HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: If it's rites of passage week--and it may be--today's is one any author would want to experience.
Our own Rhys, with her--no exaggeration--blockbuster novel IN FARLEIGH FIELD is number one, number one! on Amazon. NUMBER ONE. And has been for like, a month. And Rhys herself is NUMBER ONE in author ranking. And the pub date is today!
This is difficult even to comprehend. This is--the pinnacle of success. This is what every author hopes for. Rhys, if I may say is the real authentic deal. This is her--how many books? I can't even count. She works non-stop, she's a dear and generous friend, she's brilliantly talented, and incredibly funny.
Well, this is bringing tears to my eyes.
Here's my favorite photo of us--taken by the amazing Barbara Peters. I love the connection it shows.
Rhys, all of us, coast to coast, are cheering. Standing ovation. And all of us have questions. And all of us are hoping your fairy dust will rub off. But mostly--we are thrilled. I remember having dinner at your house--three years ago? And you told me about this. But truly, how long have you been wanting to write this book? Why?
RHYS: I came up with the idea for this book about the year 2000. I wrote a couple of chapters and approached my then-agent about it. She told me that nobody was interested in WW2, that it was an insult to write about upper class English people when such terrible things were happening in Europe. So I put the idea aside (also waved bye-bye to the agent soon after). But it kept haunting me. And when I felt that I had reached a stage in my career when I could branch out a little I wrote a little more of the book and showed it to my current agent, who, being brilliant, loved it.
I wanted to write about WW2 for several reasons: one was that I was born toward the end of the war and remember the austere times in the post war years. My father and uncles were all fighting abroad. My family talked a lot of scares and excitements of war time. So it was personal to relive this. Also it was the last time that there was a clear case of good versus evil. Everyone in England felt that if they didn't stop evil, it would swallow the world and they were willing to make any number of sacrifices to achieve this.
HANK: The story feels so authentic--the setting, and the motivations, and the relationships, and loyalties and conflicts--is that research? Or where did that come from? Is that research-or experience?
RHYS: Some of the material is personal. I was born toward the end of the war. I don't remember anything except having to sleep under the dining table and hide behind a door when I heard planes approaching. And searchlights still freak me out! But I do remember the austere times in the post war years. My father and uncles returning from fighting abroad. My family talked a lot of what they went through. So it was personal to relive this. But I did a lot of research. I read biographies of those who had worked at Bletchley Park and in MI5. I read Churchill's war books. And then I visited Bletchley Park, The Imperial War museum, Churchill's war rooms.
HALLIE EPHRON: I confess, one of the things I loved about this book is it's about sisters (since I'm one of four). Please, tell us about the sisters, and how you made all of them such distinct creatures.
RHYS: I think this started as a homage to the Mitford girls, all so very different. My family, Lord Westerham's daughters all display characteristics of an upper class background but have turned out to be different in temperament. Livvy, the oldest, is the good child who has married well and produced an heir. I suspect she isn't the brightest of them! The next sister, Margot, has gone to Paris to study fashion design with someone a lot like Coco Chanel, has fallen in love with a French count and stayed on to be with him. As we find out more about her it seems that she might be living a dangerous life in Paris! (no spoilers here).
Pamela is the daughter we focus on: she's highly intelligent but not been allowed to go to university. Now she has found an outlet for her talents working at Bletchley Park as part of the decoding. She's also in love with a glamorous flying-ace. A little naive and a hopeless romantic.
The fourth daughter, Dido, is angry and frustrated at being denied her season because of the war. She also is smart, inquisitive and wants to do something useful. Instead she is stuck at home in the country, which could be a dangerous thing.
I think my favorite was twelve year old Phoebe. She's the afterthought (an accident, Dido tells her). She's also smart, inquisitive and into detective novels. I loved writing about her and the evacuated Cockney boy Alfie as they help to put pieces of the puzzle together.
JENN: The librarian in me has to know, what primary resources did you use for your research? Old newspapers? Museum visits? How much did you have to learn about code breaking? What was the one thing you learned that you didn't know before that fascinated you the most?
