Author Interview: On Motherhood & Inspiration

Plot Cards, First: A female welder in her early thirties. Second: Parents die in a car crash


Where did the inspiration for The Secret Mother come from?

I attended a writing group in Manchester for a couple of years before starting work on the novel. Our group leader, Steve O’Connor, did an amazing job, offering quirky exercises to fire out imaginations. One of his exercises on ‘plot’ got me started writing The Secret Mother. The exercise went like this:

Choose 3 cards at random:

  • Character
  • Ambition
  • Obstacle

I picked:

  • A welder
  • Wants to be a florist
  • Parents die in a car crash

The moment I read “welder”, I imagined a young woman working in a Chinese factory. A car factory. It had to be. The pathos would be terrible if her parents died in a car she had created.

I went away, did some brief research into China’s economic boom, and produced a short story called Made in Nanchang. I named the welder Mai Ling. Her story was well received, but there was more I wanted to say than could be squeezed into a few thousand words! The factory had gripped my imagination.

I was fascinated by the idea that millions of young girls were leaving their homes and families and migrating to cities; that it was their labour fuelling global industries.

As time passed, I continued to think about Mai Ling. She wouldn’t let me forget her. I began writing the novel with a view to uncovering her story.

How does the novel expand on your short story?

In the novel Mai Ling is the tragic victim of a car accident – not her parents. Her ambition changes from wanting to be a florist, to simply desiring to earn her own living. But life does not work out as she hopes, and in the novel she falls pregnant. After that, her life options are seriously curtailed. Her priorities are for the survival and well-being of her daughters. The novel allowed me to develop the twins’ story lines. I also included the viewpoints of the family in England who adopt them.

How long did the novel take to write?

It has been a long process – almost a decade! I wrote Made in Nanchang in 2006. Later that year I quit my Marketing job to focus on an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. I graduated in 2007 and spent another year finishing the book. There was a gap of around five years when I had two sons. Motherhood is a wonderful blessing, but babies do not leave much time or energy for writing, although I carved out some time for editing.

In 2014, I entered my book into the Hookline Novel Competition and it was voted a winner by book groups from across the UK.

The last year has been a whirlwind of refining the novel and spreading the word about its forthcoming publication. Having my first novel published is a dream come true, although I have had to learn how to be patient, with myself and the process of writing.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

My family say I always had a pencil in my hand as a kid. At five, I remember mimicking accents, pretending to be French. I had a good ear for voices. I played elaborate make-believe stories involving Sindy or larked about with my brother’s cine-camera, creating stories when he let me. My nan enjoyed listening to me read poetry out loud. She kept my handwritten versions of ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Daffodils’ in her bedside drawer for years.

As a teenager, I kept diaries. I wrote plenty of angst-ridden love poetry. One school summer holiday, I penned a hundred page letter to my best friend – goodness knows what I found to say, we saw each other most days! At seventeen, I went on an Arvon Foundation creative writing course with my sixth form college. I loved the atmosphere there. Everyone who wrote disappeared in their own imaginary worlds to inhabit the lives of others – like Mr Benn, who vanishes behind the magic door of the fancy dress shop and emerges as someone else. Writing still feels that way on a good day.

Is there such a thing as writer’s block?

Yes. I have an inner critic who tells me my writing is rubbish, and so a large part of writing a first draft is to silence that perfectionist voice and just get on with it. I’ve heard writing a first draft compared to putting sand inside a wheelbarrow ready for making sandcastles later on – that’s very true. Stream of consciousness writing is a good way to limber up before going to the laptop. I have also learnt not to get bogged down with factual details in the early stages; “info dumps” are often first to come under the editor’s scalpel anyway.

How much research went into writing The Secret Mother?

Because the novel is set in China, a country about which I have no first-hand experience, I spent a significant amount of time on research. Writing about another culture involves sweating the small stuff, bizarre details like knowing what seasonal vegetables are eaten in rural China in December or what the price of a KFC would be in the early nineties. And of course it was important to understand the bigger political and economic shifts that were taking place in China at the time the novel is set. Factory life has been brilliantly documented by several ethnographers and academics, such as Pun Ngai and Elisabeth Croll, and I was able to draw a lot on their primary research to create a realistic setting. Although the novel remains, of course, a work of fiction. I am very conscious that in choosing NOT to “write what I know”, there are bound to be inaccuracies.

In terms of the adoption story at the heart of the novel, I was very fortunate to know several families who have adopted daughters from China. They let me interview them about their experiences and ask all sorts of questions. Although none of their stories were taken wholesale, I hugely appreciated their first-hand knowledge of the lengthy and emotional process involved in adopting children from overseas.

Where and how do you write?

I wrote The Secret Mother in a very small (womb-like!) room, about 1.5m square, in a one-bed flat in Manchester. I commuted an hour to attend my MA class and the car journey on the M61, although unglamorous, was often the place where I mentally ironed out a lot of the novel’s teething problems. When my husband and I bought our first home together, I had grand visions of retreating to our loft space to “be an author”. What actually happened was that I spent most of my time writing with the laptop balanced on my knee in the lounge, our unborn baby digging into my abdomen, and a hot water bottle in my back!

Now I write surrounded by Lego and piles of ironing, as my toddler naps, or at night when the kids are in bed. If I can stay awake, the small hours are very peaceful for writing.

So you wrote about motherhood before you became a mother?

Yes. The prologue, in which Mai Ling gives birth to her twins in a backstreet clinic, came from my imagination. Before having babies, I had a genuine labour-anxiety – I’d feel dizzy just thinking about giving birth. Some of my own dread was vented in the writing of Mai Ling’s rather graphic birth scene. Although, of course, I never had to contend with the horrors of  threatened infanticide.

Mai Ling is incredibly protective over her babies – she will do anything to keep them alive, even sacrificing her status as their mother. I have a wonderfully close relationship with my own mum, who is equally protective. I drew a lot on her motherly love for me.

Now, as a mum myself, I can see the story from Nancy’ side better. I can grasp more fully the horror and shock of another woman laying claim to my children.

What has being a writer taught you?

  • Writing is a responsibility as well as a creative act
  • I can live with an untidy house if I get my book done
  • There are many things that matter more than writing, like loving
  • Hours spent writing feel like minutes
  • Daydreaming is not writing
  • Creative people inspire me to write

What would you like to write next?

Now that I have two sons, I am privy to the workings of young boys’ minds in a way that I wasn’t a decade ago. Sibling relationships interest me. I’d be quite interested to write a modern-day take on the parable of the prodigal son. Its message of forgiveness feels especially relevant in a family context, and I am intrigued by the dynamics between the two very different brothers in that story.