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Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Danya Kukafka

Following Wednesday’s review of Girl in Snow, here’s Danya Kukafka: Choosing Favorites.


Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

photo: Elliot Ross

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel–it was very bad–for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother’s Day. And she said, “Honey, this is about a dead girl!” And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot’s Mediator series. It’s about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I’ve definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I’m happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I’m glad it wasn’t those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s actually not a small town, it’s a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they’re really interesting. They’re so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It’s the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You’re just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters’ voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron’s book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade’s voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there’s a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade’s chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let’s write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But… I wouldn’t do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and–well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He’s the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons–I loved writing Jade because she’s so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite’s Cameron and I won’t hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I’ve become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I’m reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people’s work as it’s coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision–that’s been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I’ve also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you’re going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what’s next?

I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it yet but I will say it’s going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I’m working on a draft, it’s messy right now, but it’s been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I’ve been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different.


This interview originally ran on April 26, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 26, 2017.


The town of Broomsville, Colo., is rocked by the early-morning discovery of Lucinda Hayes’s body, slung against the carousel in the elementary school playground. Lucinda was a freshman in high school, and the town’s golden girl: beautiful, kind, smart, popular. In the days that follow, though, her secrets and those of her friends and neighbors will be expertly teased to light, old wounds reopened and a number of lives permanently changed.

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka’s first novel, and its riveting narrative dives immediately into the impact of Lucinda’s death through the perspective of her classmate Cameron, an unpopular, troubled teenager whose waking thoughts, dreams and artwork all fixate on her. “Cameron hated the word ‘stalk.’ He had other words for his relationship with Lucinda, but they were words no one else would understand. Words like vibrant, frantic, twinkling, aching….” He is an obvious early suspect. But there are others: the night janitor who found the body, Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend, a homeless man, even her parents.

Then the perspective shifts, as it will throughout this stark and striking novel, from Cameron’s to that of Jade, a junior at the high school, who finds it pointless to even pretend to mourn Lucinda’s death. The third point in this triangulated mystery is Russ, a police officer of 17 years who shares an old trauma with one suspect, and is related to another by marriage. The reader’s lens on the story rotates among these three characters as each struggles with the way his or her life has changed, and sooner or later feels compelled to investigate.

Objectively, Cameron is a stalker; he is certainly troubled. Jade is sullen and generally hostile. Russ, like the two teens, is haunted by his past. They are absorbing characters, with layers of secrets that overlap among them. Although Jade’s chapters are told in first-person, and Cameron’s and Russ’s in the third, their distresses are all written with raw immediacy, and each character is complex, aching and ashamed, for different reasons. Kukafka drags these hidden injuries and infamies out of her characters slowly and by degrees. This measured pacing and withholding of information gives her novel an atmosphere of nearly painful suspense. This is not a traditional murder mystery, although the killer’s identity does remain unknown for most of its length. Rather, it is a quietly taut thriller concerned with the secrets we keep from our closest loved ones–and even from ourselves.

Kukafka’s meticulous details–like Jade’s musical tastes and Russ’s wife’s background–enrich her characters and add to the sense of realism. Cameron is a skilled visual artist with a precise understanding of plant and animal anatomy. Jade is a loner, “eyes ringed in black; raven, greasy hair swooped over one eye,” “two inches of pale stomach rolled over her waistband even though it was winter and she was probably cold,” and even though her mother disapproves. Jade’s little sister is their mother’s Barbie doll, “a mannequin for Ma’s regret about her worry lines and all those cigarettes she smokes.”

Jade knows that “When people die, they become angel caricatures of themselves,” and Lucinda was perhaps not so perfect as the news reports would have it. The reader has only the perspectives of Cameron, Jade and Russ to go on, and their opinions of her vary, but even in these glimpses the dead girl receives some nuance of characterization.

Secondary characters come just as fully formed. Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend Zap, whose parents are French, loves astronomy. Cameron’s art teacher has a history and loves of his own, besides his obvious passion for his work. Broomsville may be an “overgrown cul-de-sac,” “like a cardboard town filled with paper people,” but its inhabitants are as variously disturbed and troubled as any group of imperfect humans. One of them is a murderer, but it seems they are all guilty of something.

Kukafka’s prose often leans toward short sentences and quick turns, but also pauses for beauty or metaphor. There is a poignancy to Cameron’s observations of the physical world, as he kneads his eraser, noting “snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine.” He thirsts for beauty, and thinks there’s “nothing worse than loving someone and mixing up their earlobes with someone else’s.” But one of the points of Girl in Snow is that appearances are often terribly misleading.

