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Interview with Victoria Delderfield, author of The Secret Mother

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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.

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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

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Ring of Stone by Diane Scott Lewis

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A decade ago, when researching my first novel, I traveled to Cornwall, England. After reading so many books on the West Country, and then seeing the countryside for myself, I became interested in the strange rock formations that the Cornish imbue with mystical powers. That’s when I struck on the idea for my recent release, Ring of Stone.

The Cornish believe there is magic in a stone ring, usually formed by centuries of wind and rain. I used such a formation in my story. A ring that would save one character from evil and encourage another to face her deepest emotions.

However, this mystical aspect is only a small part of the story that portrays a determined young woman in the eighteenth century to strive to become a physician. Women were barred from medical school in this era, though several did practice in the remoter areas of England, usually taking over after a doctor husband’s death.

My heroine, Rose Gwynn, travels to Cornwall from America with her family after her father accepts a position at a bank. In this foreign land, she defies her parents and approaches the village doctor, resolved to ingratiate herself into his practice. Dr. Nelson is hiding a dark secret, and fears Miss Gwynn’s closeness will reveal it and ruin him. While sympathetic to her wishes, he refuses her and sends her away; but the doctor’s trials are just beginning.

Meanwhile, Rose’s beautiful sister becomes engaged to a local peer. Catern Tresidder, who works in the village tavern, was molested by this man—and far more—and she is desperate to warn Rose. But no one wants to believe a former servant, purportedly jealous and out for revenge. Catern must forge a new path in her life and come to terms with her tragic past.

These three characters, Rose, Catern, and Nelson, will collide, helping and hindering one another as the story progresses. The ring of stone behind Rose’s home holds the key to her past and future—and her sister’s life—as the novel concludes on a dangerous, windswept cliffside.

To make my story authentic, I researched the medical practices for the late eighteenth-century and was delighted to find this resource online: http://www.americanrevolution.org/medicine.html. This site has a digitalized version of Dr. W. Buchan’s (a member of the Royal Society in London) 1785 treatise on medical treatment. I was surprised when reading this to discover a modern take on the importance of cleanliness and exercise.

This is the time of the French Revolution, when women were demanding to be educated the same as the men. Rose will also make these demands, though women wouldn’t be admitted to medical schools for another century.

I hope readers will enjoy this journey into the myths and realities of eighteenth-century Cornwall, and the struggles of these characters as they learn to evolve and find their own happiness.

For more information on my books, please visit my website: http://www.dianescottlewis.org

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Forget the Sensational – in Praise of Quiet Books

One of the things I’ve noticed about the new self-publishing phenomenon, and also about traditionally published books fighting for their corner in the ever expanding book market, is that many of them seem to be shouting.

The covers are shouting, the tag-lines are shouting, and the titles are shouting.

This is only natural I suppose, in a world where there is so much competition.  But I do not want all my reading to be ‘sensational’, or ‘gripping’ or ‘devastating’. Every good diet needs variety, and with Christmas approaching and my fire lit in my cosy front room, I want something which I can savour  and take my time over. I do not want to be rushed from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger.

One of the things that books do best is explore emotions and relationships from the inside – psychologists have recently come to believe that reading expands emotional intelligence.

So it was with some relief that I picked up ‘The Birds, The Bees and other Secrets’ by Frances Garrood, because this is exactly what this book does. This is what I would describe as a ‘quiet book’ in the the best possible way. It follows one person’s journey from childhood and her relationship with her mother up until the end of her mother’s life. The mother is eccentric with a bohemian lifestyle and this has an indelible effect on young Cass. What I loved about this book was that it was totally engrossing. I actually felt like I had lived through the sixties and seventies with Cass and her family by the end of the book. Cass’s coming of age is beautifully described, along with her particular problems, all caused by one of the stream of lodgers that her mother takes in.

Character is the glue that holds this novel together, along with sensitive writing. The specificity of the characters’ reactions to the events in the book made me feel like I knew them. This is the sort of good quality fiction that can get lost in amongst all the other books with big blocky type on the covers and sensationalist plots. Genuinely moving, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

 

Another gem of a read, also what I would call a ‘quiet book’ is ‘The Idea of Perfection’ by Kate Grenville.

Two unlikely characters meet and find love in this endearing and astute exploration of male and female behaviour. The book is about saving a bridge which is in danger of collapse, and also about how human beings can build bridges between one another. Harley Savage, a tall, unfashionable woman, wants to establish a heritage museum and conserve the bridge which is falling down. Douglas Cheeseman, a socially inept engineer, has been sent to demolish it.

The bridge is a brilliant symbol and is used in all kinds of sublte ways through the book. The title makes the reader consider what we might value, and what is worth conserving. This view of what might constitute culture is thought-provoking. Kate Grenville is a winner of the Orange Prize, and this novel is a brilliant piece of quality fiction.

Both of these books are literary but accessible with wonderful characters, so if you like a quieter pace, and to really get to know people in your books, look no further.

What are your favourite ‘quiet’ reads?