Friday, October 18, 2019

Author Spotlight: Janet Somerville

I've never had the joy of meeting Janet Somerville in person and yet I have a picture of her dog, Garp, on my fridge. In case that doesn't tell you all you need to know about how awesome she is, Janet has been writing 'a letter a day' to friends, colleagues, twitter acquaintances and the like since 2014. She's the embodiment of the true literary citizen and steward, uniting readers and writers and championing the written word in all form. I'm honored to be able to shine a little light on someone who, in turn, shines so brightly.

Recently, Somerville- who has been studying and bringing Martha Gellhorn to light for years- published her debut book titled Yours, For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn's Letters of Love and War 1930-1949 to critical acclaim. She was gracious enough to also pen the piece below, chronicling and celebrating her passion for Gellhorn and the road that led her to write a book. Enjoy, check out Somerville's book (of course) and be sure to say hello to her on twitter!

Who: Janet Somerville
Book: Yours, For Probably Always
Follow! @janetsomerville

Finding my way to Martha Gellhorn and her words began in May 2015 with a visit to Faulkner Books in New Orleans, where the bookseller recommended the correspondence between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell collected in What There Is To Say We Have Said. I’m drawn to letter writing, and continue to hand write a letter every day to send to recipients from Toronto to New York City to Amsterdam to Seattle to Tokyo, some of whom I know, but most of whom I’ve never met.

When I wrote about the extraordinary Welty/Maxwell correspondence on Twitter, a bookish follower in Fife, Scotland, asked if I had ever read
Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by her authorized biographer Caroline Moorehead. I had not. Within a few weeks I had not only read those letters but also Moorehead’s celebrated biography Martha Gellhorn: A Life. And, then I read every book that I could find of Gellhorn’s that remained in print from her early fiction like The Trouble I’ve Seen that emerged out of her Depression-Era work to her essay collections of reportage The Face of War and The View From the Ground published in the 1990s. 

I was planning to write a novel. My first. I had sketched out the narrative arc that began with Gellhorn dropping out of Bryn Mawr after her sophomore year and moving to Paris in the Spring of 1930 with $75 in her pocket, her portable typewriter and the dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. The plot would include cameos from the people who made history of the time like FDR, Mrs. Roosevelt, General Franco, Winston Churchill, and trail Gellhorn through her work as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and on the Western Front during WWII and finish when her play
Love Goes to Press opened in London’s West End in 1947, to standing ovations, and, dumbfounded by the response, she slipped out into the night delighting in her luck.

However, I shelved the novel when I read in the trades that Paula McLain had just sold a novel about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway to be called
Love and Ruin. As a debut novelist, I could not compete and no publisher would be willing to bring out a book about Martha Gellhorn that would possibly rival the work of a New York Times bestselling novelist.

In June 2016, I traveled to London to follow in Gellhorn’s footsteps and while there read the only publicly accessible copy of her debut novel What Mad Pursuit (1934) in Rare Books & Music at the British Library. In her lifetime she did not permit it to ever be reprinted, nor did she ever name it, only obliquely referred to it as “the baby novel I deny and never list.” And, when I received access to her restricted papers at the Gotlieb Archives at Boston University, and began to comb through the hundreds of folders through previously unpublished correspondence, I decided to try to shape a book grounded in her letters.

Gellhorn’s letters themselves are beautiful prose. And, they reveal a woman so engaged with her time. I hope readers who find their way to Yours, for Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters of Love & War 1930-1949, will use the book as a springboard to explore her other writing. So many of her words are for all time. She remains a wonder to me.

(Had to throw in a new photo of Garp!)

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