In conversation with... Maisie Thomas

I loved Maisie Thomas’ debut, The Railway Girls, so I was delighted when she agreed to chat with me.

The role of women on the railways in wartime is fascinating and seems to have been much forgotten. What inspired you to write about it?

Yes, it is fascinating and, for me, the most amazing thing was the huge variety of jobs that women undertook. By the end of the war, the only jobs they weren't doing were those of train driver and fireman, but they did everything else - all the jobs you'd normally associate with working on a station or train, plus jobs in the engine sheds and on the permanent way (railway tracks).

I became interested in writing about the war about 10 years ago when WW2 sagas started to appear in quantity. My main interest was life on the home front and I now have a large collection of books. I started writing a couple of books, but set them aside. Fast forward to the end of 2018 and Arrow, Penguin's saga imprint, was looking for an author to write a railway-based WW2 saga series. The editor rang my agent and she suggested me. Less than a fortnight later, after I produced a detailed proposal for the series, I was offered a contract.

Having read the book I can understand why they snapped up your proposal – both the story and your characters are so engaging. Tell me a little about how you developed them?

Well, five of them already existed in the books I've already mentioned that never got finished, so I already knew a lot about them, especially Joan. The one I expected to have trouble with was Dot. When I compiled the proposal, I had to choose three viewpoint characters. These were Joan and Mabel, both of whom I knew about; then, since they were in their early 20s, I thought the third main character should be older and I made up Dot on the spot. I literally began a paragraph about her without knowing what I was going to say, just knowing I had to say something. I thought "They won't hold me to this" but they did! - and what a good thing they did. Dot seems to be the character everyone picks out as their favourite. I love her too. For me, she epitomises the women of the home front, women who devoted long hours to war work and then went home and looked after their homes and families. It was taken utterly for granted that they would manage their domestic duties.

I loved Dot too and I really want to know how her story pans out. It interesting that three of the women are seen as being in the spotlight because some of the secondary characters are just as fascinating. Do you know yet how many books there will be and how much of the wartime period they will cover?

I was asked to write a trilogy about three main characters, with a supporting cast of other characters ready to step forward to take the spotlight if the series continues. I'm glad you like the secondary characters. Readers will get a glimpse of Cordelia's home life in the second book, Secrets of the Railway Girls, and they'll also find out more about one of the girls in the gang of lengthmen Mabel works with. At the moment I am coming towards to end of writing book 3, which takes the war as far as June 1941. Will the series continue? I hope so! I'd love to share the stories of my other railway girls.