A war historian as a father. A fiction lover as a mother. A childhood encounter with Canadian literary legends. Jennifer Robson’s life has led up to her success as a writer of wartime novels.
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Novelist Jennifer Robson lives in another century, in an era imbued with war, conflict and loss, in a time filled with uncertainty. She lives there to give voice to stories of the Great War.
“At the foundation of what I’m trying to write is my attempt to honour the sacrifice of the people who served in the military and the civilians who lived through those days,” said Robson, BA’92.
Her ‘attempt’ has become somewhat of a publishing sensation. In January 2016, every book in Robson’s First World War trilogy – Somewhere in France, After the War is Over and Moonlight in Paris – sat on the bestseller’s list. That’s a feat no other Canadian author has ever achieved, and prompted the Globe and Mail to dub Robson as “the most successful Canadian author you’ve never heard of.”
“I can’t imagine anything being more horrible than being recognized in public,” she said with a chuckle. “I love that my books do well but I love the idea most people have no clue who I am. That’s just fine with me. I don’t want to have to put on dark glasses to leave the house.”
Being a relatively unheard-of author suits 46-year-old Robson. “It’s better to be unknown and to have people discover you,” she added.
In fact, she seems modestly astonished at her success: “Maybe it’s just that I’m draped in horse shoes. I wake up every morning pinching myself. And reminding myself that this is really happening. How lucky am I?”
Robson’s interest in historical fiction came early in life. Her father, the acclaimed First World War historian Stuart Robson, taught for decades at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. As a young girl, Robson heard him recount war stories at the dinner table, sometimes firsthand accounts from mature students in his classes who were veterans of both world wars.
“I always had a sense of how important their sacrifices were,” she said. “In that way, I was singularly fortunate.”
Her mother, a family lawyer and judge, loved fiction, particularly historical fiction. When Robson was a teenager, her mother suggested she read Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (a memoir that captures the impact of the First World War on women in British society).
“When I finally worked up the courage to start writing in my late 30s, it was the idea that I would tell a story of a woman whose life is changed by the Great War.”
Robson’s early hesitation to write could have been ironically planted by the Canadian literary icons she met as a young girl. “In the 1970s, my parents had some wonderful, wonderful friends like Margaret Laurence and W.O. Mitchell,” she said. “To sit at the knee of Margaret Laurence and to be in her presence, I’m still awestruck, I was privileged enough to meet her. The same for W.O., who was such a lovely, lovely man. Meeting and knowing these writers when I was young, that set a pretty high bar in terms of thinking I’ll never be able to write like them. Should I even try?”
When Robson enrolled in King’s University College at Western, becoming a writer was not on her list, and neither was studying history. Her father recommended she take just one history course; she signed up for European history with Professor Paul Webb. “He was an extraordinary lecturer and electrifying in how he made everything so interesting. And I was hooked,” she said. “From that first lecture in the first week of my first year at King’s, I knew it was history.”
She found something more when she took an English class with Professor Lorraine DiCicco. “I thought my writing was pretty good for an undergraduate, so I was kind of aghast when I got a B on one of my first papers in her course,” Robson said. “She had gone through and carefully corrected my grammar throughout the paper – the equivalent of a fine edit that must have taken her so much time. I learned more about writing from Professor DiCicco than any other single teacher I’ve had.”
High praise from a student who went on from King’s to receive the Commonwealth Scholarship and to complete a doctorate in British economic and social history from St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
“I had an extraordinarily rich undergraduate experience at King’s that prepared me really well, I must say, for graduate school,” she says. “I feel I didn’t stumble at all when I landed in Oxford. I had been equipped with the best possible, all-around humanities-based undergraduate degree.
“In interviews I’ve done, people are quite interested in talking about Oxford because it seems quite glamourous. But I wouldn’t have studied there if it hadn’t been for my years at King’s. And would I be enjoying the career I have now without King’s? I’m not so sure.”
She went to Oxford fully intending to become an academic. When she earned her PhD in 1997, there were no opportunities to teach British history. She worked in journalism and publishing, including a stint at Penguin Canada before becoming a freelance editor in 2003.
While at home caring for her young children, Robson considered what she wanted to do next in life – and it wasn’t to continue freelance editing.
