GREENVILLE — The author whose book was chosen for this year’s One Book One County Montcalm selection, Helen Simonson, said she expected to be “thoroughly grilled” at a book signing Tuesday evening at Greenville High School’s Performing Arts Center.
She was. And she seemed to enjoy every moment of it.
A crowd of about 400 people listened appreciatively as the author shared details of her writing process, the travails of being a stay-at-home mom attempting to pen a novel and the ins and outs of life on a book tour. The latter, she said, she quite likes.
“I do enjoy being on tour,” Simonson said. “It’s not really so much about being an author, but about being a wife and mother. On tour there’s a bathtub and you don’t have to make dinner.”
Those hoping to pick up “secrets” of Simonson’s writing process may have been somewhat disappointed, but then again, maybe not. Her stories of motherhood, studying for her MFA and the habit men have of commandeering the armrest of any airline seat rolled from her tongue as smoothly as from any standup comedian’s. The audience was entirely entertained throughout the duration of Simonson’s talk.
When she did get down to the nitty-gritty of addressing the characters from her novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” it was only to say she intentionally left their descriptions vague in order to allow the reader to form his or her own images.
Likewise, when asked which actors she would like to see play major roles in a possible movie adaptation of the book, she refused to name names.
“It’s a great party game and you’re all free to cast the movie yourselves,” she said. “Your impression is very different from my impression.”
Simonson added she did not write the book from some pre-conceived “script” or plan, but instead allowed both the narrative and characters to develop on their own as the writing progressed.
“I literally started with the village, the house, Major Pettigrew, Mrs. Ali,” Simonson said. “That’s all I had at first. Then I just created the characters as I went along. It’s all about letting go of what you want to write about and just going with whoever shows up.”
Though the novel was several years in the making, Simonson was initially unprepared for its spectacular success. Instead of being a small, “slow-growing” book, as expected, it rose to number 16 on the New York Times best seller list soon after being published by Random House.
“They wanted me to go on tour after just a week or so,” Simonson said. “I ran out and bought a few moderately priced dresses, gathered my teenage boys and said, ‘This is a pizza menu. This is a Chinese food menu. And this bulky cube is called a washing machine. Bye.’”
Simonson climbed aboard a soapbox only once all evening, and that in the most charming manner imaginable. The topic was sex and her distaste for the manner in which Hollywood considers it something for the young only.
“I am ticked off that for Hollywood, love and sex are just for those under 30,” she said. “We should all hope that we’re going to live past 30. I used to deliver Meals on Wheels to women in their 90s and let me tell you, they were still thinking about sex. We should be celebrating all our passions throughout our lives.”
Her final thought for the evening was an admission that writing, though one of her loves, is also hard work. By the time she was nearing the end of her novel — which is her first — she admits there were moments when the enjoyment of writing fled.
“There were times I really hated Major Pettigrew,” she said. “I was very willing and ready to get divorced from him. I was just happy to get to the end of the book.
“However, Major Pettigrew has been very good to me and he will be an extra relative of mine the rest of my life.”
One Book One County organizer Maureen Burns and Dean of Instruction and Faculty at Montcalm Community College Gary Hauck, emceed the event. Burns introduced library directors and personnel from throughout the county who were in attendance.
Hauck admitted he generally sticks with factual books, but was happy to make the leap to fiction in this case.
“I usually prefer non-fiction,” Hauck said. “But I have to say, I could not put this book down.”
Judging by the standing ovation Simonson received at the end of her talk, that’s a common sentiment among Montcalm County readers.