Top international best selling author Dinah Jefferies is back with a stunning World War II epic, the first book in a new series that went straight to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list. Daughters of War is a tale of three sisters, secrets, and bravery in the darkness of war-torn France.
Hi there, I’m your host, Jenny Wheeler and in Binge Reading today Dinah talks about growing up in Malaysia, the book that helped her break through as an international author and why she enjoys books that are rooted in community stories.
If you are interested in seeing exclusive bonus content – like Dinah’s answers to the Getting-to-Know-You five quickfire questions – then consider supporting the podcast on Patreon. For as little as a cup of coffee a month, you would be helping fund the show and you would also share in some entertaining Behind the Scenes news.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why the theme of separation resonates in Dinah’s stories
- Her path from Asian set books to World War II
- The breakthrough book that made her an international bestseller
- The origins of The Tuscan Contessa
- The writers she’s reading right now
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Dinah Jefferies:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
But now here’s Dinah.
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Dinah and welcome to the show. It’s good to have you with us.
Dinah Jefferies: Thank you for having me.
Introducing international bestselling author Dinah Jefferies
Jenny Wheeler: You are an international bestselling author of historical fiction. Normally you’ve tackled Asian settings but the last two books, Daughters of War – which is the one we’re talking about today – and the one before that, The Tuscan Contessa, are both set in Europe in the Second World War. Why did you make that change?
Dinah Jefferies: I had done six books set in the East. I was born in Malaysia and lived there as a child, so it was familiar to me although they were all different countries – Burma or rather Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, those kinds of countries. But there came a point when I needed something new. I needed a new challenge.
I didn’t know what that new challenge was, but the most obvious thing to begin with was a change of location. That’s really all it was, and Tuscany was the first choice because I was staying there on a family holiday. I hadn’t thought of it as a World War II book, or even a book set in Tuscany, but I fell headfirst down some steps, twisted my foot, and had to spend most of the holiday with my foot up covered in ice.
I read a lot of books about what had happened in Northern Tuscany in the mountains during the Second World War, and it was so intriguing I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s gone from there.
Setting the scene for the new World War II series
I thought, after Tuscany, if I do another World War II book, where would I like to set that? That is when I hit on the idea of a rural village in the Dordogne, and that’s all the change was about. And as well as wanting to do a different kind of book or a book set in a different location, I’d had enough of all the long-haul flights, because I always go to the places I set my books and Europe is a lot easier from here.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. To digress for a moment, I did notice in your website bio that you spent some time in Tuscany as an au pair working for a Tuscan countess at one stage, didn’t you?
Dinah Jefferies: I did. That was a long time ago. I was 19 and it was San Gimignano which is very well known as the town with all the towers, but when I was there, there were virtually no tourists at all. I was the only foreigner in the village for several months. It was an interesting time. Of course, I did go back there on one of my trips to Tuscany, before the pandemic, luckily, and went to see it. It has changed so much, as places do.
Jenny Wheeler: Was there anything of that experience that you could use in the book?
Dinah Jefferies: I suppose the feel of the location. The tower was perhaps one of the things that sparked the idea of the tower in The Tuscan Contessa.
Jenny Wheeler: I always think the fragrance, how the air smells, that kind of thing is often nice to put in.
Research trips to visit the scene of the action
Dinah Jefferies: Yes. The feel, the sensations of it, the scents, the colors, the light, all that. But then I did go to Tuscany four times during, before and after I wrote the book, so I refreshed a lot of my memories.
Jenny Wheeler: Daughters of War, the most recent book, deals with three sisters who are left in France in a family home when their mother returns to England. They’re in Vichy France, so they are supposedly neutral citizens, but they find themselves drawn more and more into conflict situations. It’s late in the war. It’s 1944. Apart from wanting to set a book in France, what sparked that idea of the three sisters and then the whole setup?
Dinah Jefferies: I think World War II offers ready-made, epic, escapist fiction, delivering antagonists, enemies, heroes. But you have to capture specific scenarios and specific characters that connect with a reader’s own experience of life, so the inspiration for the book was the sister relationship itself – the deep bonds between sisters, the arguments, the jealousies and the secrets.
They are all very different kinds of women and they all have to learn to be brave in different ways. It reminded me of tales my mother used to tell. She’s gone now, but during World War II, at just 14, she was a fire watcher during the Second World War on the roof of Boots the Chemist – that’s what it used to be called – in Sheffield. When I was younger I didn’t think much about it, but when I was writing this book and I couldn’t ask her anymore, I did wonder how it must have felt.
