Photo: Greg Sehringer
It was such a joy and privilege to celebrate the arrival of my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, at Waterstones in Reading. Over 100 of my lovely family, friends and readers came to cheer my new novel on as I waved it off into the world. Here are a few words I shared with them about the inspiration behind then novel.
A big welcome to you all, my friends, family and my readers. Thank you so much for coming out tonight to help me celebrate the arrival of my third baby, Milo and Tennessee being my first, of course. It feels like yesterday that I was standing here, with many of you present, marking the publication of my debut novel, What Milo Saw.
Speaking of books and babies ties right into the theme I’d like to touch on tonight, a theme which lies at the heart of The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells: the wonderful and mysterious and paradoxical notion of motherhood. By describing the stages of how Norah Wells came together, I hope to give you a little insight into the beautiful alchemy that went into making this novel.
Most stories start with a What If question and this was mine: what if Nora (without the H) from A Doll’s House came back?
I teach A Doll’s House nearly every year and never fail to be impressed by how a bearded, 19th century Norwegian playwright could have had such an insight into the female psyche. He understood what it meant for a woman to be defined and so, in some ways, constrained, by motherhood.
And so, at the end of A Doll’s House, Ibsen has Nora walk out on her young family claiming a very modern notion: that she must find out who she is before she can be a mother to her children. It is said that when she slammed the door at the end of the play, the whole of Europe shook. It shook then and I would argue that it continues to shake now.
We are still much more accepting– and forgiving– of men who walk out on their families than on women who do the same.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges in writing this novel – one that my editor, Manpreet kept reminding me of – was making Nora sympathetic. Not because she isn’t a wonderful, engaging character but because we knew, instinctively, that her departure, before the novel even opens, would cast a dark shadow on the reader’s ability to love her.
And so, back to my What If question: I kept imagining what it would be like if, years later, Ibsen’s Nora came back.
- How would her children see her? Would they welcome her with open arms or would they begrudge her absence?
- What her husband? Would he still be angry at her? Would he have changed – grown up – and maybe fallen in love again?
- And what of Nora? What kind of woman would she now be?
- And – here is the twist I included in my story – what if a new woman has moved in, someone who has held the family together? How will she respond to Norah’s return?
And so, the seeds of my second novel were sown. That was stage one of the creative process. If stage one was intellectual, stage two was personal.
I wrote Nora Wells when I was pregnant and edited it with a newborn in tow. For months, I sat in a coffee shop, building my story as my belly pressed, ever more persistently, into my writing table. As I grew my baby and imagined what it would like to be her mother, I wrote a story about a mother who walked out on her six month old baby.
Simultaneously, I had to inhabit the other mother in the novel: Fay, the mother who stayed. I had to imagine what it would be like to take on someone else’s children, to spend years loving them and then to risk losing them.
Gustav Fluabert famously said of his most famous character: Madame Bovary, c’est moi. Well, Norah and Fay, c’est moi: the mother who stayed and the mother who left, are two parts of me.
They echo what I believe to be the universal experience of motherhood, though one that is not often said out loud:
That as mothers, the love we have for our children is beyond all imagining, that it is deeper and truer and more powerful than anything we have hitherto experienced.
And yet there is another force at play too: a grieving for our old life, a feeling of being trapped, a sense that we will never again be fully ourselves.
And so Fay and Norah can be see as two halves rather than two separate characters: together they embody the tension that lies at the heart of motherhood.
No one has summed up this maternal paradox more powerfully than the novelist, Rachel Cusk, in her memoir, A Life’s Work, which has had a huge influence on me as a writer and a mother. She writes of having children in the following way: ‘I am not complete when I am with them and I am not complete when I am without them.’ And Cusk stands up for both Norah and Fay.
After the intellectual what if phase and the personal phase of working out what it means to be a mother, there is, of course, the fun bit: the work of my imagination, that’s when the magic kicks in.
I’ve often been asked whether Norah Wells is a departure or a continuation from What Milo Saw. Although NW is a v different story, there are many stylistic elements and thematic concerns that will make my Milo fans feel right at home.
I write about contemporary Britain.
I tackle important social issues.
I write from several points of view: the most honest, powerful and democratic way of telling a story
And the world and the characters I create are a little quirky (because our world is), including some animals, of course: not a pig this time but a wonderful, shaggy, mess of a dog, a poodle-St Bernard cross (just imagine that!) called Louis. You might also come across a fox or two…
The lovely Reading Waterstones team: Kieran, Cheryl and Holly.
Thank you, as ever, to my awesome agent and the greatest champion of my writing, Bryony: your enthusiasm, loyalty and extraordinary hard work have helped me to achieve my dreams.
Thank you to Manpreet, my editor at Little, Brown: you have an incredible sense for story and a sharp eye for what needs to be deepened and cut! I’ll always remember an email you sent me where you simply wrote: ‘I think 20,000 words need to go.’
Thank you to the rest of the Little, Brown team: Kirsteen, Emma and Thalia, who are here tonight, thank you for helping me to sharpen Norah and to bring her to the world.
Thank you to all the wonderful people who have looked after Tennessee while I have written and continue to write today: you have make that maternal paradox I spoke about bearable and knowing that my little girl is loved and cared for and that she has oodles of fun when she is without me goes some way to appease my guilt. Thank you specially to Samantha, Charlie, Juliet and Dionne.
And finally, thank you to my wonderful friends, family, writing buddies and loyal readers who have encouraged me on my way and in particular to the three people who mean more to me than anyone in the world:
- Mama: thank you for always believing in my dreams;
- Hugh: thank you for pushing me to realise those dreams.
- And my little Tennessee Skye, fast asleep right now: this book is dedicated to you. You inspire me every day to be a better writer and a better human being.