A Waterstones Exclusive Q & A with The Other Mrs Walker Author Mary Paulson-Ellis
Photo: Mary Paulson-Ellis (c) Norman McBeath
The story of the Walker and Penny families is woven through two different narratives – one set during pre/post-war London and the other in contemporary Edinburgh. They are connected by a set of curiosities that appear in both. Can you tell me about these objects? Does it matter if the story behind something we have inherited is lost?
I’ve always been fascinated by the things we collect and inherit, objects that pass through generations into our hands, then out of them again. The Other Mrs Walker is full of such curiosities - apostle spoons, fox furs, a bone-handled hairbrush - many inspired by things I own myself. Every object tells a story, but sometimes the most insignificant things hold the strongest attachments. I like to write about how the past ripples through into the present in ways we don’t necessarily realise, so I thought it would be interesting to anatomise a life in this way. I’m not sure it does matter when the story behind a particular object is lost. The object still exists in its own right; and old stories can be rediscovered. But they also acquire new stories too and that is as it should be – life continually renewing itself.
Fifteen years ago I saw a TV documentary about people who enter the properties of those who’ve died alone with no next-of-kin. I thought that it must be a strange but interesting job, something outside the mainstream; then I wondered about the deceased and who they had really been beyond the formal paperwork that would mark their end. I wanted to write a book that combined the two. I’m not sure why outsiders intrigue me so much, be they dead, abandoned or simply shambolic as is the case in The Other Mrs Walker. Sometimes an author’s subject matter finds her, rather than the other way around.
She loves it, of course! At least that’s what she’s told me (which, speaking as a mother myself, seems to be the right approach). The Other Mrs Walker is full of mothers. Strict ones. Mad ones. Fake ones. Absent ones. I do have an abiding interest in families and the idea, as expressed by Hilary Mantel, that they are both the safest and the most dangerous place to be. In this case I also wanted to write about women and girls, so that inevitably meant mothers and daughters. What’s interesting is everyone asks about my relationship with my mother, but no one asks about what kind of mother I might be.
I suppose part of what I’m suggesting in the book is that things from the past are never quite as hidden as families might assume. Most children know instinctively when there is a secret in the family, even if they don’t know what it is. Sometimes such secrets are hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be ‘discovered’ if someone asks the right question at the right moment. But there are all sorts of reasons why families choose not to ask. Perhaps it depends how one is brought up – the tendency to reveal or to obscure. This is why things can stay hidden for generations. I leave it to the reader to decide if, in Margaret and Barbara’s case, it would have been better for certain conversations to have taken place or not.
Yes, I’ve met the minister in Edinburgh who used to arrange this with his congregation. It isn’t that common, but they did it as an affirmation of their faith – that there is hope in life even in death – which strikes me as something to celebrate rather than be sad about. People tend to die as they have lived and if one lives an isolated life then sometimes that is what happens at the end too. But it doesn’t mean the deceased didn’t enjoy their life or find it worth living, in the same way that it is worth marking their passing even if that is done by those who only came to know them after they were gone.
I call it the ‘territory of the dead’ – all those wonderful professionals who look after us when the worst happens. The journey Margaret Penny goes on in the novel was inspired by the meetings I had with celebrants, bereavement officers, funeral directors, pathologists, police officers and others who look after those who die with no next-of-kin. They were very matter-of-fact about dealing with death every day, and yet supremely dignified. It struck me that they were conducting what amounted to a parallel existence while we continue our busy, oblivious lives.
I am a massive fan of both Kate Atkinson and Sarah Waters so I am flattered to be compared to them in any way. I certainly share Atkinson’s interest in the missing and the lost and Waters’ in twentieth century lives made real. I enjoy the literary time-slips of Maggie O’Farrell, the wordplay of Ali Smith and the ‘ghosts’ of Hilary Mantel; also the unique exploration of relationships in Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields. I’m hoping that, The Other Mrs Walker will be the first of a trilogy of ‘Edinburgh’ novels all set in and about the city. In this way I take inspiration from novelists such as Ian Rankin too.
No! Not until the manuscript was finished. Of course food was very important in the 1940s when significant sections of the book take place because of the impact of war and rationing. So the characters’ fixation on food is relevant to the story. I do have a visual style of writing – I need to be able to ‘see’ things to make them real on the page. So perhaps my obsession with food is just an extension of this tendency i.e. I have to ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ it too.
I have lived in Edinburgh for almost thirty years and was conscious of wanting to paint a portrait of the city – to make it almost a character in itself. But I am not a native and my description in the novel of the ‘Edinburgh Way’ of getting things done is taken from my experience of learning to navigate a small highly interconnected city. At times it feels like a village where everybody knows everybody else and where things can get done by a simple word in the right ear. I love London but I have never lived there. Those sections of the book were based on my mother’s memories of the city as a child in the ‘40s and ‘50s, particularly the house she lived in, which is the model for the one inhabited by the Walker sisters in the book.
It was fiendish! But then that’s the work, isn’t it – figuring out what goes where and why and how. At one point in the editing process I did have to create a spreadsheet so that I could keep track of the various objects and their significance to various plot lines… or not, as it turned out.
Yes and no. It is real, of course, but it is also a unique experience for me and one I therefore don’t have any context for. Ask me again in a year’s time and I might have an answer! Mainly I’m delighted that the book has found a readership and that people have been interested enough to take the time to comment and review. I’m also conscious that I have more books to write and the experience of sitting with the blank page doesn’t change. It is terrifying and energizing in equal measure, regardless of what has gone before.
Join us at our St. Andrews shop on Tuesday the 4th April for a relaxed evening of discussion and drinks with Mary Paulson-Ellis.