The author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin" (winner of the 2000 Booker Prize) on her new collection of short fiction.
A proper, proud, retired British officer courts a local widow of Pakistani descent in this debut novel. Author Helen Simonson discusses the power of romance to transcend modern stereotypes about culture and religion.
- Helen Simonson author
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Helen Simonson is a 46-year-old, first-time novelist, whose comedy of contemporary manners is titled "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." It's the story of two mature, widowed people who assume they're done with love. One is a stiff upper-lipped English Major. The other is a shop owner of Pakistani descent. They find they have much in common but are confronted by bigotry and cultural expectations from both sides of their idyllic English village.
MS. DIANE REHMHelen Simonson joins me in the studio. She was born in England, spent her teenage years living in East Sussex. She's a graduate at the London School of Economics, a former travel advertising executive. She's lived here in America for the last two decades. And, as I've said earlier, this is her first novel, and I want to congratulate you, Helen. It's wonderful.
MS. HELEN SIMONSONThank you, Diane. And thank you for having me.
REHMMy pleasure. You know, I looked at the cover of this book, and I hope we can put the cover up on the website because it's such a special one. What it has is a coat stand, a vertical coat stand, wooden coat stand with coats on either side -- one male, one female, one hat at the top, one hat at the other side. And I realize it is a cover of Life magazine, which appeared in 1924. It's just marvelous. Did you have anything to do with that?
SIMONSONNo. The cover is an area of separate expertise. There's a whole department at my publishers -- Random House. They worked very hard on it. We went through several kinds of cover because this book is many things. It's a comedy of social manners. It's a love story. There are many ways that one could picture it. And there was strong feeling at Random House, especially among their national sales department, which met at a conference, that this was a very classic book. And they were looking for something with a classic cover, which I was thrilled about -- instant gravitas.
REHMI should say.
SIMONSONAnd when they showed me this illustration, I was just blown away.
SIMONSONI think it's lovely...
SIMONSON...and I'm very, very proud of it.
REHMTell me what inspired this novel.
SIMONSONWell, I was in an MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton College. And I was desperate to be a published writer, and that involves trying to write mostly short stories for literary magazines in the hope of getting published. And I was writing very gritty, edgy, contemporary stories because I thought that's what it took. And one day, I picked up one of the magazines I would have dearly loved to be in, and I read an extremely gritty short story. It was construction workers in L.A., and on their lunch hour, they would pick up ladies of ill repute for a little action under the highway overpasses.
SIMONSONAnd I put this magazine very carefully aside, and I said to myself, well, I guess that's it. I guess I'm not going to be a writer. Because even if I could compete with that, that is not my view of the world. I'm done trying to describe the world by its edges. It's not what I believe. I'm not enjoying myself. What if I wrote something just for me? And that was a moment of clarity for which I'll be forever grateful because I sat down, and I was a little concerned because what came out was an English village and a man wearing his dead wife's housecoat.
SIMONSONThere were a lot roses around the door, and I thought, oh, my gosh, nobody is going to like this. How will I even present it to my professor? And the strangest thing happened. I took him what was essentially a short story. The first chapter was a short story. And when he gave me back my pages, he was beaming, and he said, there's a spark here that I haven't seen. I think you found your novel.
REHMOh, how wonderful. Would you read for us from the beginning so our listeners can get a sense of it?
SIMONSONLovely. Thank you. "Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife, and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major's cheeks, and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades. 'Ah,' he said. 'Major?' 'Mrs. Ali?' There was a pause that seemed to expand slowly like the universe, which he had just read, was pushing itself apart as it aged. 'Senescence,' they had called it in the Sunday paper."
SIMONSON"'I came for the newspaper money. The paper boy is sick,' said Mrs. Ali, drawing up her short frame to its greatest height and assuming a brisk tone, so different from the low, accented roundness of her voice when they discussed the texture and perfume of the teas she blended specially for him. 'Of course, I'm awfully sorry.' He had forgotten to put the week's money in an envelope under the outside doormat. He started fumbling for the pockets of his trousers, which were somewhere under the clematis. He felt his eyes watering. His pockets were inaccessible unless he hoisted the hem of the housecoat."
