Amazon.com Review Kathryn Stockett
Amazon Exclusive: Kathryn Stockett Interviews Sarah Blake
was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City, where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. The Help
is her first novel.
Here she talks with novelist Sarah Blake
about her experiences writing The Postmistress
. Kathryn Stockett
: I should start by saying that I am honored to be on the same page with you—I loved The Postmistress
. The book is so complex, it gives you so much to think about and discuss. My first question to you is, how did the book come about? What made you start writing it? Sarah Blake
: Thanks so much, Kathryn—and I'd like to lob those kind words right back at you; it's a tremendous thrill for me to be in conversation with the author of The Help
. The Postmistress
began with a picture that sprang into my head one day, of a woman sorting the mail in the back of a post office, quietly slipping a letter into her pocket instead of delivering it. Immediately, questions flooded forward: Whose letter was it? Why on earth would she choose to pocket it? What havoc would be wreaked by not delivering a letter? As I answered those questions, Emma and Will and their love story, and the workings of the small town in which Iris was the center, came to life. One hundred pages into that draft, Frankie Bard arrived on the bus, out of the blue. I had no idea who she was or why she was there, except that one character referred to her as a war correspondent without a war. That was interesting, I thought. By this time I had decided to set the novel in the late thirties, early forties. It was 2001 and I was living in Washington, D.C., after the attacks of 9/11, and I was very preoccupied with trying to make sense of what was happening around me. Were we in danger? Would we go to war? The parallels between that uncertain time and the time before the United States entered World War II resonated with me, and what was a novel about accident and fate and the overlapping of lives deepened into a novel with war as its backdrop, which asked questions about how we understand ourselves to be in a historical moment and what we do when we are called to it. Kathryn Stockett
: Your book features three different women. From a logistical standpoint, did you find it hard to pull off the different points of view? I know this is something I spend a lot of time on in my work—making sure the voices are distinct and also very much true to the different characters. Sarah Blake
: To be honest, with this novel, the challenge was trying to keep each of these women in line, since each one threatened at some point or another to run away with the story! It took eight years for this story to become the novel you have in your hands, and in large part that's because with the introduction of each character, I found myself going off and following an individual story, traveling further and further from a workable plot. By the time I had finished, I had written three separate novels, one for each of the three women—complete with love affairs, whole families, other towns—and the challenge came not in trying to keep them distinct, but in trying to figure out how to weave their stories together. Kathryn Stockett
: Who is your favorite character, and why? Sarah Blake
: I'm not sure I can answer that, since there are parts of each of these women I admire, and parts of each of them I don't like. They are all broken in an essential way—a way I find incredibly interesting. When a reporter finds she cannot tell a story and a postmaster finds herself unable to pass along a letter, the moments they have arrived at as characters are compelling. Mrs. Cripps was certainly the most fun to write—she didn’t have to carry too much weight in the telling of the story, and she was such a nosy parker it was fun to write her lines. Kathryn Stockett
: Is there a character in The Postmistress
with whom you identify most? (And if you have been having trysts with good-looking soldiers in dark alleyways, please share!) Sarah Blake
: Oh, there are bits of me in all three women: certainly Frankie's rage and sorrow, the desire to get the story (something I despaired of often in the eight years of writing); Iris's love of order; and Emma's feeling of invisibility, her longing for the sense that someone would watch over her. Kathryn Stockett
: The most haunting scenes for me—and there were many—were those of Frankie on the train with Thomas and of the mother and child on the train platform. How did these scenes come about? Were they difficult to write? Sarah Blake
: Much of the drive to write the book had to do with my own attempt to write my way toward understanding the sudden, final breaks that crack into our lives, in the form of accidents, death, other irrevocable events. I have two sons, and while it is impossible for me to imagine putting them on a train by themselves, with nothing but paper to send them to safety, it was easy to conjure feelings of despair and heartbreak. The book is full of mothers and sons being torn apart by childbirth, bombs, and visas; but the last parting—the mother embracing her boy in the train car with Frankie—was probably the most difficult to write. It's the hardest to comprehend, and yet it happened all the time, saying good-bye, knowingly, possibly forever. Kathryn Stockett
: What research did you do for historical accuracy? You seem to have really nailed the time period. Sarah Blake
: Thank you. I'm glad it feels credible. I read many books on the history of World War II, pored through Life
magazines from 1939 to 1945 for a sense of how much things cost and what they looked like, read Federal Writers Project interviews with all types of people living on Cape Cod in the 1930s, watched movies made in 1940 and 1941 (my favorite is The Letter
with Bette Davis) in order to get the rhythms of idiomatic speech. I also spent many hours at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and at the Radio & Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland.