“It’s all about perception. What I see is automatically my truth, simply because I’ve seen it.” The impossible objectivity of sight and memory, and the slender boundary between devotion and obsession, between appearance and truth: these are the central questions of a novel with a murder at its heart, but with broader concerns. Girl in Snow is about the effects of Lucinda’s death on an entire town, and Kukafka’s memorable characters allow those effects to keep hold of the reader long after the final denouement.


Rating: 7 Crucibles songs.

Come back Friday for my interview with Danya Kukafka.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Ryan

Following last week’s review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, here’s Jennifer Ryan: Original and Authentic.


Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband and two children. She is originally from Kent and then London, and has worked as a nonfiction book editor. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (Crown) is her first novel.

photo credit: Nina Subin

photo credit: Nina Subin


How did you choose to use the epistolary form?

The letter form is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the way the voice exposes the inner feelings and personality of the character. The way she interacts with the off-stage recipient adds an extra tension–is some kind of pretense going on? It leaves some lovely space for an unreliable character to come through–someone who isn’t telling the recipient (or the reader) the truth, and will inevitably be uncovered by the end.

Is there one of these women you especially identify with?

Mrs. Tilling, the middle-aged widow whose only son goes to war. She was the first one I wanted to write about. Writing gives you the opportunity to dig into a situation or subject, put yourself in the middle of it as a character and experience what it must have been like. As a mother, I wanted to know how it felt to have your only child go to war, especially with the gruesomeness of the First World War fresh in your mind, all the young men mown down by bullets in the Somme. You’ve spent 18 years bringing up your son, caring for him, cooking for him, loving him, and this day–when he walks down the road with his kit bag over his shoulder–may be the last time you ever see him.

The differences in their voices is subtle, but distinct.

This was a wonderful part of writing Chilbury. Kitty steps away from traditional narrative style in her journal, jumping around from subject to subject by use of headings, and using her wonderful lists to cover subjects such as “People’s Colors,” and “What Happens to People When They Die.” Miss Paltry uses a lot of metaphors, and I had a hysterical time creating ones such as, “the day was as cold as a slap round the face with a fresh-caught cod.” She was a delight to create, and I always looked forward to writing her entries. Mrs. Tilling always longed to be writer and has a more literary style, which allowed me to be more expressive and use more sophisticated language and grammar. They are also defined by their accents. Mrs. Tilling has more of a middle-class vernacular, whereas Venetia and Kitty are more upper class, and Miss Paltry is more lower class.

Why this time period?

About 15 years ago I read about the London children being evacuated to the English countryside, and a new obsession was born. Since then, I’ve read personal accounts, memoirs, biographies, reference books and novels about the Second World War. When I was considering writing a novel, I’d been editing a book on the war in Afghanistan, and through that I recognized how cultural values change in a time of warfare. The population shifts and for a time things become more fluid, rules less rigid. Authority is challenged and the suppressed–in this case the women–have a chance to widen their horizons.

On a more personal note, when I was growing up, we had two grandmothers: one was Shakespeare Granny, who ruthlessly analyzed all the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who was full of hilarious and often scandalous stories about the war. I always had a burning ambition to write about her stories, especially the ones about her choir, which she swears got her through the war. Unlike the Chilbury ladies, though, Party Granny’s choir was reportedly dreadful, and there were plenty of stories about how they lost competitions and sang so out-of-tune that when they visited a choir member in hospital, the nurses took them to perform for every ward to “give everyone a good laugh.” They hammed it up, of course, “to jolly everyone along.”

How did your experience as an editor of nonfiction inform this work?

Narrative nonfiction works similarly to fiction. I created a structure whereby the main story arc of the choir contained and ran alongside the five story arcs of the main characters. Structure is the cornerstone of any good, well-functioning nonfiction, and I think the same is true of fiction.

The work of sentences is also crucial, and although they tend to move to a different end in nonfiction, a good understanding of sentence potential and variability is key to producing a fluid work. But because the characters themselves were writing the entries, I had to step back from writing complex sentences and grammar for all but Mrs. Tilling, who professes to yearning to be a writer.

Editing nonfiction has also given me the opportunity to dive in deep with other topics. A few years before I began writing Chilbury, I edited a book by a renowned cellist on how music affects our emotions, and some of the core ideas were used in the book. Having also sung in choirs, I wanted to bring that feeling of togetherness that they create, the magic of allegiance in song. It’s not an easy task to describe music in words, but I wanted to make sure it felt real to the readers, as if it was being performed in front of them.