SIMONSON"'I'm sorry,' he repeated. 'Oh, not to worry,' she said, backing away. 'You can drop it in at the shop later some time more convenient.' She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain. 'My brother died,' he said. She turned back. 'My brother died,' he repeated. 'I got the call this morning. I didn't have time.' The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the telephone rang."
SIMONSON"The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly house cleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly, his knees felt loose, and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulder meet the doorpost unexpectedly, and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side, propping him upright. 'I think we better get you indoors and sitting down,' she said, her voice soft with concern. 'If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water.' Since most of the feeling seem to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply."
SIMONSON"Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair -- lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head -- but he was in no position to complain."
REHMAnd that was Helen Simonson, reading from her brand-new novel. It's titled "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." You can join us if you like, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter. Do you think, Helen Simonson, that it was love at first sight?
SIMONSONI think the Major and Mrs. Ali, who had known each other for six years, had completely failed to realize that there was any connection between themselves because of the relative positions they were in in the village. And I'm very interested in this theme because I think we all do this all the time. We know people from work, or we know the man in the store down the street. And we see them as their job. We see them in their context, and we're -- we have great difficulty, I believe, in seeing people outside of context, seeing them for the individuals they are. And so I like to think that the Major and Mrs. Ali were better friends all along than they knew.
REHMThan they knew. Here she was blending these teas just for him.
SIMONSONYes. And he was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where his father was serving in the British Army. And I think he could appreciate her tea-blending in a way that most of the other people in the village could not.
REHMAnd, of course, he had been a widow for six years. She had been a widow for how long?
SIMONSONFor about 18 months.
REHMUh huh. So hers was a more fresh grief, perhaps, than his.
SIMONSONAbsolutely. And then, I think, when his brother died, she was in a position to empathize immediately. And what I loved, and what came particularly easily, was that momentary faintness that allowed her literally to put her foot over a threshold where she would normally have never been invited. Not that he was a horrible person who didn't like her. It would just not...
SIMONSON...have occurred to either of them.
SIMONSONCompassion opened the door.
REHMCompassion. And do you know the look of that house?
SIMONSONOh, I had the greatest fun making up all the houses and most of the locations in this book. I guess I'm very fond of architecture, and I did allow myself the self-indulgence of kind of creating my perfect village house. It's actually a lodge. It's Rose Lodge. And so it's slightly bigger than a cottage, a little mellow bricks, some extensions, perhaps during Georgian times, to give it perhaps a larger living room than a cottage might have and, of course, a wonderful and slightly frowsy English garden all around it. I would like to live there.
REHMHelen Simonson, her new novel -- her first -- is titled "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." When we come back, you'll hear more about both the Major and Mrs. Ali. We'll take your calls, your e-mail. Do join us.
REHMHelen Simonson, I know you grew up in a small commuter town of London -- Sussex -- and you've spoken about it as sort of the English dream. Describe it for us.
SIMONSONYes. I actually grew up in a suburb of Slough, which was not a terribly attractive place, very post-war modern. Sir John Betjeman wrote a famous poem that said, "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough. It isn't fit for humans now. There isn't grass to grow a cow." And so I grew up in this very modern post-war area. And then when I was approaching 15, we moved to East Sussex. And this is the English dream, to move to a detached house in the country.
SIMONSONAnd we were able to move to a very small house in a very picturesque village just outside the smuggling town of Rye. Rye is a conical-shaped town on a hill. Most of the buildings date from the 14th century, and some of those were rebuilt, actually -- rebuilt in 1450, you'll see on the Mermaid Inn. And it's just stunningly beautiful countryside, and I was an impressionable teenage girl, obviously, of romantic tendencies. And I was just blown away by the countryside. And, obviously, after 20 years of living mostly in New York, I still haven't lost my love for that countryside. And it's very, very close in my mind all the time.
