I am delighted to welcome Elaine Everest back to the blog. Author of The Woolworths Girls, The Butlins Girls and Christmas at Woolworths, those of us who have read her work will know that she sets her books during the dark times of World War Two. But these are not war stories. Though we learn something of these events, Elaine’s stories are primarily about her characters. They are uplifting and illustrate how good people can be in times of adversity. Elaine kindly agreed to answer my questions.
It was a real pleasure catching up with Sarah, Maisie and Freda, whom we first met in The Woolworths Girls. It’s 1943 and war is still raging as we meet up with them again in Christmas at Woolworths. As well as your original cast of characters you have introduced several more. One of the things I found so enjoyable was following the different threads and your apparent ease in knitting them all together with the backdrop of the war and the store. You never drop a stitch. So tell us how you keep control of all the ends?
Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Natalie. It is lovely to make a return visit. Where’s the wine and cake?
I like all of my girls to have something happen to them during each book. It keeps them in the reader’s mind and means they can interact with their mates as the story progresses. This may mean introducing a new character who causes a problem or creates tension in someone’s life. I try to have a character be involved in a local wartime event as it brings home how everyone’s life was interrupted by war. Wartime at Woolworths, which comes out in May 2018, has my girls involved in some distressing events and not everyone survives.
Music plays a big part in the book. There are references to several songs which do a great job of enhancing your scenes and I found myself wanting to join in singing many old favourites. Bearing in mind that you weren’t even born at the time, how did you uncover so many and does music feature largely in your own life as well?
So many of the wartime songs are timeless. Many come from before World War Two and seem to be timeless. These songs were sung at family parties, weddings, and visits to pubs and social clubs when I was young. I have to confess to shedding a few tears when researching and listening to the songs as I can see my much-missed dad and his siblings entertaining us to a song or two. I’ve also found that YouTube is a great aid when researching the songs – it puts me ‘in the mood!’
You will have a natural readership of a certain age but this is a story that I feel will resonate with any age group. What do you think it is that attracts younger readers to your work?
I’m fortunate in that the younger generation remember Woolworths. Many would have worked in the stores, as would their parents and grandparents. I’ve been told by readers that not only are they fascinated in how Woolworths survived during the war but how I’ve weaved stories of young women through those turbulent years. It is rather humbling to know that all generations are reading my books. So far the eldest is 102!
Your novella Carols at Woolworths was released in October. That’s two Christmas books in a very short space of time. Is it your love of this time of year that prompted you to write both?
I had the opportunity to write a short stand-alone Ebook that gave me the opportunity to carry one story over a few days rather than over a year or two like my other books. At times, with the staff and guest of Woolworths trapped by an unexploded bomb, there was the danger of the story turning into an episode of Dad’s Army but I kept focused with a few sad scenes that included my regular girls.
I’m not a big fan of Christmas even thought it is my birthday on Christmas Eve. Like many people I have sad memories of loved ones who passed away at a time when so many are celebrating the festive period. Losing my mum only days before my eighteenth birthday when she was just forty years of age made December a horrid month to face for so long. Even now I feel it was so unfair that she survived an awful war as a child then faced such a horrid illness. However, I can pull upon my own grief when it is required in my books – come to that the anger helps as well.
I can see how you must have very mixed feelings at this time of year. Such a young age to lose your mother. I hope you are able to celebrate her memory with joy on your birthday.
It seems no time at all since we were chatting about The Butlins Girls and here we are already more than a month after publication of Christmas at Woolworths. By definition a saga is not a short book and this is your third in eighteen months, as well as a novella. How do you manage your time to keep up this pace and is it your intention to maintain your output of two books a year.
Plan, plan, plan! I know my story inside out before I start to write. I’ve looked at what is happening in the war, local news, Woolworths news and also gone back over my notes on each girl’s history – I even read the earlier books. This doesn’t mean I don’t stop and add another idea as they still percolate throughout the months I’m writing. In fact I’ve just added a romance for one of the girls in the book I’m currently writing. I’ll leave you to guess which girl…
Is Woolworths to be a continuing theme or do you have your sights on something else?
I always have my sights set on other stories. Each time a new contract is negotiated my agent has four or five outlines for stories that aren’t Woolies related. However, I appreciate that thousands of readers are waiting to hear what happens next in the lives of Sarah, Maisie, Freda, Betty and Ruby so I’m always pleased to write a little more about them.
I hesitate to ask this question but what do you do in your spare time?
Spare time? Haha! Now my husband has retired I often down tools and we head out for a few hours. It may just be an extra walk with our dog, Henry, or a trip to the garden centre but it is something I never used to do. We are also able to take more trips to Cornwall or away for the weekend, which is nice. I also enjoy research trips and meeting fellow authors at SWWJ and RNA events. However, any leisure time has to be made up so my life is still planned around writing my words.
Finally, would you be able to give us a short sample that you feel epitomises your work and brings to life the spirit of community that was so evident all those years ago.
This scene shows the interaction between some of my characters:
Betty turned as she made to cross Pier Road, where the Woolworths store was situated. ‘Why Sarah, Freda, is there a problem?’
‘There will be if you don’t come with us to Nan’s,’ Sarah said breathlessly. ‘She’s made a meat and potato pie.’
‘Enough to feed an army. We’ve been sent to invite you for your tea. Please say yes or we will be eating it in our sandwiches for the next week,’ Freda begged.
Betty laughed, all thoughts of her long lost loved forgotten for the moment. ‘I’m interested to know how Ruby came by so much meat,’ she said raising her eyebrows.
