subin

Helen Simonson was a serious Jill-of-all-trades before she sat down to pen her highly praised 2010 bestseller, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. A London School of Economics alumna and former travel advertising exec, the British-born author brings buckets of worldly experience to her writing, and she’s sharing that wealth of killer writing advice with us (plus some thoughts on how to throw a classy dinner party).

Read Figment’s Q-and-A with Helen and stay tuned for her Daily Theme this coming Thursday, Jan. 26Sign up now to receive  writing prompts from your favorite authors.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was your first novel. What advice do you have for young writers who want to be published?

I was taught, by some very fine writers, that good work will eventually find a home. However, it can take a long time so I would suggest being patient, and treating writing as an old-fashioned apprenticeship. Enjoy the journey, sponge up all the good teaching you can find, make sure you have writing friends and, above all, don’t give up. Try to write something you have never seen before–even if it’s about vampires, make it really unexpected. Try to be true to your own voice, rather than trying to write like some writer you admire, or who sells tons of books. The world doesn’t need pale imitation–your unique voice is your ticket to success.

Your novel has a strong message: that people, no matter their backgrounds, are really very similar. When your story has a clear moral, how do avoid beating your readers over the head with it?

I believe that this “message” arose from the story, and from the process of writing the characters, rather than being a starting point. It is very important that any theme or issue you might have in mind when you begin a story should be pushed firmly to the back of your brain where it can influence but not control your storytelling. If you write a straight moral line, you will end up with an “after school special,” not a fabulous story.

Your story revolves around two families: one British, one Pakistani. Do you do a lot of prep work drawing family trees, brainstorming family histories, and doing character sketches? Or do you simply start writing?

I start writing and try to “see” my characters walking around, talking and going places. Later I might wonder who they are, where they came from–and draw little maps, or make notes or story webs, so that I can fill in the gaps. I think we all have subconscious ideas waiting to see the light and so I like to dive in and see what my brain comes up with first!

Throughout the book, Major Pettigrew is torn between his moral uprightness and his desire to defy convention to be with Mrs. Ali. What are your tips for writing realistic internal conflict?

Wow, great and very tough question! I think it was really important that I NOT have a scene in which the Major sat by the fire and wondered “shall I defy convention and ask Mrs. Ali on a date, or would such shenanigans destroy the cherished traditions of the village?” Always be as elliptical as possible–which means never have characters say what they mean or clearly see their own conflict. Take internal conflict very SLOWLY and try to “show” through actions rather than ever “tell” in words.

The quaint little town in which the book is set is very similar to your hometown, Rye, in England. How important was it for you to really know that environment? Would you ever write a book set in a place totally foreign to you?

Yes, I absolutely would. In my first book, the landscape of Sussex was my muse and was admittedly a lifeline–whatever I did not know at least I knew the countryside setting. However I think it is boring to only write what you know–I used my expertise and experience with Sussex to feel more confident as I struck out into topics and environments about which I knew nothing at all (like duck shooting!).  By all means take something you know well–a place, a talent, an experience–but then feel free to take it with you to the moon! Writing is all about imagination and I have so much more respect for writers who dare to go strange places (check out David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas), than those who stay firmly in their suburban cul de sacs, English Departments and urban lofts!

Major Pettigrew is being made into a movie. Congrats! Who’s in your fantasy cast?

The reason I can’t answer this question is that I spent a lot of time NOT physically describing my characters. I find that fans of the Major all have a different idea of what he and Mrs. Ali look like. Your writers should try this too–how little can you describe a character and still have the reader convinced of how they look? It’s a fun exercise and will help avoid those dreadful “she looked in the mirror and saw…” descriptions.

When you write your next book, will you do anything differently in your writing process? What are lessons you learned from writing Major Pettigrew?

As I finished my book, I kept asking published writers “so is it easier second time around?” and they all assured me that it was just as impossible. Even Hemingway apparently had to remind himself each time that he knew how to write a book! I try to treat my writing as a real job now and go to the “office” to write on a more regular schedule. As I look back, I see that most of the bits edited out of the final text were paragraphs of unnecessary description–which is what I always write when I feel stuck, or have missed too many days of writing. I also learned that no matter how many classes you might take, writing a novel is a large, long, and ultimately one-person responsibility and it is important to believe that you can make it through. It’s not a 5k race, it’s more like hiking the Appalachian Trail!

Who are the three writers, living or dead, whom you’d invite to a dinner party? And what would you serve them?

It’s going to be a disaster. My beloved Henry James will complain about the roast beef being underdone, while also using the occasion to make quite plain everything that is wrong with my writing. He does this to all his friends except my second guest, Edith Wharton, who is exempt because she has a car and takes Henry for drives in the Sussex countryside. Mrs. Wharton will try to be gracious, but she will surely deplore the side dishes ordered in from the gourmet store and the lack of finger bowls. She will wonder why my husband is wearing oven gloves to serve the Yorkshire pudding–don’t we have a butler? Somerset Maugham, in velvet smoking jacket, will choke the place up with his cheroots and talk very amusingly of the lower classes, while Mr. James grows apoplectic about the injustice of less literary writers, like Maugham, being more commercially successful than he. My husband will tell me that this is the last time he helps host one of these work dinners for me, and I will cry into the sherry trifle, in my galley kitchen, and wonder when I will ever learn to separate writing I admire from the writers themselves.

4 thoughts on “Helen Simonson on Writing Her Bestselling Novel

  1. I adored this book—the interactions between the characters, the Major’s frustration with his son and his descriptions of his son, and the bittersweet and lovely moments throughout… really quite wonderful! I immediately gave it to my Mom for her birthday after reading it. Thanks so much for a great interview!

  2. This was one of the best interviews I’ve read on Figment by far. She’s so quaint and funny! I love the last part so much. “Where’s the butler?” Haha, they’re so out of their element at the party. I also like how she pointed out that writing about Sussex was kind of a crutch sometimes. Anyway, this made me smile, and I hope to see more interviews with writers as expressive as Mrs. Simonson.

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