How big a role did research play? How closely does this story mirror fact?

Research played a massive role. The day-to-day life of women during these times was incredibly hard. There were few labour-saving devices such as laundry machines and dryers, let alone central heating. All meals had to be made from scratch. The rationing and shortages made cooking even more time consuming. My grandmother had a dozen or so wartime recipes, like Lord Woolton Pie (a vegetable form of shepherd’s pie made specially for Lord Woolton by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel), mock banana (which was made from mashed parsnip mixed with sugar) and Pink Gin (my grandmother’s favorite cocktail, which was a lethal mix of straight gin with a splash of Angostura bitters.)

One of my favorite research tasks for Chilbury was interviewing people alive during the era. In an eye-opening way, most of the elderly women I interviewed remembered the war as one of the best times of their lives, recalling the new freedom and the work and responsibility, the feeling that you had to live for the day. One lady in her 90s decided that she simply had to demonstrate how to do that dance, “Knees Up, Mother Brown,” and I begged her not to as she struggled to her feet, clasped my arm, and began kicking her legs up one by one. Gripping hold of her as best I could, I had to laugh along with her. She couldn’t have been more delighted to relive the memories.

I was careful to make sure that everything that happens in the novel could actually have happened. Some of the plot threads came directly from my grandmother’s stories of the war, and one of the characters, Venetia, is based on her friend Letty, who was very beautiful and always playing the boys off each other.

The story of Silvie, the 10-year-old Jewish refugee from Prague, came from research about Sir Nicholas Winton, who set up a program to transport Jewish children from Prague to the U.K. in the wake of the war. In total he rescued 669 children, most of whom lost their parents in the Holocaust. They were taken in by British families, many of them remaining with those new families after the war. There are many horrific and sad accounts of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and I tried to keep Silvie’s experiences true to the brutal reality of the situation.

It was important to me that the book was both an original work and authentic to the era. It certainly was an incredible time to live and write about, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to plunge into this fascinating era and try my best to re-create some of the most exciting and frightening years of the war in Kent.


This interview originally ran on January 10, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 10, 2017.


chilbury-ladies-choir

Jennifer Ryan’s first novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, takes on a wide range of the human experience through the lives and voices of the women of the village of Chilbury, in the south of England, at the beginning of World War II.

The immersion in small-town life opens with Mrs. Tilling’s journal entry of Tuesday, 26th March, 1940. Mrs. Tilling is a timid, good-hearted, churchgoing lady, a widow whose only son is about to be sent to France to fight. The occasion of this journal entry is the funeral for young Commander Edmund Winthrop. This funeral is to be the last appearance of the village choir, as, according to the Vicar, “all our male voices have gone to war.”

In addition to Mrs. Tilling, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters in turn, each of whom speak in the form of letters and diary entries. Miss Edwina Paltry is the town’s sly midwife, who in letters to her sister reveals herself to be secretly pursuing a fortune by any means: “I’ve been offered the most unscrupulous deal you’ll ever believe!” Kitty Winthrop is the 13-year-old sister to the lost Commander. Between her violently abusive father and distracted, pregnant mother, Kitty is left to her own devices to worry about boys, war and her hoped-for career as a professional singer, all of which she records in her diary. Her older sister Venetia, at 18, is a wildly boy-crazy beauty, and in letters to her friend Angela in London, recounts her difficulties in seducing the handsome new artist in town, Mr. Slater.

In these personal documents we learn that a new music teacher has arrived from London. “Her name is Miss Primrose Trent, but she told us to call her Prim, which is funny as she’s not prim at all but frightfully unkempt.” The lovably misnamed Prim doesn’t see why a choir needs male voices, and promptly calls practices again. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir meets some resistance, some grumblings about tradition, but as the war proceeds, the women learn to lean on one another. Eventually the choir becomes a central institution in the town, providing material as well as moral support, and a theatre for personal growth.

After Mrs. Tilling’s son leaves to fight, she takes in a boarder, Colonel Mallard, who is working from a nearby base. Living with a stranger is a great challenge for her, but one of several she rises to as war comes to England. Venetia wins Mr. Slater, but experiences a life-changing accident. Kitty takes a position of leadership in the choir and suffers a massive disappointment. Miss Paltry’s plans go awry, and the town sees several new births, but also tragedy. The Germans bomb the English shore. The novel concludes in September, but these are an eventful few months.

