Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.
I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.
A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.
Twenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.
I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.
I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.
A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.
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.
I was delving into the BBC’s website the other day and came across one of my favourite authors, Barbara Trapido, on the Book Club programme. She and the audience were discussing The Travelling Hornplayer. Trapido has written seven novels and four of them are linked. By linked, I mean that characters return and live on in different stories. They’re not sequels exactly, or at least not in the standard way that we expect, if only because I’m not sure if Trapido envisioned writing them all like that when she started out. From the way she describes it on the programme, it sounds a more organic process, that by thinking about a situation she also considers “Who do we know that would do this?” and sometimes that answer is a character that already lives in her head, or on her pages.
I have a complicated relationship with sequels, in that I find most of them invariably spoil the original for me. Jo’s Boys and Little Men, for example, are awful, and EM Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With a View, included in my paperback version as an extra ‘treat’ for the reader (every reader except me that is.) Successful sequels, when done well, can bring more to the originals, can enhance and continue the characters and answer some of the readers’ questions. The best example of this I can think of are the sequels to Rebecca – Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman. They both continue the best aspects of the original while staying true to it (for example, neither of them name the main character, indeed I doubt any reader would find a name satisfactory).
Series are different, since they aren’t sequels in the true sense. But you can still find yourself disconcerted if the author does something unexpected. I still haven’t finished Michael Tolliver Lives just because I was so thrown by the sudden switch to the first person narrative after six books told in the third person.
Trapido’s approach is rather fun. Having just dug my copy of The Travelling Hornplayer out, I found a family tree and connections map that I must have drawn years ago when I first read the books.
Isn’t it sweet? But complicated and messy in a way that suggests that a) I’m rubbish at drawing family trees or b) Trapido ended up with a set of coincidences that are as messy as life itself.
With these interactions between books, Trapido says in Book Club that she was reprimanded and “not forgiven” by some readers who didn’t like the direction that character had taken. I do understand this. My favourite Trapido book is her debut Brother of the More Famous Jack, and I love the main character Katherine so much that I am disappointed by her overbearing smothering (yet completely understandable) mothering of her second child Stella, which has such damaging consequences later. All of this comes out in The Travelling Hornplayer where, it also transpires that Katherine’s husband Jonathan has been having affairs. Of course he has. I forgive Jonathan’s transgression because it’s in character but I have trouble reconciling myself to him and his family isolating Katherine – although she chooses to travel to Ireland with him at the end of BOTMFJ, she has had a shocking bereavement and a spell of mental illness and the last thing she needs is to be alone with a baby while he writes books and philanders. Her concentration on the baby is understandable but I wonder if she would have been like this had she had a closer physical network of family and friends nearby who could have helped and lessened the focus.
What makes people feel resentful about characters changing in this way is that when you read, you accompany people through their story and, in many cases, get to a happy ending. A later volume means you’re not allowed to let them go on living happily ever after. As a reader, you’re powerless to stop the mistakes they make and this can be worse when you thought you got safely with them to the end of their first book.
As a writer though, there is an attraction to this approach. Getting to know a character can often mean that you think of them in certain situations, so why not put them through the wringer all over again? The convenience of having a ready-made philanderer on hand must have been helpful and gives you a chance to pop back and say hello to those you haven’t quite done with.
This makes it sound like the answer for a lazy writer and that’s not the case at all. Trapido’s books are intricate weavings of characters and situations, with literary references thrown into the mix. If you’ve not read her before, why not give her a try? You won’t regret it.
I’m celebrating. And to have you join in my celebrations I’m giving away everything you need to be a writer. Everything, except the sheer bloody mindedness, which I’m afraid you’ll have to cultivate yourself.
Would you like to win: coffee, biscuits, writing maps, notebooks and pen? You would? Great, read on.
