WomensHistoryReads interview: Pam Jenoff

NYT bestseller Pam Jenoff is one of those triple-threat authors: author, mom, and professional in a non-writing field (in this case, law.) And she carries it all off with panache. The first of her books I read was The Diplomat’s Wife, more than a decade ago, and her upward trajectory since then has been wonderful to watch. I’m so glad to have her participate in this Q&Q&Q&A.

Pam Jenoff

Pam Jenoff

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Pam: My new book, The Lost Girls of Paris, was inspired by the women who served in Britain’s Special Operations Executive during World War II.  These very brave women came from all walks of life to serve and were dropped behind enemy lines to engage in sabotage and subversion and work as couriers and radio operators.  They went knowing their life expectancy once deployed might only be a few weeks. Many were captured and some never came home.  The scope and magnitude of their heroism is breathtaking.

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Pam: I have a master’s degree in history from Cambridge so in some sense I am a trained historian, but when I write I am not principally wearing that hat.  I am a novelist and whenever someone says “based on true history” I cross it out and say “inspired by actual events” because while I endeavor to remain true to the past, I take great liberties with fiction and never want to stake too large a claim on past truth – that belongs to the people who lived it.

Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?

Pam: I love writing about a female character, who through normal events would have lived in a very set path, but due to war or other catastrophe finds herself thrown off that path.  She often finds herself in circumstances she never could have imagined, with no skills or experience to handle them.  I like to see how she is tested and challenged, and how she changes and grows in response.

Greer: Beautifully put.

Pam: Question for you:  How did you do the research for Woman 99?

Greer: More so than for my previous books, I think, I had to research in a bunch of directions at once. My primary historical inspiration was Nellie Bly and her stint in Blackwell’s Asylum for “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” but that was really just the starting point. I read a number of first-hand narratives from women who were institutionalized during the time period I was writing about, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, known to most as author of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I feel like first-hand narratives, whenever you can get them, are the fastest route to the heart of a story. Partway through the final editing process I got to visit San Francisco, which definitely helped me fine-tune some of my descriptions. I don’t always find travel helpful since the locations described have generally changed so much since the period I’m writing about, but in this case, it really helped. Then there was the usual research, online and in books — what were people wearing? eating and drinking? what was in the news at the time? — to select the details that were really going to make the time come alive.



For more, visit pamjenoff.com .