After enjoying getting to know the Foyles Bookshop Girls, reviewer Philipa Coughlan was keen to find out more about the series from author Elaine Roberts.

First, here’s Philipa’s introduction to both Elaine and her books:

After completing a first novel in her 20s, but then receiving many rejections, Elaine Roberts put the idea of becoming a novelist on hold until she joined a creative writing class in 2012. Soon, her short stories were being widely published and she was then approached by Aria Publishing (the digital arm of Head of Zeus) to write a trilogy of WWI sagas set around the famous Foyles Bookshop in London.

Elaine is married to Dave, with five children who have now flown the nest in Dartford, Kent, but alongside her writing Elaine keeps busy with her grandchildren, dogs and cats. She loves to read and is now involved in many aspects of passing on her experiences and sharing ideas and tips for new writers.

The Foyles Bookshop Girls

The first in the series, in which we meet childhood friends Molly, Victoria and Alice, who start to work in a wonderful bookshop, alongside enjoying their time off and sharing joy and happiness with their families. But it is 1914 and war threatens. Soon the men in their lives will be leaving as, one by one, they enlist and set off to fight in the army on the war front abroad, as the war that was expected to ‘end by Christmas’ carries forward into further years and fears for those back home.

The Foyles Bookshop Girls at War

Molly, Victoria and Alice try to maintain their lively lives working amongst the shelves of books at Foyles, taking tea and chocolate cake out on treats and learning to move on from heartache and hardship. As the war escalates, Molly finds herself unhappy that her job isn’t helping the ‘boys out in the trenches’ so she secretly gets a job at a munitions factory, where many hundreds of women were taken on to work day and night producing shells for the frontline. All three will realise how different life is going to be as the war continues, but will their broken hearts find some love amidst all the death and chaos that reigns down on the city?

I read The Foyles Bookshop Girls at War in order to review it, but I was instantly drawn into these sagas circulating around the three main female characters. Elaine Roberts writes great individual scenes but keeps the friendship of the trio tight and reassuring to them in times of distress – many of which feature as the plot develops. Her wider historical research about the families in areas of war-ravaged London and the work in the vast munition factories that often proved fatal for employees adds much beyond many similar romantic novels. I look forward to reading the last of the trilogy as there are many strands to complete about Molly, Alice and Victoria. Their roles within diverging families are also integral and interesting and other characters will surely add much to the plot.

Philip Coughlan
November 2018

And now for Philipa’s Q&A with Elaine Roberts:

Philipa Coughlan: The Foyles Bookshop Girls is a trilogy published through Aria publishing. How exciting, or frightening perhaps, was it to have to commit to three specific books?

Elaine Roberts: When I originally wrote The Foyles Bookshop Girls, it was a standalone book and I hadn’t anticipated doing a series of books with the same characters. As a writer, you dream of someone loving your work enough to want to publish it, but it was a total surprise when I was offered a three-book contract. This was quickly followed by fear. Can I do it again? Will the readers be disappointed with the subsequent books? I’ve taken to calling this the second book syndrome. 

PC: Molly, Victoria and Alice are the three main characters, becoming friends who meet and work at Foyles Bookshop. Did you have a plan for each girl or did the plot take precedence as to how they and the interesting lives of their families developed? 

ER: The three girls have known each other for most of their lives. They came from different backgrounds, but their paths crossed because of their parents and grandparents. Alice’s family background was set in a Victorian novel I’d written, but not had published. I moved the family forward to 1914 so I could write about how they managed during World War One.

I developed each character’s family background, so I knew what their journey would be during the novel. The plot and the historical events drive the story forward, while each of the characters has their own personal issues to overcome. 

PC: The link to issues around WWI is very poignant in 2018. How much research about the impact of the war, in London particularly, did you undertake?

ER: I did a huge amount of research. It started with a visit to The Imperial War Museum, but didn’t end there. I listened to podcasts of women who worked during World War One and attended many talks on the subject. I have managed to gain a library of books on the subject as well, including recipe books of that time. One of my most precious books details the timeline of when the bombs were actually dropped in London and how many were killed and injured in each case. Of course, along with historical data for the war, I also researched the history of the Foyles Bookshop and purchased old maps of London, because some street names have changed over time. 

PC: The young women are also very strong and independent. You link into the suffragette movement, which was fighting for their right to vote as WWI ended. Do you think you would have been a suffragette?

ER: The suffragette movement was in full swing before the war began and they ceased their actions to back the country, as it went to war. I like to think I would have been a suffragette, but actually, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough. Their movement and the women’s ability to take on the men’s work during this time has changed all our lives and we should feel indebted to them. 

PC: I liked the idea of Molly wanting to help Grace learn to read in Book Two. How important is education for girls even today when some take it for granted?

ER: Education is important for everybody, because knowledge brings choices and opportunities. The difference during World War One was that women were considered to be second class citizens and, except in a very few cases, were not given the opportunity of an education. 

PC: You mention the support of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and Society of Women Writers and Journalists. How did they help you to get published? 

ER: One of the main benefits is mixing with other writers. It’s interesting to find out that everything you go through, others have also experienced and you’re not on your own. I have found writers to be very generous with their time and advice, which as a novice, is a great encouragement. Both of these organisations have a New Writers Scheme, which gives a critique on an unpublished manuscript. I have also attended the Romantic Novelists’ Association annual conference for several years, which has enabled me to meet some industry professionals. In fact, that was how my book came to be published.

PC: I was particularly interested in your descriptions of the ‘canary girls’ working in the munitions factory in Book Two. A huge explosion in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire (where I live) killed many such girls in WWI and was for a long time not widely known about. How dangerous were the jobs women were undertaking during the war?

ER: All of the jobs were valuable, but some were more dangerous than others at that time. Clearly, one the most dangerous would have been working in the munitions factories. The workers breathed in the sulphur, which burnt their throats and lungs and turned their skin yellow, hence the term “Canary Girls”. On top of that, there was always the risk of an explosion, such as happened in places like Silvertown and Chilwell. Women jumped at the opportunity though, because the pay was so much greater than other work, particularly domestic service. 

PC: You attend ‘The Write Place’ alongside other writers. What is this and how could it help aspiring writers?

ER: The Write Place is a creative writing class, which I joined in 2012, and it has helped me learn the craft of writing fiction. As part of my learning, I have written short stories, as well as novels, and must give the tutor of the class a lot of credit for my achievements, since I started there. I would always encourage aspiring writers to join such a class, because it’s about learning the craft of writing fiction and non-fiction, alongside like-minded people.

PC: The final part of the trilogy is due out next year. Can you let us have some clues to tempt us into the lives of Molly, Victoria and Alice again?

ER: Ahh, this is tricky. The third book is planned out, but still being written. I can tell you that it focuses on Victoria and what she has to come to terms with. I shall say no more – nudge, nudge, wink, wink. 

PC: Have you any completely different ideas for your next novel(s) but do you feel at some point the Foyles Bookshop Girls will reappear?

ER: I have always got ideas running around my head and try to jot them down before they escape, but at this stage they are top secret. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about The Foyles Bookshop Girls and would always be open to writing about them in the future. They are now like old friends, that I hope will always be part of my life.

Our thanks to Elaine and Philipa for this excellent Q&A.

The Foyles Bookshop Girls by Elaine Roberts
Aria B079T5YYYN ebook Jun 2018

The Foyles Bookshop Girls at War by Elaine Roberts
Aria B07CZJXHHM ebook Jan 2019

You can find out more about Elaine and her work via her website and the Write Minds blog.