All because of an oil change

Jacqueline Winspear tells the SF Chronicle about her unusual inspiration for what has proved to be a bestselling series starring 1920s-era heroine Maisie Dobbs:

So there she was, stuck in a traffic jam by the Pennzoil station in San
Rafael, when in a mid-daydream she got it: the character Maisie Dobbs,
investigator and psychologist, for a mystery novel she didn’t even know she had
in her. In the 10 minutes the Pennzoil station promises to do an oil change,
the plot thickened, as they say, and by the time she actually inched her way to
San Francisco and to her job selling telecommunications equipment to
businesses, the entire plot of her first book lay before her as a gift that
only a muse or a really bad traffic jam could provide. 

That first book, “Maisie Dobbs,” was published in 2003 and became a
national best-seller and the winner of all sorts of prestigious prizes. The
next year came the second in the Maisie Dobbs’ series, “Birds of a Feather,”
another critical and popular hit. And this month, Henry Holt & Co. has
published the latest, “Pardonable Lies.” 

Three books in less than three years. That was some traffic jam.

“It was my moment of artistic grace,” says Jacqueline Winspear of her
epiphany at Pennzoil (on Second Street and Shaver, should any aspirants out
there need inspiration).

But it was another, more poignant incident which really spurred Winspear on:

Now she is a writer, nothing but a writer. No more day jobs, no more
freelancing, no more wishful thinking. Winspear still can’t believe it. 

It took her cousin Stephanie to make her say it. Her cousin was dying of
cancer about a year ago, and in those wee hours of the morning when they were
talking about life and how fleeting and precious it is, her cousin told her
that Winspear could call herself whatever she pleased, but as far as she was
concerned, Winspear was a writer.

” ‘I’m going to tell everybody that my cousin Jackie is a writer,’ ” she

The memory brings Winspear to tears. She apologizes.

“After that I felt empowered,” she says. “I felt, ‘I can do this. I can
do this full time.’ “

She looks up and repeats the message her cousin took to her grave:

“I’m a writer.”