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'Guernsey' author coming to Meredith for Lakes Region Reads



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Annie Barrows, co-author of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” is coming to Inter-Lakes High School Oct. 24 as part of the Lakes Region Reads program. Here she is speaking at the Indies Choice Book Awards last year. Courtesy photo. (click for larger version)
October 13, 2010
LAKES REGION — It's not often that a New York Times bestselling author touches down in the Lakes Region for some discussion and Q&A, but with hundreds of people reading "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," co-author Annie Barrows' visit is warranted and highly anticipated.

Barrows is coming to Meredith Oct. 24 for Lakes Region Reads' culminating event. Barrows wrote the novel with her aunt, Mary Ann Schaffer, who fell ill before it was picked up by a publisher. Though Schaffer had written the novel from start to finish, she asked Barrows to make the "substantial rewrites" that the editors requested.

"(The editor) wanted more of everything," Barrows said during a phone interview with Salmon Press from her home in California.

Barrows told her aunt she'd happily work on "Guernsey," but inside she wondered how she would co-author a story that had essentially been written by someone else.

"I thought it was going to be virtually impossible," she said. "As it turned out, it wasn't … It was actually glorious."

As soon as she started working on it, Barrows could hear her aunt's voice in the main character, Juliet, and was able to use that voice to guide her writing. Barrows said Schaffer was always a storyteller, so she also recognized many of the book's characters from the stories Schaffer had told.

Peppered throughout "Guernsey" are Barrows' additions, though she won't say which parts she wrote and which her aunt wrote because she wants the story to be seamless, with readers giving no thought to who wrote what.

"I don't even tell my mother," Barrows said.

One of the reasons "Guernsey" was chosen for the Lakes Region Reads project is because it takes place after World War II and centers around the German occupation of Guernsey. Local librarians wanted a book that people of all ages and interests could relate to, and that would be relevant leading up to Veterans Day in November. They agreed that although "Guernsey" is a war novel, it's more uplifting than depressing. Barrows said the characters show that it is possible to be free and even happy no matter your life circumstances.

"It was incredibly bleak, and they really were starving (during that time)," Barrows said. But the book-loving members of the literary society showed that "there is a place that you can exist that will always be free, in your mind, your imagination."

Barrows said that Shaffer did about 20 years of research on Guernsey Island and the Nazi occupation after a trip there sparked her interest in the island's history. Barrows herself had about a month to brush up on all things Guernsey before delving into the novel.

"I read as fast as I could, as much as I could," she said.

She didn't even have a chance to visit the island until the month the book was published, in July of 2008. She's planning a return trip in May, having been asked to speak at a literary festival.

Barrows and Shaffer never worked on the book together, as Shaffer grew ill quickly and "didn't want to talk about it." Barrows said the only thing she asked her aunt was why she wrote the novel in epistolary form.

"She thought it would be easier," Barrows laughed. "I think it was a brilliant choice."

Barrows never talked to her aunt about the long, tongue-twisting title either, but she expected the publisher would demand a change.

"By god, they didn't change the title," she said. "I personally was worried that it was going to end up in the cookbook section."

Barrows had previously written, and continues to write, a children's series called Ivy + Bean. She had also written adult nonfiction books under the name Ann Fiery. Both were vastly different from working on "Guernsey," Barrows said, but she enjoyed the new experience so much that she's continuing to pursue adult fiction. She's currently about halfway through a new novel that takes place in West Virginia in 1938.

When she comes to Inter-Lakes High School in Meredith on Oct. 24, Barrows said she'll talk, among other things, about Schaffer and what prompted her to write a book about Guernsey Island in the first place. She'll welcome any questions about herself, her aunt or the book as well.

Barrows also plans to talk to high school students the following day about the writing process, and to elementary school students about Ivy + Bean.

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