REHMWhat's interesting to me is that in this charming village in which the Major lives, there is this shop that Mrs. Ali and her nephew, who stepped in after her husband died. They operate this little shop. Describe the shop for us.
SIMONSONWell, what's very interesting about the shop is it's very ugly. And I wanted to make it clear that in the middle of all very, very attractive British villages, there are usually ugly shops because we have to modernize. There has to be some progress, and that usually means taking out some lovely Victorian bowed window and putting in plate glass. But most of our villages wouldn't survive without some kind of village shop because, for years, public transportation has been very difficult. Maybe the bus goes to town every couple of hours, as it does in my book, and so you need a village shop where you can run in and get milk and newspapers and sausages and baked beans and also catch up on the village gossip.
REHMBut at the same time, you have a great many people who live within the village, who go out of their way to avoid this little shop. They will wait for that bus or drive the hour it takes to the next large store. Why is that?
SIMONSONWell, Britain is not necessarily welcoming of people who are British and who are perhaps even second-generation or even third-generation immigrants from the rest of our colonies. They were part of our commonwealth, and now they are British citizens. But we're no better than anyone else at accepting outsiders. And the way I wrote it in the book was that the village had mostly come to accept the situation, and they had gotten tired of driving four miles for a lottery ticket.
SIMONSONAnd so they had been reduced to coming into the shop. And I also wrote that the higher echelons of village society had taken the opposite tack of suggesting that they were now a multicultural utopia because they had this lovely Pakistani couple in the shop. And so they would actually make a point of coming in and being terribly, terribly condescending, no doubt, to Mr. and Mrs. Ali, who are very patient.
REHMAnd then when Mr. Ali dies, the nephew steps in and sort of tries to take over.
SIMONSONWell, I think the expectations of Mr. Ali's family would be that his widow would return to the bosom of the larger family -- and they're in a northern city -- leaving the next generation of men to take over the business. And that's a model that's been very successful in England and seems perfectly reasonable until you realize that, in Mrs. Ali's case, it will mean giving up the freedom that the shop has allowed her.
REHMThere is about Major Pettigrew an internal voice, a dialogue he goes through in almost every encounter. You hear him thinking to himself. You hear his real reactions, and then you realize they're almost always suppressed.
SIMONSONYes. I like the idea of a character who doesn't say much. And that would be an English trait that people have commented on, that we seem very taciturn and not as effusive, perhaps, as our American cousins. But I was very interested. I started this novel, and it was in the Major's head. And there came a point -- maybe 50 or 100 pages in -- where you have to decide if you're sticking with him, or you're going into somebody else's head for the next 200 pages. And I thought it would be an incredible challenge to try to stay with one character and see the world through his eyes. And that required a lot of explaining what was going on in his head, and I really enjoyed that. I had fun with it.
REHMI bet you did. The interesting development is how different his son Roger is from the Major. What is it with Roger?
SIMONSONWell, Roger is approaching 30, and he's a financier in the city of London. And he's struggling to make his way into the big leagues. And I think he feels somewhat limited by his background in that his father is this country Major, and perhaps there's a little money behind the family but not as much as, perhaps, some of the other people he's working alongside. I think he represents today's kind of urban successful or aspiring successful person. I've lived in New York 20 years. My husband's been on Wall Street a long time. We're part of that, too.
REHMSo you know the type well.
SIMONSONAnd I don't pretend not to be that type myself. I take delight -- and people hate Roger, and I take delight in saying that he's my nonfiction character. And some of the worst things he comes out with, things like asking if he -- his father would like a phone with large buttons because he's elderly. These are things I may have suggested to my own parents, who are not even yet in their declining years, and my father was very quick to tell me what I could do with my concerns about their age. So I really, really enjoy Roger.
REHMYou enjoy the creation of Roger. What about Roger's "fiancée"?
SIMONSONOh, I adored her. And I have to say -- this is my first experience of writing a novel, so you could do 50 pages, and then you do 100 pages, and then you realize you have no idea what you're doing and where you're going to go. And Sandy, the American, definitely started out as being somewhat shallow, somewhat a stereotype. And I grew to love her, too, and to realize that there were depths behind what she was...
