The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (29 page)

Is it unseemly to get married so quickly? I don't want to wait—I want to start at once. I've always thought that the story was over when the hero and heroine were safely engaged—after all, what's good enough for Jane Austen ought to be good enough for anyone. But it's a lie. The story is about to begin, and every day will be a new piece of the plot. Perhaps my next book will be about a fascinating married couple and all the things they learn about each other over time. Are you impressed by the beneficial effect of engagement on my writing?

Dawsey has just come down from the Big House and is demanding my immediate attention. His much-vaunted shyness has evaporated completely—I think it was a ploy to arouse my sympathies.



P.S. I ran into Adelaide Addison in St Peter Port today. By way of congratulation, she said, ‘I hear you and that pig-farmer are about to regularise your connection. Thank the Lord!'


The seed for this book was planted quite by accident. I had travelled to England to research another book and while there learned of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands. On a whim, I flew to Guernsey and was fascinated by my brief glimpse of the island's history and beauty. From that visit came this book, albeit many years later.

Unfortunately, books don't spring fully formed from their authors' foreheads. This one required years of research and writing, and above all, the patience and support of my husband, Dick Shaffer, and my daughters Liz and Morgan, who tell me that
never doubted I would finish this book, even if I did. Besides believing in my writing, they insisted that I actually sit down at the computer and type, and it was these twins forces at my back that propelled the book into being.

In addition to this small cluster of supporters at home, there was a much larger group out in the world. First and in some ways most important were my friends and fellow writers Sara Loyster and Julia Poppy, who demanded and beguiled and cajoled—and read every word of the first dozen drafts. This book truly would not have been written without them. Pat Arrigoni's enthusiasm and editorial
were also instrumental in the early stages of writing. My sister Cynnie followed lifelong tradition in urging me to buckle down to work, and, in this case, I appreciate it.

I am grateful to Lisa Drew for directing my manuscript to my agent, Liza Dawson, who combines great editorial wisdom and pure publishing know-how to a degree I would not have believed possible. Her colleague Anna Olswanger was a source of a number of excellent ideas, for which I am in her debt. Thanks to them, my manuscript found its way to the desk of the amazing Susan Kamil, an editor both profoundly intelligent and deeply humane. I am also grateful to Chandler Crawford, who brought the book first to Bloomsbury Publishing in England and then turned it into a worldwide phenomenon, with editions in ten countries.

I must tender special thanks to my niece, Annie, who stepped in to finish this book after unexpected health issues interrupted my ability to work shortly after the manuscript was sold. Without blinking an eye, she put down the book she was writing, pushed up her sleeves, and set to work on my manuscript. It was my great good luck to have a writer like her in the family, and this book could not have been done without her.

If nothing else, I hope these characters and their story shed some light on the sufferings and strength of the people of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation. I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art—be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music—enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

Mary Ann Shaffer
December 2007

It was my good fortune to enter into this project armed with a lifetime of my Aunt Mary Ann's stories and the editorial acumen of Susan Kamil. Susan's strength of vision was essential in making the book what it wanted to be, and I am truly privileged to have worked with her. I salute her invaluable Assistant Editor, Noah Eaker, as well.

I am grateful, too, to the team at Bloomsbury Publishing. There, Alexandra Pringle has been a paragon of patience and good humour, as well as a font of information about how to address a duke's offspring. I particularly appreciate Mary Morris, who dealt gracefully with a gorgon, and the marvellous Antonia Till, without whom British characters would be wearing pants, driving wagons, and eating candy. In Guernsey, Lynne Ashton at the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery was most helpful, as was Clare Ogier.

Finally, I extend very special thanks to Liza Dawson, who made it all work.

Annie Barrows
December 2007


I grew up in a family of storytellers. In my family, there is no such thing as a yes-or-no question, a simple answer, or a bald fact. You can't even ask someone to pass the butter without incurring a story, and major holidays always end with the women gathered around the table, weeping with laughter, while our husbands sit in the next room, holding their heads.

Obviously, with so much practice, my family is rich in fine storytellers, but my aunt Mary Ann Shaffer was the jewel in our crown. What was it about Mary Ann turning a tale? She was one of the wittiest people I ever met, but wit wasn't the essence of her gift. Her language was lustrous, her timing was exquisite, her delivery was a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but none of these reaches to the centre of her charm. That, it seems to me, was her willingness to be delighted by people—their phrases, their frailties, and their fleeting moments of grandeur. Together with her delight was the impulse to share it; she told stories so that the rest of us, listening, could be delighted with her, and, time and again, she succeeded.

To tell is one thing, to commit to paper is another. For as long as I can remember, Mary Ann was always working on something, but she never completed a book to her own satisfaction, at least not until she embarked upon
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The story of that embarkation began in 1980, when Mary Ann was in the throes of a fascination with Kathleen Scott, wife of the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. In order to write her biography, Mary Ann travelled to Cambridge, England, where her subject's papers were archived. But when she reached her destination, Mary Ann discovered that the archive consisted primarily of aged bits and notes, illegibly scrawled in pencil. Thoroughly disgusted, Mary Ann threw the project over, but she was not yet ready to return home. Instead, for reasons that will always be obscure, she decided to visit the island of Guernsey, far in the nethermost reaches of the English Channel.

