Urgent, Beautiful Storytelling: Cuckoo In the Nest by Fran Hill

Mar 17, 2023 | Reviews

I confess, while I was reading this book, it got stains on it. There’s a splash of coffee near the beginning, while I was getting to know 14-year-old Jackie and her turbulent home. I was trying to turn the page and stir my milk in at the same time. There’s a greasy Marmite smear further on, where Jackie is moved into a foster home, as I was eating breakfast and reading. Near the end the marks get worse – I was desperate to know how her relationship with her foster family would develop, what would happen to her alcoholic father and the truth behind her mother’s death.

While it’s a crime against literature, I just couldn’t help it. This book was so immersive in its story, characters and situation (a retro 1976) that I didn’t want to put it down. Fran Hill has created, in Jackie, a tough character who manages to be witty, tragic and emotive all at the same time. Through her experiences with a new foster family, we see not only the difficulties in her own life, but the influence her arrival has on the apparently tranquil family home she goes to live in. Her wisecracks made me laugh out loud, while her situation and the precarious feelings she experiences brought a tear to my eye. It’s really hard to write this without sounding cliched, but it’s just a brilliant book.

It’s not the first time I’ve featured Fran on here. As a fellow teacher, I was completely immersed in ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ which is also incredibly funny and heartfelt and is an autobiographical look at her time as a teacher, written in diary form. You can read the interview here.

There’s lots of references to the music, news and events of the 70s in Cuckoo In the Nest. And the colour scheme is awesome!

I wanted to find out more about the inspiration behind the book, and why we find ourselves back in the 70s. Do buy the book (you can thank me later – it’s out on April 26th) and read on to find out more about its brilliant author, Fran Hill.

Why did you feel that a book from the point of view of a foster child was an important one? How did you go about creating the charming and witty voice of the main character?

I like ‘charming and witty’. I’m glad you liked Jackie Chadwick! Yes, getting the voice right is so important to me, and making it consistent. The first scene of ‘Cuckoo in the Nest’ depicts the foster mother showing Jackie her new yellow-painted room. It was the result of a prompt. My writing buddy and I gave ourselves the colour ‘yellow’ and I initially wrote the scene from Bridget the foster mother’s point of view. But it lacked something. I rewrote it in the voice of the teenager and BOOM! there was Jackie Chadwick: observant, wary and as sarky as heck. Establishing her voice meant I could write the rest of the story, giving her perspective prominence, and offering readers an insight into the world of a foster child who has a major effect on the family she moves in with. I wanted to turn the tables. Yes, they rescue her. But she also rescues them.

There’s a lovely nostalgia about the book with the references to the news, food and TV shows. Why did you choose the late 70s as the setting for your book?

I was fostered myself as a teenager in the 1970s. The novel is inspired by some of my experiences. But I also realised that setting it in 1976, in the year of the heatwave-to-beat-all-previous-heatwaves, would be a superb metaphor for the pressure and tension that builds up in the Wall family as Jackie’s presence wheedles out their secrets and flaws.

My memory is shocking, though, so this meant a lot of research. I read other books set in the same period and featuring young people (for example, ‘The Trouble With Goats and Sheep’ by Joanna Cannon and ‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal). Google was my friend for locating information about current affairs, news, culture and society at the time. Reading about 1970s chocolate biscuits and ice cream flavours seemed no hardship at all. And, for anyone else researching TV and radio programmes in the 20th century, there’s a fantastic website called The Television and Radio Database https://tvrdb.com/ Search for a date and time for exact information about what was showing. It’s gold dust.

What particular stereotypes around fostering, the social care system and families did you want to examine and interrogate in your book?

This is an interesting question. Because the book is set in the 1970s, the social care system reflected is no doubt very different from that of today. I can only write about my own experience of it as a child. I definitely wanted to show the commitment and dedication of social workers: I know that I took mine for granted and probably caused them much angst. I had several and they were young women, but as a teenager, I thought of them as middle-aged and old-fashioned. (Sorry, guys.)

Also, I am fascinated by the reasons people choose to foster. I’m sure most are worthy and sincere. But how prepared are families for the impact of a child from a dysfunctional family on their own household? What is done to support them when things go wrong? What if the foster family is more dysfunctional itself than it would like to admit? (Cue the music from ‘Jaws.’)

The structure of your book really lends itself to fully immersing the reader. You have short chapters that often leave us wondering what will happen next, and an array of plot lines that are carefully woven together to create tension. How did you go about creating this plot structure?

Thank you! I’m so glad it held you. I worked very hard on structure because it’s the one aspect of my writing that regularly got criticised in the early years of submitting novels or projects to agents and publishers. ‘The writing is great but the structure needs work,’ they would say, – frustratingly vague. For this novel, I used post-it notes, writing every scene on one note and constantly arranging and re-arranging them on my bed until I could see where a reader might go ‘Oooh!’ (not a technical term). But Scrivener, a software package, or using the Navigation Pane in Microsoft Word, can also help with plotting and planning. The short chapters reflect my own preference when I’m reading novels; I like all the mini cliffhangers, but also the choice to shut the book and start again tomorrow with less-tired eyes.

Professor Bear keeps his eye on Fran to make sure she’s not procrastinating.

How did you go about publishing your book and what writing advice would you give to others?

I sent it to six literary agents and six small publishers who took unagented writers, and when they all said no (despite some good, constructive comments) I sent it out again to twelve different ones. Then some early feedback from beta-readers suggested that perhaps I had some too-easily-resolved situations in the novel. I withdrew the novel from everyone I’d sent it to (this is all how NOT to do it, in case you were wondering), explained the situation, and most were happy to have it resubmitted. About three months after re-submitting, I had an email from Cari Rosen, Commissioning Editor at Legend Press, to say that she’d loved the first three chapters and could she have the rest. Instead of then receiving the email I expected, telling me that the rest of the novel hadn’t met her expectations, she said exactly the opposite. I re-read that email about 14 million times in case it was a mirage.

My advice to others would include the following: Show your work to others before submitting to publishers/agents. Listen to criticism, swallow your pride, and learn the craft as well as you can. Follow an agent’s/publisher’s submission guidelines To The Letter. Don’t give up if a submission is rejected; the reasons are myriad. As soon as you send off a submission, work on something else, otherwise you’ll be eaten up inside.

Fran Hill is an author and retired secondary English teacher from Warwickshire, England. She has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry as a freelancer since her 30s and was selected for the respected Room 204 emerging writers’ scheme with Writing West Midlands in 2016. She self-published her first book, a novella called ‘Being Miss’, in 2014. Her second book – ‘Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?’ – is a funny memoir of a year in her life as an English teacher. This was published in 2020 by SPCK Publishing.
‘Cuckoo in the Nest’ is her first full-length work of fiction to be published (there are others which didn’t make it …) and features her teenage heroine, Jackie Chadwick. Fran is currently writing a sequel. More information, including a full and more entertaining biography and links to social media, is available on Fran’s website at www.franhill.co.uk

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