Your ultimate writer’s kit includes:
Four Writing Maps! Containing prompts, illustrations and suggested reading on a theme, these pocket sized beauties are perfect for when you need a bit of inspiration. Each map has at least 12 prompts and these can be used anywhere, in groups or alone, and can give you an idea to transform your surroundings, observations and memories into stories. In your prize are: The Writing Over the Top Map, Writing with Fabulous Trees Map, Writing People Map and My Writing Life Map
Two pocket/ handbag sized lined notebooks, just perfect to carry around for when you need to jot something down
A Pilot G-Tec C4 pen, in a fetching coppery brown colour
A bag of freshly roasted coffee from Nottingham’s own Roasting House, to bring on that period of intense productivity we all need once in a while
A box of superior Elsa’s Story lemon butter cookies to munch while editing
How to enter
You have a number of different ways to enter the competition and each one will give you extra chances to win.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.* At least not in Nottingham. But as I drove up the M1 the rain cleared and a sliver of blue sky appeared through the clouds.
I was on my way to Haworth, or to the Bronte Festival of Women’s writing, put on by the Bronte Parsonage Museum and sponsored by Mslexia magazine. Both my workshops were held at Ponden Hall, reportedly the inspiration for Thurshcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. My plan was:
Arrive with half an hour to spare and amble around the moors briefly
Hotfoot it to the Parsonage for a look around
Dinner in pub
It was possible. In reality…
The journey was going fine and with half an hour to go I had 3.5 miles on the sat nav. Then it recalculated and suddenly added 11 miles to the route on a whim. I only realised this when it had taken me out on a single road across the moors (v bleak, v Bronte) for 5 or so miles. It got so far, turned a u-turn and sent me back the way I’d come. Bloody machine.
I parked, flustered and was shown in, not the last but it was only once I sat at the table that I realised I had no idea which workshop this was.
It turned out to be Writing a Synopsis with Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia and resplendent in scarves, a jeweled necklace and glasses on a string. I could never pull of that look.
Being a querying author I have a synopsis but this workshop made it clear mine is not specific enough. I also think I need to change the focus of my elevator pitch, I’ve led with the wrong character and it’s confusing. The workshop was very good and thought provoking but its major flaw was that it overran. By an hour. Partly because there were 13 people who all had feedback and discussion, and partly from the time it took to eat the cake on offer. But an hour! So my plans to see the Parsonage were scuppered – too stressful to get there, park, buy a ticket and race round taking in nothing. So I went for a walk instead. Ponden Hall is by a reservoir, in a valley and up a rough track in the middle of the moors. Horses grazed, cows made alarming high pitched mooing noises and the river trickled through. On my return climb I stopped to peep over the wall as Cathy and Heathcliff did as children.
Ponden Hall itself is lovely,it’s a family home run as a bed and breakfast and if you get a chance to stay there, you really should. I recommend it, if only for the lemon cake which was SUPERB. The building itself is all thick walls, large fireplaces and intriguing corridors and lintels. I was sorely tempted to poke about and explore but managed to restrain myself.
The day had turned very pleasant and I was seized with a desire to sack off the second workshop and walk to the Parsonage but it would have been a waste of a ticket and there’s always something to learn.
Jane Rogers took the second workshop on writing an arresting first page, and was as thought provoking as the first workshop, though more disciplined on timings (no cake which may have helped).
Afterwards I parked at the Parsonage, knowing I’d missed last entry but hoped at least the shop was open. Alas no. Not even a postcard for my mum. The church, where they’re mostly all buried, was also closed and a wedding party were eating in the schoolroom and hall where Charlotte got married. I walked the streets instead and found a pub for dinner.
The evening talk was hosted by Tracy Chevalier as part of her tenure for the Bronte200 project, and she interviewed two further authors Jessie Burton and Grace McCleen about their novels, both of which feature miniature scenes, and the links and significance of the Bronte’s miniature works, especially the tiny books they produced. There was a small but appreciative, and I think quite scholarly, audience.
