Anne Youngson had a long, successful career in the motor industry before taking an early retirement to focus on her writing. She is currently studying for a PhD at Oxford Brookes. Anne and her husband live on a farm in Oxfordshire, where they have a two-acre garden open to the public. She has three grandchildren to date. She also recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell about her debut novel, Meet Me at the Museum, for the LAPL Blog.
What was the inspiration for Meet Me at the Museum?
I have had a photo of the face of the Tollund Man, a preserved Iron Age body from a bog in Denmark, on my wall for some time, with the poem about him written by Seamus Heaney. Both the photo and the poem inspired me to think of enduring, and being present and yet absent, of patience and tolerance. I finally read a book written about the Tollund Man in the 1960s, and realized it was dedicated to some schoolgirls who would now be in late middle age. The thoughts that occurred to me, when I looked at the Tollund Man’s face, I realized might also be occurring to one of these girls, and this was the starting point for the book.
Are Tina or Anders, or any of the other characters, inspired or based on specific individuals?
The characters are entirely from my imagination. They created themselves on the page as they wrote to each other.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The published version is close to my first draft; nothing major changed. I found there were thoughts and experiences Tina and Anders had not shared with each other that I wanted them to talk about—their grandparents, for example—and so I put more letters into the final draft. The only thing I took out was a letter that was devoted to something topical (the UK vote to leave the European Union) because in editing I found I resented this intrusion of current affairs into their relationship.
Epistolary novels are rather uncommon these days. Why did you choose this format to tell Tina and Anders’s story?
The dedication in the book about the Tollund Man is in the form of a letter and it seemed natural that Tina would pick up a pen, at this point in her life when she is trying to make sense of it, and write back to the Danish Archaeologist who was the author. I did not necessarily intend to continue in the same way, but the format turned out to offer a great deal of freedom to explore the themes of the book. I am now a fan of epistolary novels because they also allow the reader freedom to judge the characters and their motivation seeing them, as it were, in conversation with someone else.
Have you ever been to Denmark to see the Tollund Man? If so, what was the experience like for you?
I have visited Silkeborg, which is where the Tollund Man’s body is displayed. It was a very moving experience. He is curled up, as if asleep, in a quiet side room. I felt a little like an intruder into his world, and was relieved that there was no one else there at the time. A crowd around him might have diminished his dignity, which is apparent even in death.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I am consuming short stories for a project I am working on, and have Tenth of December by George Saunders, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin and You Think it, I’ll Say it by Curtis Sittenfeld stacked up, to dip in and out of. Waiting to be read are two recent novels—Circe by Madeline Miller and The Wanderers by Tim Pears. I am looking forward to this as it is the second part of a trilogy, The Horseman was the first, evoking rural life in Britain in the early twentieth century and the writing is beautiful, the story slow to evolve but absorbing.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I read whatever my local library had available, and it is hard to pick out one book, but I loved C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories and then moved on to Rosemary Sutcliff. The Eagle of the Ninth was the most exciting book I can remember reading.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
I was lucky in my parents. They never tried to control or judge what I was reading, either to condemn it as too trivial or to censor it as too adult. So I was free to explore Enid Blyton at the one end and Iris Murdoch at the other.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Anne Tyler has been a long-time favorite and very influential, as she writes so beautifully and sparingly about domestic lives. Elizabeth Strout is up there, for the same reasons. I have always loved Penelope Fitzgerald, whose novels are both sharp and dreamlike. Kate Atkinson’s books are a joy to read and it feels to me as if she is having fun writing them, which is also important. In complete contrast, I love the nineteenth-century novels that set out to tell a story, in detail and completely. I would have to pick Charles Dickens as the master of the craft.
What is a book you've faked reading?
I don’t remember doing this deliberately, but I do sometimes imagine I have read some classic novels, only to find out I haven’t. This happened to me most recently with E.M. Forster’s,Howards End. It turned out I’d only seen the film.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I recently bought a memoir by Penelope Lively, Life in the Garden, for the title and the glorious cover. The contents didn’t disappoint, either!
Is there a book that changed your life?
I would have to say The Bog People by Professor Glob, the book that led to Meet Me at The Museum. It was only by delving into the detail around the Tollund Man that I was able to see my way to creating the story, which has given me a chance to have another profession, as a novelist, instead of sinking into idle old age.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I become excited about, and re-read and recommend so many books it is hard to pick just one, but I think it would have to be Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It is so perfectly balanced, like the tight-rope artist Pettit who inspired it. And it has much to say about society, in a subtle and engaging way.Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
If this means which book that I have read do I wish I still had the thrill of discovering for the first time, then it would have to be Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. This is such a glorious story and I do re-read it, but like all mysteries, it is never quite the same after the first reading, when the plot has become familiar. If it means which book have I read that I am looking forward to reading again for the first time, I think it would be The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
The perfect day for me would have to be in a garden, and probably my own garden here in Oxfordshire, with the sun shining and just enough people to make it possible for everyone to join in the one conversation. This probably means no more than ten, which would have to be my immediate family, which is six of us, discounting the grandchildren who are too young to have any conversation but would need to be there to make the day perfect, leaving four places. I would choose to invite one of my writing friends, one of my reading friends, and one colleague from my previous career, which had nothing to do with writing or reading. The last place would go to a complete stranger, as there is nothing so stimulating as finding out about someone you have never met before.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing off a collection of short stories in which I have been experimenting with how stories start, what the first sentences and paragraphs can do to shape and influence. I am also beginning work on another novel.
Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum