I may be the only person who has not read "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." It has been on my nightstand for a while and I have been meaning to get to it. Last week I went to a wonderful lecture at the Beverly Hills Hotel given by the warm and engaging author Helen Simonson. I am now on page 100 of the book and loving it. Helen Simonson, author of the very popular Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, gave an entertaining and humorous talk about how she came to be a writer. And I have to say that although most of us in the room don't have her talent, we all left encouraged to follow our dreams and turn them into a career. I walked away wondering, "Could I write a novel?" At least now I felt I might try...
Helen Simonson is that kind of encouraging and modest speaker. We all came to the lecture knowing certain things about Helen. Everyone in the audience knew that her book "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" is widely admired and beloved. We all knew that it is a well-written book about the romance between a quintessential English man Major Pettigrew and the lovely Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Ali. The story takes place in the village of Egdecombe St. Mary in the idyllic English countryside. It is also widely known that the book is a best-selling novel and, as we learned at the lecture, is going to be made into a film.
And there was the biography on the dust jacket that gave us the following information:
Helen was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics and a former travel advertising executive, she has lived in America for the last two decades. After many years in Brooklyn, she now lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and two teenage boys. This is her first novel.
But who knew how funny and personable Helen Simonson is?
As her lecture began, I felt that I could have been sitting in her kitchen over a cup of tea and scones, listening to her easy and lively conversation:
She began by telling us that before she wrote the book, she was a happy stay-at-home mom living in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons. She knew she needed a creative outlet and she decided to take up gardening. "I am British and so I garden," she told us. But gardening did not work out as she did not care for weeding. Next she took up modern dance and joined a little dance group that gave recitals at convalescent hospitals. Noting that she and the other dancers were not exactly twenty- somethings, she gave a hilarious demonstration of some of their moves. We were laughing and sympathizing at the same time.
Moving on, she decided to take a creative writing class. She had met a young man who was a CPA. He told her he was writing a novel and she thought how can he be writing a novel? He's a CPA. And so she decided to shed her English mindset about identity being so fixed and adopt the very American philosophy that we can do whatever we want and change our identity. She would expand her mind and envision herself as a writer. She enrolled in a MFA program in creative writing.
She tried to write a contemporary, gritty type of novel, but it just wasn't her. She decided to return to the Sussex countryside of her youth and as she constructed in her imagination the cottage in Edgecombe St. Mary where the novel is set, she opened the door and there stood the Major. She advised the writers amongst us to avoid trying to imitate our favorite writers but instead try to find our authentic voice. This is the only way to do it, in her opinion, even though it can be scary. She realized as she wrote her book that this is who she is and her book needed to reflect her own voice.
She wrote the first chapter and submitted it for evaluation; it was highly praised and won a writing award. Three years later she finished her novel and contacted a literary agent. The agent quickly took Helen on after reading the book and sent it to Random House who purchased it. It was on the bestseller list almost immediately. She has been on the book tour circuit ever since and in her lecture described many of the delights of her travel experiences. When asked how her life has changed since the publication of the book, she remains exceedingly humble. She owes her humility to her sons who hadn't particularly noticed she had written a book, until they heard it may be made into a movie.
Helen had a specific goal in writing this book. She wanted to write about the real England, not the idyllic England of the past, but the multicultural England of today and so she created Mrs. Ali. She marvelled at the fact that someone like Mrs. Ali who grew up in the same England as Major Pettigrew would always feel like an outsider. She wanted to write about what happens when you open up to the "other" and also the idea of who is to decide who your life partner should be.
After hearing Helen Simonson talk about her book and her writing career, I am excited to spend some time in the small English village of Edgecombe St. Mary and to get to know the Major and Mrs. Ali. A pot of tea and some scones may be in order. I sense that this will be an enjoyable and delightful reading experience.
And about that novel that I've always wanted to write, well, I now have some very good writing advice from Helen Simonson. Maybe one day...