SIMONSON...trying to do.
SIMONSONAnd actually, she -- and even Roger -- there's a certain amount of pathos behind young people struggling in a world that demands that you make it or get out of town. And so by -- certainly, by two-thirds of the way through the novel, I had a certain amount of compassion for both of them. But I was having way too much fun making Roger horrible to actually let that compassion show.
REHMI felt early on that Roger was greedy and grubby, that shortly after the Major's brother died, here comes Roger asking about these gorgeous Churchill guns. Tell us about those guns.
SIMONSONYes. What's very funny in the book is the Major's father has this pair of amazing guns that were presented to him by a maharaja for an act of bravery in the closing days before partition of India. And on the father's death, he gave one to each son because how could he choose between his sons? And so he threw primogeniture out the window and gave them one each. And the understanding was that whoever died first, then the guns would be reunited because it was still important to the whole family that the patrimony continue. And what happens is that Bertie, the brother who dies, forgets to write anything concrete in his will. And so this understanding in the family is merely a family understanding, and legally, the widow has rights to dispose of the guns.
SIMONSONAnd if they're not going to be reunited, Roger sees no reason why, perhaps, his own father shouldn't sell his own gone because, after all, he's an elderly man. Why does he need such a valuable sporting gun? And Roger could really use the money. And the widow's daughter, Jemima, could really use the money because she has private school to pay for. And so everybody wants to get a piece of the gun. And what's very funny to me is everybody loves the Major, and everybody can really get behind the fact that he wants to reunite this family heirloom and see it continue. But what he actually wants to do is take something that's not legally his. And I had a great deal of fun with that, trying to walk that line between having everybody rooting for the Major to have the guns while understanding that actually he's not legally entitled to them.
REHMHelen Simonson. The book we're talking about is titled "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Helen, tell us a little more about you. You've had an interesting career. I mean, going to the London School of Economics, and here you are with your passion -- writing your first novel.
SIMONSONWell, I was always interested in writing. And I have to say, as a child, my parents were very proud of my writing and very supportive, and they thought it was a wonderful thing to do on the weekends, but that one should go out and get a real job. And so I went off to university to study economics and politics with a view to perhaps the diplomatic service or becoming a politician. And my parents had both been local councilors, and they were the kind of councilors who filled potholes and got youth centers built and put up gazebos in the town square so that the community could come together. And I got to university and found, within about six months, that politics was more the art of the backroom deal.
SIMONSONAnd, yeah, I understand one has to make trades, and it was not the idealistic world that I was anticipating. And I found that I spent most of my time in university in various clubs being the publicity director.
REHMOh dear. Oh dear.
SIMONSONAnd I enjoyed it. I loved it. And so when I came out of college, I actually got a job in an ad agency as a copywriter. And I'd already met my husband and married him and came to New York and got a job more on the executive side of advertising, worked for a cruise line as their advertising director and had a blast doing that. I love to help people travel. I think travel is an incredibly important part of life. We should all go out and do it. So that was a lot of fun. And then I had my first child and took 12 weeks maternity leave, and at the end of 11 weeks said, well, what happens now? Because I had been fully planning to hire a nanny and go back to the office. And at the end of 11 weeks it was like, you are not going to pry this baby out of my hands.
SIMONSONAnd what were we thinking? My husband and I wanted to have it all, but he was a busy banker. He never came home before eight o'clock at night. And I was a busy advertising executive, never came home before eight o'clock at night. And you suddenly look down at your bundle of joy and think, well, what were we thinking?
SIMONSONShould we leave him with a ham sandwich?
SIMONSONSo I decided to stay home.
REHMGood for you.
SIMONSONAnd I worked a little part-time here and there, but I've been very -- a very happy stay-at-home mother. And then I did look for some creative outlet because being a stay-at-home mother is a full-time, blue-collar and white-collar job, but you need an outside activity.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I love the way you put that, that it's a full-time blue-collar, white-collar job.
