Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Jennifer Robson

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Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson's debut novel, Somewhere in France (HarperCollins Canada), tells the story of a young British aristocrat who finds herself strangled by the restrictions of her class just as the first World War breaks out. Using the frenzy of war to break from tradition, she gets a job as an ambulance driver in the women's auxiliary corps — an unthinkable move for a woman of her class. A must-read for Downton Abbey fans, Jennifer's Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford is an irresistible heroine.

Today Jennifer joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them, telling the stories behind the books we enjoy.

Today she talks with Open Book about post-book messiness, the value of vintage magazines and working in a house built when her book is set.

For the past fifteen years my husband and I have lived in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, most recently in a house that was built about a hundred years ago. It’s an ordinary house, with few distinctive features, though we are very fond of it all the same. Upstairs is an odd little room, only a few feet deep, which spans nearly the entire width of the house. It’s bright and sunny, and faces west; we suspect it was once a sleeping porch for the warmer months.

Too small for a bedroom, it’s the perfect size for a study. As soon as we moved in, we set it up with a huge old desk at one end and an easy chair at the other. On one long wall is a run of bookcases that I’ve stuffed full of reference books, photograph albums and my favourite cookbooks. On the remaining wall there is a long, low radiator to about waist height, with three big windows above.

Now that my youngest child is in school, my study is where I spend my days. I have my dog, Ellie, for company as I write; she sleeps in her basket and keeps watch for impertinent squirrels. Sam the cat is usually present, too, curled up in the easy chair; he has taken care to adorn it with just enough fur to discourage human occupation.

Last year, after finishing the final edits to Somewhere in France, I emerged from my writer’s fog and took a good, hard look at my study. It was a disaster. Everywhere I looked there were piles of books, mountains of paperwork and dusty pet-fur tumbleweeds. Before I began work on my next book, I decided I would spend some time making it a pleasanter place.

It didn’t take much effort, to be honest. After vacuuming, dusting and tidying, I set about prettifying the space. First I hung a corkboard for the bits and pieces of ephemera I’d accumulated: old postcards, photographs that inspire me, a map of the Western Front. The wall behind my desk was looking awfully empty, so I set out to find some artwork that would fit the space. While searching through vendors on Etsy I discovered a set of fashion prints from a 1917 issue of McCall’s magazine and had them framed; sharp-eyed readers may recognize some elements of the gowns they depict in the descriptions of Lilly’s clothing in Somewhere in France.

Right now my study is messier than I would like, with a basket of papers for tax time gathering dust on the floor, and a mountain of reference materials for my work in progress occupying nearly half the desktop. Yet it’s still a beautiful room, with a green and pleasant view of the treetops beyond, and as soon as I find a spare moment I’ll haul in the vacuum and make it shipshape again.

This winter I’m working hard to finish my next book, tentatively titled After the War is Over, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Somehow it seems fitting that I should spend my days in a house that was built at the same time, nearly a century ago, when the world was only beginning to recover from the devastation of total war and a global pandemic. Fitting and inspiring — if my dear old house could tell me what it’s seen and heard over the past hundred years, I suspect I would have enough material for an entire novel.

— Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, and later served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. A former copy editor, she holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. This is her first novel.

For more information about Somewhere in France please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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