Occasional other voices join in to complete the picture, including the rare diary entry from Silvie, a 10-year-old Czech Jewish refugee billeted with the chaotic Winthrop household, and a few letters from Colonel Mallard to his sister. But it is the perspectives of Mrs. Tilling, Venetia, Kitty and Edwina Paltry that define the novel’s path. Encompassed in these experiences is all of life: love, hope, despair, loss, petty disagreements and great sacrifices. The Chilbury ladies learn to expand their horizons and their abilities, build new relationships and stand up for themselves.

The various first-person voices vary subtly, but distinctly. Mrs. Tilling has a deep commitment to propriety and loyalty; Miss Paltry is unafraid to crow over her rivals; Venetia’s boy troubles are apt to take over her world. Kitty’s 13-year-old diary is perfectly wrought: she peppers it with lists (“why everyone’s getting married in a hurry”; “things I know for sure”), and persistently subscribes to patent fantasies, but also soberly reports the news of her larger world. On her list titled “what will happen if we get taken over by the Nazis,” this obstinate teen notes, “they’ll imprison or shoot anyone who doesn’t do what they say.”

The epistolary form works nicely to establish intimacy, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes perspective and a feeling of being deeply engaged with Chilbury. The overlapping points of view offer the opportunity to make up one’s own mind who to believe, and to piece together a fuller picture of events when the characters try to keep secrets. Poignancy is abundant, with Silvie fully aware of her precarious status, and Mrs. Tilling desperately worrying over the life of her son. There are moments of humor, too: life cannot help but go on, even as the Germans fly overhead.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir offers a world of emotions, experiences and characters in a tiny village, over a few months in 1940. Anxious Mrs. Tilling, devious Miss Paltry and the ever-evolving sisters Venetia and Kitty represent a wealth of possible reactions to an event bigger than themselves. In their variously sweet, mischievous, aggrieved and hopeful letters and journals, these ladies bring home the impact of world war. And in a village deprived of its men, they show that women can pull together and do anything that needs doing. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an inspirational, sometimes sad, tale, and Jennifer Ryan puts it together with style.


Rating: 6 envelopes.

Come back next week for my interview with Jennifer Ryan.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Malin Persson Giolito

Following last Thursday’s review of Quicksand, here’s Malin Persson Giolito: A Small and Scattered World.


Malin Persson Giolito was born in Stockholm in 1969, and grew up in Djursholm, Sweden. She holds a degree in law from Uppsala University and has worked as a lawyer for the biggest law firm in the Nordic region and as an official for the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. She is now a full-time writer and has written four novels; Quicksand is her English-language debut. Persson Giolito lives with her husband and three daughters in Brussels.

photo: Viktor Fremling

photo: Viktor Fremling

Was it the crime that sparked this novel for you, or Maja herself, or something else?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the crime. But it’s quite a difficult subject to write about, especially if you want to write a book people actually enjoy reading. I didn’t get anywhere until Maja came along. And I think the reason I wanted to write about a school shooting was not particularly the crime itself but the environment, that is, the school. It’s a very closed kind of environment. I think the book is about situations that you can’t control, and closed rooms. Maja was the key to the story. The first idea was the school shooting, but I didn’t know what to do with it until Maja came along.

It’s quite funny: as a writer, you’re probably the least capable of talking about your novel. You don’t really know what you’re doing. For the longest time you’re doing this puzzle upside down, so to speak, and then when the book is done hopefully you will see what the puzzle looks like, or perhaps one of the readers will tell you. There is something about this closed room that must have intrigued me, because we have not only the school but also the courtroom and the neighborhood where she grows up, which is an upper-class, very closed neighborhood–they’re very isolated from other parts of the Swedish society. Also, being a teenager is being isolated. You live in your own world of black and white, right and wrong, love and hate… teenagers are lovely. I have two. But they’re also quite isolated in their own minds, in their own day-to-day world.

You write the voice of this teenager so convincingly.

I have a tendency to say this was the easy part, but that’s not really true. It took me a lot of time to get to her. But once I had her, that was the best part, just living inside her head, with her rage and her judgments. She’s an enraged teenager. She’s a very privileged teenager that has gone through this tragedy, and now she’s put in a place where she has absolutely no control over her situation anymore. And we learn that during the year that led up to these events, this tragedy, she also lost control of her life. So how does she react? Well, one of the reactions is this rage. She hates everyone. And funnily enough, that was when I liked her. I think there must be an enraged teenager within me.

