AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Iszi Lawrence

    Iszi Lawrence

    THE UNSTOPPABLE LETTY PEGG

    BLOOMSBURY EDUCATION

    FEBRUARY 2020


    THE UNSTOPPABLE LETTY PEGG is an historical adventure from presenter, writer and comedian Iszi Lawrence, described as the 'story of the suffragettes with the Jiu Jitsu and roller skating left in...'

    The day that Lettice Pegg follows her mother to a suffragette's protest march in London is the day her life changes, as that's when she discovers jiu jitsu.

    Questions about her family, the role of girls and a new best friend follow and before long, Lettice begins to challenge the role society demands of her - and to make her own mark on the world.

    We asked author ISZI LAWRENCE to tell us more about THE UNSTOPPABLE LETTY PEGG:


    Q: You're a comedian and history presenter by trade, so what brought you into writing?

    A: I was always writing, at school, at university but writing this book was the first time I showed my writing to a publisher. It was scary to do that, but obviously worth it!


    Q: Can you tell us in one sentence what your debut, The Unstoppable Letty Pegg, is about?

    A: It is about a girl called Lettice who, despite her chaotic family, cruel school teacher, and her sudden passion for jiu jitsu, grows to realise that wanting to make things better isn't always possible but trying to be better helps you discover where you truly belong.


    Q: Why did you decide to set this story in the time of the suffragettes and WSPU (The Women's Social and Political Union)? How involved would you have been, had you been around at this time?

    A: My friend Dr Naomi Paxton told me all about the jiu jitsu suffragettes and it inspired me so much. Not only did I read all about them, but I also learned jiu jitsu. I tend to write about what I'm obsessed with... and no... I'm far too big a coward to be involved in the militancy of the WSPU. I might have gone on a few marches, but I would never have tried to be arrested, or made bombs, or taken part in hunger strikes etc. Force feeding is terrifying. They were so brave. And so crazy.


    Q: There are a lot of historical details in your novel, including what went on during the women's protests and about ordinary life at the time - did you need to do much research to get these details right?

    A: There was so much going on in 1910, you have a King dying, suffragette protests, anarchist uprisings, Crippin escaping, gun crime... all happening at the same time in London. There was so much I couldn't fit in!

    I read a lot of books about Sophia Singh, the actresses' franchise league, and other History books. Edwardian times are thought of as simpler than life today, but it really was just as fast moving, political and antagonistic.

    The biggest discovery I made was there were no covered dustcarts in 1910... they weren't invented yet... which made me change a whole scene where Lettice gets thrown into one.


    Q: You also explore how vulnerable women were at the time; financially, politically and physically. Why did you want this to be such an important part of the story?

    A: Because it sucked, because there are people out there who romanticise it, and that's wrong. It wasn't fun. It was terrible. It also wasn't as simple as women vs men. Class had a huge impact too.

    Being a woman meant you weren't a real person. You couldn't get a divorce, you couldn't earn the same as a man, you had no rights to your children... your boss could tell you who you could date and you certainly couldn't do the same jobs as men, like be a police officer.


    Q: Can you tell us a bit about your main character, Lettice Pegg, and why you decided to tell your story through the eyes of a child rather than an adult?

    A: The truth is adults and children aren't that different... the main difference is adults have been around longer. So when you are writing about the past, it helps to have a character who is also experiencing what's happening for the first time, along with the reader. You're facing the world together.


    Q: Lettice's family includes a policeman, her father, and her mother who is a suffragette - why did you put them at opposing ends of the women's struggle?

    A: Firstly because I wanted to make the struggle personal to Lettice. She's 11, so women getting the vote wouldn't have had any real impact on her otherwise. I needed to have her invested in the cause one way or another.

    In the book I show how the police themselves had all sorts of politics, some wanting women to have the vote and others not. It was the policies of the government and to some extent, the decisions of the WSPU that caused the friction, not the individual policemen involved. By showing that Lettice loves both her parents and, despite their weaknesses, wants to protect them, highlights that these issues are never as simple as goodies vs baddies.


    Q: Lettice's escape from family is through jiu jitsu - what gave you the idea for this, were suffragettes using it? Do you practice and would you like to see more young people take it up?

    A: The suffragettes, as well as many other women, practiced martial arts back in Edwardian England. Jiu jitsu is important because it is about using your skill, not your strength, to overcome from the outside what seems impossible odds. You don't hit people with your fists, you hit them with the planet. So whatever they attack you with, you use their force to hurt them with it.

    It is karmic justice. You never attack, you reflect their aggression right back at them and stop them with it. It is also a great way to improve balance, to keep fit and test yourself in safe surroundings. Lettice learns to control her fear, or at least to not let it overtake her, and that is something that learning a martial art will teach you.


    Q: Who became your favourite supporting character as you wrote the book, and why?

    A: Mabel, Lettice's new friend. She's so clever and yet so idiotic. I do like Tilly the maid, too. A teenager who is rubbish at her job, and plucks the duster for feathers to put in her hat.


    Q: While the story concludes, there are questions left hanging at the end of The Unstoppable Letty Pegg - will there be a sequel?

    A: I'm keeping quiet about that.


    Q: When do you find the best time to write and where is your favourite place to write?

    A: I've just finished the latest series of Making History on Radio 4 which has taken up a LOT of my brain space. I'm now working on a couple of book ideas, one non-fiction the other fiction. I like to write wherever I can. I often find if I write in the same place every day I get a bit stagnant and stare into space too much. Much better to pounce on an idea sideways, go write in the garden for a bit, or on a train or in a hotel room.


    Q: Are there other historical periods you're keen to write about? When would you choose to live, if you could step back in time?

    A: Really, as a woman, going back in time is tough. I mean, you couldn't exactly go explore early Victorian London - not without a strong bladder - there were no female public bathrooms (the first were for the Great Exhibition of 1851), and it wasn't until Selfridges opened in 1909 that any shops had them. It was a way of trapping us. Making sure we stayed home or only visited friends.

    However, just because I might not want to live there doesn't mean I don't want to write about it or find out more. That's the great thing about books, you can imagine things that change your worldview without having to actually go through it yourself.


    Q: When you're not working, what do you do to escape?

    A: Reading, obviously. I've just finished Jenny Eclair's Inheritance, and I am working my way through Caroline Lawrence's children's mysteries about ancient Rome. And the Dojo. I am forever hurling myself at people and being flung through the air... or disarming men trying to stab me with knives, or trying to smash me with a baseball bat. I am very proud of all my bruises. I also love to draw.