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An Interview with Lori Rader-Day

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Lori Rader-Day in December 2021. You can listen to the interview on the main page.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here, I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I'm here with one of my favorite authors, Lori Rader-Day. Her books include "The Lucky One," "Under a Dark Sky," "The Day I Died," and more, and she just released her first historical novel, "Death at Greenway," set in Agatha Christie's WWII home, and I think you'll enjoy our conversation about her new book and all the challenges of writing a historical novel. Thanks for being with me today, Lori.

Lori: Thanks so much for having me.

Mignon: You bet! So why don't you start by just telling us about the book?

Lori: Sure. So "Death at Greenway" is based on a little-known fact in history that Agatha Christie's beloved holiday home, Greenway House in Devon, was used to house some war evacuees during WWII. I discovered that little fact when I was reading a non-fiction book about how Agatha Christie works, called "The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie." If you're a super fan, you might be interested in that book as well. And it was just like a little throwaway sentence about this having happened. And it sort of struck something very deep inside my heart. I just really wanted to read that story. I, one of my favorite movies is "Bed Knobs and Broomsticks." It was a childhood favorite.

Lori: And I think there was something there. I imagined "Bed Knobs and Broomsticks" at Agatha Christie's house, and I just couldn't let it go. Unfortunately for some, and maybe fortunately for me, nobody had written that story. 

Mignon: Right. Until I read your book, I had no idea that so many children were evacuated to the countryside.

Lori: Yeah, three million people, mostly children, were evacuated out of the metropolitan areas. There were, I mean, most of them would have been London, but there were other major cities that were evacuated. And then, of course, some of them were evacuated to places which were also bombed. You know, it's a small nation. They were also evacuated overseas. Some to America, some to Australia, some to Canada. Some would have gone back to their families, but many didn't.

Mignon: So you started being interested in this story of the evacuees, but then the book really became more of a mystery, a murder mystery, and it's also I understand your first time writing a historical novel, so why don't you talk about the evolution of the idea and then the new challenges you faced in writing in this new genre?

Lori: Sure. So my other five books are contemporary mystery novels, thrillers is what they are sometimes called. And you know this story, originally when I when I heard of this, I thought, "Well, this is a kid's story. This is a children's book, and I would love to read it. It doesn't exist. Oh, well, too bad, somebody else will write it someday." But I didn't actually talk about it. I didn't actually give the idea away because I think, you know, deep in my heart, I really wanted to make it work.

Lori: So I got the idea in 2011, but I didn't really even have a chance to think about it for several years. In 2016, I had the chance to talk to my new editor at HarperCollins and I said, "Well, I have this idea about Agatha Christie." They have a wall with Agatha Christie's face on it, made out of her words, and I'm like, cool. Oh yeah, yeah, I'm into this.

Lori: And so she's like, "OK, tell me about it." And I didn't have anything beyond just this little snippet: children at Agatha Christie's house in WWII. And she said, "OK, you know, maybe someday, but not not next." And I agreed. Of course, not next. But then, you know, I got a chance to go to England. I have a friend there, so I went to visit her in Bristol, and then she drove me down to Greenway so we could walk around the house like tourists.

Lori: And I think the idea still wasn't mine. I was just sort of looking around trying to figure out if the story could be told. But when we went to the house, I got the chance to sort of poke around just like a regular tourist. But then we asked a docent standing nearby, is there anything in the house that belonged to the children, anything that belonged to that story? And they, this docent, you know, probably pretty excited that anyone wanted to hear anything, ask them any questions, took us upstairs and unlocked a door that was not open to the public. And inside was a cabinet that when you open the doors, the shelves had the names of five little girls on them. And those are five of the 10 children who were evacuated to Greenway. They were still, their names were still on this cabinet, and at that point, I don't think anyone could have pried that story out of my hands. I really wanted to do it. I think it really brought home that may be the history wasn't that far off. You know, it has seemed ancient history to me because I don't write historical novels. I'm not a historian. You know, there are many reasons why this wasn't the right story for me to write. I'm obviously not British, and so I had a lot of doubts about this.

Lori: But once I had seen those names on the shelves, I thought, "Well, I think I have to try." So I went back to America. I think I had another book that I was still writing or another contract. I was still finishing out. And then, I think in 2018, I sold a book, and I usually sell a book that you've written and then a book that you are going to write next, ideally.

Lori: And instead of writing, you know, buying the book I had handed to them and untitled number six, which is what usually happened, they asked what else I had in mind. And I thought, "Well, that's kind of strange."

Lori: But the only thing I really have in mind is just this little paragraph, you know, about maybe what this story could be. And so that was my editor saying it's time.

