Updated: Oct 14, 2022
I have a deep love and respect for history and have had for as long as I can remember. It doesn't matter the time period - I love it all! But I have an extra soft spot for WWII historical fiction. I think that love was born over my grandma's kitchen table where I sat with Oreo's and apple juice and listened to my grandpa tell me stories about when he was in the Canadian Air Force during the war. He had photos, pieces of shrapnel. I never tired of hearing those stories. As I grew older that translated into a love of WWII historical fiction novels. Another thing I adore is mystery novels and Agatha Christie, so when I came across Death At Greenway, I knew that I needed to read it right away! Set against the beautiful backdrop of Agatha Christie's holiday home and taking place during WWII, it explores a topic I have not read about in fiction yet - the child evacuees that had to leave London during this time. Filled with atmosphere, mystery and the beautiful exploration of female friendship, I could not put it down. I adored this book, and highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who enjoys historical fiction, mystery, atmosphere and well developed characters that definitely work their way into your heart. Now, without further ado, let's get to the interview with the author of Death At Greenway, Lori Rader Day!
Ashley: Hi Lori! Before we begin chatting about your novel, are you able to tell us a bit more about yourself?
Lori: I’m Midwest born and raised, love to read, certified dog person, and prefer my hot tea served English with milk.
Ashley: When did your love of reading begin, and when did you realize that you wanted to become an author?
Lori: I loved to be read to as a child and became a big reader when my mom took me to the public library. I do remember realizing, at age six or seven, that authors existed, that the name on the book was the person who created the stories I loved. I realized there were people doing this, which meant—hey, I’m a person! Maybe I could try. I didn’t get very far for a long time, but always wanted to be that person.
Ashley: What books have had the biggest impact on you throughout your life?
Lori: The first books I loved were the Ramona Quimby books, then Judy Blume’s teen books and Lois Duncan’s creepy teen books. My favorite all-time kid book is the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsberg. As a writer, I suspect I’ve been chasing the adult story of that mystery adventure all along. I got into Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark around age eleven, and both have had a life-long effect on the way my writing career has gone. I won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for my second novel, Little Pretty Things, and Agatha Christie was a source for my latest book.
Ashley: For our readers who may not have read Death At Greenway yet, can you share what it is about?
Lori: Death at Greenway is based in part on the fact that Agatha Christie’s beloved holiday home in South Devon, England, was used to house child war refugees during World War II, children evacuated from their homes in London to escape—they hoped—bombs. When I learned this fact, I knew I wanted to read that story. The problem was, no one had written it yet.
Ashley: Death At Greenway is told mainly through Bridey’s point of view, but we also have multiple other characters that share their point of view in chapters peppered throughout the novel. I really enjoyed this – it allowed me to learn more about their motivations and to see things that were happening in the novel from different points of view. Why did you choose to tell the story in this way, and what do you think the story would have lost without these multiple points of view?
Lori: In some ways, I think I may have been hedging my bets that I could “claim” an authentic British, 1940s voice in a single character. I was hesitant to try, to begin with. But also, as I researched, I discovered information about the real people who had been involved in this episode and the people who lived at Greenway, on the estate, who worked in the house for the Mallowans (Agatha and her second husband). The research was rich, and generative, so that I could start to understand some of the hardships these people had gone through before they arrived at Greenway, so much story potential that I didn’t want to leave behind. For instance, the butler had, as a child, lost his mother young and had spent some time in a boys’ home when his father went to the workhouse (for debts). I didn’t think a man who had suffered such things would be cold toward these children arriving to this luxury house—he would be kinder to them than I had imagined upon hearing a BUTLER was running the household. He was also a veteran of the first World War. I knew he would have things worth saying, and the story of Death at Greenway would have been much thinner without him.
Ashley: Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery! I am slowly working my way through reading all of the Hercule Poirot series and I just love it! I did not know that Greenway was, in fact, used during WWII for children that were sent out of London. What inspired you to tell this story?
