Transcript: Jasmine Guillory and Amy Stewart

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 1.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today romance author Jasmine Guillory picks Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace, and historical novelist Amy Stewart talks Canteening Overseas by Marian Baldwin.

JENN:

Jasmine Guillory is a graduate of Wellesley College and Stanford Law School. She is a Bay Area native who has towering stacks of books in her living room, a cake recipe for every occasion, and upwards of 50 lipsticks. The Wedding Date is her first novel, and her second novel The Proposal will be released on October 30th of 2018.

JASMINE GUILLORY:

My name is Jasmine Guillory, and Betsy and Joe is my recommended.
I love the entire series that starts with Betsy-Tacy, which, the first four books are really children books. They start when Betsy and Tacy meet on Betsy’s fifth birthday. And so then it starts with children’s books, but then the final six books of the series are really basically young adult. I mean, when they were published, there was no such thing as young adult books, but now, I mean, reading them now, they really hold up as like when you read them, it feels like reading a current young adult book. They feel like the things that a teenager would be going through.

Betsy and Joe is her senior year book, and Betsy meets Joe her freshman year in high school. They go to high school together throughout the whole time, and each year she sort of thinks like, “Maybe this will be the year that Joe and I get together,” and it never is, and then it finally happens her senior year. And it’s just such a delightful romance.

And from the beginning of the book, it’s very clear that they’re both really into each other. But a lot of things come into the way. A little bit of Joe’s chip on his shoulder, he sort of feels like everybody views him as not quite good enough, which isn’t really true, but there is a difference between him and the other kids in high school. Betsy has a very tight, loving family, which Joe has never really had. He has some family that he stays with in the summer, but it’s not quite the same.

But one of the things that I love so much about their relationship, which is true from the beginning of when they meet, is that one of the reasons that they like each other so much is that they are both really into books. Betsy wants to be a writer, Joe wants to be a writer. They discover this about each other almost immediately.

And these books are set at the turn of the 20th Century. Betsy and the Great World happens in 1914. She ends up leaving Europe because a war breaks out, right? But Joe is delighted that Betsy wants to be a writer. That’s one of the things that attracts him to her is that she is so ambitious. And one of the things that they always bond about, they’re constantly competing in the high school essay contest, and the competition makes them like each other more. They really spur each other on to work harder, to be better at writers, to really think about books and writing and what they care about. And so I love that those are the things that they like about each other and that draw each other in.

I started reading the Betsy-Tacy books when I was pretty young. I distinctly remember checking them out from the library, but I don’t remember when I first read this book. I mean, I was probably around eight or nine, I think. I reread them a lot. And what’s really exciting to me actually is I remember taking them out of the library when I was little, and then I kind of forgot about them. They’ve been kind of lost for years, ’cause they went out of print. I’m not sure, I think I had very old copies of them that probably got lost in a move or my parents threw away somewhere, ’cause I had them when I was like a preteen.

And then I can’t remember how long it was ago, maybe like 10 years ago, maybe a little bit less, they reissued all of the Betsy-Tacy books.

And so that was really exciting to me, because I kind of rediscovered these books that I had loved again and have since reread them a lot. And I just love so much about their romance and how well the books stand up, especially … there’s been a lot of discussion recently about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and when you contrast these books, which were written, I mean, kind of around the same time period, I mean, within maybe 20 years of each other, and they’re set … the Betsy-Tacy books are set a little bit later, but not that much later. And it’s really amazing how modern these books feel in so many ways. I mean, in the early years, there’s a whole sub-plot about how there’s a group of Syrian immigrants in their town, and Betsy’s reaction is, “How are we going to help them?”

And Betsy’s family is really into her becoming a writer. Her parents are immediately like, “Well, yes, obviously you can do anything you want to.” And so I mean, they were set 100 years ago. Obviously they’re not like … they don’t have current time thoughts about race and feminism and stuff, but it really is amazing how well these books hold up and how … I’m happy to give them to any little girl I know. I think they’re really fun books about little girls’ true discovering what they want to be and who they are.
I feel like their relationship is really a part of anything that I write. It’s about two people liking each other for how good they are at something or their ambition or how much they care about something, which I think is wonderful.

Their supportive relationship and how they manage to sort through their differences and yet support each other in their ambitions I think is a really great model for both people and romance writers today.

I absolutely did not know I wanted to be a writer as a child. I was a huge reader and read through most of my childhood library and had a ton of books, read many of the books on my parents’ shelves, but I never really thought of myself as someone who would be a writer until I was in my 30s. That wasn’t really one of my childhood dreams. But I’m glad that I read so many books that now looking back on them have helped me become the person and the writer who I am.

