15th March 2016, Blackwell’s, Edinburgh. Photo: @bwpublishing: “‘New Blood’ event getting started! @BlackwellEdin”
There’s probably no finer way to put authors under pressure at an event than to ask them to sum up the other author’s book, so this is how the evening with Mary Paulson-Ellis and Lauren A. Forry at Blackwells begins. Luckily, it’s also a fine way to get a feel for both debuts under the spotlight.
So, the books…
On Lauren’s Abigale Hall, Mary explains: There’s two sisters who live in post-war London, 1947. They’re orphans, trying to make their way in the world, wondering what they will do with their lives. They’re sent to a strange and eerie house in Wales to work. It’s a question of what happens to them in that house, reality vs. what’s going on in their head. While there is also a subplot of the boyfriend back in London trying to work out what’s happened to them, it’s about the past of the house working on those in it.
And turning to Mary’s The Other Mrs Walker, Lauren notes: Starts in 2011 with Margaret, whose life imploded in London and has come home to Edinburgh. She’s broke, and a bit of a kleptomaniac. She gets hired to track dead people’s relatives who appear to have none, and she starts to unravel Mrs. Walker. She also starts to piece it all together with her own life in a narrative that leaps back into the 40s, 50s, 60s and so on.
But first, the creative writing degree…
The similarities between the two go beyond the ties they find in their books; both in fact have creative writing degrees. So, were these books part of that? “It absolutely was,” says Lauren. “I wrote two bad novels before I did the masters.” She decided to focus on one project for the whole degree and in fact started writing it on the flight over to begin at Kingston, trying to move on from her screen-writing background.
Mary, however, “wasn’t writing this” at her time in Glasgow. She had been working on another novel and had been for 2-3 years. Others experimented, but she was dedicated to her book. She won the Curtis Brown Prize for the course and thought “this is it”, she’d get an agent and go mega. But she realised that the book wasn’t good enough for what she wanted; a couple of years ago she realised she had to decide – give up on writing or write another book. She gave up her job.
The first novel you write gets you into the routine of writing every day; it helps but is usually not one you want to get published in the end. It’s also a bit of an apprenticeship; you have to accept when to move on. Mary was given two key pieces of advice from someone at the end of her course: leave this book aside and write another novel, have a linear chronology. She did one, eventually, but says to take advice on board but also know what works for you – linear chronology just isn’t her.
“I enjoy writing something that’s not familiar.”
As for the follow ups to their debuts, Lauren says she’s leaping from two points of view, to eight in the next one. It’s just about done, set in 1955 with a same universe feel but a decade later. She actually started the next book on the flight over here. Mary’s is progressing well, although she set it aside for the launches. She worked on it last year, scrapped around 30,000 of her 50,000 words, but isn’t panicking because she knew it was right for the story.
Both revel in a sense of place. “I enjoy writing something that’s not familiar,” explains Lauren. Writing what you know gets boring. She liked to research and learn when she was staying in the UK. She wanted to learn something different from what was taught in school.
Though living in Edinburgh for about 25 years, Mary was born in Glasgow, which “holds a very big part of my heart”, although she has to admit recently she’s been an Edinburgh girl. “I wanted to write a portrait of Edinburgh as much as the family. Edinburgh is a city of veneers,” scratch the surface and it’s all going on. It’s all connected. “It matters to me that that’s a character.”
Lauren has visited some spooky houses, but she “went to Wales and it happened to be very spooky!” Scotland has its own mystery which is different from that of Ireland; Wales has the right feeling for her story. But it’s just a groundwork: you have something to start with because of the history, but there’s also world building.
“I love London as a city, but I don’t know it well at all,” notes Mary. But when she started writing her girls, she just knew they were in London. She started to suck up stories from her mum living in London as a girl, getting a ten-page set of notes and a floor plan from her, but also taking poetic license; the house had to work in the city through the 30s, 40s, 50s…
“Create the characters and see what comes from them.”
Both books have some real moments of drama, or the ‘oh my god, please don’t’, moments. How much of this is planned out before they get into writing? “I knew how I wanted to start,” says Lauren. “I knew how I wanted to end.” It changed a bit, but she knew she also had the idea of one climactic part in the middle. So three main points, and she’d know what would need to happen to get to those when it was right. “I like to discover the novel with the characters, but having a point on the horizon when you’re writing keeps focus.”
“I knew I wanted to end with her funeral,” says Mary. It’s not a spoiler, she assures us, because the character is dead on the first page. She had the opening, and wanted to go on the journey from death to the grave. She got to research with people who do the job of finding lost relatives, she’d create character sketches as they appeared to her and connections. “I don’t really do plot,” she admits. She’s worked hard and created an intricately plotted book, which she’s surprised by. “You need to leave a bit of space, you need to create a world and create the characters and see what comes from them.”
From debates on the death of prologues to how much rewriting and editing their agents and publishers required of them (note: not nearly as much as you’d fear), it was a really interesting look into two debut authors from opposite sides of the Atlantic with so much in common.