(Photo of Kathryn Stockett © Kem Lee)
From Publishers Weekly
Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide. Blake captures two different worlds—a naïve nation in denial and, across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a deft sense of character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on big, complex questions, such as the merits of truth and truth-telling in wartime. (Feb.)
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"Some novels we savor for their lapidary prose, others for their flesh and blood characters, and still others for a sweeping narrative arc that leaves us light- headed and changed; Sarah Blake's masterful, The Postmistress, serves us all this and more. Compassionate, insightful, and unsentimental, this masterful novel is told in a rare and highly successful omniscient voice, one that delves deeply into the seemingly random nature of love and war and story itself. This is a superb book!"
-Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
"The Postmistress is the fictional communique readers have waited for. Sarah Blake has brought small-town American life and ravaged Europe during WWII to us with cinematic immediacy. The romantic, harrowing -- and utterly inimitable-- story of radio journalist Frankie Bard (appalled yet intoxicated by tragedy as no character I've ever read before) contains the uncompromised sensibility found in the writings of Martha Gellhorn. The Postmistress belongs in what Gellhorn called "the permanent and necessary" library."
-Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and Devotion
"Great books give you a feeling that you miss all day until you finally get to crawl back inside those pages again. The Postmistress is one of those rare books. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it. Sarah Blake seamlessly moves from inside one character to another, in a novel that reminds us of a time when the news travelled from post to paper to radio and that is how we learned about the world. The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born. What's remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present-day times. A beautifully written, thought provoking novel that I'm telling everyone I know to read."
-Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help "An unforgettable, insightful, and compelling novel The Postmistress engages the reader's instincts at the deep level of fight or flight. For WWII radio reporter Frankie Bard, however, the gut response to horror is see and tell. Sarah Blake's prose perfectly recreates the cadences of passion and of the inner life while also conjuring up the wrenching, nightmare suspense of history in the making."
-Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette
"To open Blake's novel of World War II and the convergence of three strong women is to enter a slipstream, so powerful are its velocity, characters, and drama. How can you resist Frankie Bard, an American journalist of gumption and vision who is bravely reporting on the Blitz from London? Her distinctive voice and audacious candor are heard on radios everywhere on the home front, including Cape Cod, where Iris James, in love for the first time at 40, keeps things shipshape at a small-town post office. The third in Blake's triumvirate of impressive women, Emma, the waiflike wife of the town's doctor, is not as obvious a candidate for heroism until a tragedy induces her husband to join the war effort. As Frankie risks her life to record the stories of imperiled Jews, Iris and Emma struggle to maintain order as America goes reluctantly to war. Blake raises unsettling questions about the randomness of violence and death, and the simultaneity of experience--how can people frolic on a beach while others are being murdered? Matching harrowing action with reflection, romance with pathos, Blake's emotional saga of conscience and genocide is poised to become a best-seller of the highest echelon."
-Donna Seaman, ALA Booklist, Starred review
"Even readers who don't think they like historical novels will love this one and talk it up to their friends. Highly recommended for all fans of beautifully wrought fiction."
