Thanks for the invite, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you too for your generous praise of The Blue Suitcase.
When I set out on the rocky road to becoming a writer I never once imagined I'd write a book about my mother – fictional or otherwise. You see, my mother was a very private person. You could rarely tell what she was thinking and she never talked about her early life in Nazi Germany. And while I was curious about her “mysterious” past when I was growing up, I never asked her about it – this was the 60s and 70s, not that long after WW2 and Germans were still very much the bad guys: the thought that my mum could have been a baddy made my stomach churn. As I grew older I lost all interest in mum's early life. It was only when I found her diaries and letters after her death that I discovered the truth about it. I became determined to tell her story, if only to right a wrong I had committed as a child in thinking that Mum could have been a baddy. But every time I sat down to write about her life I was stumped. Why? Mainly because writing about my very private mother felt like a huge betrayal. And on a seemingly trivial level, every time I wrote Gertrude, Mum's name, I squirmed: it was common knowledge she hated that name. Then there were the gaps. For example, Mum had nine brothers and sisters but there was virtually no reference to three of them in the documents. Plus, some letters and diary extracts were so old they were illegible, it was impossible to know what had happened for sure. You could say her early life was like a woolly cardigan the moths had been at, full of holes. Then I went to a talk by historic fiction writer Philippa Gregory. During the talk Gregory was asked why, given her historical background, she wrote fiction and not fact. She said she thought more people read stories than histories and she wanted as many people as possible to read her books so she wrote stories. That was my switch click moment: I would write a fiction based on the facts. Freed from the constraints of reporting the events exactly as they happened, I was able to distance myself emotionally from the retelling of my mother's life. I started knitting the diaries and letters and documents into a story, using the knowledge I had gained from extensive research to help fill the holes. And I knitted until it was finished. The writer Margaret Culkin Banning once said, “Fiction is not a dream, nor is it guesswork. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.” I like to think my work of imagining stands up. I'd also like to think Mum would have approved – after forgiving my intrusion.
Thanks. That’s really interesting and I’m sure your mother would have been really pleased.
More recent publications have featured Louisa Townsend, the ‘Scottish Lady Detective’ in two very un-Scottish settings. Again, what prompted this, rather than setting her to work in, say, Aberdeen?
Ha ha ha! I may eat my words, but I don't think I'll ever set a story in Aberdeen, it's too cold and windswept!
From when I was very wee I wanted to travel and used to dream of visiting faraway places, the further the better. It could have been in the blood: my Scottish granny worked as a stewardess on ship and went to Russia when she was 19, and my Scottish granddad was a seaman and went to such exotic places as Hawaii and Samoa – this was at a time when most people thought the world was still flat, well apart from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson ;o). So, maybe it's no surprise that I ended up teaching in the Pacific, namely in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati – according to the World Tourism Organisation, Kiribati is the third most remote place in the world. The best and worst thing about living in a different country is that you are a foreigner. Best because as a non-native you don't have to fit in or follow customs as natives do – and are often readily forgiven when you get things wrong. Worst because you are far from home, looked upon as alien and can feel isolated. The really very best thing, however, that I found about living in other countries was how it made me see my life in new and fresh ways. Oops, I am digressing! I set my Louisa Townsend novels in these overseas places for a few reasons: firstly, I knew these countries well and enjoyed living there: they are quirky and interesting and I thought others may enjoy reading about such different places – especially in the case of Kiribati, because if global warming predictions are correct it may soon cease to exist. Secondly, I personally love reading stories set in foreign places, so it follows I would set my novels in faraway locations if I could. Thirdly, a surprising aspect of being a foreigner is that it can make you a little paranoid, it's that thing to do with feeling alien. Such feelings can lead to prejudices and misunderstandings until, that is, we realise that underneath we are all very much the same. Such feelings also lend themselves to drama and tension, which can be helpful when writing about murder ;) Finally, I am fascinated by identity and heritage and what makes us different as much as what makes us the same – maybe this is because I am of dual Scottish-German heritage, who knows? But by setting my novels in faraway places I'd like to think I am indirectly dispelling the idea that “differences” have to be a barrier. Something like that, anyway ;o)
What an interesting life – and you’re still living it!
Louisa gets results but, poor lass, she battles with her own nature. She has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s very convincing, too. Have you, or anyone you know, had experience of this, or did you just do plenty of research to make life difficult for her?
Yes, I know quite a few people who have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, ranging from only ever drinking out of the one cup and only eating off the same plate, to washing their hands repeatedly, to changing their clothes repeatedly, to cleaning manically. But I have one friend in particular who you could say Louisa is modelled on, but in this aspect only. I've also researched the disorder and am particularly fascinated by the strategies people use to keep their disability a secret while living functioning lives and often holding down very successful jobs. Plus, given one in four of us suffer from one kind of mental illness or another, it seemed to me about time characters in novels reflected real life a bit more. And, as you suggested, it's a handy device to make life that little bit more difficult for Louisa ;)
I really admire people who can find a work-around for something like that which would simply floor some of us.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on and whether you have any other projects in the pipeline after that?
I'm working on the follow up to The Blue Suitcase. It's tentatively called The Brown Paper Parcel – I'm not totally happy with that title, though. The story continues where The Blue Suitcase finishes. It’s also based on real life events and set in the 1950s (my mum's diaries and letters etc carry on into the 80s!). The reader will discover what happens to my mother character in Scotland and to her family in Argentina and Germany. The reader will also get to know the Scottish family. Like The Blue Suitcase, it won't necessarily be a book for the bedtime table but there may will be lighter moments.
After that there will be another Louisa Townsend novel set in Papua New Guinea – but due to popular demand I am also considering writing a Louisa novel set in Edinburgh! Finally, there will be a third book in The Blue Suitcase trilogy, set in the 1980s.
I am also director of the online creative writing school www.writingclasses.co.uk and we have a new session starting on the 21st September, so I'll be busy organising the new session for a while.
Thanks for the questions, Kath, really enjoyed answering them.
And thank you Marianne. You can find Marianne's Amazon page here.