The Prime Writers Publication Day Interviews

In celebration of the publication of The Mountain in My Shoe by Louise Beech, Jane Lythell interviews the author about her second novel and how Louise believes that  in fiction we are safe to explore the truth.

The Mountain in My Shoe

Jane Lythell:
At the opening of the book we are with Bernadette who is looking for a book she is desperate to find. Bernadette is shy, passive and seems not very present. Gradually we get to know her and understand why she is like this. She has been living with a very controlling man for ten years and is afraid most of the time. Was it difficult telling the story from Bernadette’s point of view because she is so reserved? 

Louise Beech

Louise Beech

Louise Beech:
It really was quite difficult, yes. She is perhaps, so far, the female character I’ve written who is most alien to me. I felt I discovered her as we went along. Her reticence in the beginning though was handy for withholding things from the reader, in a non-tricky and natural way. Bernadette isn’t deceptive, she doesn’t want to mislead, but the fact that she has bottled up everything she feels for so many years means it is difficult now to unleash those emotions. Her stories. Her truth. But she learns to.

Jane:
The book she is searching for is Conor’s Lifebook, a book that charts ten-year-old Conor’s difficult life in Care. This is an effective way to tell his story and it seems very realistic as well as being so poignant. Did you consult with social workers to get this level of detail and accuracy about a child living in care?

Louise:
I was a volunteer myself a few years ago. I befriended a young girl in the care system – she’s still a beloved part of my life, an adult now – and so I met with many social workers and foster carers, read numerous reports and sad cases. Actually witnessing, and being at the side of, a girl going through the rocky road of the care system was a great lesson to me. She inspired me with her bravery. I was briefly in care myself, staying a few times in a care home, and living for a year with my grandmother while my mother was absent. So I drew on those long-buried feelings of fear and loneliness, and hopefully made young Conor all the more real with them.

Jane Lythell

Jane Lythell

Jane:
Conor is a terrific character. You have caught his vulnerability as well as his spirit. I loved him. How did you get inside Conor’s head?

Louise:
Ah, I loved Conor. I named him after my own son, and some of his characteristics as a little boy (he’s now twenty-five!) were an inspiration. At first I was worried about ‘being’ a ten-year-old boy. Then I realised children are children, and we have all been one. He was the greatest challenge to write, but oh, the greatest joy too. I wanted him to be utterly vulnerable, but possess a fiery strength too, so am glad this came through. When writing him I simply put myself in his shoes – imagined not knowing where I’ll be going or living anytime soon, not knowing my full background, not knowing truly who I am, and all this as a child with no control over anything that happens.

Jane:
Bernadette and her husband Richard live at Tower Rise. It’s a memorable space, a large, damp, draughty house surrounded by trees that was once grand but has now been converted into flats. They are the last couple living there and it feels as if they are marooned in an abandoned building. Did you base Tower Rise on a real building? And to me it felt like a metaphor for their life together, cut off from others. Was this your intention?

Louise:
Yes, I fully intended this! Tower Rise was inspired by a real-life house in East Yorkshire. In the late 1970s The Cliffe was a rundown Victorian mansion that had been renovated into council flats for temporarily homeless families. My mother was given one after her divorce.  At first I loved being right on the river, with large grounds and woods to explore, and huge stairways and high-ceilinged rooms to create adventures in. But at night it was so cold we wore our clothes in bed, while nearby the mournful foghorn wailed in the blackness and the wind in the trees sounded like wolves. We left in the spring, and it was demolished soon after, but I can still smell the damp, taste cod liver oil in porridge, and hear my siblings’ laughter as we ran along the foreshore. Even as a kid I knew this house would somehow feature one day in my writing. And as soon as I started The Mountain in My Shoe I knew it was the perfect place for lonely Bernadette and her controlling husband.

Jane:
I particularly liked the way that the reader knows more than Bernadette or Anne, Conor’s foster carer, about what is going on with Conor and Richard. This allows the reader to work out the true relationships in the book before the protagonists do. Was this difficult to achieve?

Louise:
Yes, it was quite the challenge. I had to keep a keen eye on how fast each of the narratives were moving, and make sure each reflected the other in a poetic sense, while remembering what had and hadn’t been revealed. I really enjoyed weaving together these strands though. Some of my favourite novels employ multiple stories. I love having the reader be more in on everything than the characters themselves.

Jane:
The power of coincidence is a strong theme in your novel. Can you say more about this?

Louise:
I’ve experienced some phenomenal coincidences in my own life. I see them quite How To Be Brave - Louisespiritually, as little signs from the universe that you’re ‘on the right path.’ A few months ago my mum and I were on the train to London, going to a book event for my debut, How to be Brave. A couple got on during the trip, and sat opposite us. We all got talking, and it turned out they lived in the very same village as relatives of the other survivor in the How to be Brave lifeboat story. I knew they were meant to be there at that exact moment, as were we.

Jane:
The Mountain in My Shoe is about two serious social issues, emotional abuse and how to help children in care and you dramatise these so well. Are you drawn to this kind of serious real life subject in your fiction?

Louise:
Yes, very much so. My debut, How to be Brave, was inspired by my daughter’s struggle with her daily injections and how I told her the true story of my grandfather’s survival at sea to get her through that. My third novel, Maria in the Moon, which is pencilled in for next year, was inspired by my experience of the UK floods in 2007. I think in fiction we are safe to explore the truth. We can approach topics and truths we might not otherwise be able to.

Jane:
Finally, a comment: I think the title of your book is brilliant and I love that it came from Muhammad Ali.

Louise:
Thank you! I’m a huge fan of his and was heartbroken when he died this year. I was actually editing a part in the book that involves him when the news came through. Another one of those curious coincidences….

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