I was fortunate to ‘meet’ the lovely Maria Donovan through a marketing course for writers I did many years ago with Laurie Garrison. As a result, we went on to form the Women Writer’s Network, a great group of women who help to promote other women’s writing and host monthly Twitter chats about all things book and writing-related. And, of course, we get to read each other’s books.
I should start this by saying I read the entire novel in two sittings. It seemed simple on the surface, but was so compelling that I just wanted to find out what happened. I love it when a book does that. A tale of a young boy coming to terms with death, life and change, it is emotional and touching without being cheesy. Find our more about how Maria used her own grief to help tell this story and real-time storytelling when planning her plot.
You capture the concerns, passions and daily habits of young children so well in this book. How did you go about making them so convincing?
In terms of the emotional colours, the inner world, mostly by channelling myself at that age. The children are all individuals but I could feel what they feel. Perhaps being interested in other people is always a help too – trying to understand what goes on in other people’s minds. It’s a mix of memory and experience, observation and imagination. I also did some specific research, for instance, into what the children would be learning at school. I have no children of my own but several nieces and nephews, which gave me some of the hinterland, and I was able to ask them about specific details too.
There are some pretty hefty topics in this book, and we see the impact they have on the main characters. Why did you want to show the physical and mental impact of things on young people in your book?
When I wrote The Chicken Soup Murder, I was myself in a state of grieving following the death of my husband, but I wanted to see things from a different angle. As my narrator, Michael, is a boy of ten going on eleven, his point of view seemed quite far away from mine, though he observes the adults into whom I also poured some of my feelings. As for the effect events have on the young ones: Michael, Janey, George and Melissa, I remember very well that knowledge of death had a big impact upon me at a very young age. I had no way to talk to anyone about this. In this novel, I took the opportunity to show how deeply children can feel and how little they can say about it unless they are helped to do so. It was my aim to give the children the gift of being understood.
One thing that makes this book so compelling is the plot. With a few crumbs of unexplained events, you draw the reader deftly through the whole book to a surprising ending. How did you go about planning this?
The plan was a fairly straightforward one to begin with that became more complex as the themes of the novel developed: this is partly because I wanted to keep up my own interest as well as the reader’s. We have Michael’s search for a way to bring the truth of the murder into the open, the parallel situation of Janey and her family grieving for a lost loved one, and the mystery of Nan’s background. All these things, and more besides, were woven together.
As my intention was to write and embed the novel in real time, I had a timeline of real events and fictional events meshed together. For instance, the events of the murder are meticulously accurate according to the real-time cricket commentary on that day. I kept my logical brain busy with all this while my imaginative side worked on the bigger picture.
Although I thought I knew where the novel was going, I tricked myself into only seeing and knowing what Michael could see and know at any point. As the author I was peeking through my fingers and round corners, but in the end I surprised myself too!
I like the idea that details that on first reading would seem insignificant, other than as characterisation or colouring in, could be interpreted in quite a different way once the conclusion has been reached. It was my aim to have a novel worth re-reading once the mystery is solved.
There’s a strong sense of home and place here from the place the boy lives to Cardiff. What are your techniques when creating a vivid setting?
I adapted the settings from places I keep in memory or was able to look at in real time as I was writing. This made it easier for me to visualise the settings and walk around in them – in my mind at least – experiencing everything as Michael would have done. Sometimes, in real life and in writing, I have to nudge myself to remember to use all the senses and think of how things sound and smell, taste and feel, but I also had to think, would Michael notice this? To what would he pay attention? What would impose itself on him?
Having lived in or near Cardiff for many years, I know the setting around Bute Park and the River Taff very well. I try to keep my sense of wonder and I feel great affection for some of the features of the place. The small town near the sea where Michael lives is a fictional version of Bridport in Dorset. This is where I grew up and it’s where I live now. All the places haves meaning for me. In the novel and elsewhere I call this town Buckington. The change of name allows me to move away from the truth a little, as it suits my purpose. For instance, the secondary school described has very little to do with the school that exists now and everything to do with the one that I attended, which has since been knocked down. The place where the characters live is also based on an area I know but changed to form a ring of houses around the green they call ‘The Middle’. I imagined and remade the interiors of the houses from a vestige of memory. When I had nearly finished the novel I was offered the chance to go into one of these houses but by then I had a fixed plan of the interior and didn’t want to muddle this with the real layout. I might have picked up some additional sensory detail but I felt I had to defend the reality of the imagined house.
What advice would you give to writers starting out?
If you have oodles of time and plenty of ideas, if you care about words on the page, and have the support of those around you, then you can write write write. Many, when starting out, have to find a way to safeguard their precious writing time. All too easily other priorities can take over. Other people may be resistant to you leaving them to go into your own world. Make them understand that this is important to you. Even if you only have ten minutes: use them. You will get better by practising.
It’s best to get on with it, but on the other hand, it is never too late to start.
Reading is wonderful and I am sure it helped me that I was an avid reader at a young age. Some writers can give you a great sense of what makes a good story but there are so many ways to be a writer, you might as well be yourself. Writers like Katherine Mansfield opened my eyes to the honesty that you can put into your work – if you dare.
Be interested in other people and what they think and feel. Be alive to your surroundings too. Keeping a journal, where you can note down ideas, observations and snippets of dialogue, visualised scenes or character sketches, will help you build up your writing muscles and stamina. If you don’t have a task to return to, try doing some free writing to create the habit of working – every day if possible – or take up a writing prompt. There is so much help now online. Pick something and do it.
Committing to a course can be very helpful too. You will learn more about your craft, be stimulated to try new things and explore your potential. You will meet other writers and tutors who can help you on your way.
Deadlines are brilliant for getting over the hump of ‘will this be any good?’ Do your best! Creating too great a sense of expectation for yourself can be daunting but if you can throw your heart over the wall into Wonderland, the rest of you will follow.
For all that you can learn from others, you have to be self-motivated. I am a great one for starting things, for picking up a shiny new idea and playing with it. I have had to develop the determination to continue, to solve the difficulties as they arise. Some great advice I was given by someone who understood about making art was this: finish and move on.
Maria Donovan is a native of Dorset and has strong connections with Wales and Holland. Past career choices include training as a nurse in the Netherlands, busking with music and fire around Europe and nine years as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Among her publications are: Tea for Mr Dead, flash fiction (Leaf, 2006) and Pumping Up Napoleon and other stories (Seren, 2007). Her flash fiction story ‘Aftermath’ Won the Bridport Prize and the Dorset Award in 2019. Maria’s debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder, was a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize. She can be found online at www.mariadonovan.com and on twitter @mariadonovanwri
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