Welcome to the third in our series of conversations between Prime Writers. This month, Beth Miller, author of WHEN WE WERE SISTERS and Sarah Jasmon, author of THE SUMMER OF SECRETS discuss the connections between their two books.
About WHEN WE WERE SISTERS: Laura and Miffy are the best of friends, right up until the moment when Miffy’s father runs off with Laura’s mother. Twenty years on, they’re about to meet again… A funny, touching story about friendship and family, flitting between the 1970s and the present, between Jews and Catholics, and between different perspectives. What is the truth about Laura’s feelings for Miffy’s brother, Danny? What does Miffy remember about the past? And how much does Evie, Laura’s daughter, really know?
About THE SUMMER OF SECRETS: The summer the Dovers move in next door, sixteen-year-old Helen’s lonely world is at once a more thrilling place. She is infatuated with the bohemian family, especially the petulant and charming daughter Victoria. As the long, hot days stretch out in front of them, Helen and Victoria grow inseparable. But when a stranger appears, Helen begins to question whether the secretive Dover family are really what they seem. It’s the kind of summer when anything seems possible . . . Until something goes wrong.
Beth: Hi, Sarah. Loved The Summer of Secrets. My first question: we both have two main female characters, who we see when they are young and when they are grown-up. How did you decide how much we would see of Helen and Victoria as adults?
Sarah: In the very first version, I had it almost chapter by chapter, with a lot of the adult Helen monologue-ing about past events in present day sections. My editor tactfully suggested cutting a lot of those, or changing them so that, instead of Helen remembering about climbing a tree, for instance, it became an episode in the ‘past’ section. And I originally had two or three scenes where they met up, which became compressed into one more intense scene. And that’s why we have editors!
One for you: Miffy’s voice in the 1970s section comes to us from her diary entries whereas the present is seen very directly through Laura’s eyes. How different were they to write, and did you write one before the other or alternate as you went along?
Beth: Editors are marvellous, aren’t they? Thanks for your question. It’s funny, because I didn’t really think of the Miffy sections as diary entries, but other people have also described them in that way. Anyway, I wrote them alternating to begin with, and then I focused on one at a time. I found the Miffy sections much easier to write, and in fact there were originally loads more of those bits in the book. It was about 50/50 Miffy and Laura. My agent (who acts as an initial editor) suggested changing the balance so it was much more in the present than the past, so I got rid of a lot of the Miffy bits. Painful at the time but it was the right decision.
That’s another interesting contrast between our books: yours is weighted more to the past, and mine more to the present. Did you find it easy to immerse yourself in the 1980s setting of the past chapters?
Sarah: I love the Miffy sections: she’s just so open and vulnerable, and very likeable.
I think the eighties were fairly easy to access, inasmuch as I was a teenager then, so I was channelling what I remembered of being that age and the details slid into place. I wonder if it might have been harder going for a time period that I actually had to research, such as the fifties. One thing that was nice was when a friend of my daughter read the proof and said that she just felt that she was in the time.
Your book has a very strong sense of place, whether it’s London, Bangor, Great Yarmouth or Sussex. Why did you choose these particular settings?
Beth: I agree about research – I admire people who set their books in an earlier time than they remember, but I think I’d find it very difficult. I can just about remember the tail end of the 70s when my book is set. I remember the 80s, like you, all too well, and think you portrayed it really accurately.
I’m flattered that you think I have a strong sense of place because I really don’t think I am very good at writing about place at all. I’m primarily interested in the people in my book and focus on them, then later I think, oh I ought to put them somewhere specific, I suppose.
Of the four key places, I started with London because I grew up there (though I barely know Edgware at all, where most of the London sections are set). Sussex is where I live now. The section where they walk to Sheffield Park is made up – there is a beautiful National Trust place called Sheffield Park and it does have a wine-shop in the grounds but I don’t think you can walk into it the back way! I lived near beautiful Bangor in Wales for seven years and have very strong feelings about it. I think that’s probably the most accurate bit in terms of place.
And Great Yarmouth I have never visited. But I needed a fourth place in which to send the fleeing lovers. It was originally Cornwall, then I went to a writing event and the woman said, ‘Oh, agents automatically reject books set in Cornwall!’ Although this sounded like BS I thought I ought not risk it…
Next question for you: I’m interested in where your characters sprang from. Alice, the ethereal mother, for instance. What inspired you to write her?