-Library Journal, Starred Review
A CONVERSATION WITH SARAH BLAKE
Q. What attracted you to this time period, right before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
I played around with when to set the novel—at one point I had Will drafted and in the Army and lost horribly in the Bataan Death March—but the more research I did on the war I grew more and more interested in this three year period from 1938-1941 when all of Europe was at war, Japan and China were marching to the brink, and we were (officially) neutral. I was interested in the time before it was clear, before it was “the good war,” before the full horror of the Holocaust—the things we know now—was evident. What would that feel like? What would it feel like before our role in history, and in WW2 was a given. Against that I wanted to dramatize Frankie’s growing desperation--echoed in so many reports of the time--her desire for her country to pay attention. It seemed to me to resonate with so much of what was going on here during the years I was writing the book, roughly 2001-2008, when the country seemed not to be paying attention to the fact that we were in fact in a war. Indeed, we were being told by our leadership to look away.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel?
I read many books about the war and the time period, and I went through stacks of Life Magazines from 1940-1945. I spent quite a while at The Museum of Radio.
As well as reading Work Project Administration interviews with people who were living on Cape Cod at the time, I interviewed a woman in her nineties who lived in Provincetown (on which the town of Franklin is loosely based) during the war. I interviewed a war journalist, a midwife and also the postmaster of North Haven Maine who told me in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as a postmistress. (This was after I’d told him the title of my novel) “It’s postmaster,” he rapped out, “ I don’t care whether it’s a man, a woman or a baboon.”
Q. You have a PhD in Victorian Literature. Does that background influence your writing?
Nineteenth century literature is fantastically two-fisted, and I am clearly influenced by the years I spent studying it closely. On the one hand there are the enormous sweeping novels of Dickens, Zola, Balzac where whole worlds—cities and nations-- are painstakingly chronicled and set into play; and then, on the other there is the Victorian ghost story which is often a domestic drama where characters are haunted (literally and figuratively) by figments of their own passions and desires—like those found in the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, and Thomas Hardy. I am drawn to the complicated plots and twists and turns of characters’ desires that were a benchmark of Victorian fiction. And in fact, mIy first novel, Grange House, arose out of my desire to try and write a Victorian novel, down to the serpentine sentences, the speech patterns, and the ghost plot.
Q. In The Postmistress, Frankie struggles with how to tell the stories of the people she meets. Is that something you’ve experienced as a writer?
A woman sitting next to me on a plane told me the story of her uncle in Austria under the Nazis, which was more or less the story I gave to Thomas on the train. It is an amazing story of coincidence and escape and it sent shivers down my spine as she told it. The struggle came with how to use it—how to set it so it could shine jewel-like out of the larger frame of the novel; how to make it mean, in other words. On the other hand, when I was interviewing a woman in Provincetown who had lived through the war years there, she told me the story of a German breadwrapper that had washed up on the Back Shore, proof that the German Uboats were out there and not far. For years I tried to use that story in my novel—trying every which way to have a breadwrapper discovered, at one point even staging the running aground of a Uboat on the beach, witnessed by Harry—but in the end, it just didn’t fit, so I had to leave it—perfect story—behind.
Edward R. Murrow, Frankie’s boss, is an important historical figure. Is there a difference between writing about a real person, versus writing about a character you’ve created? In some ways writing about Edward R. Murrow was easier than the other characters because his character, his mode of speaking, his observations are so much a part of the public record. Listening to his broadcasts give us immediate insight into the passion and heart and intellect of a man gifted at translating what he sees and hears into vivid word pictures. I read the transcripts of his broadcasts and was able to imagine how he might speak in conversation, how he might move about in a scene, because of the way in which he wrote. In many ways, he wrote himself.
Q. The Postmistress begins with Frankie at a dinner party years later. Do you have some idea of what happened to Emma and Iris after the events of the novel?
I imagine that the two remain in Franklin, and that Iris becomes a kind of godmother to Emma and her child. I’d like to think that Emma begins to have the experience of having someone watching over her, watching out, the very thing she said she’d never had, and then got so briefly, through Will.