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June Book Club Choice

The Mystery Writer by Jessica Mann

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Reminiscent of the evocative Cornish setting that permeated Daphne Du Maurier’s books, Jessica Mann revives the haunting beauty of a region that inspires great writing. With Jessica herself playing a central role in the story, she beautifully shades the divide between fact and fiction...

In 1940, the heir to Cornish estate Goonzoyle, Jonathan Hicks, and the son of the estate’s groundskeeper, Ted Johns, are flung together in the icy Atlantic Ocean when their evacuee ship is torpedoed by a German U-boat on its way to the USA. As they cling to the wreckage, only one of the boys survives.
Sixty-one years later, in 2001, bestselling author Jessica Mann is researching her wartime evacuation novel Out of Harm’s Way when she is contacted by Ted Johns’ sister. As she grapples with the mysteries of what happened aboard that fateful ship, human bones are discovered at Goonzoyle, and she slowly unearths the secrets thhat binds the Hicks and Johns families together.

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Suggested Discussion Points:

Author Q&A

Q. How did you come up with the idea of featuring yourself in the novel?
Dorothy Hayward, Leicester

A. What made me think of featuring myself rather than a fictional character was simply the fact that I was using material from the non-fiction book, 'Out Of Harm’s Way', whose writing overlapped the writing of 'The Mystery Writer'. So I really was doing research and meeting strangers in hotels for tea, and making friends with some of them as in the book “I” do with Connie; and I really had been a child evacuee, sent off to Canada and the United States at the age of two. So there is a quite strong autobiographical element in this novel. I hoped that readers wouldn’t be able to see the join – exactly where fact shades into fiction. (If you really want to know, it’s on page 70).

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Q. How much creative liberty did you take with your own character? Did you have to ask yourself “Would I really say or do that?” when writing the parts of the book you feature in?
Jonathan Mellor, Salisbury

A. It’s always difficult to write about yourself particularly if you don’t want to write about the people who affect your daily life. When I first began to write a weekly column in a newspaper I swore that I would never say any more about my family than the mere fact that they exist. I wouldn’t describe or quote them or trespass on their privacy. The same rule has to apply to fiction. So in the novel.I maintained an uncreative lack of liberty about my family, being careful not to give them names or characteristics – though the archaeologist husband does exist, and so do the four people who make a brief appearance as nameless small children. As for me, I appear as a real character, I think, who would do and say ‘that’, and in some cases had actually done and said it.

Q. I’ve noticed authors tend to set their books where they live. Was this the main reason you set your novel in Cornwall?
Judy Edwards, Truro

A. To some extent the answer lies in the fact that I feature in the novel since I do live in Cornwall. But in fact it’s a good question because I have set several of my books here,either in “the real” Cornwall (at least as I see it), for example, \'A Private Inquiry\', which takes place in St Ives; and some have been in what you might call an embellished Cornwall. \'The Only Security\' (which was called \'Troublecross\' in the USA) and \'Captive Audience\' were set in an invented university of Cornwall which when they were written was one of the few countries in England without a university. \'Faith, Hope and Homicide\' was set in an imaginary castle somewhere near Tintagel. It was on my mind at the time because my husband had been excavating there. I usually set books in places I know well (though not always: \'Death Beyond the Nile\', for example, is largely set on an island in the middle of Lake Nasser in Egypt;) . But I have a strong sense of place which I hope comes out in my work. What I aim for is a slightly altered or embellished reality – and I always hope that readers who don’t know the real place won’t be able to see the join!

Q. I very much enjoyed this book and have also read Out of Harm’s Way. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
Margaret Johnson, Liverpool

A. Fiction is more of a struggle because I can’t ever really plan a novel, it’s more like squeezing it out of my subconscious as I go along. I don’t really know what’s going to happen next! So non-fiction’s really much easier, as obviously it has a plan and a structure and you know what you’re meant to be writing every day. All the same, fiction is what I have to write, non-fiction is like journalism, more what I’ve been paid to write. And novels are certainly what I prefer reading.

Q. Where do you write your novels?
Christine Ferguson, Sheffield

A. I chose to work in the smallest room of our rather large house because I had the idea that it would force me to be tidy. But I still waste a lot of time hunting for things. Meanwhile Charles – my husband – in his huge room, full of unfiled papers and tottering stacks of books, knows exactly where everything is. I’d love to sit writing in libraries or cafés but I need privacy for ideas to come.

Q. What is your favourite place in Cornwall?
M Thorpe, Newquay

A. Godrevy headland on the east side of St.Ives Bay, and, on an island in the bay, Godrevy Lighthouse. It’s an iconic structure (and incidentally the original of the lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s novel 'To The Lighthouse'). It makes an appearance in one of my early novels ('The Only Security') too. Charles and I have collected Godrevy pictures and memorabilia ever since we were married, and on July 1st 2009 we published a book, 'Godrevy Light' (published by Twelveheads Press) telling the lighthouse’s story, illustrated with works of art from our collection.


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