Interview: Jennifer Ryan

I am delighted to be the final stop in the #SingforChilbury Blog tour and pleased to welcome the author Jennifer Ryan to Girl with her Head in a Book.  She very kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her debut novel The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, a novel with themes of friendship, courage and female solidarity – a perfect holiday read!

You mention your grandmother as an inspiration for this book – is she represented in any of the characters who tell the story?

My grandmother was a true character: jovial, plump, and always up for a singalong or a party. We called her Party Granny (as we also had a far more austere Shakespeare Granny) and her fascinating stories about the war formed the basis of the novel. They ranged from hilarious tales of people getting into mishaps in the blackout or in air-raid shelters, to scandalous gossip about neighbours having affairs or her beautiful best friend, Letty, who was always having boyfriend trouble.

Although my grandmother isn’t actually depicted in the book, the magnificent and reckless Venetia is based on Letty, with all the flirting and falling in love with the wrong man that she exemplifies in the stories. Party Granny, if she does bear any resemblance to anyone in the book, would be more like dear Hatty, the fun-loving young teacher, who has a big heart and a great sense of fun.


Your novel grants voices to a variety of characters via diaries and letters. Did you have a ‘favourite’ character?

I have two favourites, the first being Kitty, the precocious 13-year-old girl, who says whatever is on her mind; as one of my readers said, you just don’t know what she’d going to say next! I love the way that she is wrong about so many things, and has wonderful, romantic flights of fancy that send her mind soaring away on dreams. She slips out of the traditional narrative style, using subtitles in her diary, and jumping from topic to topic. I loved creating her lists of things, such as the list of colours she sees everyone in the village as being, and the list of what she thinks happens to people when they die.

As a lover of good villains, I created the comic figure of Miss Paltry, the incompetent and corrupt midwife, who is always trying to make money. I decided to give her a talent for metaphor, and she comes up with wonderful phrases such as “It was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” Another time, she says of Mrs. Tilling “You want to plunge her head into a barrel of ale to perk her up a bit.” I truly enjoyed wondering what kind of a mess she’d get caught up in next.


In coming together as a choir in the absence of men, would you say that the women literally find their voice?

I wanted the choir to stand as a metaphor for the women finding their voices, standing up to make themselves heard. Many of the characters develop and change through the passage of the book, as would happen during those difficult months when the war became increasingly worrying for those with loved ones away and extremely dangerous for those on the home front.

Mrs. Tilling is arguably the backbone of the book and demonstrates the change the most. She’s a middle-aged widow, whose only son goes to war, leaving her worried and scared: what will happen to him? At the beginning of the book, she is a timid woman who depends on her bossy friend, Mrs. B., to express her annoyance at the choir being closed down. She remembers her mother telling her that women do better when they keep their mouths closed, but through the course of the book begins to question this idea. By the end of the novel, she herself has become a force to be reckoned with.


Venetia writes to a character who never appears and who never appears to reply and who has apparently had several unhappy relationships with men.  What was Angela’s significance within the novel?

She is the pivot in Venetia’s story. At the beginning of the book, Angela, who Kitty refers to as “a harlot”, has moved to London, and Venetia is upset that her best friend has left. But as the novel progresses, she moves away from following Angela’s example, and becomes more of her own person. I wanted to convey that coming-of-age moment when we slowly stop relying on friends as our chief company and support, and look to the opposite sex, to a potential partner, to fulfil that role.

I loved that she was the Vicar’s daughter, and I always imagined that I’d have great fun developing her further, if I were to write a sequel to the book. She is already quite a complex character, as she thrives on being racy and heartless, and yet harbours a secret passion for one of the village boys with whom she grew up. It’s fun to consider how the war might impact her; how she might in some way find herself through the freedom and opportunity it presented to young women at the time.


Did you feel that the ladies’ story was completed at the novel’s close, or do you have any plans to return to them?

I think some of their stories were complete, but others were far from over. The novel begins and ends in 1940, so there’s another five years of the war to go, and a lot more drama to be had. I’d love to write a sequel, find out what happens to the characters, especially some of the lesser characters, as well as the favorites from this book.


Do you have any future writing plans?

I’m currently writing another novel, which is not a sequel to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, but it is also set in the Second World War, and is once again centred around women and their stories. I’m not terribly far along with it, so I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you for certain at the moment.


What tips or advice would you give to aspiring writers?

The biggest tip I can give is: don’t give up. It’s easy to feel downhearted, either after a bad review from a reader or critique group, or when you don’t know where the plot’s going and feel a little “lost” in what it was you were trying to say. Every month or so as I was writing The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, I got stuck in usually a small plot problem, and there was a huge temptation to set the book aside and begin something else. Instead I promised myself that I’d see the project through to the end, and that by carrying on working on the same book, it would be the only way I’d give myself the chance of finishing a full book.

Plots are difficult. Writing books is difficult. I always try to give myself a break if there’s a problem, tackle it as if it’s a challenge to get through rather than a potentially novel-crushing obstacle. It’s not easy, but you have to take a deep breath and carry on.

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