Today I’m really pleased to be joined by Fiona Mitchell, whose novel The Maid’s Room, has just come out in paperback. The story of two sisters, Dolly and Tala, Filipino maids to the privileged community in Singapore, The Maid’s Room is a sometimes shocking, sometimes funny account of the hidden lives of others and how much we need to connect with each other. While Dolly and Tala are struggling looking after others and making enough money to send home to their own children, Jules, a newcomer to Singapore, has her own difficulties among the expat community.
Fiona, thanks so much for answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book and thought the issues it covers are so pertinent today. There is the danger that exploitation like this is hidden in plain sight; that if you don’t think about the reality of the lives of others around you, then it doesn’t exist.
Let’s start off by asking about how you came to write The Maid’s Room?
I moved to Singapore in 2009 where lots of people employ live-in domestic helpers. When an estate agent showed us around a flat, she pointed to a 12ft by 5ft bomb shelter and said, “your maid will sleep in here.” When I mentioned the lack of windows, she said, “they don’t need things like that.” This attitude abounded. I met people who confiscated their maids’ passports and issued curfews. And it wasn’t as if domestic helpers were protected by the law; back then, they didn’t even have a legal right to one day off per week. When I spoke to domestic helpers, their reality was even more upsetting – every woman had a story to tell, and only being given rice to eat was the most common one. I was a freelance journalist, and at first I thought I’d write a feature, but the issue felt much bigger than a few thousand words, and I started to wonder whether writing a novel could be the way to go.
The two maid characters, Dolly and Tala, are beautifully written and each is flawed and as open to exploiting their situations as they are being exploited. I liked that Dolly, as the submissive and calm sister in the face of abuse, is as able to pick up some benefits for what she has to put up with in her own quiet way, as much as the outspoken Tala. How did you work out the characters of the sisters when you were writing the book?
Tala’s character came easily to me and she was my favourite character to write. She was based on a domestic helper I got to know with a massive personality, although the woman I knew wasn’t nearly as bolshy as Tala. Dolly was much more difficult to write; it took me lots of drafts to capture her voice. In early drafts the sisters were just close friends, but somehow that didn’t work. When I decided to make them sisters, Dolly’s character fell into place.
A lot of the conflict comes from the two blogs – Vanda with her ‘rules’ for maids, and Tala’s Maidhacker. Has the internet made this kind of thing easier to uncover or is it a handy plot device (or a bit of both)?
The idea for the Vanda blog came from a blog that was running when I was living in Singapore. This anonymous blogger actually wrote a series of rules on how to treat domestic helpers – it was clear she saw domestic helpers as somehow inferior to her, and it appalled me. I wrote to her to complain, but of course she didn’t put my comment up, so Tala taking matters into her own hands and writing her own blog was me wanting to shift the power away from people like Vanda.
It must have been difficult to ensure that the rich white characters, especially Amber, didn’t come across as cliched and two dimensional in their awful behaviour towards the maids. How aware were you as you wrote, that on some level readers would need to sympathise with some of the women so it wasn’t just a maids vs employers story?
I was very much reflecting what was around me, and although I experienced people treating domestic helpers badly, I only made friends with people who respected the women. From that point of view, there was always going to be a Jules in my book. I knew that for the book to be compelling, I’d need to have sympathetic characters, albeit hugely flawed ones. But to be honest, I didn’t consciously think about making the expat characters sympathetic, the balance just arrived naturally.
There is a secondary plot through the book about motherhood, about losing children, keeping children and risks to motherhood – for all four of the main female characters. I especially related to this line: ‘…no amount of watching other people’s grief had taken hers away, and hers was nothing compared to such things.’ This idea that unless we’re really suffering somehow our pain is invalid, and yet all these women have experienced loss in different ways and each is as valid as the others. Was writing the book cathartic for you, working through your own grief?
I was really down when I found out I would never have a second child, and I felt incredibly guilty about my unhappiness. It was overwhelming at times and it was this emotion that kickstarted me to write a book. Every time I sat in front of my computer and typed, it brought me a kind of peace. That first draft was quite depressing, but as I came to terms with my situation, the book gained more light and laughs.
Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed reading the book and having the chance to ask you about the book.
The Maid’s Room is published by Hodder and Stoughton today and retails at 8.99. Thanks so much to the publishers for my review copy.