I think we all can relate to this loss of empowerment when we look at the world around us right now. One of the things I really liked was that I didn’t have to be this thoughtful adult who sees the good in people–I could just let go of everything and just be her. Which is not the same as saying that I agree with her. Her way of judging people around her is not something that I necessarily share. But it was still surprisingly easy, once I was there, to just do that. Once in a while you just want to let it go, to quote a famous Disney princess. I really liked that with Maja.

One of the tricks, when you write suspense novels, is to use the unreliable narrator. And when I started writing I knew from the beginning I didn’t want that. I didn’t want her to turn out to be someone else, didn’t want her to wake up after having had an alcohol-related dementia, or whatever. I wanted her to be reliable narrator, in the purest sense of the term. But I didn’t think of the fact that she’s a teenager, and if you look up “unreliable narrator,” I think you’ll see a picture of a teenager. But she’s just her, and that was very important. That’s what made me really love her. She just wants to get through this. She’s a survivor, in more ways than one.

What in your background prepared you to write this story?

The fact that I’m a lawyer prepared me a little too well, I think. There are parts of courtroom procedure that interest a lawyer that are not interesting for anyone else. It’s easy to take certain things for granted, certain principles. But once I had Maja, this was an advantage. Because she could ask all those questions that lawyers are supposed to have moved away from. Maja’s first big question is, how can you say that you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty? That is absurd. Either you’re guilty from the beginning or you didn’t do it. That’s not something that a court can change. Obviously this is a core problem. These are the Ten Commandments for a lawyer. Maja made me question my own Ten Commandments, which is fantastic.

When it comes to growing up in Djursholm–and it could be any rich neighborhood because they all more or less look the same, I think–I grew up there with a single mom who worked as a nurse. I’m not saying I had a hard childhood. I was privileged. But we didn’t have the economy of my classmates, so to speak. I think that the fact that I grew up there not as a rich kid has made me a good observer. Or I hope so. I knew that I wanted to write a story about the way that our society looks today, with all the differences and the inequalities, and the growing gap between the people who are the richest and those who have the least, and I knew that this was my angle.

A lot of people ask me if I’ve eavesdropped on my own teenagers, but I don’t think that you can. They helped with music, and Snapchat, and whatever, but I’ve tried to avoid naming all those things anyway, because they change so quickly. Obviously it helped that she was in isolation, in jail. It was good for many literary reasons, actually. If you want to write about the life of a teenager one of the problems is they have so many friends and they do so many things. I just said that their world is very small, but it’s also true that their world is very… scattered. And I didn’t have to worry about that while she was in jail.

You speak English very well. How does translation work when you are proficient in both languages?

I was lucky to be translated by Rachel; she’s absolutely fantastic. It’s one thing to speak a language–I can see that this is a very good translation–but I’m not an English speaker. We would have a discussion to find something equivalent or take it out entirely, which we did in a few instances. I think it worked very well. There are actually two versions, the same English translation, but one is more British. And maybe because I’m more Americanized than I am British, it feels strange to hear Maja speak British English. I don’t know why. I can see her as an American teenager. It doesn’t strike me as odd.

I’m involved, but more as an observer than as a translator. I can’t translate my own text, but I can applaud.

Is this novel a departure from your previous work?

Quicksand stands out because it’s Maja’s book, it’s so much just her, she’s the only voice that we hear. All of my previous three novels have lawyers as main characters. The first one is not a suspense novel; it’s about a woman who works in the biggest law firm in the Nordic area and she gets fired when she’s expecting her third child. And I wrote that novel, coincidentally, just after being fired from the biggest law firm in the Nordic area, while expecting my third child.

My third book is about a man that has been convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl, and he’s been in prison for 11 years when he gets a new lawyer–my main character–and she tries to get him off. That is more traditionally court-related, more like this one in that sense. The other is about a lawyer representing a seven-year-old boy who is cared for by the state’s social authorities. Very sad story. I have readers who say, do you ever write anything where children are not hurt? Nope. Always very depressing. I don’t know what it is. I always say to myself that the next one is going to be a fun, lighthearted, feel-good novel, but it never works.

What are you working on next?

I’m in that phase where still everything is possible, like I think that I can write the great novel that will reveal the truth about everything. I don’t know, I have this idea about trying to place the novel in Brussels, because I live in Brussels, but I also knew that I’m not going to write about terrorism. And writing about Brussels today without writing about terrorism, well–so I guess it’s going to be another feel-good, lighthearted novel about terrorism. I seriously don’t know. I think I know who it is about, which I won’t tell you. But I think that I’m onto something.


This interview originally ran on November 16, 2016 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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