‘Goodness, there is little meat in the pie. It’s just that she was busy arguing with Vera from up the road and peeled too many spuds. Not that we wouldn’t have invited you anyway,’ Sarah added quickly incase Betty was insulted. ‘Nan had to add another can of corned beef otherwise it would have been a spud pie,’ she explained.
‘I could always donate a can or two of snoek,’ Betty suggested to which both girls shrieked in horror.
‘Please, no!’ Sarah said with a look of distaste. Even if I was starving I couldn’t eat the stuff. Why, it’s revolting.’
They girls tucked their arms through Betty’s and set off for Ruby’s house in nearby Alexandra Road. It was as they turned the corner into the High Street that Sarah looked back and spotted the man. He stood on the pavement in front of Woolworths where Betty had stood only minutes before and was watching Betty intently. Sarah knew she had seen the man before. With a cold chill running the length of her back she turned away and joined in the chatter about their friend Maisie who was babysitting Sarah’s adorable daughter, Georgina.
‘You say you’ve seen the bloke before?’ Maisie whispered as she dipped her hands into the washing up water and retrieved a fork, then checked her nails. Maisie wasn’t one for washing up as a rule but the others were listening to a play on the radio so she’d had no choice but to volunteer after the grand meal Ruby had proved for them all.
‘Yes, I remembered just now,’ Sarah whispered back, it was in Woolies a couple of days ago. I was helping Betty collect takings from the tills and he was there, at the corner of the haberdashery counter. I called out to Deirdre to serve him. You know how that woman likes to chat. The last thing I wanted was to have to pacify a customer if she wasn’t doing her job. But, he walked away and headed for the door. A couple of minutes later I spotted him watching through the window.’
Maisie snorted with laughter before clapping her hand over her mouth incase the others heard. ‘Come off it. You’re ‘aving me on… why he could ‘ave been a normal customer thinking about a purchase. You’ve got too much time on yer ‘ands my girl,’ she snorted again using one of Ruby’s favourite sayings that was done in jest as her granddaughter, along with her mates, were doing more than their fair share of war work along with their everyday jobs at Woolies.
‘I’m serious, Maisie. I really do think that man is watching Betty.’
‘So, what can we do about it?’ Maisie asked. She knew better than to joke about something when Sarah looked so serious.
‘What’s all this?’ Ruby asked as she entered the kitchen with a pile of cups and saucers on a tray. ‘Anyone would think the pair of you have a secret.’
Maisie and Sarah looked at each other and Maisie sighed. ‘It’s your idea so you explain to Ruby. I’m not so sure it’s not all in yer ‘ead.’
Ruby frowned. ‘Come on spit it out then. I haven’t got all day. You can wash these cups and saucers while you talk. Give me the tea towel, Sarah, you won’t dry a thing twiddling it between your fingers. So, what’s the problem?’ Ruby asked as she started to dry a dinner plate.
Sarah explained how she thought a man in a dark brown overcoat was following Betty and where she had seen him. ‘Do you think we should tell her, Nan?’
Ruby thought for a moment as she stacked the dry crockery on the shelves of the pine dresser that covered the wall of the small kitchen. ‘I’m not so sure, you should say anything at this moment in time.’
Maisie grinned. ‘See I told yer she wouldn’t believe you, Sarah.’
Ruby looked seriously at Maisie. ‘Oh but I do believe Sarah. I’m more concerned that Betty, living alone as she does, would feel frightened.’
‘Perhaps we could lay in wait and catch the man next time we see him?’ Maisie suggested.
‘And what if we are wrong? We’d be the ones locked up. Leave it with me. I’m popping over to see Sergeant Jackson later on. I’ve saved him a plate of meat and potato pie. I can ask his opinion while I’m at it.’
‘Is Sergeant Jackson’s dad staying with him?’ Maisie asked with a glint in her eye, ‘I heard he was coming back to Erith,’ Maisie nudged Sarah and the pair of them fell into a fit of the giggles.
Ruby’s cheeks turned a light shade of pink and she puffed herself up to her full height. Even so she was shorter than the two girls who were now laughing uncontrollably. ‘Stop it now, the pair of you. I’ve known Bob Jackson far longer than you’ve both been on this earth. He was a good friend of your granddad, Sarah, and his son, Sergeant Jackson went to school with your dad so you can stop all this right now. There’s no harm in offering a bite to eat to a neighbour is there?’
‘No, Nan,’ Sarah said trying to keep a straight face.’
It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Elaine. Thank you for joining us and I look forward to seeing you here again next time.
Thank you, Natalie. It has been a pleasure to chat about my work xx
Elaine Everest, author of Bestselling novel The Woolworths Girls and The Butlins Girls was born and brought up in North West Kent, where many of her books are set. She has been a freelance writer for twenty years and has written widely for women's magazines and national newspapers, with both short stories and features. Her non-fiction books for dog owners have been very popular and led to broadcasting on radio about our four legged friends. Elaine has been heard discussing many topics on radio from canine subjects to living with a husband under her feet when redundancy looms.
When she isn't writing, Elaine runs The Write Place creative writing school at The Howard Venue in Hextable, Kent and has a long list of published students.
Elaine lives with her husband, Michael, and their Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Henry, in Swanley, Kent and is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Crime Writers Association, The Society of Women Writers & Journalists and The Society of Authors as well as Slimming World where she can been sitting in the naughty corner.
Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07258TTJR