In this interview, Susan Örnbratt converses about her novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley.
You grew up in Canada but have been living abroad for most of your adult life. How has this influenced your writing?
It has certainly impacted my storytelling directly since I find the more I travel and experience living in different countries, the more I begin to see life and people differently. I currently live in Sweden and have been here for most of my married life so I know well that it takes time to understand and appreciate other cultures. Becoming a local is the key. As a result, my characters are affected. I nearly always centre around journey and travel of some kind and the challenges that my characters face relating to someone from another culture - their attraction to someone who looks different, sounds different and behaves differently. It is something that I easily relate to and enjoy in my life.
Where in Canada did you grow up?
I was born and raised in London, Ontario. Not the London most people know, yet still a London with a Thames River, double decker touring buses, Pall Mall, Oxford and King Streets and even a Stratford nearby. It is a university town in the middle of corn country nestled among the Great Lakes. It is a city of forever friendships and stacks of memories for me. It is a place where I played hide and seek in the cornfield behind our house with my brother and sister, brought a bouquet of golden rod to my mom and very allergic father, who gulped in disbelief, smiled, hugged me then very discreetly sent them back into the wild. If I close my eyes, I can still see the neighbourhood streets blocked off by local kids playing street hockey and in the winter, our backyard turned into an ice rink where skates seemed to grow from my feet. Good ol’ London.
What inspired you to write The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley?
In 2003, my grandma gave me a gift that she had kept to herself – a set of poems that she had spent her life writing. They were handwritten in a school notebook tucked in a brown leather folder and hidden. “You are a writer,” she said. “Maybe you can do something with these one day.” She wouldn’t discuss them in any way and died of cancer just weeks later. For a reason I couldn’t explain at the time, I shelved the poems not having read them until ten years later. It was then that I realized her incredible gift. I thought I knew my grandma well, but it wasn’t until her poems that I saw the richness of her life for the first time. Finally, I know the reason I hadn’t read them – I wasn’t ready to write this story – a story that was inspired by each and every poem.
When you are not writing or teaching, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Being with my husband and children definitely tops the list. We adore travelling as a family but puttering in the garden, curling up with a good book, picnicking, hiking, kayaking and spending time on the boat soaking in the west coast archipelago is glorious. Sharing all of that with good friends and family is also wonderful.
Which writers and books inspire you?
There are a few in particular. For example, Cornelia Funke who wrote Dragon Rider. I also enjoy Helen Simonson and her ability to make a stuffy, old-fashioned major completely endearing, and who couldn’t fall for Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Burrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? – probably my all-time favourite.
Why did you choose to write about the Isle of Man?
I needed a place for my main character to go. She is adventurous after all. It needed to be a realistic distance from England and Ireland given it was wartime. So I began researching the Channel Islands and those in the Irish Sea. When I came across the Isle of Man and learned of the internment camps there during World War II, I knew immediately that it was the perfect place for Gillian to go as an auxiliary nurse (or nurse trainee). After spending well over a year researching the Isle of Man, by the time I got there, I felt as though we were old friends. I could feel my characters on this unspoiled, tranquil island – the perfect place to fall in love all over again. As far as other research goes, much of it stems from first-hand knowledge having spent time in the UK growing up with a father from Ascot and a mother from Paisley, Scotland and many summers by the Great Lakes in Canada.
Are there any parallels between your characters and real life?
Although The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley is a fictional story, elements from my grandma’s life can be seen in Gillian’s personality and some of her choices. For example, my grandma was from Longford, Ireland then worked as a nanny for a maharaja of India in England. She also worked as a nursing aid in private residences and nursing homes, similar to my story’s Hogweed Home where one of my grandma’s stories about the statue is retold. My grandpa was the quintessential Angus Pugsley, and of course, my grandma’s poems are used to introduce each chapter and are meant to be the poems that Gillian gives her granddaughter. There are other parallels but revealing those could be a “spoiler alert”.
Have you written other novels?
Yes. The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley is my third novel. It is the first to be published. I regard my first two novels as training ground. Through them, I learned that I was able to finish a novel once started and that it is no easy task. You must be completely committed and develop a true relationship with your story and characters, then edit, edit, edit. Gillian Pugsley was meant for my debut as a writer.
In what sport did you compete in the Commonwealth Games?
Rowing. I spent my teenage years and early twenties as a coxswain racing down just about every river and lake Ontario had to offer. As a member of the Canadian National Rowing Team, I was fortunate to participate in the Junior and Senior World Championships as well. It is a time in my life that I will always treasure.