Jennifer Robson, the international bestselling author of Somewhere in France, grew up in Peterborough—attending Thomas A. Stewart in high school and Trent University (where her father taught) for her last year of undergrad. After university, Robson worked at Elm Street magazine and several other publications for about five years, and then went to Penguin Books Canada until the first of her two children was born. After that, she worked as a freelance editor—until her life changed when she sold Somewhere in France to HarperCollins in late 2012, with the book being released in January 2014. Herein, she talks to us about the book's success, the newly released sequel After the War is Over, the possibility of movie adaptations, and what Peterborough means to her...
PTBOCanada: Tell us about the runaway success of your first novel, Somewhere in France. Were you shocked by how well it did? Why do you think it caught on?
Robson: I absolutely was shocked by its success, and to a certain degree I still can’t quite believe it. There really are no guarantees in publishing—great books come out all the time that don’t do as well as expected—so I was careful to temper my expectations. Needless to say, I was astonished when it hit the bestseller lists here in Canada right away and stayed there for six months! As to why it caught on, I can’t say for sure. I think it was partly because interest in the Great War has never been higher, and people who love historical fiction are keen to read narratives set in that period. I also benefitted from tremendous word-of-mouth support: people not only read and enjoyed Somewhere in France, but then made a point of telling their friends and family members about it.
PTBOCanada: Can you give a quick synopsis of Somewhere in France, and what the inspiration was?
Robson: Somewhere in France tells the story of a young English aristocrat and her experiences during the First World War. After reading Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth many years ago, I had often thought of writing a novel set during the Great War with a woman as its central figure. I didn’t want to simply create a fictional version of Brittain’s life, but rather create an original character that experienced the war as directly as possible. Women didn’t actually fight in the war, but many were very close to the fighting, nurses and ambulance drivers among them. Hence my decision to make Lilly, the heroine of Somewhere in France, an ambulance driver—and Charlotte, the heroine of After the War is Over, a nurse.
PTBOCanada: Okay, speaking of After the War is Over, this is your second novel—and the sequel to Somewhere in France. The book was just released and is getting a lot of hype. Tell us more about this one, and how you think it will do.
Robson: I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about After the War is Over, but I’ll hold off making any predictions for a few weeks! It takes up where Somewhere in France leaves off, in the early months of 1919, and follows the experiences of Charlotte Brown, Lilly’s best friend, as she carves out a new life for herself in the post-war period. In many ways, it was a tremendously difficult and sad time, but it was also a period of rebirth and renewal—and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in Charlotte’s story.
PTBOCanada: Will we see a movie adaptation some day of your books?
Robson: Wouldn’t that be wonderful! There have been some murmurs but nothing concrete so far, partly I think because period dramas are awfully expensive to produce. That being said, there is a huge appetite for stories set in this period—thank you, Downton Abbey—so I will cross my fingers and hope for the best!
PTBOCanada: Your father, Stuart Robson, was an acclaimed historian at Trent University and taught about the Great War. Was he an inspiration for these books?
Robson: Oh, absolutely! When I was young, the First World War was a subject we talked about quite a lot—the sort of thing that would be fodder for dinner-table conversation. I was too shy to show him Somewhere in France as I was writing it, but I did make sure he read through it while it was being copy-edited, just to ensure I hadn’t made any errors in my history. He has also been terribly helpful when I hit a brick wall in my research—when I can’t unearth a particular fact, rather than spinning my wheels for hours on end I give him a call and he helps me track it down.
PTBOCanada: You’ve lived in Toronto for many years but grew up in Peterborough. What does Peterborough mean to you? How did it influence/shape your life?
Robson: I went to Thomas A. Stewart for high school, then King’s College at Western for three years. Just before fourth year, my mother died—she was Wendy Robson, a provincial court judge here in town—and I came home to Trent for my last year of undergrad. Then I was off to Oxford for my doctoral degree, which seems like yesterday but was actually more than twenty years ago! Although I live in Toronto, I try to get back to Peterborough a few times a year to visit friends who still live in town. I feel fortunate to have grown up in such a wonderful place—it was big enough to be interesting but not so big that I ever felt lost in the shuffle. Peterborough also is the sort of place where history is everywhere you look—think of the gorgeous heritage buildings downtown, museums like the Canadian Canoe Museum and Lang Century Village (where I worked in my teens), and of course our stunning war memorial. It was designed by Walter Allward, who also created the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. In that respect, Peterborough was the perfect place to grow up.
PTBOCanada: Speaking of Vimy, you once served there as an official guide. What did that experience mean to you?
Robson: It meant everything. I was among the last generation of guides to have the privilege of welcoming veterans of the First World War to the Memorial. To have had the honour of meeting those men, of shaking their hands and listening to their reminiscences—it really is the sort of thing you never forget. At the time, I told myself that I would find a way to keep their memory alive, and with my books I guess I’m trying to do just that.