‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

September Book of the Month: The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

the-glass-painters-daughter-9781471151880_hrToday we’re delighted to announce our September book of the month, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore.  First published six years ago, this has become a reading group staple and we’re delighted that Rachel will join us later in the month to take part in our very own book club chat.  And don’t worry if you’re not a member – look out for more exclusive blogs throughout September and for your chance to win a copy of the book.

We’ll leave it to Rachel to tell you more:

rachelhore“The first glimmerings of the idea that eventually became The Glass Painter’s Daughter came to me late one evening as I walked through the backstreets of Westminster. I was with my husband, returning from a party to a borrowed flat where we were to spend the night. It had been raining steadily for some time and the wet streets of Victorian houses with their black iron palings glistened with silver beauty in the soft streetlight. We turned a corner into Vincent Square, where the field at its centre was cast in darkness, and I stopped dead, struck by the odd sensation of stepping into my own past.

It was here that I had worked in a publisher’s office in my twenties, and now powerful memories of the passions I’d felt then, frustrated ambition, the pain of a love affair that went wrong, washed over me with such freshness I almost gasped. Later my mind was to roam back to that night-time incident, and to the gothic atmosphere of the web of streets between Victoria Street and the Thames, the hidden garden squares, the churches with their lovely stained glass windows. It came to me that it was the perfect setting for a story about the agonies and ecstasies of youth.

As I consulted books about the area’s history, the clearance of its slums in the mid-Victorian period, the building of the churches and the missions to the poor, a group of fictional characters began to form in my imagination. The Reverend Brownlow and his family have suffered the loss of a darling daughter and their story begins when he commissions a stained-glass window of an angel to commemorate her. It’s told from the point of view of the dead girl’s sister, Laura, who falls in love with the young artist who designs the window, but happiness is impossible, because he is married with a child. In the Brownlows’ tale of loss, confusion and yearning, there is still hope, however, and the glass angel shines out to tell them so.

This angel became the centrepiece of my novel, linking the narrative from the Victorian past to another that takes place a century later, when the window arrives in shattered pieces at a small stained-glass shop round the corner from the church. Here, Fran, daughter of the shop’s owner, and fellow craftsman Zac take on the painstaking task of repairing it. Through old papers, artefacts and a diary, they learn the story behind the window. This part also involved some careful research on my part, not only excavating some fascinating accounts about Victorian stained-glass making and artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, but taking evening classes in the craft myself, learning how to hone glass into shape without injuring myself, to solder strips of soft lead together and cement them down.

As I wrote, the subject of angels began to fascinate me and the quotes that head each chapter are the fruits of my reading: about the Biblical perception of angels as messengers of God; about nineteenth century ideas of guardian angels; and stories of people today who claim to have been helped by angels. Those readers who are interested might like to consider how some of my characters engage with different aspects of the angelic . Both Laura Brownlow and her mother, for example, struggle in different ways with the Victorian ideal of woman as ‘the angel in the house’. By giving a pure young girl, Amber, a job in the stained glass shop Fran might unwittingly have obeyed the Biblical behest and ‘entertained angels unawares’.

It’s difficult to think about churches and angels without music creeping in somewhere, and I found that Elgar’s dramatic and moving choral piece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, which Fran sings at her choir, ran through my mind as I wrote. ‘Gerontius’ is about the journey of a human soul after death to redemption and eternal joy, and for me it represented the story of a character who is present throughout the novel, but never speaks – Fran’s dying father Edward.  The secret that lies at the heart of ‘The Glass Painter’s Daughter’ is Edward’s, and only when it is discovered can he and his daughter Fran find peace and wholeness.”

The Glass Painter’s Daughter will be re-issued in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 24th September.  Follow Rachel Hore on Twitter at @RachelHore and find out more about Rachel and her writing by visiting her website.

Five Books about Marriage

Inspired by our book of the month, A Better Man by Leah McLaren, I’ve picked my top five books about marriage. This was really difficult because there are SO many – so, chip in with your favourites…

1. An Impossible Marriage by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adore this novel. Written in the 50’s, set between the wars, it’s the story of Chris, a painfully middle class girl living in Clapham, working as a secretary. That is, until she meets the much older Ned Skelton, and all of a sudden is married to him. However, is this really what she wants? And is Ned all that she thought he was when he was woo-ing her? A total joy to read (and a steal on kindle at just £1.89 – yes, yes, she’s a Curtis Brown author!), this is a book for any fans of Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Jane Howard.

2. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, it’s set in 1920’s Jazz Age, and is replete with the glamour you’d expect of the era. However, it’s actually a touching and affecting insight into a marriage which was immensely troubled, and follows the couple in – you guessed in – Paris as Hemingway finds success and other women…

3. Season to Taste: or, How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

Not one for the faint of heart, this has one of the most incredible heroines. Lizzie Prain was a totally ordinary housewife: she ran a little cake business, baked a lot, had a dog, lived in a cottage in the woods. That is, until she killed her husband on impulse, and had to work out how to get rid of the body… What sounds like a sinister and macabre book is actually very funny and brilliantly written – definitely unlike any other marriage book you’ll read.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

In 1980’s American college, Madeleine Hanna is devouring the pragmatic realist plots of George Eliot and Jane Austen and thinking on the motivations of the very human heart. However, it being the 80’s, she is surrounded by readers and lovers of theorists (Derrida fans – this one’s for you) – one of whom, Leonard, suddenly becomes a BIG part of her life. And so – inevitably – she begins to question the traditional marriage plot, and tries to formulate her own marriage plot – however convoluted that may be. It’s not one for everyone, but I loved this rather pretentious, sometimes clunky, thought-provoking novel.

This is actual Chesil Beach. Swoon.

5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

815309A slip of a novel, it opens in a hotel on the Dorset coast – that’s right, on Chesil Beach – where our protagonists, Edward and Florence are sitting down to dinner on their wedding night. However, neither is quite prepared for what is to come – the tim
e to retire to bed looms – and their naivety makes for a toe curling yet compelling novel. As their history unfolds through seamless flashbacks, this novella tells a rich and touching story.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren is our book of the month for August, and is available for purchase from Corvus

Five books set over a long, hot summer…

Now that our Summer has disappeared (we know, we know, it’s coming back next week), we thought we’d return to our ‘five books’ features, picking books set over a fateful summer like our July pick, The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon. So – here we go. As ever, let us know your suggestions!

1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

The novel (well, novella) that scandalised the French in the 1950’s, this is the story of over-indulged and highly sensual Cécile, who sets out over the course of a hot summer in the south of France to unseat her father’s mistress. Think sailing, beaches and casinos, high fashion and low morals.

2. The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

No hot air balloons and beautiful beaches here – The Cement Garden was the gritty first novel of McEwan’s, about some children whose father dies, followed swiftly by an odd and terribly disturbing summer (it’s hard to know how much to give away). Fourteen year old Jack is our narrator, his distinctly normal voice at odds with the behaviour of him and his three siblings…

3. The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

Famous for its first line (‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there), The Go-Between is a novel of loss of innocence, and an introduction to the world of adult lust, love and illicit behaviour. Young Leo, staying with a friend over summer, is recruited as the messenger between a farmer, Ted, and Marian, the beautiful young woman living in the hall. His awakening comes as he is pulled deeper into their romance – with, of course, a final, superbly crafted finale. Glorious writing.

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

There was a debate as to whether we should put Tender is the Night instead, but you can’t do a list of summer books without including The Great Gatsby. Another novella, this is the story of Jay Gatsby, the most skilful of party givers and long time admirer of Daisy Buchanan. Set in the Jazz Age, this glitzy love story (or is it?) is set over just a few days on Long Island. You’ll be transported.

5. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Quite a departure from the previous, this is an American YA story, set over a summer (with flashbacks) on Beechwood Island. The characters – predominantly a group of teenagers – are from complicated homes, and this complex family background is all too present on their summer holiday, surrounded as they are by sparring parents, grandparents and aunts. The four teenagers – the Liars – become grouped together in the intense way that only teenagers can, but the twist at the end of the novel will damage their bond irrevocably. A close, hot, clever novel.