I read a lot of different books. I would say the genres that I tend to read the most of, and this is a lot, but I read a lot of literary fiction, a lot of romance, obviously. And romance, I think I tend to either read contemporary romance or historical. And then I read a lot of young adult, and then a lot of mysteries. I find mysteries, especially in the past few years, I’ve found mysteries strangely soothing, like it’s really nice to read a book where in the course of the book something bad happens, and then they find the bad guy and then the bad guy gets punished. I feel it’s very cathartic in a way, especially with everything going on in the world right now.

But I always, right before I go to bed, I’m always rereading something, because I know myself well enough to know that if I’m reading something new right before bed, I’ll stay up too late and keep reading it, so I try to cut myself off. But I always read sort of as I’m falling asleep. So I try to cut myself off from whatever new thing I’m reading and jump back into something old. And so often, those rereads … or if I’m in a really stressful time in my life when I can’t handle anything new, I will just be rereading books.

So the Betsy series absolutely fits into my constant reread cycle. And so I actually bought … I’d had the regular editions, the regular new editions, for while, and then I had a really stressful medical period in my life a few years ago. I had surgery, and some of my friends sent me an Amazon gift card, and I used it to buy the eBooks of all of these books so that I could have them with me at all times. And so I reread these a lot, sort of as a either comfort read or just before bed, or I’ll dip in and out. There’s certain parts of the books that I really love, and so I’ll kind of start in the middle and go and read those portions and then jump to something else.

I do just want to read another small part of this book that always made me swoon a little. It’s actually … and then, again, this is cheating some. This is not in Betsy and Joe. It’s at the end of Betsy and the Great World. They’ve been broken up through that whole book, through a kind of series of both them being distant with another and misunderstandings and being in a long-distance relationship.

And it’s right when Betsy is about to sail home from England, and she had kind of realized that Joe was the person for her and written him a letter, which is the first letter that she’d written him in I think over a year. And then he puts in the agony column of the newspaper, “Betsy, the Great War is on, but I hope ours is over. Please come home. Joe.” I just love it. I love it so much.

JENN:

Thanks again to Jasmine Guillory for recommending Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace. The Wedding Date, published by Berkley, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at thebestjasmine.

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This episode is sponsored by The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Don’t miss the final work of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction, The Fall of Gondolin, edited by Christopher Tolkien and with illustrations by Alan Lee.

Following his presentation of Beren and Lúthien Christopher Tolkien has used the same ‘history in sequence’ mode in the writing of this edition of The Fall of Gondolin. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was ‘the first real story of this imaginary world’ and, together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, he regarded it as one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days.

JENN:

Amy Stewart is the New York Times best-selling author of ten books, including Girl Waits with Gun and the rest of the Kopp Sisters series, which are based on the true story of one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs and her two rambunctious sisters. The books are in development with Amazon Studios for a television series. Her popular nonfiction titles include The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential.

AMY STEWART:

My name is Amy Stewart and Canteening Overseas, 1917-1919 is my recommended.

Canteening Overseas is a compilation of letters that a woman named Marian Baldwin sent home from her service overseas in World War I. She went to France to work in the canteens, which was basically serving the troops. She spent two years over there and wrote remarkable letters home that have been updated and annotated and a few blanks filled in where the censors cut something out so that it’s more readable to people a hundred years later.

I came across this book because I’m writing about the same time period, so I have been looking for collections of women’s letters and diaries from the war. There’s quite a few of them actually, there’s seven or eight really good ones out there, but this one is by far the best in terms of the detailed description of the day to day life for a woman who volunteers to go over to France in wartime.

She really describes in detail what it means to be working out of a little shack, often very near the front where she’s hearing bombardments, where she’s having to duck into bomb shelters. She’s working 12 hour days serving maybe hot coffee and rolls to the troops. She’s wearing the same clothes for a week at a time, all day and all night. She’s wearing literally all the clothes she has because it’s freezing cold in France in the winter. And sleeping six or seven women to a room on a dirt floor with a bombed out roof, and they’re all just rolled up, and everything they own and, and they’re still just freezing to death.

But then the war ends and they go into Germany to be an occupying force and of course everything clean, and nice, and pretty in Germany because there was no war happening there. And all of a sudden at the end of her still long days of providing service to the troops she’s expected to get herself dolled up and go dance. So they’re holding dances for the soldiers, and there might be 1,500 soldiers at a dance and there’s like, five women. So she’s one of the five. The nurses aren’t allowed to dance with a man in uniform, so it’s just these canteen workers.

So they’re all dressed up and trying to make themselves gorgeous after they’ve been living in filth and doing this extreme work for all this time. And there’s so many men and so few women that a whistle blows periodically throughout the song and they change partners. And they’re just being whirled around by these guys, and their feet stepped on, and she’s talking about, “Oh, my ankles are black and blue. They’re wearing these hobnailed boots and they step all over my feet.” So it’s kind of weird and interesting that one minute she’s doing this drudgery that’s such a test of her courage and her stamina and the next minute she has to be the pretty girl smiling and dancing. She has to do both, it’s incredible.

