PW: What inspired you to write the biography of your grandmother, Jan Struther, The Real Mrs. Miniver?
YMG: I think I'd always been fascinated by my grandmother, although I had known a hundredth of the story, really. Some papers came to our part of the family, and I came across a letter she had written during her depressed time. It was so nakedly written and powerful. I'd thought she was like the Mrs. Miniver of her reputation as a trophy housewife. I had no idea of her sadness, and that's what opened my eyes.
PW: What were some of the challenges you faced, writing about a grandmother who died nine years before you were born?
YMG: I didn't want to write a memoir about my grandmother. I don't dare be rude, but the books about people's grandmothers can be very self-indulgent. I think they probably bore the public stiff half the time. I'm such a borable reader myself, and I'm terrified of being a self-indulgent writer of interest to no one but myself or my family. I try to be as objective as possible.
PW: How did you decide which of her poems and prose to quote?
YMG: Perhaps, in a way, that was my bias: I didn't choose some of her bad stuff. I glossed over the rather poor semiautobiographical book she started writing in the early 1950s. Her poems are amazingly good and, as epigraphs at the beginning of the chapters, they encapsulate so many of the feelings she had in her life. In a way, I was almost in a trance: I just thought, what shall I put at the beginning of the next chapter? And the perfect poem just came. I was on her wavelength: it was almost as if they fell into my lap.
PW: How did you go about your research?
YMG: I wrote to Dolf (Jan's second husband) in New York, saying I'd be interested to write about Jan. There'd been a biographer who had wanted to write about her and had gone to interview Dolf for a week, but lucky for me that project hadn't gotten off the ground. So he said, "Why don't you come? I'm free on the 19th of June." That was only about two weeks away, so I dropped everything, my husband looked after the children and I had an amazing week in New York looking at Dolf's papers. He'd found this huge box of letters, and it was a treasure trove. He'd kept everything she'd written to him, including little notes she'd left on top of the pillow saying, "please don't wake me up."
PW: When you were working on the biography, did you spend more time reading or writing?
YMG: I spent more time reading, probably, but a wonderful time reading, just steeping myself in the subject. She wrote simple verse in a way that touches you and hits you in the stomach. She wouldn't say she was a highbrow poet at all; she was middlebrow, but good middlebrow can be incredibly potent. Her poems are on the Internet now, but they're not printed in any books other than mine—except her hymns, including "Lord of All Hopefullness," which is sung at weddings and funerals all over the English-speaking world. I think she hoped she'd be remembered as a poet more than anything else. She's really remembered as a hymn writer.
PW: She had mixed feelings about being confused with her character, Mrs. Miniver. What do you think she'd have to say about the title of your book?
YMG: I think she probably would have understood that you had to have the dreaded name in the title. She might have been mildly disapproving, but I think she'd have been basically pleased that her story had been told. I think this book makes clear the extent to which she was not Mrs. Miniver.