I Think This Book Will Get Under Your Skin…

The Summer of Secrets is our July book of the month, and next week we’ll be discussing it in our book group. In advance of that, we asked Sarah’s editor, Bella Bosworth, to tell us about the book from her perspective…

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing finished copies of The Summer of Secrets land on my desk. In publishing, we tend to talk about things landing on our desks – manuscripts, submissions, ideas – when actually nearly everything appears on a screen. But a finished book is the exuberantly physical exception: something to be picked up and admired as soon as it arrives. And The Summer of Secrets is one of the books that I’ve worked on that has drawn the most admiring glances: the haunting, beautiful cover tells a whole story in the split second you look at it.
And what a story it is. In sixteen-year-old Helen, Sarah Jasmon has created a character whom I know many readers will identify with as I have. Her small, lonely world is turned on its head when the Dover family move into a nearby tumbledown cottage in a whirl of colour, charm and eccentricity – but they bring a darkness that’s just as compelling as it is dangerous. So when, thirty years later, we see Helen is once more alone, we must trace back what happened to one tumultuous, heady summer’s night . . .

But I shall stop myself before I tell the whole story! After all, it’s easy to talk at length, to say and then, and then excitedly, to extol the qualities of your author’s writing, her characters and insight. Much harder is to express, in a pithy line or two, why you love the book – what it is that makes it stand out.

So while I can tell you that it’s a story that gripped me and moved me (and that I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to edit Sarah’s powerful novel), and that we’ve had incredible early reviews from authors like Carys Bray, Vanessa Lafaye and Claire Fuller (and an equally enthusiastic reception from countless bloggers), as an editor, I need to make sure this book gets under your skin, and make you – and many more readers out there – want to read it, too.

And it was when I was rereading the manuscript earlier this year that I came across a line that, I realised, I had been turning over in my mind for months.

She pauses, takes a deep shaking breath. “Helen, what do you remember about that night?”

Because imagine knowing that everything you loved fell apart on one night – but you can’t remember what happened. Something terrible went wrong and you might have had something to do with it – but you can’t remember. Now imagine spending thirty years thinking that it was your fault . . .

That’s the thought that’s been under my skin ever since I first read The Summer of Secrets. Whether it’s this idea, the beautifully intriguing cover or the incredible early reviews we’ve received, I think this book will get under your skin, too.

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon will be published by Transworld on August 13th and is our July book of the month. 

July Book of the Month

Welcome to the Curtis Brown Book Group part two!

We’ve got our members, our books are all lined up, and we’re ready to announce our first book group pick, which is…

The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon.

We think this is a brilliant book to ease us into the second round – secrets, hot summer days, art and boats combine in a perfect book club read.

Sixteen year old Helen is a lonely teenager living with her dad since her mum left them earlier that summer. Lazing her holiday away in their garden by the canal, an empty summer stretches out before her – that is, until the Dovers move in next door and her golden summer begins. However, as an adult Helen looks back on her time with the Dovers with fresh eyes. As she begins to unpick the story of that summer – and one fateful night – and realises that perhaps the Dovers were not quite all they seemed…

Parcels are going out today to our book group members, and the book is officially published on August 13th by Black Swan. 

The Scientist: a blog post by author Anthony Trevelyan

I’ve always been rubbish at science.  Mind you, for a long time I was rubbish at everything: my first teachers, at the lovely village primary school I attended, nursed fears I may turn out to be ‘educationally subnormal’ – or, as they put it in those days, ‘a bit of a sweetheart’.  I couldn’t count, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, when my classmates were emeritus professors of the spelling book and the times table.  I got there eventually – at the reading and writing end, anyway.  Not so much at the counting end, and not so much at the science end.

It was embarrassing.  After all, my sister was good at science; my brother was very good at science; and my dad was preposterously good at science, because he was in fact a scientist.  (I don’t know whether or not my mum was good at science; but I know she loved her job at the village post office, helping the old dears with their plastic sachets of coppers.  She was a phenomenal counter: her hand a blur as it scraped up coin after low-denomination coin and squeezed them into brassy columns of exact value.)  My dad worked for a local glass-manufacturing company, modelling improvements to the glass-making processes – tweaks to furnace design, re-anglings of jet-heads.  For this reason he didn’t like you saying he was a scientist: he preferred the term ‘technologist’, because his work concerned the application of scientific ideas (technology), not the interrogation of the ideas themselves (science).  It didn’t make any difference, though.  We all just said he was a scientist.