I drove home and got home just before 11. It was quite a way but I have a strong yearning to return before the Charlotte exhibitions finish. The setting on Saturday was wonderful but it felt more Emily and it’s Charlotte I love most. A combined trip to Haworth and to the Railway Children’s station at Oakworth may be just the thing for a family outing.
*Apologies to Charlotte Bronte but I couldn’t resist this opening.
Do you view your writing as somehow cathartic? I’ve been pondering this subject in the last few days. A lot of people use writing to deal with the world, especially though journalling or writing therapy. And some of those writing tip memes that you see flashed around the internet often talk of living life first, experiencing pain and frustration and emotions, in order to write better.
How does this manifest itself? I was thinking about this with relation to trauma. Without wishing to sound melodramatic, last week my 4-year old daughter choked on some food, went into cardiac arrest and had to be rushed to hospital where we stayed for two nights. She’s now absolutely fine, but I’ve had to take a few days to try and adjust. I feel very much like I was plucked up by fate’s fingers last week, spun round and round and flung back into my life with no time to take stock.
I’m normally introverted and work stuff out in my head first. I’m used to looking at situations and working out in my head how to describe them – for journals, blog posts or for any fiction I write. And I did the same last week. I watched her lying on the pavement, on the gurney, in the bed and thought about how I could share this in words. It occupied my mind while we waited by her bedside for her to wake. The blog post I wrote after the event was very matter of fact but since then, since that clear recitation of facts, I’ve been swimming in numbness.
I think it’s fairly standard to react to trauma in a different way to how you might deal with other things. But I do normally write for most other events, or through other events. Not for this. I went blank, forgot where I’d got to with the WIP sat on my computer, the notes, research, ideas and flashes that I was working on. I know, you’re thinking “it’s just too soon, it will come.” And you’re probably right.
The novel I’m currently querying contains a scene that was directly written from my experience of my father’s death. It’s taken me 21 years since the event to write something that wasn’t full of teenage angst and pain. I quite like the scene, the observations noted, the quiet emotion. (At least that’s what I hope is in there.)
It may well take me another 21 years before I write something about E’s experience last week. But I’d be interested to hear what you do to deal with real life events – in journals, blogs or fiction – or if you do nothing at all.
I spent Saturday in Loughborough. Not words I’m usually happy to utter but this was different – I attended Writing East Midlands’ Writers’ Conference at Loughborough University.
It was a cold grey morning as we arrived and troughed down the refreshments, all clutching our cream and blue goody bags and piling into the auditorium. I had no idea what to expect really, though I’d picked seminars to attend and things to find out about. I had thought about coming along last year but felt fraudulent without a completed manuscript so I didn’t. This year I felt more like a writer with a finished, albeit unpublished, product.
Author Judith Allnatt welcomed us to the conference and then Mike Gayle gave the first keynote address. I worked in a branch of Waterstone’s when Gayle’s first few books came out and I remember their distinctive bright covers and how they got put second place to the unfathomable phenomenon that was Tony Parsons’ early novels. Having now seen both men speak, I can only fervently wish that Gayle continues to do great things – he was very funny, self-deprecating and gave good advice. (Incidentally, MG told us that reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was one of the seminal experiences that encouraged him to be a writer. Sometimes you read those hand-wringing articles about boys not reading and how they need different books, and then you hear something like that. How amazing.) Anyway, his advice was: read a lot. And as well as the classics, read terrible books for confidence that you can do better. Finish your first draft! Don’t edit when you hit the 30,000 word mark – “Some authors aren’t the best writers n the world but they’re the people who finished the thing they were writing.” And be steely. It’s the last one I need help with the most.
I stayed in the theatre for the next two sessions – the writer at work, and the authentic voice. These were panel sessions with authors discussing a certain topic – The Writer at Work: What Happens to the Day Job? touched on the topical subject of how much you do for free to gain exposure. All the panel urged us to do something for free to build a bod of work but on the whole the subject is a massive grey area that I feel deserves a conference all its own. The Authentic Voice, and the panel session I took after lunch – Research for Writers – felt linked and I enjoyed both of them but will blog separately about my reactions and thoughts about the subjects.