SIMONSONOh, one minute, you need a PhD in child development and the next minute, you're cleaning up something very sticky off the floor. And it's a 24/7 job. It's the worst kind of shift work around, so...
REHMHow old is your child now?
SIMONSONI have two boys, and they -- yesterday and today, they turned 17 and 15.
REHMOh, how terrific.
SIMONSONSo it's been a while.
REHMHow terrific. All right. We've got a number of callers. So let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go to San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Helen.
JOHNI just wanted to say that just being about to finish "Sense and Sensibility" for the first time, something about what you're saying put the hook in me. And I downloaded a copy onto my Kindle, and I'm really looking forward to it.
REHMHow about that? That's terrific. I think you're going to enjoy it, John.
JOHNI'm sure I will.
JOHNYou've never steered me wrong in the past.
REHMI'm glad to hear that. Thanks for calling. To Salt Lake City and to Nancy, you're on the air.
NANCYThank you. I -- the man just before me stole what I was going to say.
SIMONSONYou're reading "Sense and Sensibility?"
NANCYNo. No, no. No. I just -- I was hooked, you know, right after -- just during your reading. And when you stopped, it was like, oh, don't stop. Keep going. (unintelligible)
NANCYYou know, being a psychologist and a very curious and nosy person, I want to know what happened.
NANCYAnd I wanted to tell you, you are delightful, Helen. And you've inspired me to quit writing stuff and then sticking it on a shelf or leaving it in a notebook. I think I'll finish something 'cause I love my characters, too. And I think I was married to that son.
NANCYAnd I'm so glad I'm not. You just reminded me how happy I am.
NANCYThank you so much.
REHMAnd, Nancy, thanks for calling.
REHMI hope you do continue to write what's in your heart and what you know. Isn't that always what people say?
SIMONSONIt is. But, you know, it takes a long time to come to that realization. I was writing for at least five years before I had this moment of clarity where I said, I'm going to go with my own voice. It's very hard, especially when you get into a writing program. You really, really, really want to be Chekhov, or you really, really, really want to be Virginia Woolf. And sometimes that means that you suppress your own voice, and you try to be very severe and literary and experimental. And it takes a lot to go with your own voice because your own voice may not be that high literary bar you're aiming for.
REHMYour own voice in this book is so accessible and so filled with clarity, I think everyone's going to enjoy it. Helen Simonson, and we're talking about her new novel, her very first. It's titled "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand."
REHMAnd we're back. Since one of our caller said she was disappointed when you stopped reading, how about giving us another taste and set this up for us, if you would.
SIMONSONThank you. Well, this is well into the book. The Major has invited Mrs. Ali to the annual Golf Club dance, the theme of which is, An Evening at the Mughal Court. So this must be a South Asian theme, perhaps not something that he really should bring a lady of Pakistani descent to. But he's going to his friend Grace's house, thinking that he's bringing them both to the party. "Straightening his bowtie and giving a final tug to his dinner jacket, the Major knocked on the insubstantial plywood of Grace's mock Georgian front door. It was Mrs. Ali who opened it, the light spilling out onto the step around her and her face in partial shadow. She smiled, and he thought he detected the shine of lipstick."
SIMONSON"'Major won't you come in,' she said, and turned away in a breathless, hurried manner. Her back receding towards the front room was partly revealed against the deep swoop of an evening dress. Under a loosely tied chiffon wrap, her shoulder blades were sharply delineated, and her bronze skin glowed between the dark stuff of the dress and the low bun at the nape of her neck. In the front room, she half-pirouetted on the hearth rug, and the folds of the dress billowed around her ankles and came to rest on the tips of her shoes."
SIMONSON"It was a dark blue dress of silk velvet. The deeply cut décolletage was partially hidden by the sweep of the chiffon wrap, but Mrs. Ali's collarbones were exquisitely visible several inches above the neckline. The material fell over a swell of bosom to a loosely gathered midriff where an antique diamond brooch sparkled. 'Is Grace still getting ready then?' he asked, unable to trust himself to comment on her dress and yet unwilling to look away. 'No, Grace had to go early and help with the setup. Mrs. Green picked her up a short while ago. I'm afraid it's just me.'"
