Lessons for Writers from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

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by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Not long ago, I attended a benefit for an adult literacy program that featured Annie Barrows, co-author of the best selling book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Annie’s aunt, Mary Ann Schaffer, was the one who wrote the book.

“Mary Ann was witty,” Annie said. She’s a petite woman who had to stand on a box to reach the microphone at the podium.

Above: Annie Barrows speaking…standing on a box at the podium to reach the microphone.

“My aunt was always writing though she never saw herself as a writer, and she never finished anything. It was an impediment. A writer was not her.”

The Guernsey book began in 1980. Mary Ann had gone to the Channel Islands to chase down a book idea and ended up stuck at the airport for thirty-six hours due to foggy weather. According to Annie, “Mary Ann spent most of the time in the men’s room under a hand dryer trying to keep warm.”

But when Mary Ann did venture from the men’s room, she stumbled on some interesting books in the airport: all kinds of information about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. When the fog lifted, so did Mary Ann. She left the airport without ever actually seeing Guernsey Island but as a self-taught expert on its Nazi Occupation.

It was Cynthia, Mary Ann’s sister and mother to Annie, who kept after her to write. Cynthia even started a writing group to force her sister to work on something. Every single week, Mary Ann had to turn something in at the writing group. Keep in mind this was twenty years after Mary Ann had gone to Guernsey. Twenty years after the germ of the idea was planted.

Annie gave credit to the writing group for watering and nourishing and providing sunshine to her aunt’s germ of an idea. “The power of the group became her reader,” said Annie. “Her community wanted to know how this book was going to end. ‘We want more!’ they threatened her.”

So Mary Ann kept at it. She finished the first draft of the book, found an agent, and continued to work on the manuscript for over a year. Finally, the manuscript was polished and was ready to send out: Twelve proposals were sent to twelve publishers.

Amazingly, all twelve wanted it. Dial Press, part of Random House, snatched it up.

But the book needed substantive rewriting and Mary Ann had become ill with cancer. Annie, a children’s author, agreed to help. “A family is a club with high dues,” Annie quipped. The manuscript was too short so Annie expanded the story. She added a character but wouldn’t identify which one.

As Mary Ann’s illness progressed, Annie realized that working on the book helped her spend time with the “old Mary Ann.” The witty, quirky aunt whom she obviously adored.

Sadly, Mary Ann passed away five months before the book’s release.

Annie Barrows at a book signing.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society became a runaway bestseller, holding a spot on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. It’s been published in thirty-two countries, with over two million copies in print in the United States alone. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, be sure to add it to your list.

There are so many lessons for writers in this story-behind-the-story:

Nothing is wasted. Find (or start!) a writing community. Stick with a project. Make use of everything in your life. Finish something!

And the next time you’re stuck in an airport…take notes.

Suzanne Woods Fisher is a bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell Books. She hosts a weekly radio show and has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Amish proverb. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Suzanne on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.

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