Three sisters coping as normal citizens in the midst of war
It might have been scary, but I think it was quite exciting. This book, I wouldn’t say it’s exciting, it’s very much about how these sisters cope with each other and the war. The book isn’t about horrors, it’s about people. So that’s what I did, and the sister relationship was where it all started.
Jenny Wheeler: It might not be exactly exciting, but there’s a tremendous amount of tension that builds up both externally because of things that are happening in the village, but also between the three of them as they try and negotiate the way they’re going to conduct themselves to avoid getting into trouble with the German occupation. There is plenty of conflict there, as you say. You’ve got it planned as a trilogy, don’t you?
Dinah Jefferies: I do. In fact, I’m publicizing Daughters of War, which is the first one. I’m copy editing The Hidden Palace, which is the second one, and I’ve got 40,000 words of the third one. So, I’m juggling.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s amazing. When you started out, how much outlining did you do for the three books?
Dinah Jefferies: I didn’t actually. I knew it was going to be about three sisters and that the story was going to continue. But what happened was I had an original idea which got ditched fairly early on in writing the first one, because I realized that the final book had to be the first book, because it was the most immediately powerful. The following two books had to go somewhere else. Sounds complicated.
Weaving the narrative – More to come with Books Two and Three
I wrote what was going to be my third book as my first book, and still then had to work out what the second and third were going to be. In fact, it was only when I got towards the end of Daughters of War that I suddenly had the idea about a character who could be central to the second book, as well as one of the sisters. I had to then thread a little bit about that character into Daughters of War so that it would work and wouldn’t seem as if it had come out of the blue.
As far as the third book is concerned, I didn’t know at all what was going to happen. I just knew where it was going to be set, and that’s Morocco.
Jenny Wheeler: I was thinking about this because I have written a historical mystery which started out with three brothers, and I devoted the first three books to each one of those brothers. But you haven’t done that. It’s tempting to do that because it’s a neat and tidy way to do it.
But all of the sisters at the end of book one, their endings are quite open and there are lots of open storylines and uncompleted plot lines, so you really do want to read on to book two to see what happens to them. For instance, the character Jack, who is an English airman in the first book. There are a lot of unresolved issues around him. Then there are some boys in the village who I think betrayed them, but you don’t quite know that at the moment, and you don’t know where that’s going.
Stories to touch hearts and characters to care about
There are lots of interesting lines like that. I guess that was something you had to do, to feed into the story lots of incomplete threads that you can carry through into the other two books.
Dinah Jefferies: Yes. I knew I wanted all three sisters to get through the war, and this family secret and a terrible betrayal unravels their close-knit lives. You have mentioned Jack. Yes, he does appear in the second book. He is one of the threads that you wonder about.
Basically, I wanted to write women my readers would really root for. We want stories to touch our hearts. We want to care. We want to love the characters or hate them, or to feel suspense, fear, or joy along with them. That is what I was aiming for in the first book, and then the second book takes some of that onwards. Without saying too much.
Jenny Wheeler: The three sisters have each got rather a different attitude towards risk taking, with the eldest one, Hélène, very much being the one who wants to try and keep her other two sisters safe. The other two sisters are inclined to be bigger risk-takers. I must admit, as I read it, I feared for Hélène because I kept thinking she might be the one that something dreadful happened to, so it’s good for people to hear that everybody survives at least book number one.
Dinah Jefferies: It’s interesting that you say that about Hélène, because that wasn’t a tension I particularly focused on and didn’t really even realize was there. There are significant deaths in the book and I felt that was enough.
On their way to victory, but many trials still to come
I wanted the three sisters to continue as three sisters throughout the three books, even though the balance of how much space they take up in the story differs a lot. In this book they are three point of view characters. Hélène, however, has the biggest chunk. In the next book, Florence has the biggest chunk. I think that’s all I need to say about that.
Jenny Wheeler: Because it’s right towards the later years of the war, it’s 1944, and during book one the arrival in Normandy happens, you know they’re on the way to liberation. But I think all of us probably have that sense of, oh, we really hope they’re going to get through. They’ve got this far that you don’t want them to get killed the day before peace is declared. I always think there is a terrible sort of sadness and irony about those poor folk who died within a few days of peace being declared. That very much hangs over the story as well, I think.