SIMONSON"Mrs. Ali almost stammered, and a blush crept into her cheekbones. The Major thought she looked like a young girl. He wished he was still a boy with a boy's impetuous nature. A boy could be forgiven a clumsy attempt to launch a kiss, but not, he feared, a man of thinning hair and faded vigor. 'I could not be happier,' said the Major, being also stuck on the problem of how to handle the two drooping roses in his hand. He held them out. 'Is one of those for Grace? I could put it in a vase for her.'"
SIMONSONHe opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule. 'Wilted a bit, I'm afraid,' he said. 'Colors are wrong for dress, anyway.' 'Do you like it?' she said, turning her eyes down to the fabric. 'I lent Grace an outfit, and she insisted that I borrow something of hers in fair trade.' 'Very beautiful,' he said. 'It belonged to Grace's great-aunt who was considered quite fast and who lived alone in Baden-Baden,' she says, 'with two blind terriers and a succession of lovers.' She looked up again, her eyes anxious. 'I hope the shawl is enough.' 'You look perfect.'"
SIMONSON"'I feel quite naked. But Grace told me you always wear a dinner jacket, so I wanted to wear something to go with what you're wearing.' She smiled, and the Major felt more years melt away from him. The boy's desire to kiss her welled up again. 'Besides,' she added, 'a shalwar kameez is not exactly a costume for me.' The Major reached a spontaneous compromise with himself and reached for her hand. He raised it to his lips and closed his eyes while kissing her knuckles. She smelled of rose water and some spicy clean scent that might, he thought, be lime blossom. When he opened his eyes, her head was turned away, but she did not try to pull her hand from his grasp."
SIMONSON"'I hope I've not offended you,' he said. 'Man is rash in the face of beauty.' 'I'm not offended,' she said, 'but perhaps we'd better go to the dance.' 'If we must,' said the Major giving a stubborn push past the fear of ridicule, 'though anyone would be just as content to sit and gaze at you across this empty room all evening.' 'If you insist on paying me such lavish compliments, Major,' said Mrs. Ali, blushing again, 'my conscience will force me to change into a large black jumper and perhaps a wool hat.' 'In that case, let us leave immediately so we can put that horrible option out of reach,' he said."
REHMHow wonderful. All right. We'll go right back to the phones. To Inverness, Fla. Good morning, Donna. You're on the air.
DONNAOh, hello, Diane. I am thrilled to be able to talk to you. I read your book last summer. And anyway, I'm sitting -- I'm driving and grinning from ear-to-ear, listening to your guest Helen because of her spirit. Her joy at every stage of life moves me to tears right now, and her choice of her children over other options, and I'm so thrilled that she's putting that spirit in writing for all of us. And I'm encouraged at 65 -- I have a few books in my mind, not fiction -- but she's encouraging me to pursue my own dreams.
REHMDonna, good for you. Go for it.
DONNAOkay. Thank you, both.
REHMThanks for calling. Isn't that lovely?
SIMONSONIt is, and I would encourage everybody to write. I think what I found -- and I've basically been writing 12 years, and I've been in an MFA program that attracts a lot of older people as well as recent undergraduates. It's something that local people can come in at any stage in life and pick up, and I found that it gives a wonderful depth to the program. And people who come in at all stages of life are able -- perhaps better than the very young recent college graduate -- to find their own way in writing. They don't necessarily have to be Hemingway or Virginia Woolf. They find that they are really good at doing local news, or they find that they are really good at doing a small memoir about their family. They're more willing to explore all the options in writing rather than insist on being, you know, the angry young voice of a generation -- something like that.
REHMAre you going to travel around the country to talk about this book?
SIMONSONI'll go anywhere I'm invited.
REHMThat's great. Let's go now to Austin, Texas. Good morning, Ann.
