Here is an excerpt of an interview of Annie Barrows by Danielle Marshall for the Powell’s Books website. To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.
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Strange how life works. Mary Ann Shaffer, a long-time bookseller, librarian, and book lover, took a trip to Guernsey, a small island off the Normandy coast, in 1976; there, the seeds were planted for a novel she would begin 25 years later. Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an epistolary style, with an obvious wink to the classic 84 Charing Cross Road. But as she began to see her novel take shape, and ultimately sold it to a publisher, she became very ill. As luck (and fate) would have it, Mary Ann was able to turn the book over to her beloved niece, Annie Barrows, who happened to be a published writer, a fellow book lover, former bookseller, editor, and confidant.
Barrows took on the task with a mission to fulfill the promise of the book that she knew would captivate and delight. As she began the project, she could hear the voice of her beloved aunt, lovingly handling the revisions and rewrites, and crafted a novel that has wowed both readers and reviewers. Says Newsday, “I have recommended it to all my friends. I sniffled at various parts and frankly cried at the end.” The San Francisco Chronicle writes, “It’s as charming and timeless as the novels for which its characters profess their love.” The Chicago Sun-Times describes it as “a book-lover’s delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary, to libraries personal and public, to bookstores and their owners, customers, and contents…” Well, you get the picture.
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away last February at the age of 73 before she saw their collaboration published. But her niece and co-writer is here to pass along Mary Ann’s legacy, story, and, in the end, their mutual love of books and all who read them.
When you answered our Kids’ Q&A for PowellsBooks.kids, I never spoke with you directly, so it’s great to have the chance to chat with you.
Here I am, in the genuine flesh. Are you going to ask me about my favorite breakfast cereal again? [Laughter]
As a matter of fact, I’m not.
Oh, dang! I love that question. It’s one of the best ones I ever got. I have a lot to say about breakfast.
I had such a good time reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What an ebullient novel. And I can honestly say I have never interviewed an author who has come down a writing career path in a more interesting way.
It is strange. My career path is not what most people do — crossing over from kids books into adult books, and the collaboration with my aunt. It’s been a strange trip, but I’m perfectly delighted to talk about it.
The book itself is a love letter to book lovers and booksellers. You can guess that I really pored over the passages about booksellers.
Because we love you guys so much! [Laughter] Can you tell that both my aunt and I worked in bookstores?
Oh, yes! In fact, I wanted you to talk about that a bit. I did pick up that you and your aunt had been very close to books and to each other.
Our book paths coincided a lot. I grew up in the next town over from my aunt Mary Ann and her family, so our families were really, really close. Several times, we were employed at the same place. When I was 12 years old, I was hired at the tiny San Anselmo Public Library. I worked in the children’s room and Mary Ann worked upstairs. So every time I wanted to see Mary Ann, I would just clomp up the stairs. Later on, we both worked at a bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, which is now gone, sadly, but at one time was a big independent bookstore in the Bay Area. Mary
Ann spent some time in publishing with Harper and Row, then at another bookstore, and ended with 10 years at the Larkspur Public Library. “Anything you had to do to be near books” — that’s the family motto.
I moved from bookstores into publishing, and became an editor at Chronicle Books. Then I got an MFA, had a baby and decided that what I should really be doing was writing. Since I had gone to all this trouble to produce this baby, I thought I should actually stay at home with it, and being a writer seemed like it would be so relaxing!
I did a little research and found you had written several books under a pen name, Ann Fiery, in addition to your well-known children’s books, the Ivy and Bean Series and The Magic Half. I couldn’t help but think, “This is a woman with a wide variety of interests!” There was opera, divination, urban legends…
This was my theory when I first began writing: anything I wanted to know about that I didn’t already know about, I would propose a book on it. That would be how I would indulge myself as a writer. I didn’t know anything about opera. You could not find anybody more musically ignorant than I. But I thought, “I want to know about opera, and what’s more, I really want to buy a lot of operas and I can’t afford it, so I’ll propose this book!” It was great. At that particular stage in my life, I was having baby number two, so for that whole first year of my second kid’s life, I just sat around listening to operas and writing the stories of the operas. What a great project.
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Speaking of joy, I consider The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be the most downright joyful and pithy novel I’ve ever read. Pithy. That’s the only word I can think of to accurately describe it.
That’s a great word. I don’t want to take credit for being pithy myself, because my aunt Mary Ann was one of the most entertaining human beings you would ever want to meet. As far back as I can remember there was an imploring from all who knew her, “Write a book, Mary Ann. Would you write a book? Write, write, write!” Everyone wanted her to write a book because she was such a natural storyteller. She was so funny, and delightful, and charming, and engaging.
Everyone in my family tells stories all the time, and as a result, everyone expends a lot of effort trying to drown out all the other people. Mary Ann was, by far, the best storyteller in the family, but she was one of those people for whom starting was easy, but continuing was hard. Now there is a monument, this book, to how completely fun and entertaining and witty she was.
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To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.