About The Author
Sarah Blake was born in New York and now lives in Washington DC with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and their two sons. Formerly a college English teacher, she has taught fiction workshops at universities and colleges across America and has written essays and reviews for The Chicago Tribune and many other publications.
She is the author of a poetry pamphlet, Full Turn, and a collaborative art and poetry project with the artist Robin Kahn, called Runaway Girls. Her first novel, Grange House (not published in the UK), was a mystery novel set on the Maine coast at the end of the nineteenth-century.
Her second novel, The Postmistress, has been a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. It follows the pioneering Frankie, as she makes her mark on the male-dominated world of journalism with her intrepid reporting from Europe during World War II. Her broadcasts are of particular interest to Emma, the wife of a doctor who has travelled to England to offer his skills, and Iris, the local postmistress who ensures that the mail always gets through.
In our exclusive interview she talks about the role of Fate in life and fiction, the view of the War from the other side of the Atlantic and how Martha Gellhorn has been an inspiration to generations of independent-minded young women.
The Author At Foyles
Your characters often muse on fate and destiny; at school, Iris challenged one of her teachers with the question, 'Who is Fate?' Did you as the writer feel that you had complete control over you characters' stories or was there something more fundamental at play?
Great question. For Iris, Fate isn't a what it is a who. Her challenge to her teacher goes directly to her sense of herself as an overseer of the workings of her town, someone who stands at the ready to avert mistakes, misdirected letters, postal accidents. For Iris, tragedy is a mistake that might have been avoided had the person in charge been paying attention, hence her obsessive faith in order. To a certain degree, Frankie's desire to get the story beneath the story as she phrases it, is fuelled by the same need - to show her countrymen the sorrow of accident in order to get them to pay attention. Frankie's belief - underscored by the many broken endings she witnesses in Europe, the unfinished stories - that there is no overseer, no God in Heaven paying attention to what is happening, runs head on into Iris's faith.
Now, all that said about Authority - it does, of course beg the question of my authority, and I have to confess that I wish I'd had complete control, or even partial control of the narratives set loose in this novel. Sometimes, the writing of this felt like trying to harness the many-headed Hydra, and then ride it!
The people of Cape Cod seem very uncertain about how the war is going, what role America might play and what was really happening to Europe's Jews. Were they typical of Americans before their entry into the fighting?
It was a confusing time in America, I think. On the one hand, President Roosevelt was promising that 'our boys were not to fight in foreign wars', while on the other overseeing the passing of the Selective Service Act - the first peacetime draft. There were protests on the steps of the Capitol against entering Europe's war, and a powerful isolationist faction in Congress and around the country - and yet Americans were gathered around their radios listening to Murrow broadcast the Blitz. As to what was really happening to Europe's Jews, it seems that the pieces of the quilt - the scraps of stories - were only just beginning to be sewed together in the news reports.
Frankie was inspired to become a reporter in part by hearing the legendary Martha Gellhorn speak. Was there anyone who inspired you to become a writer? And do you feel there is lack of credible role models for young women today?
As a girl, I devoured stories of plucky, articulate girls who spoke out. Laura in the 'Little House in the Big Woods' series and Anne of Anne of Green Gables grew into Jane Eyre and Maggie Tolliver. But I didn't so much want to be these girls, as much as I wanted to tell their stories. I wanted to write the plots that girls and women fight their way out of, or into.
The book opens with Iris securing a certificate from her doctor confirming that she is a virgin, in advance of her engagement to Harry, yet he seems unconcerned. Does this signify the equalisation in the balance between men and women in marriage that was beginning then?
That scene arrived as a complete surprise. I didn't know what Iris was doing until she asked for the certificate! When she says, 'I should think all men would want such a thing,' she is really demonstrating her faith in a clean white piece of paper to show that all is in order. For her, getting the certificate is an act of love - she comes to him intact, completely and wholly his, in every sense of the word.
Frankie's reports from Europe illustrate the bigger picture by showing the human stories at the heart of the war. (Indeed, Emma's husband, Will, is inspired to travel to London to offer his medical skills by hearing one of Frankie's radio despatches.) Does this mirror the technique of the novelist?
Perhaps that's a great way to understanding the powerful impact journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle and Martha Gellhorn had on news reporting: they brought the novelist's eye to bear. Murrow famously instructed his reporters to under-report, not to say that the streets are running with blood, but rather to say that the man you were used to seeing every day on the street corner was not there. Pyle described his kind of reporting - and he was on the battlefield - as 'the worm's eye view.' Often it is the tiny human detail that snags and thereby carries a whole story.
Letters were of course a far more important way of keeping touch before the modern age of instant electronic communication. But is there something more affecting about their messages because of the physical transfer of something between writer and recipient?
I do think that letters can work like a relic - and are infused with a relic's power if the letter writer has died. The power of reading a letter written in a friend or lover's own handwriting - as personal, as idiosyncratic, as the line of their cheek - never diminishes, I think. And I definitely am playing on this sense of letters in the way in which the characters in The Postmistress think about the letters they are carrying.
The British and American experience in World War II was inevitably different in many ways. Have your British and American readers reacted differently to the book?
The difference has been one you might expect. Whereas British readers have written to tell me how the novel brings back memories of the Blitz, American readers are often writing to exclaim how much the novel has introduced them to what it may have felt like in those early years of the war.
Are there any plans to publish your book of poems, Full Turn, or your first novel, Grange House, in the UK?
Not as yet!
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?
I'm working on a novel that goes back and forth between 1959 and 2009, tracing the stories of two generations of the same old family, set in a summer house on the coast of Maine. The two stories don't overlap in the novel, but of course the secrets kept in 1959 directly affect the people in 2009. I am interested in the ways in which families often echo or foreshadow each other, without knowing who they are.