More awkwardly, he wasn’t the sort of scientist who goes on about science all day (or the sort who stares mutely into space while other people do the talking); no, he was the sort of scientist who reads Dickens and pores over Turner prints and talks about the Middle East and Germaine Greer and Kanye West.  So, just as I realised I quite liked books and all that stuff, I saw I couldn’t take the traditional art-fart route of promoting the excellence of the arts over the sciences.  I couldn’t pretend that literature and physics were naturally and inevitably exclusive of each other, because my bloody dad had already shown that they weren’t.

Still, he did his best with me.  For my tenth birthday he bought me a junior chemistry set, no doubt hoping it would stir in me a nascent appreciation of the periodic table.  Sadly, it was not to be.  The little set, with its test tubes and ground crystals and powdered minerals, was a lovely thing, and I enjoyed it enormously.  But I felt not a jot of interest in chemistry’s underlying principles.  I just liked mixing up pretty colours, imagining I was distilling fantastic essences, magical potions.

These days I know a little bit – a very little bit – more about science; but I think my sensation of it remains pretty much as it was then.  I remember my feelings only a few years ago, when I impulse-bought an iPad on its first day of sale.  That night on the couch my girlfriend and I coiled round the luminous handheld pane, and I thought: This is magic.  I didn’t mean This is brilliant, though I thought that as well.  I meant This is sorcery.  This is old art.

Something else was the same: a slightly frightful rapidity of assimilation.  When I was ten I loved my chemistry set, and I mixed my colours and compounded my potions, and then I got bored of the thing and shoved it in a corner and never looked at it again.  That’s not exactly what happened with the iPad; I never got bored of it, though I did soon lose my awe of it.  In a matter of weeks an object that had felt like radiant contraband from a parallel universe became merely another household item, no more startling than a lamp or an umbrella.  It was assimilated, though – I think crucially – still not understood.

Later I thought about this.  If I didn’t understand it (and I didn’t), how had I managed to assimilate the iPad so quickly?  Was it because the setting in which I placed it, the familiar domestic context of lamps and umbrellas, is similarly inexplicable?  Because, though they surround me all day every day, I don’t really know how lamps or umbrellas work, either?  Because I have become habituated to living out my days in an environment that I not only do not understand, but that I cheerfully assume it’s not my business to understand?

It struck me that I may not be entirely on my own in this.  In our time and place it is a condition of life that we delegate understanding, and specifically scientific understanding, to others.  The science (and, as Dad would remind me, the technology) of our environment is too massively complicated for most of us to grasp without prolonged technical study.  And, let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to do that.  And so we are content to live in ignorance; intelligent, educated Westerners, with our esoteric knowledge of film and poetry and music, we remain glibly ignorant of the technologies every moment reshaping the world around us.  And that, I thought, has to be asking for trouble…

My ideas about where that trouble may lead, or how that trouble may come, resulted in a novel called The Weightless World.  The book isn’t really about science (or technology): more, it’s about our shared credulity in the face of miracles we don’t even try to understand.  And it’s about a pair of berks who go to India in the hope of buying an antigravity machine, which may or may not exist, from an inventor who, likewise, may or may not exist.

And, I suppose, it’s about my dad, who died in 2013, just as I was starting the book (I’d drafted the first chapter when, one Tuesday morning, my sister phoned, and said I may want to sit down).  He’s not in it or anything, but I see now that it begins from a principle he had always set for me, to use however I could: the arts do not excel the sciences; nor the sciences the arts; and yet there are miracles, real miracles, in both.

The Weightless World will be published by Galley Beggar Press on June 18th in their distinctive black paperback and ebook. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @agmtrevelyan

Sophie Lambert on Motherland

Sophie Lambert

Sophie Lambert, agent at Conville & Walsh

“As an agent I am always drawn to stories that offer up glimpses of places I’ll almost certainly never get to go to. So when Motherland arrived on my desk, I was immediately swept into a world that no longer even exists – 1970’s East Germany.

Jess and Eleanor are unwavering in their commitment to and belief in socialism being the path to happiness and fairness, and their integrity underpins their actions throughout. But it wasn’t just Jo’s rich evocation of place or the political and historical intrigue that had me hooked, it was the humour. Jo has gifted Jess with a wonderful eye for observation and an endearing and perfectly judged voice. From the outset Jess reminded me of another Jess – Jeanette Winterson’s protagonist in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – who was a personal favourite of mine.