ANNGood morning. This is the most delightful, fabulous, wonderful conversation. I've been sitting here at my dining room table, drinking coffee and laughing out loud.
ANNAnd just -- and I'm about to rush off to BookPeople, our wonderful local bookstore, and buy this immediately. I'm a great Anglophile. I just -- I spent a lot of time in England back in the good old days when the dollar was strong, and the pound was weak. Do you -- are you old enough to remember when that...
ANNSo I just -- I can't wait to really get to know these people. I mean, "man is rash in the face of beauty" -- how beautiful. How marvelous.
REHMWell, thanks for calling, Ann. I'm sure you're going to enjoy it.
ANNOh, I'm going to love it. Let me just ask one quick question.
REHMSure, of course.
ANNYou were talking about writing. I have -- I'm a widow, and I have written a very funny book about what it's like to be a widow at my third age. And it's called "If He Can Sit Up and Feed Himself" because in one part I said I would go out with anybody as long as they could, you know. But I can't get it published. If you join a writing group, does that help, perhaps, to open the door? Do you have any helpful hints?
SIMONSONOkay. Helpful hints. My biggest hint is that it's all about the work. So if you're having difficulty getting it published, the first thing I would suggest is that you find a workshop or a local teacher who's willing to give you blunt advice because there may be a way -- maybe there's a little tweak that you're missing. Maybe the material is great, but it could use some condensing in the middle or a hook in the front or something like that. And I found that giving it to other people to read and being willing to take very blunt advice is the best thing.
REHMHmm, that's the hard part, isn't it?
SIMONSONTaking the advice is hard.
SIMONSONIt took me many years to be able to take advice. I was fortunate that I've developed early on a very nice writing group in Brooklyn. We're now a decades old writing group of women who trade pages.
REHMHow wonderful. Yeah.
SIMONSONAnd we're very blunt.
REHMNow, tell me about your own role as immigrant to this country and how that might have affected your portrayal of Mrs. Ali.
SIMONSONWell, I guess I'm very interested in the role of the outsider in society. I also believe that all of us, at one time or another in our lives, have probably experienced what it feels like to be on the outside. I'm very fortunate. I'm very welcomed in the United States. People love that British accent, and I have many, many friends here. And I've never been put on the outside. And what interested me in Mrs. Ali is, here's someone who -- though she's older than me -- is British-born and bred, raised to be an English woman with a father who really believed in Britain, and yet she's permanently branded an outsider because of her ethnic heritage. And that continues to be an issue in England. And I wanted to write a book that just gently said to people, you know, next time you see Mrs. Ali coming down the street, perhaps you might want to put aside the stereotype and say, hello, have a cup of tea.
SIMONSONI'm a big believer in a cup of tea to smooth the way between people, but I do suffer -- I don't suffer with an identity problem. I enjoy the fact that I have two homes, that I'm very at home in the United States and also very proud of being an English woman. And...
REHMBut you also say you and your husband are old house people. What does that mean?
SIMONSONWell, we are -- I think we were betrayed into this when we were a young couple. My husband's older brother and his wife had an antique farmhouse up in New Hampshire, which they still have. And we would go up there to visit, and they would have their copies of Old House Journal. And if you've read, like, 10 years of back copies of Old House Journal, you become convinced that you can renovate old houses with a chisel and some paint stripper. And my husband and I bought an old house in Brooklyn. We were young and foolish. We had $50 a month to renovate, and at closing, the realtor could not believe we were moving in. She assumed we had a contractor to gut it, and we moved in with the flaking paint and the sagging ceilings.
SIMONSONAnd we loved it from day one.
REHMAnd you did it all yourselves?
SIMONSONNo. It took us about six months to realize that we were hopeless at renovating, and so, as we could afford it, we found really, really good contractors. And we kind of did one room at a time.
SIMONSONI remember my young son was 6 months old. And I was washing baby bottles in the bathroom 'cause we didn't have a kitchen because it was being built for us. It took about 10 years. And our house was renovated one room at a time, and you can tell.
REHMNow, you live here in Washington.