Dinah Jefferies: Absolutely. They’re at the end of the tethers. They’re desperate for liberation from the Nazi occupation and for normal life to return. The people are hungry or hiding. There have been executions and disappearances and the Nazis, too, are growing more and more desperate, knowing that it’s looking more and more likely that they may not win the war.
Everyone’s had enough, but there are still obstacles to overcome and dangers to face right up to the end. And of course, a big theme of this book is how we overcome really difficult times, how we face those difficulties and challenges and still find the strength to go on, still maintain hope and bravery and love as well.
A distant mother figure and the theme of separation
Close to the end it’s a bit like writing a book, isn’t it? You are almost at the end and you’re desperate to get there, but there are still obstacles to overcome.
Jenny Wheeler: There is also the theme of family separation. The figure of the mother is quite distant and you’re not quite sure how committed she is to her girls. I thought it was interesting that your first novel was called The Separation. You’ve said that Emma, the main character in that book, is very close to you as a person. I wondered if there was something about that theme of family separation that you found intriguing because you have returned to it several times, haven’t you?
Dinah Jefferies: Yes. I think it’s pretty much a universal theme that people can very easily connect with. Most readers want to feel something when they read, and to write fiction that evokes emotion you have to open yourself up in front of everyone.
I find the theme of separation is one that works for me. It’s been a theme in my own life. My own son, fatal accident. Loss and separation is part of me, so it’s not surprising that it comes out in my books. Also, when we moved to England and left Malaysia, I was just coming up to nine and it had been my life, living somewhere hot with palm trees and beaches. Nothing could have been more different than towards the end of the 1950s Midlands in England in February. I felt a huge sense of separation from the land of my birth which I saw as my land, even though I was British and it wasn’t really my land at all.
Dinah Jefferies breakthrough book – The Tea Planter’s Wife
I think those two things have threaded through my life and thread through my books, not necessarily consciously. The first book, The Separation, in a way was a kind of ode to the country I felt I had lost.
Jenny Wheeler: It was your second book, The Tea Planter’s Wife, that made you an international bestseller, wasn’t it? It was a Sunday Times bestseller, it made the Richard and Judy Book Club, which is famous in England. People in other countries may not appreciate how much prominence that would have given you. It was a Kindle number one seller as well. What do you think it was about that book that gave you the cut through?
Dinah Jefferies: I wish I knew. I think luck always plays a part. The right book, the right time in the right hands. I think that’s what happened to some extent. Also, the theme of giving away a baby is something that tugs at people’s hearts.
Yes, it was the first of two Richard and Judy Book Club picks and it did go to number one in the Sunday Times bestsellers. It stayed in the bestseller list for something like 16 weeks, so there was quite a bit of word of mouth as well.
Richard of Richard and Judy told me that they had had more people come up in the street and talk about that book than any others for quite some time, so there must have been something about it that touched people’s hearts.
It’s so difficult to know. I think even publishers don’t know which books are going to make it and which books aren’t. It’s something of a lottery.
How travel restrictions have affected Dinah Jefferies’ research
Jenny Wheeler: I guess if you knew exactly what it was, you’d be able to reproduce it every single time.
Dinah Jefferies: Exactly, and there are not many people who can do that. There are some, but there are not many.
Jenny Wheeler: Lush settings, as you’ve mentioned, are very much a feature of your books. Reviewers mention them, and I wonder how you’ve been affected by the travel restrictions we’re facing with the pandemic. Perhaps not quite so much in Europe because you’re still traveling around a bit more there, but have you been affected?
Dinah Jefferies: We haven’t been traveling around in Europe at all. We haven’t been able to. For a short while last summer and it has only opened up recently. Some countries haven’t wanted us and I don’t blame them because we’ve had such terrible figures, such terrible death count.
But no, I couldn’t go to Malta for the second book and it’s now written. As I said, I’m doing the copy edits. I had a fantastic trip all booked for Malta in April this year. Couldn’t go, wasn’t allowed to go. Writing Daughters of War, I wasn’t able to get to France by the time I might have got there last summer, although frankly the pandemic was still pretty much going strong in France. I couldn’t go. So, for Daughters of War I had to rely entirely on memory of going there about 50 years ago and also looking at a lot of YouTube and reading a lot of books and talking to people who knew the Dordogne. So it was a very different experience for me.
Some good aspects of being in lockdown – Dinah Jefferies
Malta I’ve never been to. So again, it was reading, watching YouTube, trying to find films that were filmed there, reading novels set there, everything I could find to give myself a really good feel of what it was like. Now, hopefully, I’m to Morocco and Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains in November this year. However, the Delta variant has gone absolutely berserk there now, so I don’t know.