Motherland is as much about the bond between mothers and daughters as it is about political idealism and adventure, and the crumbling of beliefs and loss. What Jo does so effortlessly is to thrust us into 1970’s Tamworth as well as the GDR – Motherland is packed with detail and flavour that is reminiscent of Goodbye Lenin and East is East. Jo peppers the narrative with cultural reference points that enhance the overall sense of place and time, thus building up – over the course of the novel – a snapshot of an era as well as a place.

Motherland is so clearly written from the heart and Jo’s own experiences, knowledge and understanding echo throughout its pages. And when it did arrive on my desk (in the form of a traditional paper submission in the post) this conviction and passion shone through. As an agent it’s unusual to stumble across such a gem in the so called ‘slush pile’ (known to us more commonly as the talent pool!) and it underlines to me what is so rewarding about my job. I know that Jess and Eleanor (as well as Jo and her mother Isobel) would want their story shared far and wide. They would want their hope and naivety, their principled approach and their love of sauerkraut celebrated, pondered and puzzled over and they would want us all to raise a glass of Rotkappchen to life. I urge you to dive into Jo McMillan’s Motherland. It embraces somewhere that has disappeared and I promise it will make you laugh as well as cry.”

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.

Motherland, a novel, by Jo McMillan

(c) Guy Batey

(c) Guy Batey

It’s election night 1979 and we’re having a party. My mum is drinking Bull’s Blood punch from a Meissen teacup and raising a toast to defeat.

Except it isn’t my mum.

It’s Eleanor, my fictional mother, and they aren’t the same person.

Motherland is a novel. It says so on the cover. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first sat down to tell the story of my communist childhood, it was going to be a memoir. The story was true. I’d lived it. I knew what happened. And I understood non-fiction. I’d spent a while in academia. Strange to think it now, but at one time, my favourite place was the British Library and my seat there never quite cooled. I was patient and forensic and I liked dissection. I spent my working life in a library, but it could just as well have been a morgue.

And the odd thing is, I did end up dealing with a corpse. My dad died for Motherland, and I killed him off. In 1978, when the story opens, my father – the real one – was not in a tin in my mum’s knicker drawer. He was in the middle of a tricky divorce. I wasn’t far into this memoir when it dawned on me I’d had a complicated life. In fact, I’d had two – one drama with each parent – and I couldn’t tell both in this book. I wanted my protagonists to live their singular story in the way my mother and I never did. So my father got terminal cancer before his child was born, Jo and Isobel became Jess and Eleanor, and Motherland became fiction.

I’d never felt more relieved. I was released from my duty to fact, and facts were proving thin on the ground. The first necessity for this story might have arisen in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but the End of the World as you’ve known it isn’t something you just sit down and write about. So instead, I forgot about it. And I did what everyone else was doing with the triumph of capitalism: I went shopping.

And then I went to China.

It was a long way from everything that had happened, and where millions of other people were buying their way out of their political past.

And in China, I had to reinvent myself. I wasn’t going to be a career communist anymore, so instead I became a sexologist, a Mandarin-speaking one – until I said some things the authorities didn’t like and Beijing banned me.

But by then, twenty years had gone by: long enough to face the End of the World, too long for the documents and witnesses I needed. I asked around Party circles, and papers had been binned, people had died, memories were slipping. Facts were not going to tell my story. The library wasn’t going to help. Instead, I had to look inwards. And it felt bruising, and oddly heartless, to tell emotional truths – harder still to commit them to paper.

But at least this was fiction. I wasn’t pointing fingers and naming names in the prosecution of my past. And that was important. Motherland was turning into a book about how we’d been engaged in the politics of abstracts, of people in theory, and we’d had no time for the real ones we actually knew. It was a book about empathy, about how much people mattered, so it needed to be an empathetic book. If Motherland had been memoir, the people I most cared about might never have forgiven me.

But they weren’t in it. I had fictional characters – flawed ones: self-righteous, ruthless, pliant.

And my plan was to set them in motion and watch their logic play out.

Only the problem was, it didn’t.

The biggest flaw of my flawed characters was they had no idea of the story. And neither had I. The possibilities seemed endless. I was free to make things up, but that meant I could make anything up. Real events had ceased to apply, so of the thousands of things that could happen next, which actually did? I didn’t have an agenda, a plan, a clue, it turned out. I read novels, of course, lapping them up, but I had no idea what made them tick. And now, here I was in charge of a novel, and I felt sick. I’d have given anything for certainty, for academia – at times even the morgue.