Lori: I discovered this historical episode in a nonfiction book about Agatha Christie, a throw-away fact in about six or seven words, not even a full sentence. I was reading in bed, and I sat up, I was that excited. One of my all-time favorite movies from childhood (and now—I still sing one of the songs to my dog) is Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It’s an early Disney movie, one of the first that uses live action mixed with animation, and it stars a young Angela Lansbury as an apprentice witch who is forced to take in evacuated children from London. So my first thought was: Bedknobs and Broomsticks at Agatha Christie’s house! Now, as I researched, I discovered the children at Greenway were very young—not great for the story I imagined, not great for a crime novel. So I had to find someone else within the the history to take on adventure and intrigue. The two “hospital nurses” Agatha Christie mentions in her autobiography were otherwise lost to history, so they took on the role. Bridey and Gigi, two young women named Bridget, who may not be what they seem.
Ashley: When Bridey finally gets around to reading some of the Mistress’ books, she notes that “The books were full of ghastly stories, but she was strangely comforted by them. Murders on trains, in river boats, on a golf course…” What are your favorite Christie novels?
Lori: I love The Murder of Roger Akroyd, And Then There Were None, all the best-of, but there were a few I read specifically for this book that I have grown to love. Dead Man’s Folly is the book that uses Greenway as location, with place and people renamed, and it was great to read that book to hear how Agatha described the lands, the paths, the boathouse on her own property. I’m a Marple fan, primarily, but I also liked reading N or M? which is a Tommy and Tuppence book Agatha wrote about the WWII years. It was helpful in that I got to understand better what British people worried about during the war, namely “the fifth column,” or British sympathizers of the Nazis helping to sneak them into the country. Greenway is near the English Channel (not a great place to evacuate to, really), so that would have been a real fear for that region. Strangers would not have been as welcome as they might have been elsewhere.
Ashley: Near the beginning of the novel, we see Bridget meeting Mrs. Arbuthnot at the train station for the first time as they are there to take child evacuees out of London and to the country side. Mrs. Arbuthnot says “Now I’ve raised a few of my own, and when the time comes to part with them, I’m afraid it will be difficult. Be gentle but firm. This is their child’s last chance for safety, and they must understand the sacrifice, though difficult to bear, is necessary.” I cannot imagine being parted from a child at this time – hoping that someone else can keep them safe, often when your spouse was already away fighting in the war. I think that, when looking back on this time, it is easy to overlook what the women and children had to go through as well. What did your research process look like for this novel, and what are some things that you think people would be surprised to learn about the evacuees and the people that looked after them?
Lori: No one can imagine being parted from a child during war, but of course there are families facing this very thing right now, in Ukraine specifically but also much closer to home. Parents sacrifice everything to get their children to safety at times like this. They only hope their kids can make it out alive.
My research was bookish and dusty. I spent a lot of time in the online archives of old newspapers and inside a geneaology site that had old documents electronically linked such as the 1939 Register, the census taken at the beginning of Britain’s war response to count where everyone had gone, now that so many people had been moved and removed. I also was lucky enough to get into contact with one of the children evacuated to Greenway, a woman named Doreen who is now nearly 84 years old. We became pen pals by email, which has been the biggest delight of the entire process. What I learned from her was that her war experience had been so safe and protected within this group and at Greenway (and other locations, after Greenway) that she didn’t HAVE a war experience. She only felt loved and cared for, which is an evacuee story you don’t often get in books. I knew I had to make sure that was captured in my story. What I was surprised by in my research was that the river below Agatha Christie’s house was an area of staging for what we have come to know as Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings, and eventual victory. This area and these real people would have been there on the ground as the necessary was done to win the war and save the world from Nazi rule.