RHYS: I read a lot of personal experiences of the war, diaries that housewives and soldiers kept. I assembled books that were handed out on making-do, cooking with limited war-time ingredients, using old clothes and turning them into new ones. I have a war-time ration book and patterns for making dresses. Then I did go to the exhibit on WW2 on the homefront at the Imperial War Museum. I spent a couple of days wandering around Bletchley Park. I visited Churchill's war rooms. And I read a lot about code-breaking. In fact the messages in my book were actual decoded messages from Bletchley.
The one thing that surprised me the most was that debutantes, upper class girls like Pamela, were actively recruited to work at Bletchley, because it was supposed that they were brought up to "do the right thing" and not divulge what work they were doing. Everyone at Bletchley had to sign the official secrets act, promising not to say anything to anyone of their work. So the other thing that surprised me was that this act was not lifted until the 1990s. That meant that parents died never knowing their child had done something brilliant and vital to the war effort, which I thought was so sad. And I was excited to read that Kate Middleton's grandmother was one of the Bletchley girls. I'm sending her a copy of the book!
DEBS: Did you visit Bletchley Park? And is Farleigh based on a real place? I so loved the atmosphere and the sense of authenticity of the settings.
RHYS: I did visit it. I spent two days there, getting a feeling for what it was like to work in those uncomfortable huts. The first impression is the elegant country house, which would have seemed familiar to my girls, but then the huts were so spartan and poorly lit. It took guts to work there.
I have placed Farleigh in Kent, near to my childhood home. So it's an area I know well and suits my story as it is really close to Biggin Hill RAF station and to Churchill's country home, Chertwell. There are two real stately homes in the area, Penshurst Place and Knole Park, both of which we had to visit on numerous occasions with the school and Farleigh is a combination of both.
LUCY: Rhys, I remember you saying that when you sit in front of the computer to write a book in either one of your series, you don't have trouble getting back into the minds of Molly and Georgie. So I wondered how writing this one felt different, with a whole set of new characters to imagine? And how in the world did you have time to do this??
RHYS: I think because it's not written in the first person like Molly and Georgie it's not quite as intimate, but I could certainly identify strongly with Pamela, Ben and Margot. Also with little Phoebe because she is the sort of lonely child that I was.
As for time... I'm a crazy person, I admit. I wrote the first part of the book a couple of years ago and showed it to my agent. She loved it and urged me to write more. So I wrote a little more. Then it was accepted and I was given the go ahead. So the book wasn't all written at once. And I found it went really easily and quickly because I was enjoying it so much and it was fun to jump from one setting to another, setting up clues and building suspense.
INGRID: If you were a Westerham sister (which one?!) in England during WWII, what job would you have chosen to perform to contribute to the war effort?
RHYS: I wouldn't be Margot, that's for sure. I'm not the intrepid type hiding out in German-occupied Paris. I think I identify most with Pamela. I'd have enjoyed working in code-breaking at Bletchley Park. And I am bilingual in German so I would have been able to help with translation.
INGRID: Also, did you start writing the book with a complete cast of characters in mind or did that evolve as the story unfolded?
RHYS: When I started it I knew I wanted a family of sisters who were very different from each other. Also I wanted the triangle of Pamela, Jeremy and Ben, all former childhood best friends. I have to say that both Margot and Dido took on characters of their own that I hadn't planned at the beginning. It's exciting when that happens.
HANK: So, Rhys? How does it feel?
RHYS: I think the word is Gobsmacked! The irony is that the moment this book hit #1 on Kindle I was sitting on a hard chair in a hospital waiting room while my husband was undergoing major surgery. So the book was the last thing on my mind. I came home that night to an empty house, opened a can of soup and had to laugh that this was my celebration meal!
Now John is gradually improving and I have to laugh when I check my author rank and see I'm above J.K. Rowling, George Orwell. Quite surreal.
|Hank, Lucy, Hallie, Rhys|
HANK: Oh, Rhys! SO fabulous! HURRAY! And we are giving away one copy of IN FARLEIGH FIELD today--in whatever format the winner chooses. Just give our dear Rhys a pat on the back in the comments.
(And you can read more--and buy the book-- here.)