So I did what a mortician manqué would do: I got out the scalpel. I stopped consuming novels and started dissecting them. I took apart books on plot and pinned the walls with three-act structures. On the telly too: I watched dramas and guessed what would happen. Sometimes I even got it right. I became the spoiler on the sofa.

It took many drafts, but in the end, and several years after my father’s literary death, he is still alive and I have a novel. I wrote something kinder than a memoir, and a story wider than the specifics of my past. Through the made-up minutiae of Jess and Eleanor’s lives, Motherland looks outwards – at how we do politics, at how much people matter, at when to take a stand. And because politics doesn’t go away, the questions it raises still apply. There’s not that much difference between 1979 and 2015.

Motherland is fiction and my mum isn’t Eleanor (though Eleanor wouldn’t have been possible without her). After this election, I asked my mum how she’d seen it in. Wrapped up in her dressing gown, she said, because she feels the cold these days. And she’d raised a glass of Baileys, because that’s her tipple, and she’d toasted defeat. ‘And then I toasted the revolution,’ because my mum’s never defeated for long. And ‘because the revolution’s coming.’

‘In my lifetime?’

‘Of course in your lifetime.’ And then a pause. ‘How old are you now?’

Motherland by Jo McMillan will be published in hardback and ebook by John Murray on July 2nd 2015.  Follow Jo on Twitter at @JoMcMillan and find out more about Motherland and Jo by visiting her website jomcmillan.com.

Book Group Discussion: Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Our chat for March’s book Letters to the Lost was a busy one, with Iona Grey checking in from sunny Cheshire and her agent, Rebecca Ritchie joining the chat too. We were blasting Glen Miller throughout the office to transport us back to wartime London and delve into this heart-wrenching romance once more. Here’s a round up of all the questions for Iona.

Letters to the Lost Cover ImageOn inspiration… (Emma Crowley)

The story did definitely take on a life of its own as I wrote it, but I’m a minimal planner so I have to admit I only started out with the vaguest of ideas what would happen. The parcel that came in the post was from my lovely friend Abby Green, and it arrived the morning after I’d had a big, miserable epiphany about the book I had been writing, which was set in the Edwardian era, and was completely failing to come together. The parcel contained a signed copy of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and an article Abby had found in a magazine about all the books that had come out on the back of the Downton Abbey craze. The article convinced me once and for all that the Edwardian era had possibly been done to death for the time being, and Kate Atkinson’s gorgeous prose reminded me that writing should be joyful and energetic and bring characters leaping to life off the page – all the things that my miserable effort was failing to do! That day I ditched the old book and wrote Charles and Stella’s wedding scene.

On casting… (Emma Crowley)

I’m so out of touch with film that I’m not sure who I’d cast. Lovely Theo James would make a great Dan, and the gorgeous actress who plays Claire in Outlander would be perfect for Stella.

Charles’s behaviour was totally in step with the attitude of the time, which is absolutely heartbreaking to think about.

On letters… (Kelly Rufus)

The idea of a story told through letters is one that’s always appealed to me, but it became much more real when my godmother died and I was faced with the task of clearing out her house. I discovered a tin of letters and cards and all sorts of other bits and pieces that really intrigued me; it was packed with stories that I’ll never really know now she’s gone. The way these things endure, giving up clues but at the same time keeping secrets, is endlessly fascinating. I think you can say more in a few words in a letter than in a whole swathe of narrative.

On the dual time frame… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I used the dual time frame structure for the novel simply because it’s my favourite kind. I grew up reading books like A Traveller in Time and A Stitch in Time and the novels of a fantastic writer called Nina Beachcroft (mostly out of print now, tragically) in which past and present met and overlapped, and I absolutely ate them up. I love the overview you get from looking back, and the sense of altered perspective: I think it can really heighten the emotional power of a story. It allows you to see how events that happened in the past cause ripples that spread down the years, which I find fascinating.

