I do hope you’re enjoying this feature as much as I am! Another award winner today, and I’m delighted to share my lovely conversation with Shirley Mann: her book, Bobby’s War, was the winner of the Romantic Saga Award at the RNA’s 2021 Romantic Novel Awards. Published as an ebook (available for kindle and via Kobo) and audiobook in October 2020 by Zaffre, the adult fiction imprint of Bonnier Books, it’s now also available in paperback (published only last week, and available via Amazon or your favourite bookshop).
Let’s take a closer look…
An inspiring and uplifting tale of women on the home front, for fans of Nancy Revell and Vicki Beeby. By the author of Lily’s War.
On the ground, the crowd of men stood with their mouths agape, watching the wings soar into the air, the tail kept impressively steady and the small plane with a woman at the controls disappearing into the May sunshine.
It’s 1942 and Bobby Hollis has joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in a team known as the ‘glamour girls’ – amazing women who pilot aircraft all around the country.
Bobby always wanted to escape life on the family farm and the ATA seemed like the perfect opportunity for her. But there’s always something standing in her way. Like a demanding father, who wants to marry her off to a rich man. And the family secrets that threaten to engulf everything.
As Bobby navigates her way through life, and love, she has to learn that controlling a huge, four-engined bomber might just be easier than controlling her own life…
Come on, let’s go and meet Shirley…
Shirley, I’m so delighted to welcome you to Being Anne – many congratulations on the award. Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little about your life…
Thank you so much for asking me – I feel very honoured. I’m a former journalist who lives on the edge of the Peak District in the glorious hills of Derbyshire. I have an Action Man husband, two daughters and a ‘granddog!’ I was brought up in Liverpool until my cruel parents moved me away just as the Beatles were coming on the scene and took me to beautiful rural Cheshire. I thought my life had ended. Apparently not. I love walking in the hills, taking my electric bike ( did I mention there were hills here?) and I used to have lots of other hobbies before I started this writing lark that I will take up again one day.
Did your experience as a journalist make it easier or more difficult to turn your hand to fiction?
Oh, so much harder! I’ve spent my life being a conduit for other people’s stories bolstered by irrefutable facts and to take that leap into fiction was terrifying. My agent, the lovely Kate Barker, has to constantly remind me when I’m searching history to prove a storyline that I AM allowed to make it up. However, I’m not afraid of the blank page so I suppose that’s one thing that was in my favour, also I’m not phased by suggestions of re-writes nor am I precious about my work. My first job was at a local paper where my copy would be made into paper aeroplanes and come flying out of the subs room accompanied by expletives so I can definitely cope with kind, tactful suggestions for changes.
The fact that you produced your first book at 60 was particularly inspirational – especially for those of us who have done nothing to turn the dream into reality. What made you first sit at your keyboard (or pick up your notebook!) and decide you wanted to write fiction?
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done it before, I certainly couldn’t have taken the financial risk. A frantic career in the BBC and then running my own media company not to mention being a wife and a mum, didn’t leave me much head-room to think, let alone to write a 90,000 word novel. But if was after my mother died that I finally got the impetus to just see whether I could do it. The last three years of my mother’s life were a time when we almost lost sight of the twinkly-eyed, slightly Irish woman who just loved jiving at parties with my father and, almost as a help to the grieving process, I suddenly found I wanted to rediscover the couple whose wartime romance had led them to a lifetime together.
Fortunately, my mum was a WAAF in Bomber Command and my dad was in the 8th Army so there was plenty of material to inspire me, but, I have to say, it took me six years to write Lily’s War; I constantly put it back in the computer’s files thinking I was incapable of this mammoth task. It was only after a bunion operation when I was stuck on the sofa for six weeks that I gave in and gave it another go. There had to be a positive side to that experience! I also think being older gives you a huge advantage – you’re not afraid to fail. I decided if I managed to finish it, that would be amazing. Then, I went through each phase – if I find an agent; a publisher; anyone to read it…etc. I took each step in isolation and didn’t worry about the next one. I was so chuffed by each achievement, the next one almost didn’t matter.
Tell me a little about your path to publication…
Firstly, I took ages to learn how to write fiction, going on every possible course I could and drinking in every bit of advice I could glean from those who knew about novel-writing and publishing but the catalyst was an Arvon Foundation course that my family kindly bought me for my 60th birthday. We were lucky enough to have Sarah Hall and Owen Sheers as the inspirational tutors and I learned so much. I remember near the end of the week, going in to talk to Sarah and she had my first two pages of Lily’s War in her hand, they were covered in red pen so I panicked but she was so positive that I very professionally burst into tears. That gave me the encouragement I needed.
