Pretty much since I was old enough to open a book, I’ve had a thing for tales set in England. After hearing aged seven that Nostradamus had predicted England would someday fall into the sea, I ran to my mother and told her that we had to go to London to see the sooty Victorian sights I’d read about in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books right away, before they were gone. My fascination with Dickens and Bronte shaped my goals and dreams and years later when I finally made it to Britain as a graduate student, I retraced the steps of my beloved stories, peering expectantly around each corner as though the characters themselves might appear.
Now I’m sure this sentiment sounds clichéd coming from an American and some of my literary references stereotypical, but it’s true. And in more recent years I’ve spread my literary wings to include a wider range of titles, like Tracey Chevalier’s Falling Angels (set in Edwardian London), and Matthew D’Ancona’s Going East (a murder mystery of sorts set in present day East London, reminiscent of the more recent Sister by Rosamund Lupton.) I also like to escape ‘the big smoke’ with stories set further afield, especially those which centre around my beloved Cambridge, (where I studied history as a post graduate at Jesus College) such as Case Histories by Kate Atkinson and the beautiful prose of Susan Hill in Air and Angels.
As a novelist, my love of England is more apparent than ever. I’ve written books set wholly or mostly there, both present day (The Officer’s Lover) and past (The Diplomat’s Wife). And while my latest, The Things We Cherished, takes place in continental Europe, I feel that its themes, centred around the impact of the Second World War, will resonate strongly with British readers.
Reading this, you may be asking: who am I, cheeky American girl, to try and write anything set in Britain? I wade in carefully and with certain ground rules. First, I do not write protagonists who are British – I’m not sure I can manage the voice or to see things through their eyes. So my main characters tend to be displaced, outsiders from abroad, and the view of England filtered through foreigners’ eyes. Rule number two is to have English readers of my draft manuscripts, the more the better to spot my errors, geographical, cultural and social. This is also where having a phenomenal U.K. editor makes all the difference.
For the American writer, Britain truly is a foreign country. Book covers and titles and the way a book is marketed and sold are all different. But the love of a good story is global and my British readers are some of the most passionate I’ve encountered.
Having spent some of my most joyful and formative years in Britain, it is especially gratifying to have my books so well-received there. There’s nothing I like better than having an excuse to hop across the pond, visit old friends, and stroll the high streets, popping in and out of bookstores.
These days my wings have been clipped by three children under the age of three and my yearly pilgrimages to the U.K for class reunions and book launches are a thing of the past, but my love of a good story set in Britain endures. To borrow from my favourite of the World War I poets, “…there is some part of a foreign field that is forever England.” And so I’m so grateful that, even from afar, my U.K. readers allow me the chance to visit and indulge my passion for all things literary and British.
The Things We Cherished by Pam Jenoff is published by Sphere as a paperback original on the 10th November, £6.99