Following coffee I had my agent one-to-one. A series of slots were available to delegates for one to ones with agents and with authors – depending on how far you were with your writing. You had to apply by sending in a few chapters and a synopsis, which were judged by two readers and then awarded a slot according to what they thought. The agent read what you wrote and gave you feedback. I spotted the agent I was seeing having tea during the coffee break and inexplicably had a panic attack. DO NOT DO THIS (see above note for steeliness). These are not meant to be intimidating, they are an opportunity for useful feedback. I had a friend send helpful tweets until I got it together. In the event, the session was useful. There was one point of clarity I should fix in the opening chapters, he said, but otherwise it was well written. He gave some pointers as to who I could try, we discussed the term “commercial women’s fiction” as opposed to “commercial fiction” and the term “saga.” I was slightly distracted spotting some of my university textbooks on a shelf above his head but in general it went well.
And then I popped back to catch much of Carole Blake’s talk. Carole is a legend in literary agent circles and her frank, funny advice was shot through with experience and straight talking. She passed on tips for authors in finding and maintaining a relationship with an agent as well as with a publicist and publisher which were useful, and she took questions. Interestingly, in the “should you work for free” debate she advised at least finding out how much magazines charge for a page advert and trying to get at least that much from them. Like I said, a topic worthy of further discussion.
The final keynote speech was from Sophie Hannah, who passed on advice that you shouldn’t take, or not take in the spirit that it was intended. She too was very funny, and in her line “I’d been through childbirth (5 days!) and now felt I had a harrowing life experience to write crime fiction.” Respect.
So what did I learn? That I’m still rubbish at networking, that I need to stop panicking about my writing, that other people are impressed about those of us who write with jobs and small children, and that sometimes you are going to need to drop your agent. This last piece of advice came across several times throughout the day and may have been concerning to those of us agent-less authors. But we’ll get there. I also learned that I felt more like a writer than I had previously. It’s a state of mind, and the fact that there are so many ‘inspirational’ quotes telling you about being a writer suggests that no one feels completely clear on it. But listening to others talking, I started to think about my own ‘writing journey’ and realised that I knew about these things too.
I should end by thanking Writing East Midlands for putting on the conference, which I did enjoy very much, and for granting me an agent one to one. And now I need to go and polish that manuscript and research my agents…
I’ve been tackling draft three of the book. This is the slasher one. I added about 7,000 to the word count with the second draft, filling in gaps, adding scenes and so on. I knew I would add to the word count – for one thing a character who was pivotal to the plot only turned up on the page when I was writing the penultimate scene so he needed to be threaded in the rest of the book.
So to cut. I read through it methodically and chopped as I went. It was enormously satisfying. After I while I noticed these things about my writing.
I start a lot of sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘so’. Less frowned on these days than it was but there were still far too many of them to read well.
I cut the same words time and time again from the manuscript. They were:
For a while
Aren’t they awful? Such woolly non-precise terms. I cut as many as I could. I got to the end of the manuscript and then did a ‘find’ search on each of them and cut some more. 4,000 words gone.
I may go through it all again and see what else can go, what else can be changed, where further refinements are needed. And then I feel like I need to start pestering other people with it. Wish me luck.
I don’t know if it’s a current trend or coincidence but I seem to have seen quite a bit of chat about mothers who write recently. Some pieces have advice about finding writing time, others are just describing what it’s like and more still, ponder that it’s not the same for men. Practically all of them seem to be negative. (I’m not going to link to any, but this subject is easy to find so forgive my laziness.)
Here’s what I think:
I only started writing fiction after I became a mum.
I only realised that a lot of other things I did in the intervening years were writing of a kind, and that I was learning a craft and finding my voice, after I became a mum (those long hours breastfeeding give you a lot of thinking time.)
