Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Q&A with CJ Wray



CJ Wray is the author of the new novel The Excitements. CJ Wray is a pseudonym for Christine Manby, the author of more than 40 books. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Excitements?


A: I started my career in romance fiction but in 2018 I was finding it hard to feel excited by my work.


That year, I met Squadron Leader George “Johnny” Johnson, MBE, DFM, a veteran of the WWII RAF squadron immortalized in The Dam Busters. Talking to him got me interested in researching women’s roles in the services during that period.


Shortly afterwards, I was commissioned (under my real name, Chris Manby) to write the memoirs of two fabulous sisters and WWII veterans, Patricia Davies and Jean Argles (both nee Owtram).


Working with the sisters was an absolute riot. We had a wonderful time. I was inspired by their wartime service but also the wonderful careers they’d had since.


I decided then that I wanted to write a novel which celebrated the women of “the greatest generation” both as the young servicewomen they were and the formidable dames they became.


Q: The writer Lucy Dillon said of the book, “Penny and Josephine are heroines in every sense of the word, being both ordinary and extraordinary, and their personalities leap off the page so energetically that I missed them the moment I finished the final line.” What do you think of that description, and how did you create Penny and Josephine?


A: I was over the moon to read that description! Lucy Dillon is a writer I very much admire. She really knows how to create characters.


When creating Penny and Josephine, I gathered inspiration from a variety of people, both from my daily life and from the history books. While working with Pat and Jean, I’d delved deep into the history of WWII and read dozens of memoirs from the time.


I became especially interested in Christine Granville, Churchill’s best-loved spy, who was a woman of great courage and daring. I wanted the character of Penny to have some of Christine Granville’s chutzpah.


I also wanted her to have an element of my very favourite fictional heroine, Little My, the frankly sociopath elf-like creature from Tove Jansson’s Moonminvalley books.


The character of Josephine is much quieter and calmer. At the same time, she knows how to have some fun. In my head, she has an air of Dame Judi Dench to her.


The sisters’ affectionate, bickering relationship might owe something to my own relationship with my lovely little sister Kate.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read very widely. I devoured every WWII memoir I could lay my hands on. I also delved into the stories of several real-life female criminals, to help create a post-war back story for Penny.


I was fascinated by “Diamond” Doris Payne, who was born during the Depression in West Virginia and went on to become the world’s most notorious female jewel thief. She was still stealing diamonds well into her 80s.


As a novelist, I often come up with a plot point then tell myself, “Nah. That’s too outlandish,” only to Google the idea and discover it’s happened in real life.


When I was wondering whether it would be possible for one of my characters to gulp down a three-carat diamond, I googled and discovered that a Chinese woman had recently stolen a six-carat diamond worth more than $250,000 from a Bangkok jeweller by swallowing it while the store assistant was distracted.


The police recovered the jewel in what must have been a deeply unpleasant medical intervention.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “Excitements” is a word several of my older friends use when referring to social engagements. It’s a lovely term, I think. Very 1940s.


Rather than asking, “What are we going to do this weekend?” asking ‘What excitements do we have for the weekend?’ already sounds like so much more fun, even if you’re only going to the supermarket.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the sequel to The Excitements, which is called Jinx. It’s another dual timeline novel, flitting between the present day and WWII in the Far East, where Jinx, the heroine, is a child internee in a Japanese POW camp.


I very much wanted to write about the war in the Far East, the history of which is much less well known here in Europe. I think it’s important that the men, women, and children who served and suffered during that conflict are remembered.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I had the very best fun writing The Excitements. I hope that my readers will find it the perfect, lighthearted comfort read for these tricky times.


Thank you very much for having me on your blog, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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