Today is a very exciting post that I cannot believe is actually happening! It is an interview with the author of the amazing novel, The Pieces of Ourselves, Maggie Harcourt! I am a huge fan of Maggie’s novels and I will be posting a review of The Pieces of Ourselves very soon. This post has happened thanks to the blog tour to celebrate the release of The Pieces of Ourselves and at the bottom of this post I will be sharing the blog tour schedule! Be sure to check out the other posts! I won’t ramble too much more here so here is my question time with Maggie Harcourt!
M: Maggie Harcourt
L: LoisL: Maggie, please could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your fourth published novel “The Pieces of Ourselves’.
M: I’m Maggie, and although I live in Bath I was born & grew up in west Wales. “The Pieces of Ourselves” is mostly about a 17-year old girl called Flora, who left school after what she calls ‘the Incident’ and now works in housekeeping at a nearby hotel in Somerset. Out of the blue, 19-year old Hal arrives at the hotel from London and enlists Flora to help him find out what happened to a missing First World War soldier who may or may not have been connected to the area. It’s a contemporary, but there’s also some romance, some historical and also a little bit of mystery…
L: The Pieces of Ourselves is written from the perspective of Flora who is working as a house-keeper at Hopwood Home Hotel and struggling with her mental health. What made you decide to set this book in a hotel rather than a high school and where did the name for the hotel come from?
M: I’ve been fascinated by hotels for years: my mother’s dream when she was young was to be the manager of a big hotel. However, she wasn’t allowed to apply for the training courses she needed – so she never got to do it. But she knew everything about hotels, and I think some of the things she told me about them stuck. I’ve also worked in hotel housekeeping myself as a chambermaid and while it can be really grim (really), it’s interesting to see behind the scenes: it really is like the historical difference between the staff and the family in old country houses.
I wanted Flora to start off somewhere that she wouldn’t necessarily belong – it’s somewhere she’s run away to, rather than where she might have expected to be, like school. The Hopwood (or Hopwood Home hotel, to give it its full name) is actually named after Stevie Hopwood, one of the Usborne marketing team who has also been my event publicist and general wrangler in the past. It was my way of saying thank you for putting up with me!
L: Your books always tackle important issues and discuss important topics. This one discusses and shows mental health in an incredible way. How important was it for you to have your character discuss and tackle her mental health head on and represent it realistically?
M: Incredibly important – because I genuinely believe that the more we collectively talk about mental health conditions, the more comfortable we can make anyone who has to deal with mental health issues in daily life feel. Managing a long-term condition is stressful and difficult enough without worrying that you have to hide or explain it. For me, what mattered most was showing that Flora’s condition was not the thing that defined her. It isn’t her entire life – it’s just one part of it.
L: History is a big part of Flora and Hal’s story especially World War I. What made you decide to have history play such a big part in the story and why World War I in particular?
M: It was while I was visiting a local National Trust property, funnily enough: I’d arranged a trip to do some research into another idea I’d had (which never ended up turning into a book in its own right) and the member of staff showing me around mentioned that the house had almost been torn down after the First World War – like lots of others.
Beforehand, I had no idea how widespread this was, but it got me thinking about what it means to be lost. The period just after the First World War was defined by loss, and by change – and that seemed to sit very neatly alongside Flora’s story too. It probably helps that my background is in history (although medieval, rather than modern) so I’ve always been interested in the past and how it connects to the present.
L: The historical aspect of this book really got me thinking and made me want to research some things myself. What research did you do for the historical elements of this book and how?
M: I did a LOT of research for this book, mostly because it’s a period I didn’t know very much about, beyond the obvious. It took me two years to write it, and I spent quite a lot of that reading about the Somme. So I read books that focused on the first few days of the battle itself, what life was like for soldiers in the trenches, accounts of young soldiers who had rushed to sign up for what they thought would be a straightforward chance to ‘do their bit’. I read a lot about shell shock and lots of war poetry – particularly by people like Wilfred Owen – and social history: things like reports of smiling new recruits being handed cups of tea and food as they marched to the transport ships over to France ahead of the ‘big push’ in 1916. It’s quite hard to explain how much heartbreak and horror there is in that history.
