Guernsey Literary and Potato-Interview

Barnes & Noble Interview

Annie Barrows

The following is from a 2008 Barnes & Noble interview with Annie Barrows. Her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, co-author of The Guernsey Literary....Society died earlier in the year.

Q: Can you tell us, please, what prompted Mary Ann to write her first novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?

A: Mary Ann was visiting England in 1976, and on a whim, she decided to fly down to Guernsey. Once she was there, a terrible fog rose from the sea and enveloped the island, and all ferry and plane service was shut down. Immured in the airport for seventy-two hours, Mary Ann passed the time warming herself under the hand-dryer in the men's restroom (the one in the women's restroom was broken) and reading all the books she could find in the airport bookstore.

Apparently, in 1976, the airport was the primary outlet for local publishing, and the subject of most of their books was the German Occupation of the island during the second World War. Mary Ann was always fascinated by accounts of the war, but this episode was unknown to her. She was riveted, there under the hand-dryer, gulping down book after book. When she was finally allowed to fly out, she brought half the contents of the airport bookstore in her suitcase.

Anyone who ever met Mary Ann knew that she was a writer—it wasn't just the tales she told, it was her relish in telling them. But writing was hard for her, and she never completed the manuscripts she started. Finally, in the late '90s, a writing group was formed for the express purpose of making Mary Ann write a book. The members were my mother, who doesn't even like to write, and two of Mary Ann's dearest friends. Each dutifully wrote something, until finally it was Mary Ann's turn. There was no way out of it-so she sat down and wrote the beginning of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Q: At what point in the writing process were you brought in to collaborate?

A: In the summer of 2006, soon after The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had been sold to Dial Press, Mary Ann's health began to fail. We kept hoping that she would feel better soon, but by the end of the summer, it was clear that the prospect of making the editorial changes on the book was going to be too much for her, and at that point, my cousin Liz called me to ask if I would take on the project. Of course, I said yes. Unlike plumbers or nurses or teachers, writers don't have very many opportunities to be useful to the people they love, and I was honored to be able to help my aunt.

Q: Much of the story takes place on the Channel Island of Guernsey. What inspired this unusual setting?

A: The setting was a function of the history—the Channel Islands were the only British land occupied by Germany during the Second World War, which makes their war story unique. Even apart from the war, Guernsey has its own interesting past as an amalgam of French and English culture. They manage to have British laws and French food, which was Voltaire's vision of a perfect society. Luckily, in addition to its history and culture, it's a beautiful island as well, with winding streets, lush fields, dramatic cliffs, and—since the war—a lot of empty German fortifications overgrown with wildflowers.

Q: Why did Mary Ann choose to tell her story in a series of letters?

A: Mary Ann once told me that she chose the epistolary form because she thought it would be easier than narrative. Most writers would find that crazy, but I know what she meant: Writing in all those different voices was a blast. It's like playing 20 different roles, each with his or her own voltage and excitement. Furthermore, Mary Ann and I both adore reading other people's letters—there's something a little bit forbidden and completely satisfying about it.

Q: What was it like to work with your aunt on the book? Did you discover any surprises in the course of collaborating?

A: I didn't actually talk to Mary Ann much while I was working on the book, because she was wasn't well. Before I began, I was a little worried about my ability to carry through with Mary Ann's voice, but once I sat down and started writing, I realized that hers was a voice and a style that I knew from the inside out—because I had been hearing them all my life. Mary Ann and my mother always lived near each other, and their stories were the wallpaper of my life. Some of these stories are embedded in the book, and some of the characters are direct descendents of people I know (that's as much as I'll say).

I was surprised to find that my all-time favorite childhood game, Dead Bride, made an appearance in the book. Unlike Kit, we never played it with a laundry hamper. We made our tombs out of blocks.

Q: You are primarily a writer of children's books. What, if anything, was different about writing for an adult audience?

A: Kissing! No, no, what's truly different is the acreage—when you write for children, you have to keep the story tight. You can't meander off into a subplot for the sheer joy of it; everything has to pertain. Writing for adults is deliciously unfettered —you can linger on a character, you can follow an idea, you can use phonetically impossible words like phlegm if you want to (though why would you?).

Q: You and Mary Ann share a background in books and publishing, and this novel has been described as "a celebration of the written word in all its guises." How do you view reading, and what role has literature played in your aunt's life and in your own?

A: Mary Ann and I have this common background in libraries, bookstores, and publishing precisely because we really never did anything other than read in our entire lives. To be honest, working in any profession other than a book-related one would be impossible; books seem to be our only area of expertise.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about you, Mary Ann, or this wonderful novel?

A: I would like everyone to know that I have actually made and consumed a Potato-Peel Pie. I want lots of credit for this, because it tasted like paste.

(Barnes & Noble, summer of 2008)

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