Of course there’s not much time. In order to write with a full time job and a child I rarely watch TV, have given up my guitar playing, don’t sew as much as I used to and no longer have a gym membership.
Five years ago, I had no child, no novel, no publication credits and was flirting with depression. That situation is now very different and much more positive.
So what happened?
E is definitely a factor here. I wouldn’t want to be as cheesy as saying having her gives me the ambition to do something more with my life, to be more meaningful, but her presence does produce some kind of drive.
The fact that I have limited time merely drives this more. If I don’t write, I feel bad. The need to have time to myself is exacerbated by having her in the house. So I make time. At the end of the day, when I’ve spent the day staring at a screen at work but there it is.
And she’s getting to the age where she understands, a bit. She asks about who wrote the books we read together, she understands the concept of an author. She understands dialogue and rhyme. In the summer I grabbed a notebook and pen and ran to the backyard where I could capture a thought before it flew away. She came out to find me, saw me scribbling and asked what I was doing. So I explained I was writing and as soon as I was finished we could do something together. She waited. (These days she is of the age where she would ask if I was done yet every two seconds but that day she didn’t.)
We didn’t get to go away for Christmas, didn’t have a week of being looked after by grandparents, didn’t get our time where she would be watched so we had more time. But I found I’ve picked up the skills I need to make this work. On a day to day basis I sit in an open plan office in a building of nearly 2,000 people and have to try and drown out noise. It’s good practice for writing in a small house (where you have no office or writing room) and share it with a small child. She had books to look at, sticker activities to complete, Lego to play with and all sorts of other things. Sometimes, just sometimes she wanted to sit on my knee and join in the typing. You deal with this bit (open her up a new document or give her a spare keyboard or a different computer) and you carry on.
There are days when this is hard and you want to crawl into a heap on the floor. But that’s where E helps too. A hug and a few moments talking about our days, or having a bath, reading a book or making something out of a cereal packet is enough to restore me and keep me going.
So don’t diss ‘the pram in the hall’ or, as I mention in the title, our version is the broken pushchair by the back door, use it as a source of strength and love. Your writing can flourish.
Stuck for what to get the writer in your life for Christmas? Need a few stocking fillers? There are loads of literature-inspired gifts out there but for practical useful gifts, here are my recommendations:
Coffee. All the major chains do gift cards, or you can get beans delivered. Being a Nottingham-based lass, I recommend you try Roasting House, a local company who do a coffee club and, if you’re from round here, will deliver by bicycle. (The rest of you it’s the postman.)
Snacks. Every year Santa puts a packet of digestives and a jar of Nutella in my stocking. Make your writing snack of choice known to him and he may do the same for you.
Notebooks. I can NEVER have too many of these. But if your writer friend is like me and will feel nervous about ruining a beautifully bound notebook with their scribbles, perhaps consider getting some that they will actually use. Waterstone’s do packs of three paperback covers for around a tenner. They also do lovely journals with literary quotes on the front – I love the Little Women and Anne of Green Gables ones.
Printing options. Printing a draft can be a fraught process. It’s only when you’ve unjammed the printer for the fourth time, prayed that the ink cartridge will last the whole thing and the pages are all over the floor that you realise that you’ve forgotten to put page numbers on them. So why not try a voucher for your local print shop? Mine printed 300 pages from a USB stick in five minutes and boxed it all up for just under £20. As cheap as a printer cartridge and much less hassle.
Writing maps. We all need a spot of inspiration once in a while. Writing Maps do a series of writing prompts on beautiful illustrated foldout maps that are just the right size to carry around with you. And this week they have a sale on (till Thursday).
Babysitting. Finally, the greatest gift you can give a writer is a spot of quiet writing time. Why not offer a voucher for a day’s babysitting services?
That’s it. I’d be happy to see any of these this year. Happy shopping!