I also read lots about how country houses, their staff and their estates functioned both before and during the war, and what happened them afterwards. And I also rewatched all of Downton Abbey, which was decidedly less traumatic than some of the reading!
L: Whilst your books do tackle a lot of hard-hitting topics you do always have many heart-warming and uplifting moments weaved throughout. Why do you think it is important to have the light-hearted moments in books?
M: Books are like life: absolutely, there’s darkness and serious moments… but there should also be light and joy and happiness. Otherwise, what’s it all for? Especially when you’re talking about reading, which is something we do for fun! A book doesn’t have to be completely serious to talk about the stuff that matters.
L: What topics and themes would you like to see talked about and discussed more within YA?
M: There’s always room for making books more diverse – not ‘being diverse’ for the sake of it, but because people are diverse and everyone should be able to see themselves represented in fiction, in multiple ways. But I think we’re very lucky when it comes to YA because it naturally wants to go further and to be more than it already is. That’s what I’d love to see: YA continuing to push, and to tell more great stories while it does it.
L: What can we do as readers to help promote all authors books and give them the love that they deserve?
M: Talk about them – especially if there’s a book you love which maybe doesn’t get the kind of coverage you think it deserves, or an author whose books you’ve always enjoyed but who your friends have never heard of. There will always be ‘big books’, that everyone seems to be reading, and there will always be star authors… but because reading is such a personal thing and books have the ability to speak to us so directly, if we all share the books that really matter to us we have the chance to connect other people with stories that can mean just as much to them… and support their authors while we’re doing it.
L: What other books would you recommend to fans of The Pieces of Ourselves?
M: If you enjoy The Pieces of Ourselves and are interested to read more fiction connected to the First World War, definitely Hilary McKay’s “The Skylarks’ War”. I’d been desperate to read it since it came out, but I waited until I’d completely finished editing The Pieces of Ourselves – I wanted to make sure I didn’t accidentally let it influence me while I was editing as there’s obviously an overlap. But once I did sit down to read it, I completely loved it… even as it made me cry. Otherwise (or maybe as well as) Laura Wood’s “A Sky Painted Gold” and “Under a Dancing Star”. All these are historical, which mine isn’t… but I’d like to think they could at least sit nicely together, and I absolutely love them. And of course, there’s always my three other books: The Last Summer of Us, Unconventional and Theatrical!
L: What are you currently reading, watching and listening to?
M: I’m a huge Hilary Mantel fan, so I’m very happily reading my way through The Mirror & the Light, listening to Agnes Obel’s “Myopia” and the “Six” cast recording, and watching The Great Pottery Throwdown and Schitt’s Creek (again).
L: What has been your favourite book of 2020 so far? (Doesn’t have to have been released this year)
M: Oh, that’s tricky! Probably the Hilary Mantel again, because she’s an incredible writer. Although I did also read “Ducks, Newburyport” at the start of the year, and it’s as surprising as it is huge. In a good way.
L: Are you currently working on anything we can know about?
M: I’m actually having a bit of a break at the moment. I’ve spent two years with Flora and Hal taking up one side of my brain, and the First World War taking up the other. I ended up spending a lot more time in the Somme (metaphorically speaking) than I expected to, and it’s quite nice to have my head back to myself for a while. There’s always ideas bubbling around, though, so I’m sure I won’t be quiet for too long…
L: Finally, do you have a positive story to end on that involves your readers and being an author?
M: The best thing about being an author now is that through the book communities in places like Instagram and Twitter, it feels like we’re all friends – writers, readers, everyone. I love being able to talk to readers online – not necessarily about my books, but about other books they (and I) have read and enjoyed. And I’ve found so many stories that I’ve fallen in love with thanks to these conversations – ones which maybe I would have missed or didn’t think I’d enjoy. It’s an enormous privilege to be a part of such a fantastic group.I had a lot of fun doing this interview! Thank you so much to Maggie for being wonderful!
Be sure to check out all the other posts on this blog tour! I cannot wait to read them myself!