Image © Alex James
AJ Pearce grew up in Hampshire and studied at the University of Sussex. A chance discovery of a 1939 women's magazine became the inspiration for her ever-growing collection and her first novel Dear Mrs Bird.
Her latest book Yours cheerfully was published by Picador on 24 June and is also available through the Suffolk Libraries catalogue.
- Who were your heroes and influences as you were growing up and when did you first realise that you wanted to write?
I was a very booky child – Saturdays were Library Day and a total highlight of the week. I’d pick the maximum number of books to take home and then sit on the floor reading something else as fast as I could until I was forced to leave!
I was mad keen on ponies and as having one was a dream, I read every pony book I could find. The Pullein-Thompson sisters were a must, and Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books. Black Beauty was obviously traumatic and I think set me on my way to absolutely hating cruelty to animals.
- Where did the original idea come from for Dear Mrs Bird?
I bought a 1939 copy of a weekly women’s magazine online and was transported into another era. It was like modern weeklies with fiction, recipes, fashion and advice, but obviously reflected life in an entirely different era. Straight away I knew this was what I wanted to write about.
- When you were researching Dear Mrs Bird did you discover anything that surprised you?
I am forever surprised by research! One of the first things I learned was just how far back in history women’s magazines go. I collect magazines (I have hundreds) and I think the earliest I have is from 1761. It is always amazing to hold the volume in my hands and know that it was originally read by another woman two hundred and fifty years ago.
- Your new book is Yours Cheerfully. Can you tell us a bit about it? What was it like to write?
Yours Cheerfully is a standalone story, but also the sequel to Dear Mrs Bird, so hopefully you can enjoy it whether you’ve read the first one or not. The book starts four months after the end of Dear Mrs Bird and we follow Emmy Lake as she continues her career at Woman’s Friend magazine. When the Ministry of Information asks the country’s magazines to help recruit women to war work, Emmy is thrilled to now officially get to do her bit. However, when she meets some young war workers, she finds that their lives are far more challenging than the Ministry has implied. Yours Cheerfully follows Emmy and her best friend Bunty as they try to work out how Emmy can fulfil her obligations to the war effort while remaining loyal to the women who have become her friends.
It was lovely to write another story with the characters I know and love, as well as developing new characters (including some grim new baddies). I do hope readers will enjoy the new adventure and going along with Emmy as her journey through the war years continues.
- I read somewhere that Glenn Miller's music accompanied your writing last time round. What was the choice of music this time?
I’ll often play 1940s music when I sit down to write as it helps put my head into the right era! Glenn Miller is a given, and Benny Goodman, Anne Skelton, Vera Lynn, Ambrose and his Orchestra and George Formby too. Once I get down to writing though, I tend to listen to soundtracks rather than songs so I can concentrate rather than joining in!
- Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
I’m actually working on the next instalment of The Emmy Lake Chronicles as my publishers have named it. I’m in the research phase of what will be Book 3 with Emmy, Bunty, Mr Collins and the team. As you can tell, I don’t even have a title yet!
- What is the best thing about being a published author?
There are so many things! I am very aware that it is an enormous privilege to be able to write as a job and to see my books in libraries and shops. One of my favourite things is doing events and getting to meet and chat with readers afterwards. Obviously things are a bit different at the moment, so events are online, but I can’t wait to get back out to the real world when I can.
The other thing about being a writer is the friends I have made. That has happened separately to being published, but right from the moment I started going on writing courses and joined a local writing group I met people who have become friends for life. I’ve met so many writers and authors who are absolutely lovely. That has to be the best thing of all.
- Is there a book you have read that has changed your life or made you think differently?
What a great question. I can safely say that every diet book I’ve ever read has made that claim and none of them have ever worked!
But seriously, I think reading female authors who were writing novels in the mid-twentieth century has made the greatest impact on my writing – and because of that my career and life. Authors such as D.E Stevenson, Angela Thirkell, Ursula Orange, Joyce Dennys and many more, introduced me to writing that could be witty in one moment and moving in the next. I’m so pleased that publishers like Persephone Books and Dean Street Press are re-publishing many female authors from this period that had been somewhat forgotten.
- What is the best advice you were ever given?
Work hard, keep your nose clean, but don’t take any rubbish from anyone. That was from my dad. It’s pretty good isn’t it?
- Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
I am the world’s worst knitter. My grandmother tried again and again to teach me but I remained resolutely awful. In my books, Emmy is good at sewing but appalling at knitting. I can sew enough to get by, but as far as knitting is concerned, I’m a lost cause. That’s the one thing about her that is definitely from me!