I love this book and I’m always trying to hoist it off on other people. I think it’s a little bit of a hard sell to get somebody to put a shiny new novel and pick up a hundred year old collection of letters. But it really is so gripping, and astonishing, and in many ways reads like a novel. There’s this moment early on in the book where she writes home to her parents and says, “I guess I need to tell you that I’m not coming home at the end of my little tour of duty here. I realize now that I have to stay and see this through along with the men. So I’m not coming back in six months like I said I would.”

And you know, it’s such this dramatic moment, you can imagine what her parents must have thought, like, “What do you mean you’re not coming back?”

So it does have this kind of dramatic narrative arc that helps me persuade people to read it.

And you know, talking about her … So her insights into the sexism that she faced are so cheerful and matter of fact. This like, “Oh, now we have to go to a dance until 11 o’clock at night,” you know? But it’s interesting to kind of read between the lines and think about the way that women dealt with that. So there’s a big caveat about this book, and that is that four or five times in the book she comes across African American troops who are over there in segregated units and she uses the most horrifying racial epithets to describe them when she meets them. There’s no resentment, there’s no anger, there’s like the same amount of goodwill is still there, she’s just using this language. I’m not going to repeat the words that she used, but you can fill in the blanks for yourself. That is so shocking and it just stopped me every time it happened, and it was so matter of fact for her. She does it a little bit too with a couple of Jewish guys. She mentions that they’re Jewish and then she makes some little remark or joke that I can’t quite understand because I don’t have the cultural context from a hundred years ago, but I have to assume it’s anti-Semitic or that it at least plays into a stereotype of the time that today we understand is anti-Semitic.

You could try to excuse that by saying, “She was using the language at the time and she was reflecting … That was all she knew.” But it wasn’t, you know? I’ve spend a lot of time reading newspaper and magazine articles from the 1910s and the words that we used for our African American troops was, we used the words “colored” or “Negro.” Those were the words that were in the paper, those were the words that African American people would have used to refer to themselves, and she wasn’t using those words. So she could have and she didn’t. That’s like a huge thing that kind of freaked me out about this book, that I didn’t even come to until quite a ways into the book.

I think it speaks to this challenge about historical fiction, which is how real can we really make our characters before they’re unpalatable and we can’t live with them? That’s a weird, hard thing about this book, but what that led me to do was go back to one of the first war diaries that I read when I started down this road, which is called Two Colored Women With the AES. It’s recently been republished as an ebook and it’s called Two Colored Women in World War I France. So it’s the same book.

It’s just what it sounds like, it’s an account of two African American women who did basically the same work that Marian Baldwin did. Their names were Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson. It’s a very different kind of book. They don’t spend as much time describing their day to day, you don’t get as much a sense of what it was like to do the work that they had to do all day every day. But it’s this incredibly powerful book for documenting the discrimination that our black troops faced overseas by our white troops. And you suddenly, by reading Two Colored Women you suddenly can see what Marian Baldwin isn’t telling you. They were in all the same places and maybe even at the same time and they’re talking about seeing signs up that say, “No colored troops at the lemonade stand,” or the little library they’d set up, or at the dance. And you suddenly realize like, “Miriam Baldwin was living in this kind of, no kind of, incredibly segregated world and sort of not writing home about it.

I don’t think it would have occurred to me to go back and reread Two Colored Women unless I had picked up on her racism, do you know what I mean?

It really took reading the two of them together for me to understand, “Wow, okay. So Marian Baldwin did this incredibly difficult and courageous thing, but then Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson did the same incredibly difficult and courageous thing, but they did it in the face of unbelievable discrimination by their own government and their own army, who they were there to serve and who they had put their lives on the line for.
So what I really recommend is that you read them both, and you’ll want to. You’ll read Canteening Overseas and I think you’ll get everything that I’m saying about it, but then you’ll immediately realize like, “Wow, there’s this big missing part of the story and here’s where I can go and get it.” You line the two experiences up and you superimpose them on each other and it leaves you with a really powerful impression of what women, white and black women were doing in World War I.

They’re incredible and they’ll make you think, they made me think a lot about what I am and am not willing to do with my own life, you know? There’s war town places around the country right now where I could go and serve people the way these women went and served in France, and I’m not there. I’m home in Portland. And so looking back at a hundred years ago and what we were willing to do to fight for democracy, to stop the Germans, and asking ourselves what are we doing now. It’s an important question.

JENN:

Thanks again to Amy Stewart for joining us and recommending Canteening Overseas by Marian Baldwin and Two Colored Women in World War I France by Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson. Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, the latest book in the Kopp Sisters series, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and will be available on September 11 of 2018, wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at amy_stewart.

JENN:
Next week on Recommended:

UNNAMED GUEST:
When you told me about this podcast, the first thing I did was get it and reread it again. My love for it and my interest for it hasn’t diminished over the years, and I think that’s really … For a book to keep somebody’s attention for that long, I think that’s really fantastic.

JENN:

Thanks again to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you heard, please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.