Today, my series of interviews with the winners of the Romantic Novel Awards 2021 continues with Shirley Mann, winner of the Romantic Saga Award with her novel, Bobby’s War.
Shirley, congratulations on winning the Romantic Saga Award in the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards 2021 with your novel Bobby’s War. You appeared totally shocked to have won this award on the night. Were you really as surprised as you seemed? Has it sunk in yet?
It’s so lovely of you to ask me to appear on your blog, Julie, thank you.
Oh dear, it showed did it? I was completely stunned. After all, this is only my second novel and I had been prepared to dine out forever on being nominated but once I checked the rest of the terrifyingly successful authors on the shortlist, I thought, oh well, I’ll just pour myself a G and T and enjoy the evening. In fact, it was only five minutes beforehand that someone suggested we should all have a list of thank yous ready, just in case, so I’d scribbled some on the edge of the newspaper next to me. I could hardly get a coherent word out, so those notes saved the day. And as far as it sinking in, nah!
Bobby’s War is only your second novel. What does it mean to you to have won this award so early on in your career? What affect do you think it will have on your future career? What reaction have you had to your win so far?
Future career? Oh help, I have no idea. I’m so new to all this that I’m sort of muddling along but believe me, I’m loving being able to add ‘award-winning author’ to every possible communication I send out! It’s huge kudos and I had no idea how much it would propel me into the spotlight. I’d love to be able to say that I have a plan for my future career, but that might be a complete exaggeration. I wrote one book just to see whether I could and somehow, I now have a contract for four. If I think too far ahead, it leads to panic, so I try to stick with the present and leave the future to sort itself out. I was taught by my parents that to succeed, you have to learn to fail so I’ve probably gone through life not being scared to fail and that has helped because, frankly, what can possibly go wrong?
You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you didn’t start writing until you were 60 years old, which gives me hope as a still-aspiring writer at the age of 49 that I haven’t left it too late. What made you start on the road to publication at that age?
Oh, you’re a mere youngster! This is my third career and I certainly didn’t think it through but I know I couldn’t have written a novel while I was working so I don’t know you authors like you do it. I worked firstly as a journalist, mainly for the BBC and between that and bringing up a family, there was hardly enough time to read a novel, let alone write one. Then, at 46, I set up my own media company doing PR and making films for environmental organisations like Natural England and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. That was fun but then I was beginning to feel a little too old to be climbing over fences in fields lugging huge camera equipment with me so I thought, OK, let’s try that novel, but I really didn’t think it would lead to a third career. However, I think it’s really important never to feel it’s too late and certainly, the wonderful women I interview for my books make me feel like a spry youngster!
I know your parents’ love story inspired your writing. Can you expand on that a little for me and tell us how the idea for Bobby’s War came about?
The last three years of my mum’s life were a little difficult and we struggled to remember the slightly Irish woman who used to dance around the kitchen so just before she died, I asked her more and more about her time in the WAAFs and watched her eyes light up as she remembered the seismic change in the life of an ordinary 19-year-old from Manchester. These girls were expected to just take over from their mums and suddenly, they were thrust into a world where there was terror, yes, but also excitement and new experiences and they found they were more capable than they- or anyone else- expected. Unable to ask my mum any more questions, I raced around the country to talk to servicewomen already in their late 80s and 90s. They inspired me so much, I then felt a huge responsibility to tell their stories. Once I’d heard about the Air Transport Auxiliary pilots, there was no going back. I was so in awe of what they had achieved- they flew everything from Spitfires to huge bombers on their own, without radios, radar or navigation equipment. They used a ruler and a compass, for heavens sake! I couldn’t believe it when Mary Ellis invited me to her home on the Isle of Wight to interview her. It was an amazing experience and gave me the confidence to tackle ‘Bobby’s War’ but believe me, she was so competent and in control, I knew I was going to have to make my heroine have just a few more frailties than she had. I felt I was in the presence of the head girl! She died at the age of 101 just a few weeks later and I am so grateful I met her, she really was an inspiration.
Your books are all about strong, independent women stepping out of their comfort zones when it counts. What is it about these women that ignites your desire to tell their stories?
I am a product of the 70s when we ditched our bras and thought we could change the world but once I started to meet these self-effacing women from the war era, I realised we were too late; it had already been done, it was just that none of these 90-year-olds thought to mention it. We hear so much about the heroic exploits of men, but these WAAFs, ATA pilots and Land Army girls (and-plot spoiler-maybe a female police officer for book 4) didn’t just break glass ceilings, they smashed them. But they didn’t all start off strong and I particularly wanted to depict real women, so Lily is strong but a bit dizzy, Bobby is terrifyingly capable with planes but rubbish with people and Hannah is shy and has to find her own strengths while hunting rats, being knee deep in mud and coming across men who see her as an easy target. Having been privileged enough to meet so many real servicewomen from the war, I now feel a moral duty to take readers into their worlds and talk about everything from how they managed with Eau de Cologne instead of shampoo, made skirts without pleats to save material and lived on a diet of reconstituted eggs-even periods were a challenge. At a time when we’ve been complaining that we can’t go out for a meal or travel abroad on holiday, their stories have been timely reminders of how lucky our generation has been.