Ashley: At one point in the novel, Bridey reflects that “It was possible to hear one’s death coming just like this. Bridey squeezed herself deeper inside of her skin and tried not to imagine her Mam pulling the children to her, how scared she must have been to see it coming.” I am forever in awe of the people who kept daily life going during the war – taking care of the children, working in factories, making sure the men that went off to war had something to come back to. The constant threat of bombings, the sound of the fighter planes, the uncertainty if you would see your loved ones again. It would have been near impossible to keep going, and yet so many people did. I love to read the stories of the people who do not really make it into the history books. What are the rewards of writing about the more obscure people in history, and what are some of the challenges?
Lori: The challenges for writing obscure people who were in fact REAL people was immense! I don’t know what I was thinking! Finding information, or at least enough that you could begin to capture their actual lives and what they worried about, was difficult, but also gave me some of my best research victories. In fact, putting the real names to some of these people was challenging. The butler and cook, a married couple who worked for Greenway, were nearly lost to history, but I found them and researched their actual lives. I hope I came close to capturing what they might have been like. Confirming historic fact that no one could offer me when I asked—that’s the biggest reward for me, in addition to gaining a friend in Doreen. Returning a few memories to Doreen as I asked her questions about her childhood so that she could share this book and her memories with her children and granddaughter.
I also got to stay three nights at Greenway as part of my research, and that was, obviously, a highlight of my writing career. My husband and I lived at the house like Agatha and Max, walking into the village, traipsing all over the grounds.
Ashley: As I don’t want to give spoilers, I will keep this next question slightly vague. One of the characters in the novel states that they are “catching history while it’s happening, capturing the everyday so that history doesn’t leave out small lives.” As mentioned in one of my earlier questions, I love reading stories about people that sometimes get lost in the history books. What is one lesser known historical event or figure that you would love to write about?
Lori: Thank you for pulling out that thread of the story! It’s not at all how I thought about this story as I set out but organically, that’s how it progressed.
I would love to write about some of the people who took part in the Works Progress Administration’s programs for writers and artists during the Roosevelt years. I might still write this book… I also think someone could write a killer book about the Pullman porters and maids. They could solve a crime! A Black historical writer should write that book. I would love to read it!
Ashley: There is a quote that I loved in the novel that says, “On and on, one person saved might mean another and another who lived. There was an invisible thread pulling through them, tying them together, wasn’t there?” I think it can be easy to forget that we are all connected. That life is better when we come together and help and support one another. I imagine as an author you have to have support and encouragement from people close to you as writing is such an in depth and time consuming process in which you are sharing parts of yourself right along with your characters. Who is someone that encouraged you to follow your dreams and had a lasting impact on your life?
Lori: My parents didn’t have any idea what I was up to, but were supportive nonetheless. Confused, but supportive. My grandmother Annie was really supportive of me and my stories, always asking for my version of things, even though she’d been there, too. Since taking writing more seriously, I’ve enjoyed the support of a lot of people, but my husband is the one who pays the health insurance so that I can attempt the job full time. That coverage was especially helpful with a little bout of breast cancer I recently survived, and he was there for me through all of that.
Ashley: In that same vein, what do you think we lose by being disconnected from others and a sense of community?
Lori: Humans are pack animals, like dogs, who survived together. There are theories that the use of stories and art to humans (older than agriculture) is that we learn how to live from them, literally. Modern life keeps us isolated in lots of ways but that’s why we still enjoy reading the stories other people tell, because we are connecting and learning how to live, how to survive what the characters get through. Cool, right? So technically, if we get so isolated that we don’t connect in any way, we lose our tools for survival. Maybe that’s already happening. It’s a hard world to live in, but what other choice do we have? What we gain is each other and a chance to be something more than ourselves. I think it’s worth the risk. I didn’t want to bake bread or put on a free concert on Facebook, but I sure appreciated that other people did, and when I was in another lockdown with cancer, I enjoyed the benefits of my community to a huge scale, a humbling scale.
Ashley: There are so many amazing quotes and lines in this book! Another one I loved was when Gigi says, “There’s truth in stories, and stories in truth.” What truth do you hope readers take away from this story?
