Bestselling author finds writing voice in humor
Editor’s Note: British-born novelist Helen Simonson was the guest speaker at the March 21 luncheon of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at The Grand Del Mar. Her debut novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” is a New York Times bestseller. The annual six-event luncheon series is sponsored by Northern Trust, the RSF Literary Society, the RSF Community Center and this newspaper. The next luncheon on Thursday, April 19, will feature American thriller writer Dennis Lehane and his latest novel, “Moonlight Mile.”
By Arthur Lightbourn
Helen Simonson is a very funny lady with a delightful British sense of humor, but it wasn’t until she accepted this about herself and allowed it to come through in her writing that she was able, in her mid-40s, to launch a second career as a bestselling novelist.
Her debut novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” hailed by critics as “a classic comedy of love and manners,” is set in a small English town filled with colorful, eccentric, sometimes nasty, but always very human characters, caught in an undercurrent of ludicrous class snobbery and Empire-derived racism.
We interviewed the former advertising executive and stay-at-home mom in the library of The Grand Del Mar March 21 prior to her luncheon talk to the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society sponsored by Northern Trust.
Simonson is a long-time resident of Brooklyn, New York. She was born Helen Phillips in the industrial town of Slough, Buckinghamshire, England. Her father was an industrial chemist.
“He got his chemistry degree and master’s the old-fashion way, at night school, while working,” she said. “So I was actually the first in my family to go to college.
When she was a teenager, the family achieved the ultimate English middle-class dream of moving to a house in the country — in East Sussex, “a much prettier part of the world” and the chosen locale for her debut novel with its rolling hills, thatched cottages, and medieval smuggling towns that attracted some of England’s most prominent writers, including Henry James, Virginia Woolf and Rudyard
Kipling of “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” fame.
Drawn to writing in her teens by the surrounding literary heritage, she was mildly encouraged by her parents, who thought that being a writer would be “a lovely hobby for the weekend,” but, she should really concentrate on preparing to get a proper job…
“So I didn’t have a background that said I have permission to write,”she said.
Both of her parents were town councilors “which is why, I think, I ended up at the London School of Economics. I was planning on being a politician or a diplomat, helping to serve the world. It took me about six months to figure out it wasn’t all idealism and building youth centers and it wasn’t me.”
But, at the London School of Economics, she did meet her future husband, an American who was doing a year-abroad program — “One of those programs where you drink beer and meet girls, and he managed to do both,” she laughed.
Her husband, John Simonson, is a banker. “And I advise all writers,” she said, “to search out spouses who are bankers or lawyers or can otherwise support one’s literary ambitions. My husband says he’s enjoyed many years of being ‘a patron of the arts.’”
After graduation, she joined an advertising agency in the seaside East Sussex town of Eastbourne, as a trainee copywriter, which, she believes, was excellent training for a future fiction writer “because you have to condense everything into very few words.”
“I was there a year,” she said, “then married, came to the States and got into travel advertising here. I worked for a tour company that did tours to Russia and worked in the cruse line industry as an advertising director, which was great because I loved writing, advertising and travel.
“I would spend my whole life travelling if I could.”
With the birth of her two sons, she retired from advertising to become a stay-at-home mom. For fun, she said, she and her husband enrolled in a ballroom dancing class, but she soon discovered she had “two left feet and I like to lead.”
She recalls asking a young accountant in the dance class what he was planning to do on his summer vacation.
“He said he was staying home to write a screenplay. And I said that was lovely, but, inside my head, I was screaming: ‘But you’re an accountant. You’re not qualified to write.’ That’s when I realized that I didn’t feel qualified to write and never had, partly because of being British. We know what we’re supposed to do in the world and what we’re not.”
She attributes her turn-around in attitude as a gift from America where she was assured by New York Lottery advertisements that everyone with a dollar can have a dream “and made me realize that in America everyone can have a go.”
She immediately signed up for a beginners’ fiction class at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York. “I think at my first class at the YMCA. I realized this was what I wanted to do and I thought it would be very easy and in a couple of years I would be a novelist and that would be a very good second career for a woman with small children.”