Once I’d finally written those magical words, ‘The End’, I sent it off to some publishers and agents that I found on the internet. I tried to find people who might be on the same wave-length and was really thrilled to get some of the nicest refusals you could hope for. On the day I went to the Writers East Midlands conference, I took my plate of lunchtime sandwiches and just sat next to two women I didn’t know. One asked whether I was a writer. I told her I’d just had a really lovely reply from a well-known publishing house and the other woman looked up, expressing her surprise that I’d heard directly from a publisher. She was the agent, Kate Barker and she asked me to send her the first 50 pages. Two days later, she asked for the rest. It was pure luck that I picked that table on that day, I could have munched my sandwiches on my own! Kate then managed to get a deal for me with the wonderful Bonnier Books and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’m so frustrated that I haven’t managed to read one of your books yet – but I have read about the inspiration behind them. I know you’ve done so before, but would you like to tell us more?
The starting point was my parents but then, because I hadn’t asked them enough questions, I raced around the country to talk to as many elderly servicewomen as I could, knowing time was limited. I was thrilled to be invited to the WAAF conference and as soon as I saw the group of 80 and 90-year-olds march in with their heads held high and their backs straight, I knew I was going to be inspired. From there, I visited an amazing array of plotters, land army girls, factory girls and the ATA pilot, Mary Ellis, forcing myself to take notes as I sat, enraptured by their incredible stories. It made me determined to always look beyond the watery eyes of an old person to see the person behind who had done so much to make sure my generation had freedom. As a young woman in the media in the 70s, we really thought we had invented everything but I very soon got a lesson in how these redoubtable women had not only broken glass ceilings but had smashed them to pieces before I was even born. Their stories had to be told.
The first hand accounts you were able to hear must be the best research possible – but what else did you need to do to find out so much about the Air Transport Auxiliary and to recreate that authentic wartime experience?
The afternoon I spent in Mary’s conservatory will stay with me forever. I was so lucky to get to meet her before she died at the age of 101 and I knew I was in the presence of a very special woman. She could remember the foibles of every single aircraft, the procedures she had to follow and how to plot out routes to all parts of the country. That afternoon made me into a plane bore. From then on, I became unnaturally interested in undercarriages, throttles, air speeds and weather patterns. I dragged my husband, who was delighted I wasn’t writing books about hairdressing, around museums, air shows and heritage centres.
I loved history at school and would immerse myself in the everyday lives of the people of the time; that’s what I want to recreate in my books. Yes, there was a bigger war going on out there but what did they have for tea? How did they wash their hair? How did they feel about having their youth threatened by destruction? These are the questions I wanted to address – to take readers into that world.
I’ve picked up that Bobby’s War shines the spotlight on the hidden lives of women in wartime, their strength and bravery. Tell me a little more about Bobby Hollis… and about Harriet (who looks very much my kind of woman…!).
I really want Bobby to be my best friend! However, I suspect I’m more like Harriet, a ditzy whirlwind and totally in awe of Bobby who’s feisty and competent and able to do amazing things. But like all good heroines, Bobby has to discover that there’s a side to her that is flawed and it’s that contrast that I think makes her so interesting. She’s completely in charge when it comes to aircraft but give her a good-looking RAF pilot, an enigmatic civil servant who has a secret life and a father whose own past comes back to haunt him and she is thrown into utter confusion. She has always scorned frailties and it’s quite a shock to find out she has them.
What is most important to you, the characters themselves, the world they inhabit or the romantic elements readers expect of a saga?
Oh dear, that’s like choosing between my children. I get so excited when these characters start to reveal themselves to me. I start off with a name and a scenario but they tell me where they’re going. It’s always a bit of a surprise to me! I feel like a guest in their world and if you are the sort of person who loves going to stately homes or reconstructions in museums, then you’ll understand why I get such a buzz from walking down a 1940s’ street with the characters. I have to fall in love when they do, make mistakes with them and find my way through to a satisfactory conclusion alongside them. It has to be the whole package; for the time you’re immersed in a book, you have to be there and almost shake yourself back into the 21st century when you close its pages. But with my author’s hat on, I’m just going to say that I read a great deal of all sort of books and when I get to the end of one that makes me go ’And…?’ I hate that, so I did want to make sure that the reader feels they haven’t been short-changed at the end and that works for me too.
We really must talk about the RNA. I’d love to hear more about your experience of being a member… and whether you’d recommend it to others…
I’ve just been given an award by a panel of judges who know everything there is to know about romantic fiction, so hell, yeah! I feel I’ve been assessed by the experts in the field and that’s an incredibly humbling experience but even before the award, I was aware that there is no other organisation that represents romantic fiction like they do. They are practitioners who know their craft and they care passionately about it. You can be sure you get the best advice, the best courses and the best information about the genre. Romance Matters, the magazine, gives up to date information, articles on how to improve your writing and support and the courses look amazing – I’m about to start one about how to use social media to promote your book. I know they do a great many other things but I’m only a new author so I’m still finding out but I’m more than pleased I joined.
