Sitting beside me on the far reaches of the patio at the Free Speech Movement Café, New York Times best-selling author Annie Barrows is reading my palms.
Along with her more well-known books, including the Ivy + Bean children’s series, the Berkeley-based author (and Society member of the Library Board) has some works of nonfiction under her belt — among them a book on fortune-telling. That’s where the palm-reading comes in.
And although, as she tells me, my love life may not be clear (“I don’t know how it’s going to end up,” she says), this much is: Barrows has a lot to be excited about.
The next book in the Ivy + Bean series comes out later in the month, after a five-year hiatus. She has projects in the works, including picture books and a work of fiction for adults. And she recently witnessed the best-selling book she co-authored with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer — called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — become a feature film, available to stream on Netflix starting this month.
Like the 2008 novel it was based upon, the movie tells the story of a young writer, named Juliet, who finds herself exchanging letters with residents of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel still under Nazi occupation while the dust of World War II is settling. The people Juliet is corresponding with are, she discovers, members of a book club that was invented as an alibi for breaking curfew after being confronted by German soldiers. Intending to write about the eponymous literary society, Juliet travels to Guernsey but ends up finding more than just material for a book.
We caught up with Barrows just days after the movie was released.
The story behind the making of the book is super interesting to me. Can you tell me about that?
Mary Ann, my aunt, was a writer forever. That was her identity. But she was not ever a writer who ever completed anything.
So she was in (England) doing research for a biography. And after she had been there for about a week doing the research, she decided she hated the person she was writing the biography of.
That’s a problem.
That woman didn’t deserve a biography, so she stopped. But she didn’t want to go home. She had another week (before her flight home), and so she flew to Guernsey.
So she got there, and this terrible fog comes out of the sea, and the whole island shuts down. The airport shuts down. The ferry service shuts down. And Mary Ann is basically stuck in Guernsey, where she doesn’t want to be. So she spent the next 36 hours in the airport waiting for the fog to lift and trying to keep warm under the hand dryer in the men’s restroom.
But 36 hours — you’ve got to have something to read. So she goes out and hauls in every book she can find from the gift store, which at that point, was apparently a major outlet for local publishing, and local publishing was all about the (German) occupation.
And then she left. So she didn’t see Guernsey. And when she came home, she started researching. That went on for 20 years. And then finally her writing group told her she had to stop researching and start writing. So she did. She wrote for about five years. She finished the manuscript, sent it off to an agent, they worked on it some more.
The agent said, “Let’s see if we can sell this manuscript” and sent it out to 12 publishers, and all 12 of them wanted it.
And not two months later, Mary Ann got sick. And then two months after that, a substantive editorial letter came in with all the changes and the rewrites and the add-ons.
And that’s when she called me up and said, “As the other writer in the family, can you finish this book for me?” And I said, “Of course I can, Mary Ann. No problem.” And then I panicked.
And then I came here — I came to Cal and started doing all the research I could. Thank God I had the University Library, and particularly the map room, at my fingertips. I just slammed down everything I could get my hands on — Mary Ann’s books but also all the books I could find here about the history of the lore in England and particularly in the Channel Islands.
So it’s 2008, the book comes out, and Mary Ann is not alive to see that. She died the same —
February 2008. (The U.S. edition of the book came out later that year.) She never got to see it. That’s just terrible. It kills me. It really does.
Did she know they were interested in a movie?
Unh-uh. It all happened after. Sure, you could say, “Oh, I know she’s up there somewhere.” Great. Fine. Be up there somewhere, but I’d much rather have her right down here.
So at what point did you see the movie?
At the premiere. (There were two premieres: the first in London and the second in Guernsey.)
What was your first impression of the movie?
Oh, I loved it. I mean, I thought the acting was wonderful, I thought she was fantastic — Lily James (of Downton Abbey, who plays Juliet). I was so happy. I mean, I cried all the way through it.
You went to school here. (Barrows graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in medieval history in 1984.) Did you have a favorite library?
My favorite place in the Library is probably quite well-known. I think I’ve said this on numerous public occasions, but it’s the fourth-floor women’s bathroom, off of the art history offices (in Doe Library).
Yeah. It’s actually heavily featured in a book I’m writing right now, not as a bathroom, though. I call it a microfiche room.
Love that. (laughs)
Because I thought it would be kind of disgusting to have my character spending all that time in the bathroom.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Oh, when I was about 30 (laughs). Kind of came to it late in life. I was an editor.
Yeah. Perfectly nice career being an editor, and then I just felt like it’s so much more fun to be a writer.
As my kids got older and I was spending more and more time reading children’s books, and loving those books, it just seemed sensible that I should start writing a book for kids. (The first book in the Ivy + Bean series came out in 2006.)
As a kid, I always liked the books where they didn’t talk down to you. You know?
God, or instructing them as though grown-ups have anything —
Oh, yeah. Because we have no idea. (laughs)
We have no idea, and we’ve got nothing on kids, either. Grown-ups are just so sure that kids need them to help them become grown-ups. Pssh. Grown-ups are stupid.
We have our own problems.
… she said maturely. “Grown-ups are stupid.” (laughs)
This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.