Mary Ann flew there, and, of course, drama followed. As her plane landed, what she described as ‘a terrible fog' arose from the sea and enshrouded the island in gloom. The ferry service came to a halt; the airplanes were grounded. With the dismal clank of a drawbridge pulling to, the last taxi rattled off, leaving her in the Guernsey airport, immured, isolated, and chilled to the bone. (Are you getting the sense of how Mary Ann told a story?) There, as the hours ticked by, she hunkered in the feeble heat of the hand-dryer in the men's restroom (the hand-dryer in the women's restroom was broken), struggling to sustain the flickering flame of life. The flickering flame of life required not only bodily nourishment (candy from vending machines), but spiritual aliment, that is, books. Mary Ann could no more endure a day without reading than she could grow feathers, so she helped herself to the offerings at the Guernsey airport bookstore. In 1980, this bookstore was evidently a major outlet for writings on the occupation of the island by the Germans during World War II. Thus, when the fog lifted, Mary Ann left the island, having seen nothing that could be considered a sight, with an armload of books and an abiding interest in Guernsey's wartime experiences.

Some twenty years passed before Mary Ann, goaded by her writing group, began
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
. As the members of the literary society found during their ordeal, companionship can help us surmount nearly any barrier, imposed, self-imposed, or imagined. Likewise, Mary Ann's writing group, by cajoling, critiquing, admiring, and demanding, sustained her through the obstacle course of creation and across the finish line to her first completed manuscript.

‘All I wanted,' Mary Ann once said, ‘was to write a book that someone would like enough to publish.' She got what she wanted—and more—for publishers from around the world flocked to buy her book. It was a triumph, of course for her, but for the rest of us longtime Mary Ann listeners as well. Finally we had proof of what we had known all along—our own personal Scheherazade could beguile the world. We swelled with pride.

But then, just as if we were in some horrible retributive folk tale, the triumph turned, because Mary Ann's health began to fail. When, shortly thereafter, the book's editor requested some changes that required substantial rewriting, Mary Ann knew that she did not have the stamina to undertake the work, and she asked me if I would do it, on the grounds that I was the other writer in the family.

Of course I said yes. Writers are rarely the solution to anyone's problems, and this was a unique occasion to help someone I loved. But to myself I whispered that it was impossible—impossible for me to take on my aunt's voice, her characters, the rhythm of her plot.

However, there was no help for it; I had to begin. And once I began, I discovered something: it was easy. It was easy because I had grown up on Mary Ann's tales—they didn't just come
with the butter, they were the butter. They were nourishment. All those years and years when her stories were the wallpaper of my life, when just passing through the dining room would garner me an odd expression or an obscure fact, Mary Ann's idea of narrative was becoming mine. In the same way that people acquire accents and politics from their surroundings, I acquired stories.

Working on the book, then, was like sitting down with Mary Ann—her characters were people I knew (sometimes literally) and their most irrational actions had a certain familiar logic to me. When Mary Ann passed away, in early 2008, the book was a comfort, because it held her within it.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
is a testament to Mary Ann's talent, to be sure, but in the truest way it's also the embodiment of her generosity. In it she offers, for our enjoyment, a catalogue of her delights—the oddities that enchanted her, the expressions that entertained her, and, above all, the books that she adored.

I think that Mary Ann knew, before she died, that her book was going to be well received, but no one could ever be entirely prepared for the avalanche of acclaim that greeted its publication. As first the booksellers, then the reviewers, and finally actual readers got their hands on the book, we noticed that their praise often took the same form—the book was quirky, unlike anything else, charming, vivid, witty … In other words, it was like Mary Ann herself. Suddenly, the rest of the world had a seat at the table where I had been feasting my whole life, and, as with any family party, they clustered around Mary Ann, weeping with laughter—or sorrow—as her stories billowed forth.

The only flaw in the feast is that it ends. If I could have anything I wanted, I would choose story without end, and
it seems that I have lots of company in that. I have received many, many letters from readers all over the world bemoaning the fact that the book comes to an end. ‘I want it to go on forever,' they say. ‘I want to go to Guernsey and join a book club.' ‘I want to be a member of the society.' The good news is that as long as we don't get too caught up in the space-time continuum, the book does still go on, every time a reader talks about it with another reader. The membership of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society increases each time the book is read and enjoyed. The wonderful thing about books—and the thing that made them such a refuge for the islanders during the Occupation—is that they take us out of our time and place and understanding, and transport us not just into the world of the story, but into the world of our fellow readers, who have stories of their own.

In the months since the book was published, I have heard from readers who were reminded of their own wartime experiences. One Guernsey native told me of his evacuation to England, along with hundreds of other children, the week before the Germans invaded. The most thrilling moment, he said, was his first glimpse of a black cow. He hadn't known that cows came in black. Another woman, a child in Germany during the war, told of bringing food to the French soldier hiding in her attic—she was the only member of the family small enough to squeeze through the trapdoor. It's not all war stories, either. I've heard from people who want to know if Mary Lamb really stabbed her mother with a carving knife (yes!) and people who want to make potato peel pie (I advise against this) and people who want to read another book written in letters (Daddy Long Legs).

This profusion of questions, exclamations, and tales is the new version of the society. Its members are spread all
over the world, but they are joined by their love of books, of talking about books, and of their fellow readers. We are transformed—magically—into the literary society each time we pass a book along, each time we ask a question about it, each time we say, ‘If you liked that, I bet you'd like this.' Whenever we are willing to be delighted and share our delight, as Mary Ann did, we are part of the ongoing story of
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Annie Barrows
June 2009

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