“All along I knew it. I knew I wanted to write a book but I just wasn’t brave enough to tell myself, let alone anyone else,” she said. “There’s been this tug on the sleeves of my heart for years, like a voice saying, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’”
After working in the publishing industry, Robson understood the challenges of not only writing a book, but getting it published and being a success. The odds weren’t necessarily in her favour. Only a handful of writers find a literary agent, sign a deal with a publisher and sell more than a minimal number of copies. “That’s no reason not to try. The worst thing that could happen is that I write a book and only my friends and family read it. The book would still be there.”
In early 2009, Robson finished writing Somewhere in France – a novel about Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford who breaks with established tradition in Britain to become an ambulance driver stationed at a field hospital in France during the First World War. She submitted the story to nearly 30 literary agents, and was turned down every single time. After reading dispiriting responses, such as ‘this is a waste of time’ and ‘no one will read this book,’ she shelved the book. “I was so mortified by the initial failure that I let it paralyze me,” she said.
Then Downton Abbey came along. The TV show’s storyline around the period of the Great War piqued an interest in British history and society – the very era of Robson’s book. In 2012, on the firm advice of a friend, she approached the next 10 literary agents on her list – and the response was starkly different. She signed with an agent, landed an editor and sold her book to a publisher. Her first novel was released at the same time a new season of Downton Abbey started in North America.
Robson then waited.
“I steeled myself for failure. I knew I had achieved something by having a book published. No one can take that away from me,” she says. “But I was prepared to not sell many books because most books don’t sell many copies. I imagined my dad buying 1,000 just to make me feel better.”
The fretting was for naught. In the first week, her book reached the bestseller’s list. Now, Somewhere in France is into its 13th printing, with more than 100,000 copies in print. “That’s 100 times better than I thought it would actually do,” she laughs.
Her self-deprecating humour, in some ways, keeps Robson grounded – as does working from her home office while juggling life as a wife and mother of two children. “I’ve said to my closest friends and my family, if you get a whiff of entitlement or prima donna behaviour from me, please set me straight before I become some entitled monster that would be horrifying to me,” she said.
“Dwelling on my success can be paralyzing in a bad way. And it would seem un-Canadian to me,” she added, in jest. “The last thing I need to do is toot my own horn.”
After her debut novel, Robson wrote two more bestsellers – After the War is Over in 2015 and Moonlight in Paris in 2016 – completing her trilogy.
While many narratives about the Great War focus on men, Robson’s books place women as the central characters – women who start off lacking agency and an understanding of their worth.
“By the end of the novels, they have greater confidence in their own abilities, they’ve blossomed with a certain degree of power over their lives,” she said. “Not because someone came along and rescued them, or swept them off their feet and they lived happily ever after, but because they were courageous and made difficult choices along the way.”
In many ways, her heroines pay tribute to one woman who has never read her books – her mother. She passed away in 1991, at the age of 51, just weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Robson was 21 years old and in her final year of university.
“Losing her was devastating for me,” she said. “I think back and I’m fortunate to have had a mother who thought the world of me and my sister – and who totally believed in us.”
Her mother’s memory is never far away. In After the War is Over, Robson’s main character, Charlotte, draws parallels to her mother. “Charlotte’s determination to be in service to others, to make the world a better place, to put her needs secondary to others, those are taken entirely from my mom’s character,” she said.
“There’s no greater compliment to me than when I hear people say they’ve given my book to their mom as a birthday or Mother’s Day gift,” Robson added. “I feel as though I’m going to faint – that makes me so happy. Not least because I would give anything for my own mom to be able to read these books.”
Her father, the historian, is a booster and supporter. He read a draft of the first book before it was published; Robson wanted to make sure the history was right. When he came to a part where tragedy strikes Lilly, the main character, he “got sucked in and found it so overwhelming that he started to cry.”
From her family upbringing to her university experience, from her childhood encounters with Canadian novelists to her literary achievements, she’s grateful for every moment.
“If it all ended tomorrow, I think I will still be fine.”
That gratitude – and knowing she’s doing what she was meant to do – propels her to continue writing stories about the women and military men who lived through war. Right now, she’s completing her fourth book, a story about a journalist based in London during the Second World War.
“The memory of those who lived and battled through war hovers over my shoulder when I write my books. I get to honour them but also awaken an interest in those periods of history for readers today,” Robson said.
“If only one person wants to learn more about the war because of my books, then I think I’ve ended up being a teacher after all.”
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