Bridget Jones of the Blitz: AJ Pearce’s happy war story
Debut novelist AJ Pearce talks about what inspired her to set her novel ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ during the second World War
AJ Pearce's novel ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ is cheerful and hopeful about people sticking together through difficult times. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
I was once at a literary festival where a panel of serious male authors discussed how they mentally and physically prepared themselves for writing their novels. They talked of diets and running and meditation. The room was heavy with reverence. Then a woman in a yellow cardigan at the back of the room put up her hand and asked, “Do you not think you’re taking it all a bit too seriously?”
Throughout this interview, debut novelist AJ Pearce reminds me of the woman in the yellow cardigan. There are no hushed discussions of the muse here. Pearce is just getting on with it and having a wonderful time writing and discussing her characters with the world.
This is all very fitting because her novel, Dear Mrs Bird, an optimistic book set in second World War London, is considered part of the ‘uplit’ trend in publishing, a new demand in a restless news-ridden world for literature that is kind and uplifting.
Dear Mrs Bird tells the story of Emmy, a young woman with dreams of working as a “lady war correspondent” but who, in a job application mix-up, ends up typing up the problem-page responses for a no-nonsense agony aunt, Mrs Bird.
Mrs Bird will not reply to any problems that are remotely untoward, so Emmy takes it upon herself. She is a Bridget Jones of the Blitz – a little naive, never unkind, and thoroughly unsinkable. Through her, Pearce tells the lesser-known stories of the women at home during the war, walking to work through bombed streets and volunteering at night with rescue services.
Although she will not hear of it, Pearce is quite inspiring herself. At 53, this is her first novel and it is already receiving acclaim. It was won by Picador in a seven-way auction and is now set for television adaptation.
“I’m proper middle-aged, I like gardening and everything,” she says. She worked in marketing her whole life but had a propensity for evening courses, which led her to writing. “I’d done photography and I tried to learn how to paint.”
A quick Google led her to the renowned Arvon Foundation courses. She signed up. “I very nearly bottled it on the day. I didn’t tell anyone ’cause I thought they’d be like, ‘Get you! Who do you think you are?’”
If the characters in this book were alive now they’d be totally anti-Brexit
She had “wonderful tutors” in Tobias Hill and Miranda France. “They said, ‘You can do this!’ and because of that I thought, I’ll give it a go. That’s 12 years ago. I suppose it sounds like a very long, arduous time. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve made so many friends. I don’t know if you find this but other writers and even established ones are so nice and generous and supportive.” She had always found herself drawn to books from the mid-20th century because “they’re generally quite short, love that, and perhaps what would be called social comedies, but the ones based during the war, every now and then there’d be one line that just slays you, just gets you in the heart.”
Then one day she came across a 1939 issue of Woman’s Own, which set her on course.
“I bought it for no good reason, and as soon as I read that first issue I thought, this is what I want to write about.”
She now has 400 old magazines, sorted away in acetate covers, dating back to 1848. “There’s actually a lot of depth to them. I’ve got 1944 issues of the weeklies and they ask will there be pay equality after the war. We haven’t cracked that one yet.”
She pored over the advice pages. “I thought it would be all, ‘Come on, get on with it!’ But it’s actually incredibly sympathetic. Some of the problems are extremely moving; people who haven’t seen their husbands for a long time or who aren’t going to see them again.”
She mentions one letter she read, which features in the novel, where a mother couldn’t bear to have her child evacuated from London and he ended up being injured in a bombing and losing the use of his legs.
“One moment you’re laughing at adverts for ‘Odor-O-No’ kind of thing and the next minute you’re reading the most serious life situations.”
Pearce was fascinated with the idea that the problems were often so relatable. “Its a fascinating window in that it’s not the text books, it’s not Pathe news.” Along with magazines, Pearce’s vivid depiction of the time was aided by her love of “collecting ephemera, or old rubbish no one else wants. I have a pair of shoes that are from that era, I know you could clamber through rubble with her shoes.”