It has really been hard, actually. I know it’s been much harder for people who have been ill, so I shouldn’t complain at all. Luckily I haven’t been ill and none of my family have. My heart goes out to people who have. I’ve got a friend, double vaccinated, no previous health issues fighting for her life here in hospital now, as we speak. It’s not been good.
The good part of the pandemic for me as a writer is that I’ve been able to escape into my imaginary world and not worry too much when I couldn’t see people I love. I’m here with my husband, so that’s okay. My family live just down the road so we’d have conversations with them standing in their house and me standing in the road. For getting the books written it’s been brilliant, no other distractions, but I am getting to the point now where I want to get out and go to the places I’m writing about.
Jenny Wheeler: It is a bit scary, friends who have been vaccinated and still have got the variant. Mostly not terribly seriously, but obviously in some cases still quite ill with it.
Dinah Jefferies wider career – how she got started as an author
Dinah Jefferies: I think it’s very unlucky if you are affected that way, because the majority I know aren’t hospitalized. But she has been and is likely to be ill for a long time because it’s damaged her lungs. It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Even when you are double vaccinated, there is still a risk factor in sailing out into the world, isn’t there?
Dinah Jefferies: Oh, absolutely. I’m waiting for news of what everything is going to look like come November, how Morocco is. They have introduced a new countrywide curfew. Every time I think it’s going to be okay, it isn’t.
Every year I go with my family to a small Greek island called Paxos. It is the most beautiful, small, very green Greek island. We couldn’t go this year and we couldn’t go last year, so we’ve put it forward to next year. Fingers crossed we actually make it.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning away from talking about the books to your wider career, tell us a little bit about how you got started in fiction writing. What had you done before that, that might have fed into your writing, the experiences that helped turn you into a writer?
Dinah Jefferies: I’d always written, but not fiction. I’d always had an on and off anywhere journal, and I’d written short stories now and again, over a lifetime. I had done lots of different jobs before I started writing fiction. I was painting landscape abstracts, large abstracts. As you know, I’d been an au pair, I’d gone back to nature, living with a rock band at one point.
On a learning curve with writing
Writing fiction started because we were living in Spain in Northern Andalusia, my husband and I, and the crash of 2008 happened. We lost quite a lot of money because of something that happened. We needed to sell up and come back to England to start earning money again, because my husband is early retired and was just doing bits of consulting. Anyway, the crash affected us badly and we put the house on the market ready to sell it and come back to England.
We couldn’t sell it, not for a year and a half. In that time, I started writing because I thought I would finally write the novel that I had at the back of my mind and thought that maybe one day I would write. It focused my mind. I thought, I need to not think about what’s going to happen. I need to not think about losing the money. I need to not think about the fact that we can’t sell our house, and I put all my attention into writing a book.
Actually, it came so easily. It didn’t get published. It didn’t get me an agent. It got an agent interested and she took The Separation, which was the next book. But it was learning curve, that first book. At least I learned I could start at the beginning, get through it and finish it, because when you start writing fiction, you haven’t got a clue – well, I certainly didn’t. Unless you’ve been on a course of some kind, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to finish it. You don’t know if you can put it together. You don’t really know anything.
What Dinah Jefferies in reading now
I certainly didn’t and I certainly didn’t even know that much when I finished it, but at least I knew I could do it, actually physically produce something. It was like a duck to water and has been ever since.
Sometimes it’s really difficult and I am not enjoying it at all, but you just work through those patches. I think the only regret I have is not realizing I could do this earlier on in my life.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s lovely. This is The Joys of Binge Reading and we are starting to come to the end of our time together, so turning to what you like to read. We like to make some recommendations for our listeners for their next great read. What is your taste in fiction, and are you a binge reader as such?
Dinah Jefferies: I’m more of a binge listener these days. I absolutely adore audio books if they’ve got the right narrator. I would say my favorite two authors are Jane Harper – I ‘ve listened to all four of her books and absolutely loved them – and Tana French, who I think is equally brilliant.
They both share writing strong books with depth that don’t rely on gimmicks or psychopaths or whatever. They’re very much rooted in communities and groups of what feel like real people. I absolutely love those two authors and would recommend them to anyone.
