Monday, April 2, 2012

Major Pettigrew Comes to Los Angeles

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...


  1. Sunday, Yes you could write a novel, I feel quite sure of it. Have you read "Imagine - How Creativity Works" ? I just finished it and I would highly recommend it to you. Starts off with a very interesting story about Bob Dylan and how he almost gave up music.
    I also had skipped "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" and now want to read it, from your very enticing description.
    Also want to discuss places to visit in the English Countryside - at some point soon.

  2. I've been a silent reader for a long time, but had to respond to this brilliant entry. I, too, have had Major Pettigrew on the nightstand and am now going to make some scones and settling in with it. Helen sounds so admirable for her career shift. Plus, gotta love that British sense of humor! Thanks so much for sharing all of her insights.

  3. Heard her speak at a WNBA panel in New York last fall, along with some of her Random House team. She is utterly delightful! So sharp and funny, kind but blunt. Bought the book at the event and enjoyed it as much as a vacation - you will too!

  4. I love the background you give. Not just encouragement to read what sounds like an enjoyable novel but the story of the author herself. Finding her voice, staying humble, writing about what she knows; these are the things we like to hear about an author. Thank you Sunday for another book selection.

  5. Read it, loved it ....and you must write a book Sunday! You are a natural...:) Jeanne xx

  6. Yes, I read it last year. I would love to hear her speak. I think we all gain confidence, and yes courage, to open our creative door after visiting with someone who not only opened the door, but stepped through. Wonderful post! Bonnie

  7. Oh yes you must write a book! Your writing skills are fine tuned here on your blog so I say go for it.
    I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

  8. Loved the book. You go to the most interesting lectures. I think I need to start reading the newspaper more carefully for interesting events! And, yes, you could write a book. Just start writing without stopping for 15 minutes a day without lifting your pen off the paper (or fingers off the keyboard).

  9. I loved this book and would have been so excited to hear her speak.

  10. I really enjoyed this post Sunday, thank you. I feel inspired to start writing. Your comment about British and American mindsets reminded me of a conversation that I had recently with my American brother-in-law. I had been telling him about something that hadn't worked out for me and I said resignedly "Well, you can't have everything." To which he replied, "Why not?"!

  11. Sunday - You are not the last person to read this book. I haven't and reading this post reminds me to read it, however I bought three new books yesterday so it will have to wait a little longer.

  12. Loved this book! So cool to hear that Helen Simonson is such a nice person and encouraging speaker.

  13. I haven't read it yet! I totally need to, though, especially if there's going to be a movie. How awesome that you got to go to a talk by the author--it just makes the reading experience that much better.

  14. I'm just about to start reading this, Sunday. Our book group will be discussing it at the end of the month. It seems to be very popular in our area as I had to wait for it through our interlibrary loan system.

    How thoughtful of you to share your evening with us, and Helen Simonson as well. It sounds like a wonderfully warm and witty lecture - one I would have loved to see.

  15. How exciting that the book will soon be a movie. I really liked reading it. I'll bet she was a delight to hear speak. Lucky you!

  16. another book to put on the list! I recently attended one of my first book signings (Tom Rachman, author of his first - and best selling novel - The Imperfectionists) and found it/him very inspiring. Thanks for the background on this author - I will look for it at the library.

  17. How did you hear about this lecture? So sorry to have missed it.

    1. It was part of the lecture series given by the Beverly Hills Literary Society.

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