We spoke briefly about our mutual love of the Isle of Man and your upcoming research trip there. How much research goes in to your books, what is your research process and how long does the research for one book take?
Oh the beloved research! A source of love and hate in my life. My background as a journalist means I panic if I haven’t got a safety blanket of facts, so I go to ridiculous lengths to check things. I once spent two days trying to find out whether ginger was available to make biscuits in 1942 before I realised I could make them garibaldi biscuits! I start off by getting a feel for where I am setting the book, preferably by travelling there and just walking around or even taking a trip on Google Earth. Then I immerse myself in any personal memories, either in books or in person, that will take me into that world, then I start to write, making endless notes in the side column for things I need to check later. But the part I love the best is real people’s stories- the ones that aren’t in the history books, like the fact that they all carried round an old penny piece to use as a plug for basins because all the rubber had gone to the war effort. As soon as Lockdown eased, I raced to Salhouse in Norfolk and accosted every local I came across. From that trip, I found out about the buses on a Sunday in 1943 to Norwich from a lovely 95 year old called Joyce then I went into the station in Norwich and asked about trains from Norwich to Manchester. The girl behind the counter told me it depended on the time. You should have seen her face when I told her – 1943. I love the research, to be honest, sometimes, I’m in danger of forgetting to write, but it is nice when you’re not feeling very inspired to have something you can do that makes you feel you are ‘doing the book’ and research is never wasted, in fact, the problem is you need to do so much research for one single throwaway line. But I live in fear of people finding something anachronistic or just plain wrong in my books so I do everything I can to get it right.
I’m sure mention of your trip to the Isle of Man will have piqued your readers’ curiosity about what they can expect in your next book? Any sneaky clues as to what you have coming up?
The next book to be published will actually be ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and that’s out as an ebook in October with the paperback following in March next year but for Book 4, I’ve been on tenterhooks waiting to see whether the Isle of Man government would let travellers in and as I’m double-jabbed, I have just discovered I can travel, so I’m off there this week. I love writing books about areas of the war people don’t know about and as soon as I discovered the Isle of Man had internment camps where they put everyone they didn’t know what to do with, I was intrigued. The island became a melting pot of Nazis, Jews, Conscientious Objectors, Fascist Mosley supporters and prostitutes all having to learn to live together. Yep, you’re right, I couldn’t wait to write that one. The trouble was, I wanted to write about a Queen Alexandra nurse but then, after several months of working out my plot, I found out there weren’t any on the island so I went into a blind panic until I discovered there were women police officers- really unusual at the time. Phew!
My parents spent time in the IOM when my dad retired and they are both buried there so I have a huge affection for it and having started with their wartime romance, I feel I’ve come full circle by placing my next book there. I just hope the next book and all my books to justice to my parents’ legacy and that of all those wonderful women who were kind enough to share their stories with me.
Shirley, thank you for being so generous with your time, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this interview and hearing your stories.
Shirley’s award-winning novel, Bobby’s War is available now and you can buy a copy here.
On the ground, the crowd of men stood with their mouths agape, watching the wings soar into the air, the tail kept impressively steady and the small plane with a woman at the controls disappearing into the May sunshine
It’s 1942 and Bobby Hollis has joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in a team known as the ‘glamour girls’ – amazing women who pilot aircraft all around the country.
Bobby always wanted to escape life on the family farm and the ATA seemed like the perfect opportunity for her. But there’s always something standing in her way. Like a demanding father, who wants to marry her off to a rich man. And the family secrets that threaten to engulf everything.
As Bobby navigates her way through life, and love, she has to learn that controlling a huge, four-engined bomber might just be easier than controlling her own life . . .
About the Author
Shirley is a journalist who has spent her life juggling various careers in writing, broadcasting and lecturing, none of which had a regular contract, salary or pension. She started working as a reporter for a local newspaper in Chester, then went through a panoply of equally unknown publications until she started work for the BBC, where she moved through radio to television as a reporter, presenter and producer. She then set up her own media company with lecturing as a sideline, producing short films for environmental organisations.
The fact that she is now, apparently, an author, has taken her by complete surprise, particularly as the first book, ‘Lily’s War’, took six years to write and would have been consigned to a drawer if it had not been for a foot operation that forced her to sit and be bored for weeks, reaching back into that drawer for something to do. Her compulsive need to talk to strangers led to a random chat with an agent at a writers’ conference and somehow, as a result of that, she got a four-book deal with Zaffre at Bonnier Books. Her first two books, ‘Lily’s War’ about a WAAF in Bomber Command and ‘Bobby’s War’ about an ATA pilot have now been published. Her third book, ‘Hannah’s War’ is about a Land Army girl is out in October as an e book and in paperback early next year and the fourth is based around the internment camp for women in the Isle of Man and will be published the year after.
She lives with her husband in a gorgeous market town on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District, heading off regularly with her camper van and her bike. She has two grown up daughters, one of whom failed to listen to her mother and works in television and the other works in the environmental sector.
Connect with Shirley:
Facebook: Shirley Mann Author
Don’t forget, entries for the 2022 Romantic Novel Awards are now open and you can find details of how to enter on the Romantic Novelists’ Association website.