Sarah: One of the things I was after (though I didn’t think it through as a coherent plan) is the sense of absent authority, such as you have in children’s adventure fiction. Mick, from the start, was caught up with his depression and inward focus, but Alice wanted/ became a more deeply absent parent. I don’t remember planning her: she just walked into the room.
I’ve never been very good at developing characters by mapping out their likes/ dislikes/ favourite books and so on, (though I have enjoyed it as an exercise when forced into it at workshops), so their growth is quite hard to pinpoint. I remember one workshop where the task was to write yourself a letter from your main character. This, for me, should have been Helen, but the letter that emerged was Victoria’s. She was mouthy and pushy and very clear about which bits of the story could do with improvement!
Can you tell me more about the cultural background of WWWS? I loved the insight into the Jewish family dynamic in both the present and past sections. Why did you decide on a Spanish Catholic background for Laura?
Beth: Really interesting that you made use of lots of different strategies to get the adults out of the way. And I love that Victoria barged her way in to being the main character when you were writing that letter. I had the same thing with Miffy and Laura. Miffy was the main character in my head for years, while I ignored the fact that Laura had long since taken over that role. Pushy! Victoria and Laura have a lot of similarities, though I wonder what they would think of each other if they met? When we’re retired maybe we should write a joint story where they meet up and have a good ol’ bitch about everything.
The Spanish/Catholic thing evolved over a long time. I knew very early on that I wanted the two families to go on holiday together and stay with Olivia’s family. Initially I thought that would be in Italy. But it didn’t seem 70s enough, somehow. Going to Spain, however, was the 70s par excellence. I wanted young Laura to seem exotic and slightly foreign to her peers, and her heritage and religion would have been of great fascination to Miffy.
I love the contrasts and similarities between Judaism and Catholicism, and the way that people from the two religions often get together (both me and my brother have married Catholics!) Both religions feature a lot of guilt, which I found a useful theme. Laura’s guilt has been pushed under the surface but is there, very much so, and comes out in slightly odd ways. Miffy’s came out in particular after her parents split and she felt obliged to look after her mum. Danny’s guilt has manifested itself in a different way; he has sought structure and certainty in his life… Lucky old Huw (Laura’s husband), I think, doesn’t really suffer from guilt at all!
Here’s a different question for you. We saw in your book Helen and Victoria as adults. Which of your other characters would you most like to have followed into the present day and written about?
Sarah: I have a feeling that all religions lead to guilt. Baptists certainly have their share. Maybe not so much the good old C of E, though. It’s interesting to think how religion both guilt-trips and comforts. A reflection of upbringing, personality, community? Though mainly issues of conformity? And I would LOVE to see Victoria and Laura in the same room! They would be sparking off like suspicious cats…
Going back to your question, I think I did, mentally at any rate, follow all of the characters through to being adults. And the one I’d like to have seen would be Pippa… Whether I’d want to explore any of their journeys is another thing entirely, and one I’ve not really considered. Have you ever come across the Thursday Next books? Part of the concept is that book characters live in an alternate reality, and the minor characters are eternally constrained by their written roles. There’s a guilt trip for you!
And now for the pressure of the final question! Drum roll…. Huw, Danny, young Michael: snog, marry, avoid? With reasons!
Beth: Maybe some nice fan-fiction writer could write us a Victoria-meets-Laura story. No need for them to fall in love with each other, Imaginary fan-fiction colleague, OK? Just a nice bit of sparking suspicion, like Sarah says. And maybe a spot of hair-pulling.
Ah, Pippa… I wonder what she would have been like.
I have never come across the Thursday Next books (*adds to teetering TBR pile* *pile falls over* *decides to carpet room in books*).
So, am LOVING this last question. It’s easy to answer. I would snog Huw, because he is clearly sexy (‘dishy’, Miffy calls him), but NOT good marriageable material, the swine. I would marry Danny because he’s steady and thoughtful. He’d make a fine hubby, I reckon, and a great father. (Though now am thinking that he might be slightly boring? Reckon he has hidden depths.) And I would avoid young Michael, because I can’t help having hindsight and knowing how weak he will turn out to be. You didn’t include in your list the one I would DEFINITELY snog: Jonathan, Hella’s black-sheep cousin, who appears only in the last chapter. I have a soft spot for him…
So is that it? Are we done? I will miss doing these questions. It was FUN. Thank you.
Sarah: I know, me too! Thank you, that was great.
Beth’s second novel, THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR, will be published on the 10th September. THE SUMMER OF SECRETS is out on 13th August.