Interview with Gilbert Mansergh

Usually, Gilbert Mansergh is the one doing the interviewing on his radio show “Word by Word.” But the tables have turned! His YA novel The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill is the funny, lush, and interesting fictionalized story of his mother’s coming of age in 1920’s Massachusetts, and I am thrilled to chat with Mansergh for the fourth installment of my YA interview series.

After I read your book, I felt like I’d been to Gloucester, Massachusetts in the 1920’s.

The central part of Gloucester stayed “frozen” for a very long time, so the town I knew and wrote about was physically very like the town of Virginia’s childhood — different names and faces of course.

You can get the feel of the place in Wolfgang Peterson’s excellent movie The Perfect Storm (2000) starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. Some of the names on the wall of the Fisherman’s Memorial shown in the film are from families who appear in Virginia’s journals.

Did you ever live there or visit?

I visited Gloucester and stayed with my grandparents (Jennie and Doc Pettingill) several times when I was a youngster. The summer before I left for Stanford, I spent six weeks on Cape Ann, clearing out Aunt Sarah McMillan’s multi-story house at 69 Middle Street. It was sold to the YMCA next door, torn down and a modern extension and parking structure built there.

When going to graduate school at Indiana University, I traveled back with my wife and son for a week in Gloucester and stayed with cousins Ruth and Gilly Brown. I dropped in one other time after a business trip to NYC in the late 80’s.

The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill was based on stories your mother told. What happened when that “precocious” girl grew up? I wanted to know what your mother did later in life!

Virginia graduated from Gloucester High School with many of the Maplewood Avenue Gang including her best friend Tibby. She then went to Tufts University on a vocal music scholarship (and the money “matched” by Roger Babson). While at Tufts, she entered a radio singing contest sponsored by the Atwater Kent Radio Corporation winning at the Massachusetts state level. She also met and married my father, Heywood (Beau) Mansergh. (You can watch Beau portrayed as a high schooler on stage as part of the Sixth Avenue Playhouse New Voices on the Vine one-act plays from May 22 to May 31. Virginia graduated with a teacher’s degree in English, and Beau went into Tufts Medical School. They were married at the Tufts Chapel on the Halloween Saturday following their 1932 graduation and met presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt as they were checking into their Honeymoon hotel in Boston. FDR congratulated the newlyweds and sent them a bouquet of flowers with a note reminding them to vote for him that Tuesday. The couple changed all of the wedding gifts into silverware and stuffed the secret corners of Virginia’s Model A Roadster with knives, forks and spoons before setting out on a cross country road trip to Florida and then West to California to reunite with Beau’s parents in Burlingame. Beau and Ginnie rented an apartment in Oakland, where Beau sold life insurance for Met Life (with Virginia’s predictions as guidance). They had a baby boy in late September, 1933 and designed and built a house in Millbrae and moved in December, 1939.

In WWII, Beau worked for EIMAC, a San Francisco company making radio tubes as well as serving as a captain in the Civilian Defense Corps. (In secret, Beau was the West Coast “finder” for the Manhattan Project — sourcing hard-to-find metals and materials needed for the A-bomb.) Virginia earned her lieutenant stripes as a Red Cross volunteer until announcing before Christmas in 1944 that she would be getting pregnant. I was born in October, 1945, my sister in July, 1949.

Virginia was a “stay-at-home” mother while her kids were growing up and like her own mother, Jane Pettingill, she was active in many volunteer organizations. She kept in touch with Tibby throughout their lives. They visited each other several times over the years.

You will be able to read about Virginia and Beau and their 1957 suburban neighbors in my newest novel Secrets on Sycamore Lane.

Was there a real life Eddie? 

Yes indeed. Everything about Eddie is true and accurate as possible. He really taught Virginia how to box and use the “Spittle Special.” He graduated from junior high with the gang, but is not listed as graduating Gloucester High School. Despite his distinctive last name, I have been unable to find out if Virginia’s premonition came true at some future time.

In the authors note, you talk about how memories are changeable and storytelling is an art. Have you ever read Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish? There’s a small part in your book that I particularly loved, and that was wondering how that samovar really did get its dent!

To paraphrase Daniel Wallace: “You’re not supposed to believe [the story of the Cossack’s sword] you’re just supposed to believe in it.”

Ha ha, well done. What was the road to publishing like for you?

My first piece was published (in the Millbrae Sun newspaper) when I was in 7th grade, but I really learned to write in graduate school where I was co-author with different professors of articles for several psychology and education journals. Each journal had its distinctive style, and so I learned to adapt my writer’s voice to match.

Working as a writer-for-hire, I had already written or co-written over 60 non-fiction books or curriculums before novelizing The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill.

Even so, getting the book turned into a publishable novel was a 17-year journey — starting with a couple of short stories written for my mother’s 85th birthday, then a full-length, annotated and footnoted historical memoir and finally as a novel. The idea for turning the stories into a novel came from a Redwood Writers workshop where I learned the advantages of being able to move things round time-wise to tell a better story.

The events novelized as Virginia’s seventh-grade school year and summer, actually occurred over a three-year period. For example, the Admiral wasn’t anchored in Gloucester Harbor in 1922 because he was serving as Military Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands that year. He (and his granddaughter) visited Gloucester the following summer.

I shared a draft of my completed 53-chapter novel with a writer colleague (Patricia V. Davis) to get a woman’s perspective on the story. Unknown to me, she had just acquired a publishing company and offered to buy Gloucester Girl (as it was then entitled) as part of her first book launch. I worked with her editor over the next few months tightening the story and adding the long-kept secret of my mother’s ability to see people’s futures as a hook for the story arc.

Do you have any advice for authors?

The best advice I have ever heard about writing is to “put your butt in the chair and write.”

The best thing I learned personally was after I took the job as a film columnist for the Sebastopol Times and News. — WRITE FOR A DEADLINE (even a self-imposed deadline). If the column wasn’t written and submitted by noon Friday, it didn’t get printed (and I didn’t get paid!).

As a result, I learned to prioritize.

Where can we find your book?

Copperfield’s has it in several of their stores, or you can shop on Amazon or check it out from the Sonoma County Library.

You can find out more about Gilbert Mansergh, his books, and his radio show at gilmansergh.com.

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