By Heather Barnes
Award winning author Bobbie Ann Mason visited FC Monday in honor of National Library Week, and also in celebration of her most recent book The Girl in the Blue Beret.
Mason, who grew up in Mayfield, KY, on a modest farm, and started writing when she about 10 years old. She claims to have been an avid reader for many years, but it was when she read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott that she knew she wanted to become a writer.
Throughout school Mason did not have a mentor or someone to guide her in what to study and read, and the library was incredibly limited. It was in college that she discovered literature and novels that used literature in a way she found interesting. Right after graduating from college, Mason moved to the Big Apple and began working for a TV-Movie magazine.
“I had to go away. To gain contrast, to see where I had been. I think it is always good to travel and move outside your normal world, even if it’s just for a trip,” said Mason.
Since then Mason has written a grand total of 14 books, including In Country, which was made in to a movie in 1989.
During the making of her movie, Mason was the source of much feedback for producers and watched some scenes be filmed on set. Mason recalls one scene of her book being translated in to a movie where her two main characters are in a swamp and it is early morning, saying that it was incredible to watch.
“There they were in their flannel shirts just like my characters Sam and Emmett and it gave me chills. It was thrilling,” said Mason.
In Country is not her only renowned book, though; Mason has been selected for four awards, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and has been a finalist for a number of awards for her collection of short pieces Shiloh and Other Stories.
Mason wrote a number of her first stories, like Clear Springs, about Kentucky while living in New York. She found herself wondering about her old classmates and neighbors and tying them in to her stories and novels. Finally, she moved back to Kentucky and began to write about the world.
“It took a kind of coming full circle to become a writer. I had to live my past and come to a new place to gain perspective. I felt I had gotten my past out of my system, as far as writing was concerned. And I found, after moving back to Kentucky, that I didn’t have to write about Kentucky. I could write about Paris,” said Mason.
Her most recent book, The Girl in the Blue Beret, takes place in Paris in parallel time settings 1944 and 1980. The book is about a World War II bomber pilot, Marshall Stone, whose plane crash landed in a field in Belgium during a raid. The local Frenchmen rushed out to help the crew, smuggling them into society and getting them back home to America. The main character returns to the crash site after retiring as a commercial pilot and relives his experiences, while also learning new things about the area, its people and what went on those many years ago.
The book is based off of the WWII experiences of Mason’s father-in-law, who passed away in 2004. She was inspired to write the book when taking a French class, which she decided to do after reading about the French Revolution. Mason took four years to write the novel, visiting Paris and meeting her late father-in-law’s contacts that helped him after their crash.
“The families that helped him were risking their lives. If a man was caught helping him he’d be shot. If a woman was caught helping him, she’d be sent to a concentration camp. And yet, here these Europeans were risking their lives. What astonished me was that these people were so grateful to Americans for sending those planes to Germany,” said Mason.
Mason’s father-in-law was given a fake ID, name and work card and young women and girls, who had more freedom than men, smuggled him throughout, and eventually out of, the country. Mason recalls him telling her of meeting a young woman at the train station secretly, and he knew it was her because “she was wearing something blue, perhaps a beret.”
The common man may think that it took an overly extended period of time for Mason to complete her novel, but she thinks that a good book needs a long time to truly develop. Especially since Mason had a lot of history and other facts to learn in order to write such a story.
“The deadlines don’t matter as much, you pressure yourself. It takes a long time to decompress after writing a novel,” said Mason.
Mason’s husband has also helped her throughout her career as a retired editor. He is Mason’s exclusive reader who often looks over her works before she sends them in to editors and publishers.
“He’s always been my greatest supporter. He has a very sharp pair of eyes,” said Mason.
Mason thinks The Girl in the Blue Beret will stay with her the longest; she greatly enjoyed reading about the war and history. Despite that, she feels closest to her book Clear Springs and is most proud of In Country because it reached so many people.
In regards to the critics, Mason does not flinch under their shrewd eyes.
“When you write you think in terms of language and pacing and emotion and detail. The writer wrote it and there it is, I can’t hang around to explain it. If it’s good, it’ll last. If not, people will pick it apart,” said Mason.
Mason will continue to write for pleasure, as she always has, as well as reading. When she isn’t reading or writing, Mason is at home with her husband of 43 years and her 13 pets, doing chores and signing books.