Lori: They bought the book before I had written anything, before I had done much research at all, and an idea that was a someday book became my very next project in an afternoon, which ...

Mignon: Wow!

Lori: was really scary.

Mignon: Wow. And I feel like if I were to take that on, I would never emerge from the research phase ever again, so talk about how you got into it, and then also how you got out of it.

Lori: Well, that is definitely true of this, every historical panel of authors I've ever heard. And I used to go to quite a few of them because I was thinking about this story maybe someday--they all say there just comes a day when you have researched everything. You just need to put the research down and start the story. And I thought, "Well, that's...sure." But they like research. I don't actually like research that much, or I haven't. Up until this book, my idea of research is sort of writing it the way that I hoped it would be and then finding the perfect person to tell me what I was getting wrong.

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: The lazy-man's version of research. So I thought, "Well, you know, that won't happen to me," but it absolutely did happen to me. And I think part of it was because I had all these doubts about, you know, I didn't have a historian's mindset. I didn't have a deep knowledge of WWII. I didn't know what the story was. I just had the context for the story, and I didn't know how it was going to make it work. And I wanted it to be a mystery story, as you mentioned. That's what I write. That's what Agatha Christie wrote. It just seemed like it needed to be, you know, a mysterious story, a suspenseful story of some kind. And I didn't know how I was going to make that work, but I also wanted to sort of protect ... every time I came up with a fact that was true about this episode, I wanted to use it. I wanted to use everything I could find because, at first, very little was available. Very little was known. So every time I was researching something, I would find something that hadn't been found before.

Mignon: That's so cool. What I was going to ask you is how how do you decide what fictional parts you can put in and what you absolutely feel personally required to put in? That's true, you know? I feel like I'd want every, every little bit to be as true as possible, but it's fiction, so you are actually allowed to make things up. So how do you ...

Lori: Right ...

Mignon: How do you distinguish?

Lori: I'm allowed! I'm allowed, and so many of my friends, when I was having trouble with this project, and I did have lots of trouble with this project would say, you know, basically, why are you being so hard on yourself? This is a novel. This is fiction. Why don't you just make it what you hoped it should have been like? One of the first facts I could find was in Agatha Christie's autobiography. She actually wrote a couple of sentences about this episode. And she says that the group contained 10 children under the age of five,

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: Which was very, very disappointing. If I had not seen those five names on the cupboard already, I think I might have given up on the idea because five children, 10 children under the age of five--that was that was just too many kids. That's too many kids, and they're too young. You know, the story can't be about them, especially if it's a suspense novel.

Lori: What kind of story can you use 10 children under five in? She also said that the chaperones were a Mrs. Arbuthnot and her husband, and then two hospital nurses. So those hospital nurses having no name attached to them, having nothing attached to them at all became the center of my story. So I thought I can. Maybe I can make this work, after all.

Mignon: Yeah. Ok, well, we're going to take a quick break for our sponsor, but when we come back, we're going to talk about all the language issues that come up writing a historical novel, and how Lori dealt with those.

So we're back and first, Lori wants to talk about all the the stuff, and why it was important for her to put it in there.

Lori: Well, you know, this stuff, all these facts I was finding, I don't know that this is the way other historical novelists work because so little had been written about it. I kind of got it in my head that I needed to write the definitive story of this episode. No one was asking for that necessarily. They were just asking for a novel, right?

Lori: But I decided I was going to do my best. I was going to use everything I could find. And when I ran out of fact, I would have room for fiction, except because nobody had researched before, suddenly, I was finding more and more and more fact.

Lori: It did box me in with the fiction, unfortunately. And just, you know, it made it a difficult project on myself, I think.

Mignon: Mm hmm. Well, I'll say the book doesn't feel boxed in, so you did a great job working it all together.

Lori: Oh, thank you.

Mignon: So can we talk about writing a historical fiction book and the language choices you must have had to make to try to make it sound, you know, from that era, but not so much from that era that is unrelatable to modern readers. There must have been a really fine line you walked.

Lori: It was a very, very fine line. I love historical novels to read, I've been a long time fan of reading them, and the ones I liked were ... they had depth to them. I really did like to have the sense that I was in a time and place that I could never know personally, and that's the kind of book I wanted. But that kind of depth really required all that research I was doing, but also working around some of my limitations as a writer. For instance, I really could not do a first person narration of a character who lived in nineteen forty one. A first-person narration really gets into the head of a character, and the whole story is seeing through those eyes. It doesn't leave a lot of room for keeping secrets from the reader, but it also ... it just ... there's no other character to take some of that load. So unless you can really, if you really feel like you can get into the head and the psyche of a person who lived a hundred years ago, I think it's just ... it was a big challenge that I did not take on.

