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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Interview with Victoria Delderfield, author of The Secret Mother


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.

Photo Credit: Polly Braden 'China Between'

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.

Secret Mother
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

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Twenty First Century Tudors - The books of Terry Tyler

I've been reading the novels of Terry Tyler, whose books thrust the plots of Tudor history, particularly the Tudor Court, into 20th/21st century big business. In the first book we meet Harry Lanchester (HenryVIII), owner of Lanchester Estates, and his six wives.

In the second, after his death, we see the machinations for the 'throne' of Lanchester Estates. I really enjoyed the first one, but the second one is superb.

What Terry Tyler does really well is to get the reader into the characters' heads, and by providing us with contrasting personalities this never becomes claustrophobic. I enjoyed experiencing being the dull wife Amy, the neurotic, unbalanced Isabella (in love with the ghastly Philip Castillo of Spain) and the sad teenage monster Jaz.

And I loved them all. On the surface the characters might seem unlikeable, but I defy you not to understand their point of view, and this is what Tyler does so well, eliciting reader empathy.

The boardroom battles for control of the business ring true too - complete with the freeloaders, the over-ambitious, and the people who just want a quiet life. Tudor fans will find the links to history give an added level of interest to what is already an excellent book.

Those readers who remember Dallas and Dynasty on TV will love these, as will Tudor fiction fans, lovers of Jackie Collins blockbusters, and anyone else who loves a good read.
Terry's Amazon Page
Terry's advice for indie writers
Follow Terry on Twitter

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Ghosts of Markyate Manor - Hermit, Heiress, Highwayman

Markyate Manor - scene of many hauntings, is the setting for the Highway Trilogy: Shadow on the Highway, Spirit of the Highway, and Lady of the Highway.

The name Markyate is derived from the Old English words meac  and geat and means 'the gate at the boundary', presumably between Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. In the 12th century, with the consent of his abbot, a monk went out from st Alban's and into the woods to seek a place to make a hermitage. God apparently guided him to Caddington, not far from Watling Street. There he lived a solitary life, until a woman came to him, Christina, in the firm belief that she too was called to a silent life of contemplation. He duly fastened her into an adjoining cell, where she was walled in for for four years!  She saw nobody in all that timeonly coming out to walk at dusk when she would see not a soul, supporting herself through her exquisite needlework. She was (unsurprisingly) taken over by heavenly visions, and when the original monk died she had gathered quite a following and was allowed to set up  a priory under Benedictine rule. The seal of the Priory can be seen above, and more about Christina's extraordinary life can be found here.

The Priory did not fare well during the dissolution because it had become run down, and there were charges of corruption and lack of chastity brought against the nuns. The Priory was eventually demolished in 1537, and Markyate Manor was built on its footprint, although it is still sometimes known as Markyate Cell -  George Ferrers retained the name when he bought the land in 1548. The Ferrers family controlled this land when Markyate Cell was the home of Katherine Ferrers, also sometimes known as The Wicked Lady, a title I am hoping to overturn!
Markyate Manor BBC

The Manor was left to Katherine by her mother, but it was soon in the control of her uncle, Simon Fanshawe, and she was forced into an arranged marriage with his nephew, Thomas Fanshawe.  After that, the story gets even more interesting as the legend credits her with being a notorious highwaywoman. She lived in the house through the years of the turbulent English Civil War, much of it alone as her menfolk were away fighting. She finally died there, having been mortally wounded trying to rob a coach on Nomansland.

Her ghost has been seen dressed in highwayman clothes riding her horse at full gallop, and in 1840 part of Markyate Cell was destroyed by fire, and the blaze was blamed on Lady Katherine.  Whilst helping to put out the fire several locals said that they felt a ghostly presence and that they were being watched, by the ghost of Katherine. But Katherine is not the only ghost that haunts this building - in the late 1850s workmen repairing a wall saw the figure of a nun. Perhaps this was the anchorite Christina. The nun has been seen several times since, walking in an avenue near St John's Church.

In 1957 the bypass around Markyate was being built. A night watchman was sitting by his brazier one night when he looked up and saw someone warming their hands by the fire. The figure was that of a young man who promptly vanished as the night watchman was looking at him. Was this an appearance of Markyate's legendary Phantom who may also haunt Hicks Road and the High Street?  Luton Paranormal Society

So it Spirit of the highway final ebook coverwas not just Lady Katherine Fanshawe that haunted Markyate Manor. There was also a young man.

There has always been  a mysterious figure, Ralph Chaplin, associated with the legend, although I can find no trace of him in historical records. That gave me fuel for thought, and led to the story-line for 'Spirit of the Highway'.

Like to know more? check out this article in the Daily Mail for a summary of the life and legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers (Fanshawe).
Spirit of the Highway is out today, published by Endeavour Press. It is suitable for teens 14+ (and adults too!).
Amazon US Amazon UK

Friday, 11 September 2015

Female Mystics in Fiction

I have just finished 'Illuminations' by Mary Sharrat, about Hildegard von Bingen. A reader might be surprised that there could be so much plot in a book which is essentially about a woman enclosed firstly as an anchorite, and later as a nun. However the enclosed nature of her life brings Hildegard into conflict not only with her 'captors' but also with those with whom she shares her religious life, and this provides Sharrat with the meat of the novel. It is also a fascinating glimpse into how difficult living the monastic life actually is. There is Cuno, the jealous Abbott, Volmar her conflicted friend, and the young novices she rescues who later turn to bite the hand that feeds them. 

Of course what sustains Hildegard is her relationship with the Divine, and her music. What sustains the novel is the fact that we empathise with Hildegard almost immediately - who could not, when she is a child walled up against her will? From the very beginning we follow her through her long life as she strives to build her place within Christendom, and finally founds her abbey.

From a spiritual perspective, the novel is not overly preachy, but rich with quotations from Hildegard's songs and writings, used appropriately through the text. We witness the 'greening'of her life as she becomes more accepting and less resistant to her lot, and as she grows in maturity casting off the selfishness and egotism of material concerns. Highly recommended.

Other novels I have read that feature diverse women and their spirituality are:

chymical wedding    Evensong  
 Mists_of_Avalon-1st_ed    Red Tent
The Chymical Wedding is about alchemy as a way of spiritual transformation and is set in Victorian England. Evensong picks apart episcopal ministry in a small Virginian town in the USA. The Mists of Avalon explores Arthurian legends and how the Pagan Priestess Morgaine copes with the new religion of Christianity. The Red Tent is about women's mysteries in the Bible, told through the life of Dinah.
These are all excellently-written books which will provide a great plot, plus spiritual depth and food for thought.
Please do recommend more in this vein,  that you feel I would like.