I first met Vicky on the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster, and loved the premise of this book, which she was working on at the time. Now, at last, two children and a whole lot of work later. The Secret Mother is finally out, and getting the recognition it deserves. Winner of the Hookline Competition for Book Group reads, this is a book that will make you ask questions about your cultural expectations, your relationships with your children, and what it is to be a mother.
What inspired you to start a book set in China?
The novel emerged out of a short story I wrote featuring a Chinese factory worker called Mai Ling. She wouldn’t let me go until I’d written more of her story. Mai Ling is one in a million – or several million – but her life became special to me, I think because I wanted to understand what it might be like growing up in a culture so vastly different to my own. For me, an exciting part of writing – and reading – is making journeys through time and place that everyday life precludes.
I felt strongly that the best way to explore China’s massive social change would be through the life of an individual whose life was also in a state of economic, social and emotional flux. Whilst researching the novel, I was personally moved by the many stories of women, like Mai Ling, who leave homes and families and undertake physically exhausting work in factories in order to earn their own living and support their families. Mai Ling’s journey – both physical and psychological – from peasant girl to dagongmei (‘working girl’) and eventually mother is particular to China and the era in which it became a market economy.
The novel developed into a story about overseas adoption when I realised that the global significance of Mai Ling’s life exceeded pure economics.
Are there any Chinese images from your novel that have particular resonance for you?
I was very inspired by the photographic work of Polly Braden, Michael Wolf and Edward Burtynsky when writing The Secret Mother. Their work documents the lives of workers, like Mai Ling, caught up in the largest migration in human history as it occurred in China in the early nineties. I was haunted by their visual depictions of the mechanisation of the female body that’s required to support mass production and consumerism: factories teeming with identical uniforms, workers seated in grid formation – all carefully spaced and monitored to ensure maximum productivity. I liked the idea that Mai Ling’s pregnant body is in revolt against this homogeneity.
You started this book before having children of your own. Has being a mother made a difference to how you view Mai Ling as a character?
I have an incredibly close relationship with my mum and this undoubtedly influenced Mai Ling’s characterisation, especially the fiercely protective and tenacious nature of Mai Ling’s love for her daughters. Letting go of one’s children is something all parents do to varying degrees and at various ages and stages so I hoped this theme would resonate with readers. Mai Ling must face the heart-wrenching decision of who will care for her babies, but she never relinquishes the emotional bonds. Mai Ling’s predicament is all the more poignant now that I’m a parent. I also appreciate more fully the absolute horror and fear that Nancy (the twins’ adoptive mother) feels at the prospect of losing her girls.
Motherhood and family are themes I am sure to return to because my own family relationships are so personally significant.
I loved the way the twins were so different. Which was the easier twin to write, and why?
I’ve breathed my sixteen year old self into both girls – sixteen is a fun age to write about because characters are naturally evolving and identity is in flux. The twins definitely change throughout the course of the novel as their sense of identity matures. Jen is exceptionally smart, hard-working, brave, curious, sensitive and caring. Ricki would probably call her the goody two shoes of the family. I chose to write certain chapters from Jen’s point of view to show what was going on beneath the surface: her uncertainties, fears and deep desire for acceptance – especially from her twin. Jen has been learning GCSE Mandarin and wants to reconnect with her cultural heritage. Her openness is contrasted with Ricki’s seemingly stubborn refusal to confront the past. Ricki has internalised a lot of her hurt and confusion concerning her Chinese birth mother and I wanted her to heal. The scene featuring Ricki and May towards the end of the book was one of the most moving to write, but writing about characters with intense emotions is never easy because there’s always a big risk of tipping over into melodrama.
What is your favourite book club read, and why? Can you recommend a book to read as a companion volume to The Secret Mother?
I love my book club – we’re a small group of friends that spend half our time getting passionate about books and the rest catching up on life and sharing our laughter and troubles over tea and cake. The books that we read have become special to me because through them I can chart the ups and downs of our lives. Our most recent read was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. We heard him speak at Manchester Central Library the day after its publication. This greatly helped our understanding and appreciation of the novel – which is enigmatic, imaginative, ambitious and very moving. He is a writer I have long admired for his thoughtful ability to re-invent genres.
A good companion to The Secret Mother might be Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel which also depicts the tenacity of a mother’s love for her child, albeit in very different circumstances.
find Victoria on her website or chat to her on twitter @delderfi