Diving into Life Head First with Barbara Zitwer, Author of “The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society”
I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I loved The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society from the minute I saw that gorgeous illustration of the woman diving fearlessly into the lake. How did you come up with this story?
My mother passed away the day I arrived in London returning from the Frankfurt Book Fair almost seven years ago. She had been battling cancer and I had said my tearful goodbye to her in NYC, before she pushed me out of her hospital room insisting that I “Shove on! And go to the book fair!” When I got the call of her death, I slumped into my friend’s arms and she suggested we take a walk in Hampstead Heath, one of my favorite places. I followed her through an old picket fence, through an archway of hanging trees, and finally the most magnificent pond came into view. I felt as if I had stepped into Shangri-la. It was October and cold, but I noticed several women swimming, including a woman with the brightest turquoise eyes, who was probably in her 80’s, who asked if I wanted to take a swim. She pointed toward a little hut and a box of spare suits. Another woman, who was 93, was diving into the pond!
I took a swim and that swim changed me. It was a transformative and deeply spiritual experience and I felt my mother around me. I felt a wave of love and happiness in every molecule of my body. When I got out of the water, I chatted with the elderly women — who seemed like real life angels to me — and, when we left, my friend told me that J.M. Barrie had donated the first Peter Pan Cup to the Christmas Race. Instead of being clouded with grief and tears, my mind started clicking and out popped the words, “The J.M. Barrie Ladies Swimming Society!” My friend said, “You’ll have to write the book now.” And I said I would.
You dedicate the book to your mother, Edith, who inspired the story. I have a mother named Edith, too, who inspires me every day so this really stood out to me.
I felt that my mother’s energy, sheer force of will and love gave me that story on the day she died and although it was hard to write, I had to do it for her. I would often shake my head in frustration and think, “MOTHER!” But my imagination replaced my grief and I finished the book for her.
How much of your novel is based on fact?
I was inspired by the real woman’s pond in Hampstead Heath and the elderly women I met who have been swimming there for over 50 years. The facts about James M. Barrie are true, and I based all the locations in the Cotswolds on places I visited. But the story and characters are compositions of women I know and love with my imagination added.
Female friendship is so important, probably even more so later in life. What does friendship mean to you? Do you have a group like this or a long-time BFF like Joey and Sarah?
I am so lucky to still have my best friends from high school. It’s amazing and comforting to have such a history with my girlfriends. Also, I am lucky to have many great woman friends around the world. I find that I have actually collected groups of women friends in my professional life as well as my personal life. I am an international literary agent and work with several women co-agents in different countries. For almost fifteen years, we have held girls’ nights out during one of the big book fairs in Europe.
Were you a Peter Pan fan as a child?
I loved Peter Pan and remember watching the Mary Martin musical on our black and white TV! As an adult, I became entranced again when I saw Finding Neverland. I’ve read Peter Pan many times now and regard it as a masterpiece. I discovered many interesting themes in Barrie’s life. His brother drowned when he was a child and his mother never got over his death. Barrie used to dress up like him to make his mother feel better. Later on, he befriended the five Lewyellen Davis boys and, when both their parents died, he adopted them. Peter Lewyllen Davies and Barrie’s brother were the models for Peter Pan. And the story of Peter and the lost boys always searching for a “mother” is so moving.
My favorite books are those that really capture a sense of place, and you did that so beautifully. Tell me about that part of the world – it sounds magical.
The Cotswolds are a place where it seems time stood still from 800 years ago. The entire area is preserved and protected so it’s like stepping back to a gentler, more serene time. The landscapes are idyllic – horses grazing, sheep nibbling in the green fields – and the people are warm, funny, and genuine. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
I was genuinely sad when I finished the book. Any sequels in the works? What’s next for you?
I am working on my new novel called Mont Blanc. It’s the story of a widowed psychiatrist who meets a handsome ghost with amnesia. They help each other move on. It’s a very romantic story and a kind of adult fable. I get sad sometimes as I write it, but I hope it will be beautiful, thought-provoking and filled with love and a happy ending! I love a happy ending!