We recently got a chance to ask Annie Barrows, one half of the hit writing team behind The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and author of the upcoming The Truth According to Us about her favourite books, writing style and more.
What was your favourite book growing up and why?
This is a vast question, because I did very little but read between the ages of 7 and 14. So I’m going to talk about the book that was my favourite before I knew how to read: The Golden Children’s Bible. I grew up in a stridently non-religious household and never went to church in my life (until I was 17 and horrified my parents by going to mass). I had no religious instruction and there were no bibles in my house. All was good sportsmanship, cleanliness, and rule-following.
So imagine my shock upon encountering The Golden Children’s Bible at the dentist’s office. As Iwaited for my sister to be drilled, I flipped through it and found—oh my god!—the Ten Plagues! Eight of them were vividly depicted in living color (they omitted the Plague of Sores—too nasty—and the Plague of Lice—too tiny), and my eyes nearly popped out of my head at the sight of the Plague of Frogs. I spent a long time marvelling at those frogs. They were crawling everywhere. The people in the picture seemed remarkably calm about it; they were scooping them up with oars. Only one fellow in the background was yelling. Maybe he had slipped on a frog. Maybe he had some other problem. I was illiterate; I had no answers, but I knew I had found something way more fascinating than One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
By the time I was dragged away to be drilled myself, I was in a complete lather about Samson. The picture was a stumper: Delilah smirked while Samson lay supine, eyes closed, with his head on her lap. But men were chopping off his hair and putting his feet in chains! Knowing as I did that I would wake up if someone put my feet in chains, I was pretty sure he was dead. But then, there he was in the next picture, knocking pillars over! What kind of story could possibly narrate these pictures? It was a mystery that went on for several years, until I could manage the paragraph “Delilah made Samson go to sleep with his head on her knees. Then she called for a man had had him shave off the seven locks of Samson’s hair. By that she humbled him, for his strength went from him.”
This was far from satisfying. Why seven locks? What made them seven? And why did his strength go from him? And I still didn’t understand how he could sleep through someone putting chains on his feet.
Reading or no reading, it was a mystery and I loved it.
If you could invite three fictional characters to dinner, who would you pick?
This is so difficult. Do I want an introspective, psychologically acute dinner party? Dr. Rivers from the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker; Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch (she can bring Will Ladislaw if she wants); and Violet, the narrator of “Silver Water” by Amy Bloom. We would discuss death. I would serve something vegetarian.
But maybe I’d rather have a more festive event? Mr. Micawber; Boris from The Goldfinch; and Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. No food, just cocktails (tuna for Hobbes).
Or maybe, because grownups are so touchy, I’d just invite kids: Rosalind Penderwick from The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall; Indigo Casson from the Casson Family series by Hilary McKay; and Chrissie from Beaux by Evan Commager. We’d talk about our siblings. I think they’d like roast chicken and rice, with ice-cream pie for dessert.
What is your favourite opening sentence of a book?
I don’t think you can do much better than “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” Every book has to tell its reader how to read it, and in this case, the job is done by the end of the first fifteen words.
Is there another author’s book that you wish you’d written?
Oh for sure—dozens! Hundreds! I wish that I’d written every brilliant book I read, but I REALLY wish it when I read a book with a brilliant idea and a crummy execution (and I would be a real idiot if I gave you an example).
What would you like to tell your 18 year-old self?
Smart ain’t everything.
Who inspires you? (Doesn’t have to be limited to other writers.)
When I was writing The Truth According to Us, I was inspired not so much by other writers as by the assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins, and hangers-on that I was lucky enough to be born into. I’d imagine myself there, listening to them on the porch, in half-light, as they drew in a deep, smoke-filled breath and began: “Well. It’s a sorry story, and I shouldn’t even be telling it. You girls’ll have nightmares all night, and you’d better not wake me up if you do. Well. All right. Here’s what happened—”
They are the treasure I was trying to recover.
You’re stranded on an island with all the living essentials at hand, but what one additional item would you need to survive?
I really need sunscreen. Is that included in living essentials? If it’s not, that’s going to have to be my additional item. Which is a drag. I don’t want sunscreen, and I might die of boredom if I have to use up my additional item on sunscreen instead of what I really want, which is paper. I know how to manufacture ink out of soot (I have matches, don’t I?), but I’m too old to learn how to make paper. If my additional item is paper, and I make ink, I can write, which means I’ll have something to do, and I’ll have something to read, and I’ll be fine.
To heck with sunscreen. I’ll chance it. Give me paper.
Lots of it, please.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
I read War & Peace, which is the best book in the world, but I’d read it before, so maybe that doesn’t count. If not: The Chateau by William Maxwell. Also Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Also The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I can’t believe I didn’t read years ago.
What is your number one tip for would-be writers?
Talent means almost nothing. Work means almost everything.
How would you summarise your latest book in 25 words or less?
I thought of taking all the spaces out of the flap copy so that it was just one word, but then I got a better idea. I wrote a haiku.
Truth will set you free!
No it won’t. Does it matter?
Yes. But maybe not.
That was fun. But if you want a real summary in 25 words: A debutante exiled in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia, learns that the past is never over when she meets the eccentric Romeyn family.
I like the haiku better.