Lori: Thank you! You’re pulling out some good ones. The truth I wanted to capture was Greenway’s role in the war in regards to these children and then more generally, as I learned more. But then as I learned more and more about how affected the average citizen of Britain was by the war and its long-lasting effects (rationing went on for years after the war, for instance), it was so different than the stories we tell about WWII from the American perspective. Our involvement was much shorter, and all our stories are victory-based. But there was (and is) real suffering when leaders play war games. Generally: Men make war, and women and children suffer it. These children were away from the parents for four years. Doreen went back to her parents thinking she was being adopted. Many children suffered bad care, even abuse, and for what? We always lose more than we gain.
Ashley: Gigi states that she is “interested in other people… Their oddness, the things they think bog standard that no one else would recognize. It’s thrilling to know what people feel, to know who they really are.” Do you feel this way when it comes to creating your characters?
Lori: I do! I love imagining these weirdos who didn’t really exist (or who did, but I can only guess at). When I get at the reality of a character, the thing that explains who they are, that’s such a great feeling as a writer.
Ashley: What makes a standout character to you?
Lori: I love a character who feels real and lived in. Their lives are messy. They make bad decisions. They’re selfish sometimes. They’re scared of things they shouldn’t be scared of. But they have to push past all that, and we get to watch.
Ashley: Bridget has suffered a terrible loss, and she reflects that “She should be feeling their loss every moment of every day, the loss of their voices, their laughs, their shining eyes, but there were some days she forgot, and when she recalled like now, sometimes in the middle of enjoying herself, of being alive, she wondered how she could have dared keep going.” I really appreciated the exploration of grief and loss throughout the novel. It was beautifully and expertly woven into the story while still maintaining a sense of hope. What are some of the challenges of writing about such a complex topic in such a realistic and emotional way?
Lori: The danger is that, as a human, you’ve experienced your own grief. Writing about it dredges it up. But writing also helps me get through the bad times, too. In the case of Bridey, her grief was how I saw into her. I had just taken to my house for lockdown (a few weeks before everyone else I knew) and I wasn’t feeling all the people on Facebook making bread and putting on free concerts. I didn’t feel expansive and generous. I had just canceled three months of book tour events for The Lucky One, and all I had was a bad draft of Death at Greenway. So I sat at my desk for revision, and thought, “I don’t have the Blitz spirit.” Talk about my research getting into my head. I realized that was Bridey’s predicament. She didn’t have the Blitz spirit, either, but why? Her loss didn’t make her an expansive person, either; she had things she wanted out of life. She didn’t want to care for other people’s children in the country, but it was a means to an end for her, and as it turned out, the beginning of her ability to live on. Revisiting all that is a lot, emotionally, and I’m sure reading this book is a lot, too. But why do we read, if not to live through hard times and see the other side with these characters, so we can see the way for ourselves?
Ashley: In such traumatic and trying times as this period was for so many, I feel it would be understandable for people to protect their loved ones and family above others even if they do want to help others and do their part. This, I imagine, would lead to perhaps morally grey or “selfish” choices being made. It is said in the novel that “What had come of the notion that they were all in it together? Had they become so worn down they couldn’t take care of one another?” In times of great turmoil, what is more important when looking at the actions of an individual – action or intent?
Lori: Intent is great, but it’s hard to see intent when there’s no action. Action, even imperfect action, might help another person, and might inspire others to act, too.
Ashley: Are you able to share anything about what you are currently working on?
Lori: It’s early days, no title, but here are some key words: contemporary novel, family secrets, cold case, submerged car. It’s really different from Death at Greenway. I’m a moving target! I’m done with the first draft, and now I have to dig in to revisions and figure out what I got wrong and what to call it.
Lori has some exciting things coming up, and I cannot wait! If you would like to keep up to date with Lori as well, visit her website at www.loriraderday.com and on Instagram and Twitter at @LoriRaderDay.