What it means to be a mother – Joanna Glen recommendation
As far as one particular recent book I’ve read, I don’t know if it’s published over there, but it’s by Joanna Glen who wrote The Other Half of Augusta Hope. It’s called All My Mothers, and it was the most touching book I’ve read, or rather listened to, in a really long time. I would very much recommend that to anyone. It’s powerful about what it means to be a mother, and it’s the most enchanting story set in Cordoba in Spain.
Now I’m reading something completely different, which is Malibu Rising. I can’t remember the author’s name. You can see that these are all very different kinds of books. I like to read lots of different kinds of books.
The Harpy, by Megan Hunter. I thought that was particularly good. So, there are a few.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. Malibu Rising is by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I haven’t read it but I was quite fascinated by the first one she did which was supposedly based on Stevie Nicks and the band. That one sounded fascinating as well.
Dinah Jefferies: I didn’t read that one. I came across this almost by accident. I love finding books by accident because that’s how I find books I wouldn’t necessarily have looked for. Jane Harper was a real find for me. The first book, The Dry, is a film now, as you probably know. We watched it the other night. I thought it was good, but I preferred the book.
Doing it all over again – would Dinah Jefferies change anything?
Jenny Wheeler: Talking about audio books, I listened to Daughters of War and I thought your narrator in that was fantastic.
Dinah Jefferies: Oh, I haven’t heard it yet. I can’t wait. I did choose her, so I’m glad to hear that you liked it.
Jenny Wheeler: Circling round and looking back down the tunnel of time with your writing, is there anything you would do differently if you were doing it all over again?
Dinah Jefferies: With the writing, no, apart from starting writing earlier in my life. But we come to things as we come to them, don’t we? We bring ourselves and everything we’ve been and who we are and what we’ve been through to whatever we’re doing, so in some ways, maybe it was perfect the way it was.
I’ve changed a bit the way I write. I didn’t plan at all to begin with. The first two books weren’t planned. I knew what they were about. Then I went into planning quite strictly and now I’ve loosened up again because I find that if I try to stick to a plan, I do have better ideas as I go along. The act of writing, for me, brings up things I could never have thought about while I was trying to work out a plan.
So, it’s not that I would do anything differently. I think it’s more about how your professional work changes as you go along.
Jenny Wheeler: We talked about what you’ve got on for the next 12 months. I think your time’s pretty well full up with finishing this trilogy, isn’t it? When do you hope to have that third book done?
Adjusting and changing the writing process
Dinah Jefferies: I don’t know. Daughters was out this September, so The Hidden Palace will be out September 2022, and the Moroccan book will be September 2023, so I think I’ve got lots of time. I’m ahead of myself. I am finding the Moroccan book trickier to write in some ways, so I’m going to take it a bit more slowly than I usually do.
I seem to be writing it in the chunks. Normally I keep going until I’ve got the first draft done, but I stopped at about 20,000 words and sent it to my editor. Because I’ve changed publisher, I have an amazing new editor, and she wanted me to change quite a lot. I thought that was really useful because it meant I didn’t write the whole book and then have to change a whole book. Now I’ve written the next 20,000 and I’m currently going over that. It’s almost like this book is going to fall into five acts.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. I’m sure you like to hear from your readers. Where can they find you online?
Dinah Jefferies: The biggest thing about me is the spelling of my name because everybody gets it wrong. Twitter is @dinahjefferies. Jefferies can be spelt three or four different ways. I’ve got that ‘er’ in the middle, which often gets left out. That’s Twitter. On Facebook it’s Dinah Jefferies-author.
Jenny Wheeler: We will put all these links in the show notes for the episode as well, so they will be there if people need to search them out.
Dinah Jefferies: Oh, and a website. I forgot about that. www.dinahjefferies.com.
Where Dinah Jefferies can be found online
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. You are on BookBub too, aren’t you, if people want to follow you there.
Dinah Jefferies: Yes, I’ve recently found out about BookBub.
Jenny Wheeler: Great. It’s been fantastic talking. Thanks so much, Dinah, and all the best with the next book. I’m dying to see what happens with Jack, so I’ll be in the running for book two.
Dinah Jefferies: Oh, I hope you’re not the only one. I hope I’ve left enough of a ‘oh my goodness, what’s going to happen next’ feeling at the end.
Jenny Wheeler: Wonderful. Thanks a lot. Bye.
Remember you can hear Dinah answering Five Quickfire Questions on Binge Reading on Patreon, exclusive bonus content for Patreon supporters only.
If you enjoyed hearing about Dinah Jefferies you might also enjoy Natasha Lester’s The Paris Secret or Christine Wells stories of World War II Women spies
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