SIMONSONWe do. We moved in this economy. My husband was offered a very good job down here. And so after 17 years in our wonderful Brooklyn Heights house, we made the decision to come down here because being together is more important than holding on to a great old house. We do -- we still -- do still own it. It's rented by a lovely international family, who are somewhat in the same boat. Because of the economy, they got offered a great job in New York and moved from Europe. So we're -- we all shuffled one house to the left.
SIMONSONAnd here, I'm up in Bethesda in a brand-new house, and it took me a while to get used to it. To be honest, I complained about how new it was and how big it was, and some of the, you know, some of the features are maybe unnecessary. It has a lot of spotlights in the living room, but I'm very grateful for it. Now that we've been through Snowmageddon, (sic) everything in my house worked, and the power stayed on...
REHMGood for you.
SIMONSON...and people were able to come and stay with me 'cause their power had gone out. And so I'm now very grateful for my house.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, Denise.
DENISEHi, Diane, I just wanted to say I love your show. I listen to it regularly. And...
DENISEWell, I have three comments. The first one is that I am a bookseller and did read the book and loved it. It's just a wonderful book, and I've been recommending it to everyone. And it's the sense of place and just wonderful characters. You know, you just grow to love everyone -- even Roger and his girlfriend -- by the end of the book. Like Helen said, they're wonderful. And also I just wanted to comment that -- Helen probably knows this -- but independent bookstores all over the country have a list of books that they're recommending, and the book is -- "Major Pettigrew" is actually featured on the cover of our -- in the next list for March, which is wonderful.
REHMHow terrific. That must give you great pleasure, Helen.
SIMONSONIt does. And I have to say I thought I knew about books, but I didn't know about the book industry. And it was a revelation to me that you hear all the time about independent bookstores struggling. But through the IndieBound organization and the Internet, they have kind of coalesced and become this incredible voice, and I can tell them all that publishers pay attention to what they say. And so it was amazing -- before any of the kind of mainstream reviews came out -- that booksellers had read advance copies, and it was their voices that launched the success of this book. And, yes, I'm the number one IndieBound next pick for March, and I'm absolutely thrilled.
REHMDenise, that must give you great pleasure as well.
DENISEOh, definitely. And I just wanted to say if they ever make a movie of this, I would love Timothy Dalton as Major Pettigrew.
REHMOh, I love it. What do you think of that? Have you had any interest shown?
SIMONSONI'm not sure if I'm allowed to say. I wish my agent were here.
REHMI think you can.
SIMONSONOkay. Yes, I have had some interest shown. And I will actually be talking to Hollywood at 5:30 p.m. this afternoon from my kitchen table...
SIMONSON...while making macaroni and cheese for the boys' supper. So...
REHMAnd that must have stunned you.
SIMONSONOh, it absolutely did and largely because this is a love story with mature protagonists. There isn't really a role for Jennifer Aniston in this. And so there was some concern -- and also it's very difficult. There are lots of wonderful, wonderful books out there, and it's very difficult to get it made into a movie. So we shall see. It's, I'm told, a long process and just kind of like a lottery ticket. But I already won the lottery. I got this book published. So from my point of view, anything beyond that is gravy.
REHMHow is your husband feeling about this? How are your two sons feeling about it?
SIMONSONMy two sons, they're very funny. They're teenagers. They try to appear incredibly unimpressed. They plan to be unimpressed until it is in movie theaters. But, in fact, my oldest son sent me a text that a guy he knew at school was on vacation at Christmas. And his mother's friend was a movie producer, and she was reading my book. Oh, my God. And this man -- he was totally busted because he had obviously talked about me enough at school that his classmate registered the name and the book name when he saw it. So I very much embarrassed my son by letting him know that I knew he was proud of me.
REHMWell, Helen Simonson, I think those of us who've had the pleasure of reading this can all chime in on that. Congratulations to you.
REHMIt's a wonderful, wonderful book. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," Helen Simonson is the author. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Jonathon Smith, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts from SoftScribe and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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