On setting…. (Emma Macey) becky letters

I’ve been fascinated by WW2 for as long as I can remember, so have been gathering the information I used in the book for a lifetime! I had two grandmothers and two godmothers who used to talk a lot about their wartime experiences, and I picked up details from their stories that it would be really hard to find through other kinds of ‘research’. I must also have watched just about every documentary and drama set in the period, and read every book, so it was all just there, waiting to be used. The war is always an irresistible backdrop to stories because it generates lots of external conflict: the events that conspire to throw obstacles in the way of Happy Ever After. Also the discrepancy between what the characters know, and what the reader knows (in terms of historical fact) provides an interesting contrast.

I visit London reasonably regularly, but don’t have a local’s knowledge of it, which was why I made up King’s Oak! London, and Londoners, suffered so much during the war and each borough bears its own harrowing history from that time, so I didn’t want to play fast and loose with facts.

On character… (Helen Redfearn)

I think creating character is such a fascinating part of the writing process. For me it’s the absolute acid test of whether a book is working or not, and I’d spent a long time writing a book before Letters that wasn’t, with characters that really refused to come to life. I’m not sure what it was about the particular cast that assembled themselves in this book, but their voices just seemed very vivid from the start. I think it really helped that I listened to people talking about the war and their experiences. Those first hand stories, and the voices in which they were told, brought my own story to life.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Jess was a later incarnation of Stella and Nancy, but I really like the idea. All of them occupy a position of vulnerability and disempowerment, but their inner strength enables them to survive.

The characters were definitely made up, though it’s always great when you come across a real face or voice that fits in with the one in your head. (One of my daughters is a great Paloma Faith fan and, hearing her speak one day, I just thought ‘Nancy!’)

Stella and Dan don’t have long together in reality, but they love each other for a lifetime.

On Nancy…

I would have liked her to appear as an old lady in the present day part of the book but  Will’s involvement depended on her having recently died, which was a shame. As to whether she’s selfish or frightened, perhaps she’s a bit of both. Stella calls her ‘a survivor’ and I think this is the key to her character. Fate dealt her a bad hand to start with. Ultimately she’s someone who puts head before heart, and material comfort before emotional satisfaction. I think she learned early on in life that love can’t be relied upon, so she’d rather have silk stockings and tinned peaches!

On Daisy… (Zarina de Ruiter) (Verity Wilde)

The reason for Daisy’s supposed death was because that was essentially the thing that stopped Stella from going after Dan for all those years. Daisy was her link with Charles, and the reason she couldn’t leave him. After the explosion, thinking she is responsible for Daisy’s death makes Stella so bowed down with guilt that she believes she doesn’t deserve happiness, which is what keeps them apart for so long.

richard & meI can’t remember quite how the idea of Daisy’s disability came about: I think it must have been inherent from the start somehow. For the doomed Edwardian book I’d done some research on asylums, so I knew a little about them and some of the terrible things that went on in them. It’s such a dark and shameful part of our history and it laid waste to the lives of so many people, so I wanted to include it. What happens to Daisy is the central tragedy of the book, and (for Stella) it puts her pain over losing Dan into perspective.

The saddest thing for me when I was writing the book was the discovery that what happened to Daisy was absolutely the norm. It would have been very unusual for children with learning disabilities to be brought up within the home, especially in families who could afford to pay for residential care. In that respect Charles’s behaviour was totally in step with the attitude of the time, which is absolutely heartbreaking to think about.

On Charles… 

I initially felt a whole lot more sympathy for him than I did by the end. He was in a horrible, horrible position. Not only was homosexuality illegal (and terribly shameful) in those days, but he also has the additional burden of his religious faith, and the knowledge that God disapproves of who and what he is. He loves Peter and he knows that it’s every bit as doomed as Stella’s love for Dan – and actually more so. He can never have the life he wants, and that’s a uniquely terrible thing to know. However, as the book went on he did get darker and less sympathetic, and by the end he was fairly loathsome. But there’s still a bit of me that feels sorry for him and understands why he behaved that way, and why he died how he did.

On the ending… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I didn’t really have any other endings in mind. I think I knew from the outset that Dan and Stella weren’t going to have a long and happy life together, so actually in some strange way, it made writing their story easier. There was a whole big, intense love story to pack into a few precious days, which made me aware that I needed to make every moment count. I think that was perhaps how it must have felt to live through those wartime years, so it added a sense of poignancy to writing it. Will sums it up when he says ‘Isn’t it enough to know that you’re loved?’ Stella and Dan don’t have long together in reality, but they love each other for a lifetime.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey was published on 23rd April by Simon & Schuster