Last Thursday, I attended a benefit for an adult literacy program that featured Annie Barrows, co-author of the best selling book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Annie’s aunt, Mary Ann Schaffer, was the one who wrote the book.
“Mary Ann was witty,” reflected Annie, a petite woman who had to stand on a box at the podium to reach the microphone. “She was always writing–though she never saw herself as a writer, and she never finished anything.”
The Guernsey story began in 1980 as another aborted book project for Mary Ann. She had gone to the Channel Islands to chase down a book idea and ended up fogged in at the airport for thirty-six hours. According to Mary Ann, said Annie, “she spent the entire time in the men’s room under a hair dryer trying to keep warm.”
But when Mary Ann did venture from the men’s room, she stumbled on some books in the airport…all kinds of information about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. When the fog lifted, so did Mary Ann. She left the airport without ever actually seeing Guernsey island, but as a self-taught expert on the Nazi Occupation.
It was Mary Ann’s sister (Annie’s mother) who kept after her to write, even starting a writing group that forced Mary Ann to work on something. Every single week, Mary Ann had to turn something in at the writing group.
Keep in mind this was twenty years after Mary Ann had gone to Guernsey. Twenty years after the germ of the idea was planted.
Annie gave credit to the writing group for watering and nourishing and providing sunshine to her aunt’s germ of an idea. “The power of the group became her reader,” said Annie. “Her community wanted to know how this book was going to end. ‘We want more!’ they threatened.”
So Mary Ann kept at it…if only to satisfy this writing group. She finished the book, found an agent, and continued to work on the manuscript for over a year with the agent.
Finally, the manuscript was polished and was ready to send out: Twelve proposals sent to twelve publishers.
All twelve wanted it.
The book was sold!
By the time the manuscript was ready for re-writes, Mary Ann had become ill so Annie agreed to help. “A family is a club with high dues,” she quipped. The manuscript was too short so Annie filled in and expanded the story. She added a character but won’t confess his or her identity.
As Mary Ann’s illness progressed, Annie realized that re-doing the book helped her spend time with the “old Mary Ann.” The witty, quirky aunt whom she obviously adored.
Mary Ann passed away five months before the book debuted.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society has been a runaway bestseller, holding the #1 hard cover novel spot for eight months and is a book club favorite. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, add it to your list.
There are so many lessons for writers in this story behind the story:
Nothing is wasted. Find…or start…a writing community. Stay with a project. Make use of everything in your life. Finish something! And the next time you are stuck in an airport…take notes.