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: So I decided to do third person, and that gave me a lot more leeway to have a narration that could sound proper for the time and place. But then I wouldn't try to have to be, like, a British person whole cloth.

Mignon: Well, and I noticed things, like, I actually read both--I read the print version, and then I also listened to the audio book--and I noticed in the print version that you had an apostrophe at the beginning of "phone" abbreviating it for "telephone." It was apostrophe-phone and that was on one of the first pages, and it struck me as like, "Oh, that's old-timey."

Lori: That's exactly right, it's old-timey. One of the ways that I researched this book was reading books that were written and published during the time, and many of them were Agatha Christie books, to be honest. I was researching Agatha Christie and her life and what she was writing because I wasn't sure how much of her I was going to have in the book, but I wanted to be, you know, just steeped in Agatha Christie, if I may use the term.

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: So I had been reading a lot of her books and and picking up some of these little tiny, subtle things that gave me that sense of, Oh, this is not it's not throwing me out of the story, but it's it's making sure that I'm sort of tied to this time and place and telephone being sort of shortened into phone. That's something we do every day. But then it would have been sort of a new slangy thing and the apostrophe had to be there.

Mignon: Hmm. I'm actually surprised to hear that because Agatha Christie doesn't make a very big appearance in the book, she really only has a cameo, so talk about your decision not to put her personally in the book.

Lori: Well, she's personally in the book in the prologue, and then she has a couple of small, tiny cameos later on. At first, I did not want to write from Agatha Christie's perspective at all, and I didn't want to write her into the story. And that seems so silly to me now. But I think it's because I, you know, I didn't want to try to get into the mind of Agatha Christie. I love Agatha Christie's work. She's one of my first favorites of adult novels. Definitely. She got me into mystery writing, and I, you know, she's important to me, and I didn't want to try to be her, if you know what I mean.

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: So I have her in the prologue, and the reason why I decided to try it was because in my research, I read her autobiography and also her husband's. And they both talk about the moment that WWII was announced. They were sitting in the kitchen at Greenway, and if they had not been sitting at Greenway when war was announced, I never would have attempted it. I don't think I would have had her in the book at all because really, I think for the most part, she was not in the house when the children were there, she rented the house out, and then she went to London to be an apothecaries assistant at the University Hospital there in London and to be near Max, who was doing some more work in London at the time. So she was, she rented the house and she left, so I don't think I would have attempted it.

Mignon: Hmm.

Lori: But because Greenway was part of the war story, It became sort of, well, I had to. And then once she was in the story, of course, I wanted her to be a little bit more prominent. But the truth was she wasn't really there. And the story is about the house and the moment where the children are there. And then what happens is, you know, to the area when war does come.

Mignon: Mm hmm. Yeah, yeah. Well, let's talk a little bit more about the words. So what were some of the the phrases that you put in to make it sound, you know, from the right time and place? We recently talked about that in a Grammar Girl podcast just a week or two ago about the errors that authors make of having words out of place. You know, American characters speaking British words and vice versa unintentionally and how those can get missed in editing. So were there things that your editors caught that you had missed or, you know, things that maybe a British friend suggested to you that you put in or something like that?

Lori: Yeah, absolutely. My editors not so much. I was worried that they would actually have problems with some of the choices I had made to make it sound British because it's an American book, you know,

Mignon: Mm-hmm.

Lori: Published in America. So I was a little worried that they would, for instance, have an American narrator for the audio book, but luckily they they saw that it was not the right way to go, and I'm so happy with the audio book narrator,Moira Quirk. So some of the things that happened were I wrote the book as best I could, and then I had a chance to send it to a couple of beta readers, one of whom is Anne Cleeves, a British author who writes the books that are the source for the TV shows "Shetland" and "Vera." So she's pretty, pretty high up stuff there, but she was so interested in me writing this story that she wanted to read it early. So she loved the voice, called it remarkable, and then picked up a few words that I let slip through, things like "purse." And she's like, "No, no, no, 'handbag.'"

Mignon: Hmm.

Lori: "Curtains" instead of "drapes." I think I have them growing squashes in the garden at the house. And she's like, "I don't think squash is the right word." So we decided on marrows, which is zucchini is basically,

Mignon: Oh, I wouldn't know that.

Lori: I know! I learned some things too. And then I also had Katrina McPherson, another fantastic British writer, she's actually a Scottish writer, read it because again, she was so interested in the fact that I was attempting this story. She helped me out with things like "pavement" instead of "sidewalk" and "shop" instead of "store." And we went round and round on what to call the bathroom

Mignon: Hmm.

Lori: And what to call the tub that's inside the bathroom. We would call it the tub.

Mignon: Hmm.

