Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Pam Jenoff to Let Them Read Books! Pam is on tour with her brand new novel, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach, and I was thrilled to have the chance to ask her a few questions about her writing and the inspiration for her novels. Read on and enter for your chance to win a copy of The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach with a limited edition beach bag!
Adelia Montforte begins the summer of 1941 aboard a crowded ship bound for America, utterly alone yet free of Fascist Italy. Whisked away to the seaside by her well-meaning aunt and uncle, she slowly begins to adapt to her new life. That summer, she basks in the noisy affection of the boisterous Irish-Catholic boys next door, and although she adores all four of the Connally brothers, it’s the eldest, Charlie, she pines for. But all hopes for a future together are throttled by the creep of war and a tragedy that hits much closer to home.
Needing to distance herself from grief, Addie flees – first to Washington and then London, where the bombs still scream by night – and finds a passion at a prestigious newspaper. More so, she finds a purpose. A voice. And perhaps even a chance to redeem lost time, lost family – and lost love. But the past, never far behind, nips at her heels, demanding to be reckoned with. And in a final, fateful choice, Addie discovers that the way home may be a path she never suspected.
Hi Pam! Thank you so much for taking the time to appear on Let Them Read Books! We're honored to have you here!
I was reading about all of the memorial projects you worked on during your time with the army and the state department. Were any of your novels inspired by those experiences?
I was a diplomat for the State Department working on Holocaust issues in Krakow, Poland and I also worked at the Pentagon as the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. Many of my stories are inspired by survivors I met. For example, when I was at the Pentagon I had the privilege of traveling with my boss to events around the globe commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War II. On one trip we traveled a remote cabin I the Slovak mountains where a local girl had aided the paratroopers and the partisans during the war. Her story became the inspiration for my previous book The Winter Guest.
The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is my first book set stateside. But interestingly, I started writing it when I was living in Poland almost twenty years ago, so it was very much influenced by those experiences.
The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is the latest of several novels you've written about World War II. Why do you think fiction about this time period is important, and why do you think it is so popular with readers?
I agree that novels set during the Second World War remain very popular. For me, they grow out of my years living in Europe and working on Holocaust issues. I refer to my books as “love songs” to the people who lived in those most difficult of times. More broadly speaking, I think that the proliferation of these books can be attributed to a number of factors. First, when the Communist period ended for many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, archival materials became available to writers that were not previously and this has prompted a number of stories. Second, with the generation of survivors getting up there in years, there is a real impetus to capture and tell stories, either in the form of memoir or fiction, now while we can. Finally, as a novelist, my goal is to take the reader and put her in the shoes of her protagonist, and have her as “What would I have done?” The war, with its dire circumstances and stark choices, provides fertile ground for doing just that.
What are your go-to resources for researching this time period?
Some of my favorites are memoirs, correspondence (between soldiers and loved ones at home) and accounts of people who lived during the war are particularly useful. Periodicals from the era, magazines and newspaper, are great, as are photographs. And don’t underestimate the internet – Google earth can help with the geography. The archives to a museum or institute that are fully online can make it as though I was actually there.
Did you have any real-life inspiration for Adelia's story?
Not for her story per se. Almost two decades ago, I began a story about Adelia, a young girl who goes to the beach for the summer and meets a family with four sons vacationing next door. For many months, I struggled with the manuscript – I had no English speaking peer group of writers and no way to connect with writing resources back home. I tried to publish it and failed. Ultimately I put it in a drawer and forgot all about it.
Only I didn’t forget. A few years ago, I pulled it out again. The language, though unpolished, leapt out and grabbed me, still ringing fresh and true. I knew there was still a story there worth telling. So I developed the concept, set it during the Second World War, and made the families in the book fail from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. But it was not just a homecoming for the manuscript – working with my own words from a lifetime ago was like having a conversation with my younger self and I could see who I had been and how far I had come since then.
On some level I think I was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN, with the boy Laurie living next door to Jo and her three sisters. More recently, I’ve come to realize that some of Addie’s choices (no spoilers here!) were also inspired by Alcott’s work.
What does a typical day look like in your writing life?
I have three small children and a day job as a law school professor, so no two writing days look the same. I adore all of it. But it does force me to be disciplined. I have written in beautiful castles and writing retreats. I have also written in my doctor’s waiting room and in my car. In my perfect world I would write 7 days a week for three hours, first thing in the morning. But I have to stay flexible.
On January 2 this year, I issued myself a 100 days of writing challenge: to write every single day for 100 days. It worked so well that in April when it ended I just turned around and started the next 100 days. As of July 23, I’m still going!
What do you like to read for pleasure? Which authors or books have had the most influence on you?
Oh my goodness, how to answer? I read everything really, historical fiction, modern day. I love books by Tracy Chevalier, Anita Shreve, Kate Atkinson, Chris Bohjalian. I could go on and on. Books by author pals Karen White, Cathy Lamb, Mary Kubica, Heather Gudenkauf… I could go on for days.
When I think about books that have inspired me I tend to think of types of books. For example, there are books that have empowered my writing, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I think too of books that affected me as a child, such as the Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers. Historical fiction with a fresh take, including All That I Am by Anna Funder, also inspires me. Regardless of genre, I am inspired by beautiful prose, such as Air and Angels by Susan Hill and A Solider of the Great War by Mark Helrpin for this reason. I am also inspired by books with strong female leads, like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and more recently Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. You get the idea.
What are you working on now?
The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is on a blog tour!
About the Author
Pam Jenoff is the Quill-nominated internationally bestselling author of The Kommadant’s Girl. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are based on her experiences working at the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.