As it turned out, it took longer, 12 years, in fact — and after she had earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the State University of New York — that her first novel was finished, accepted and published in 2010 by Random House.
She admits it took her some time to find her authentic “voice” as a writer.
“And that’s very hard for a struggling writer who hasn’t been published because for many years you try to write like your favorite authors. You want to be the next Hemingway or Virginia Woolf and all you can hope to achieve is a pale imitation, while what you can give to the world is your authentic voice.”
The love interest in her novel revolves around 69-year-old widower Major Ernest Pettigrew, Royal Sussex, retired, and the beautiful, no-nonsense, literature-loving widow and owner of the village grocery shop, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, of Pakistani heritage.
And, therein lies the problem, complicated by the Major’s twit of a son, Roger, an ambitious London banker totally obsessed with advancing his career, no matter how, and making money, and a cash-strapped aristocrat, Lord Dagenham, who, with the help of a rapacious American developer, envisions subdividing the village into an enclave of manors “available only to old money.”
Before finding her voice as a writer willing to expose her sense of humor, she said, “I wasted a lot of time trying to write the kind of gritty, contemporary stories that perhaps would get me published in small literary magazines… but my heart wasn’t in it…and one day I had to write a short story for a workshop and I gave myself permission to write something just this once, just for me, something that I would want to read if I was in bed tucked up with the flu and looking for a good book.
“So I wrote a short story called ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ and I expected everybody in my writing workshop to hate it. There were plenty of young Hemingways in that class but when I got to class everyone had fallen in love with the Major…and insisted they wanted to know what happened to the Major tomorrow and next week…”
Simonson spent the next five years expanding her short story into her first novel and thesis for her creative writing master’s degree.
“I was very interested in taking what might be stereotypes of British people, such as you might see in a British sitcom on PBS, and kind of exploding those stereotypes and peeling away the layers, and perhaps showing that we English people are individuals just like everybody else.”
The Major, with his droll sense of humor, is rarely at a loss for words and is a master of witty, incisive comebacks.
“I have to confess I’m one of those people who are usually tongue-tied in public,” she said, “and then half an hour later I think of just the perfect thing I should have said to the person who just insulted me. So that the Major is somewhat aspirational on my part in that he often manages to get in his word in time.”
In her personal life, Simonson said she relates very much to Hyacinth Bucket, the main character in the long-running British BBC sitcom, “Keeping Up Appearances,” who insists her surname is pronounced ‘Bouquet.’
“I am Hyacinth ‘Bouquet’,” Simonson laughs. “I’m always asking my husband, when will we have a house with room for a pony?”
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” has been optioned for a movie.
“When movie directors started calling,” she said, “that’s when my boys [now ages 19 and 17] noticed that I had written a book.”
Simonson is currently working on her second novel, which, she says, will not be a sequel. She hates sequels.
It will, however, also be set in Sussex, but in the late Edwardian period, with perhaps an emphasis on the area’s drainage systems, which, in her historical research, she finds intriguing “because if you don’t know where the bathroom is, how can you know anything else?”
For more information, visit www.majorpettigrew.com
Name: Helen Simonson (nee Phillips)
Distinction: Simonson, who for years was a stay-at-home mom, recently launched a new career as a novelist with the publication of her bestselling debut novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.”
Born: Slough, Buckinghamshire, England. Moved to Sussex with her family as a teenager.
Education: B.Sc. in economics, London School of Economics, 1985; M.F.A., State University of New York, (SUNY), Stony Brook, 2008.
Family: Married to banker John Simonson. They have two sons: Ian, 19, a freshman studying electrical engineering, and “maybe a minor in film” at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee; and, Jamie, 17, a high school junior.
Interests: Camping, hiking, travel, and houses, especially those with “room for a pony.”
Recent reading: “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett
Favorite authors: Edith Wharton, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, and contemporary authors Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver and David Mitchell.
Favorite TV: Any “Law & Order”
Favorite film: “Miracle on 34th Street”
Favorite getaway: Hawaii, and, as of now, San Diego
When depressed: “I check my emails.”
Philosophy: “When it comes to writing and life, I would like to be like the late Frank McCourt, who did not become a published author until he retired from teaching and he was determined to enjoy every single minute of it.”
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