Lori: It's actually the bath, even if it's the bath in the bathroom. And then also "the loo" is what I had. You know, I know, I know British people. I've spent some time in England, and she's like, "No, that's too low for for right now. That's not a word that they would be throwing around in public company." So "lavatory" or "lav" is what we decided on.

Mignon: Oh, that's so interesting, and right, because class is so important in Britain, too. Like, how did you approach the different class words besides "loo" and "lav" from your characters?

Lori: Yeah, absolutely, the the two things I was thinking about when it came to Britishness were the regional accents, which are so critical in British life, and it's so interesting how British people I have found are really keen on that. They can tell the difference so well between where someone is from. Maybe the accents here aren't as different from region to region within a small distance, but they've got it all figured out in England and also the, you know, the hints in vocabulary having to do with socioeconomic status vocabulary, but also the sounds of the language. The main character of "Death at Greenway" is Bridey, and early on when they're on the train going to Devon, she notices an accent slip in one of the other characters ... someone who is kind of rather posh, right? But appears to be maybe putting on airs and graces, which, that kind of thing is great for a mystery story to alert the reader that some secrets are being kept here. And Bridey herself is from a poor working class background. She has words, like she calls her mother "mam" instead of "mum."

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: It's just a tiny little thing, but it hints at maybe an Irish heritage and working class status. And then some of the other characters, especially down in Devon, have some, some accents that, you know, they're going to a new place. They're no longer in London. So Devon is, it's not that far away from London, really, but they have their own vernacular, their own sounds. One of the best things I researched was the specific words that were different in South Devon than anywhere else in the world. And one of them was instead of saying the word "boy," it was "buoy." And that one almost got axed by my editor, that I had to just work in the context so people knew what I was doing. And I think that's important. I don't love vernacular being sort of on the page in that way. I think a lot of it ... what I prefer is to have just a touch here and there

Mignon: Mm hmm.

Lori: So that the reader knows they're in a different place or they're needing a different character.

Mignon: Right, because there's a debate about whether to use, it's called eye dialect, where you ...

Lori: Mm hmm.

Mignon: spell the words like they're pronounced instead of how they're normally spelled as a word, and I can definitely see b-u-o-y for "boy" being confusing unless it's in context. Did, when you wrote, "buoy" for boy, was the whole sentence then in eye dialect? Or was it just that word? How did you decide which words to represent that way versus spelling them out like the standard way?

Lori: Yeah, I think I really was looking for just a couple of words like that to season the text with and just working with, you know, maybe the way the words are in a sentence to make things, characters sound different from each other. In this case, I mostly just got the sound of this woman's accent in my head and and wrote, and "boy" was the only word that needed to be spelled that way. There was a town, though, across the river from the house called it spelled Dittisham. But the locals I learned, call it "Dishum."

Mignon: Mm-hmm.

Lori: Dishum, and I think something like that, that little touch really puts people, it makes them feel like they're in on something. "Oh, OK. That's how the locals do it," you know? So there were a couple of words like that, especially for the people who were deeply entrenched in this area who had lived there for generations. I thought that was the sort of thing that they would say it exactly the way, the way they should.

Mignon: Mm hmm. And and how did you think about ... you have the two nurses who feature prominently in the book, and how did you make their voices different from each other?

Lori: Oh, sure, Bridey from Gigi.

Mignon: Yeah.

Lori: It's tough when you have two characters who are about the same age who are, you know, they're both women, they're from the same area-ish. I had a little practice with this for my fifth book, "The Lucky One," which is a contemporary thriller. I had two women characters, and they were so close in age and so close in background. I just I worried that I wouldn't be able to get their voice different for the different enough for the reader. So I wrote them kind of the same, and then I did an extra edit on the one who was a little more mannered, a little more tight, and tightened up every thought and line of dialogue so that the other narrator would be a little wild, a little looser. I think that was a good. I think I cut 5,000 words out of the one character's half of the book to have her feel a little more tense. In this case, Bridey and Gigi aren't that close in age. They're a little far apart and [Gigi is] a little more worldly, so she gets to be a little more racy and a little more saying exactly what she thinks. Even though maybe it's a little inappropriate. And Bridey is a girl who hasn't had much of a life yet, much younger and like I said, a little more on the working class side. So just paying attention to the little differences, I think, is what works there.

Mignon: Mm hmm. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being here with me today. The book is "Death at Greenway," and it's certainly not too late to get as a gift for the favorite book lover on your list. Lori Rader-Day is the author, and Lori, tell people where they can find out more about you and the book.

Lori: Sure, I'm @lorirader without the hyphen. I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @loriraderday.

Mignon: Great, thanks so much.

Lori: Thank you so much.