I can see that we don’t have too long to wait until your next book, with Hannah’s War (available for preorder) coming in September. The Land Army this time I see – would you like to tell us more about it?
I’m really looking forward to this one coming out. I went to meet some incredible Land Army women and it was on a day when it was raining and I was feeling badly done to because of traffic hold ups on my journey to see them. By the time they’d finished telling me about hauling out turnips of freezing soil or burning in the heat without sunscreen during harvest, I felt a bit sheepish to be honest. These are not the glamour girls of the ATA or the WAAFs in Bomber Command but they were the people who made sure Britain was fed during a time of intense shortages. They toiled night and day, often with limited food themselves and minimal accommodation. Some were treated worse than servants but the ones I met wouldn’t have missed it for the world. They were so proud that I was doing a book about them, feeling their stories had too frequently been passed over.
Hannah is a shy, only child who is terrified of everything but her journey to become as powerful as Lily or Bobby is perhaps even more admirable because without the war, she was one of the girls who would have remained tied to their mother’s apron strings and Hannah, like others, I suspect, would never discovered their incredible strengths. Oh, and the fact that there is a very attractive German Prisoner of War who challenges every possible preconception she has and maybe the reader has as well, makes for a different storyline that I really loved researching. The German story isn’t often told.
I always like to ask whether an author is also a reader. If so, are sagas and historical fiction your usual reading – or do you prefer something quite different?
I’m not sure you can be a writer without reading widely and often. I always have a book on the go and I belong to a book group. I love books that take me somewhere and immerse me in that world so I read all sorts of books, some of them inspire me and others leave me flat but they have to be well-written and well researched. I read before I go to sleep and that’s sometimes a challenge because if it’s hard work, I’ll fall asleep. I’ve just read Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch and loved it. It’s a Costa Book of the Year and almost as good as Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. But if I think back to the book I couldn’t put down, it was The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – that to me is a shining example of a saga novel.
What writers do you admire? if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
In addition to those above, I love Kristin Hannah, Leah Fleming and Dickens. They have the knack of story telling and making me not want to move until I finish their books, knowing I’m learning something at the same time as being entertained. I’m not sure I’d presume to be as good as any of them but I aim to have that authenticity and distinctive voice that makes people remember my books. I was brought up on Georgette Heyer books that I used to read under the bedclothes. I’d love to create heroines as well as she does and my sister kindly said I write like Jeffrey Archer which would mean I can retire finally once and for all. I’ll take that!
Do you know, I’m still wondering where the Matlock Mercury found the judges’ feedback – I’ve drawn a blank for the other winners! But “wonderfully written… well researched… an emotional rollercoaster” must have been a thrill to read. You were clearly so delighted to win – and well done on that beautiful acceptance speech with the lovely tributes. Just tell me a little more about what it meant to you – and then tell me where you’re going to display your trophy…
About two weeks before the final, when I knew I’d been shortlisted, I have to be honest, I had a little daydream about what it would be like if I won but then I checked out the other finalists and gave myself a reality check. They were such an impressive group of experienced, popular writers so I decided I’d get changed out of my Lockdown leggings, pour a G and T and simply enjoy myself. When my name was announced, I was absolutely and genuinely stunned and immediately thought of my parents and the women who’d got me there. Without them sharing their stories, I’d never have felt qualified to write one paragraph, let alone two novels. We’d been told the winner would need to do a speech so, with a wry smile, I’d made myself write down a few names to thank. Just as well as my brain seized and I don’t think I’d have got any words out.
Once we were off-air, the family all rang in on Zoom – I think my sister and daughters were in a worst state than me and then the following day was a constant round of beautiful flowers, messages and phone calls. I felt terribly famous. It took a few days for it to sink in but I’m thrilled, totally surprised, honoured and humbled and to have that recognition from such a panel of romantic fiction experts has finally made me accept that I may, after all, be a proper author. And between you and I, I’ve polished the glass trophy on my pine cabinet at least three times a day since just to check it’s still there and not a dream.
Shirley, I really loved finding out more about your journey – and it’s been such a pleasure to meet you. And I do promise to keep a space on my reading list for Hannah’s War in September – it looks (as do your others!) like a book I’d really enjoy. To find out more about Shirley and her books, you’ll find her blog here: you’ll also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Many thanks to all three award winning authors for joining me for this lovely feature. I do hope you all enjoyed the experience, and I’ll look forward to meeting you all in person at the next RNA event we’re able to attend. My thanks too to the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and to Katrina Power for her help in setting things up.