She also plays Glen Miller loudly while she writes. So why is Pearce so drawn to that world? “My parents were children during the war and it’s within living memory. It was the most challenging and extraordinary time when not only the men were away fighting obviously, but at home everyone was involved. When we’re watching movies about the war, we know what happened in the end. All they had was faith that good had to win and to live with that day after day – I always say that it’s ordinary people in extraordinary times but they had to be extraordinary every day”
Many reviewers have commented on the timeliness of Pearce’s novel. I tell her I initially took this to mean the book embodied some of the fervour for nostalgia that is credited with causing Brexit. This is the England the Brexiteers pine for, surely, imperial and resolute.
Pearce does not like this idea at all.
“I am totally horrified by Brexit. I think it’s tremendously sad, and if the characters in this book were alive now they’d be totally anti-Brexit because the point is it’s set in Britain in the war, but it is not about isolationism. The book is about friendship and, I’m trying to avoid the phrase ‘reaching out’ because I really don’t like that phrase, but it’s about friends you’ve known forever and friends you’ve never even met. Without being a political book, it’s a very clear stance that this is about breaking down barriers and all being in something together.”
She believes the timelines refers to the uplifting note the book strikes in a complicated world. “It is cheerful and hopeful and about people sticking together through difficult times. I think that’s what is meant by timely.”
There is also the idea that books like this one write women’s stories back into history, when so often we have heard the story of the men. We can hear the crunch of glass under Emmy’s feet as she hurries to bomb shelters; see herself and her friends head into the world at night, to dance in spite of it all.
They are all trying to achieve something, not just to exist but to live
“I know that at the start of the wars they closed the cinemas, battened down the hatches. Then they realised it was terrible for morale and obviously there was great horror, I never want to underplay that, but there’s a line in the book that says Hitler can’t stop people falling in love and that’s absolutely true and because you could lose anyone at any time, lots of people made the most of that and as they said, had rather a good war. If Hitler would hate the idea of people going out and having fun, good. Let’s go and have a drink.”
It is clear Pearce is eager to lock these stories down on a page before they are lost forever, looking for real people to interview to get a true sense of that time.
“The more I’ve been writing the book, the more I wish I’d asked my grandparents. I asked Granddad but never my grandmother. Outrageous! Women were trying to keep families together. It’s been lovely when people have said they’ve called their grandma when they’ve been reading the book.”
As for the television adaption, Pearce is keen to keep her hand in.
“They’re happy to collaborate with me, which was very important because the characters are the best imaginary friends I have so I am quite protective. Probably makes me sound nightmarish, doesn’t it?”
She is very fond of the heroine she has created and plans to keep her around for a while in sequels. “She’s trying to go somewhere in her life. They are all trying to achieve something, not just to exist but to live and that’s the sort of character I wanted to write about. A good heroine is someone who gets off their chair and does something.”
Sort of like Pearce herself, having set up a whole new life in her 50s?
“Sort of. I’m still sitting there eating biscuits. She’s far pluckier than I am. I’m really excited to get a new career in my early 50s. That’s tremendously lucky. I just think you write what you love and you go on courses and try and get help and learn the craft.”
She’s not thoroughly convinced that ‘uplit’ is a trend, although she is a fan of books with kindness at their core, like last year’s smash, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She’s all for it “if it encourages more novels to be published that are hopeful, and tolerant”.
And while Dear Mrs Bird “works on a cheerful, hopeful, accessible level, I very much hope that it’s clear it has backbone. It’s not just a nostalgic, ‘wasn’t everyone terrific!’ It’s all about, this is awful, how do we get through this? And the only way we can get through this is sticking together and even if we lose faith in ourselves, if we still have faith in our friends and each other, than we can do this. I didn’t write it in just a sort of soft focus, weren’t-there-lovely-frocks, way. Although there were . . . ”
- Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is published by Picador, £12.99