British author Anne Youngson worked in the car industry for many years, but she always wanted to be a writer. Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books), her debut novel, fulfills that life-long dream. Written as a series of letters between an English farmer and a museum curator in Denmark, the novel sings with compassion and self-reflection. Youngson, mother of two and grandmother of three, lives in Oxfordshire, England.
You began your career as an engineer in the car industry. What led you to novel writing?
I always thought of myself as a writer; I loved the challenges of the job and the day-to-day business of working with other people, but I was always thinking of stories, and how I would describe what was going on around me, as if I was writing it down. Whenever I had time and a story I thought I could use, I would write it down, but I never considered this as something I could do for a living. It was not until I began to take courses and meet other writers and, finally, after I retired from full-time work, that I realized a novel was something I could aspire to write.
Where did Tina and Anders, the novel's main characters, come from?
It is impossible for me to say where they came from. I knew quite clearly the sort of person I imagined Tina to be, her background and attitudes. As I wrote in her voice it became more and more familiar until I could be sure I understood just what she would feel and say in any situation. At first Anders's voice was a precise and factual counterpart to Tina's, but the story of his wife changed him into someone who was also caring and compassionate, perhaps slightly bewildered. The letter format helped to shape the people they show themselves to be as they write.
What inspired you to use letter writing as the structure of this book?
I began the book with a letter from Tina, looking back towards the end of her life and thinking about the girl she had been. When I started, I did not plan for the whole book to be in the form of letters, but the first letter needed an answer, and then it was only natural that Tina would write back. I did consider moving away from this format to narrating the story in a conventional way, but I felt it would put a distance between these two people, even if I had continued to use the first person. So I carried on, and found I was able to explore everything I wanted to say about them, their lives and their ideas, through the letters.
This novel challenges a straightforward, overly simplistic notion of intimacy. Without giving too much away, what inspired these characters' evolution as friends?
I believe intimacy, and the deepest friendships, are built on a shared understanding of what the other person thinks and feels so that a word or a phrase is enough, where someone outside the circle of two might need sentences of explanation and still not be on the same page. Julian Barnes put this much better than I can, when he wrote about his wife's death and regretted "the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short-cuts, in-jokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes." Through their letters Tina and Anders are developing this closeness, this shared vocabulary.
Tina first writes to Anders about Tollund Man, a preserved human body from the Iron Age that actually exists. The Tollund Man, discovered in a bog, comes up many times throughout this book, and I was continually impressed by your knowledge of his remains. Are you interested in the Tollund Man or Iron Age history beyond what you write about here?
I have always loved museums, and of course there are many Iron Age (and older) artifacts in museums, but it was a picture of the Tollund Man's face that inspired me, because of the miracle of its preservation and its wise and gentle expression. The bodies found in bogs show us that the people who lived then, and used the bowls and coins exhibited in so many museums, looked very much like us and therefore remind us--this might seem obvious but it is easy to lose sight of--that they were human, as we are, and must have had similar joys and fears, in a completely different environment. I have read extensively around bog bodies and, of course, visited the Tollund Man, which was a deeply moving experience.
Have we lost something, as a society, by moving to electronic ways of communicating and away from writing letters by hand?
I think we have. I envy anyone who still has letters written by family members who are no longer here; my own family was, for several generations, in the army, which means they moved, from country to country and house to house, and anything not essential to daily living was thrown away to make moving easier. So I cannot "hear" the voice of my grandparents or know what concerns they had, what news they shared with each other or their friends and family. I have a close friend who recently lost her husband and, because they spent some time apart before the arrival of the Internet, she has letters he wrote to her, and this is her greatest source of consolation. We may all stay in touch better than we used to do, because it is so easy to send a line or two by e-mail, but there is an intimacy to letter writing which has been lost.
Both characters seem to learn a lot about themselves through the act of writing. What are your thoughts on this practice in the real world? Can writing help us to understand ourselves better?
I write because I want to make sense of the world, and while words may not work the same for everyone, I do believe that using language to express what we feel and think and how we respond to the experiences we have can be enormously helpful. For many years I was involved with a charity that worked with prisons, setting up residencies for writers. Time and again, this program demonstrated how prisoners, given the encouragement and the guidance on how to construct their thoughts, could articulate feelings about themselves and, often, about their crimes and its victims, in ways they had never done before. Even those with relatively low literacy skills could find enough words for a poem that expressed what was going around in their heads. Of course, Tina and Anders are not criminals, but they do need a way to move forward, and writing gives it to them. --Amy Brady