Writers Chat 26 (1): Cauvery Madhavan on “The Tainted” (Hope Road: London, 2020)

Cauvery, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on your third novel, The Tainted (Hope Road: London, 2020 – Publication date 30th April 2020). Your previous novels Paddy Indian (2001) and The Uncoupling (2003) were received with acclaim with Sue Leonard declaring The Uncoupling “a gem of a novel.”

I read The Tainted over the span of a few cold days in late December in front of a fire, and was very moved. On the surface, the novel deals with the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India but it tackles much more than that mutiny – spanning generations we see the affects of colonialism in the form of class, caste and race on ordinary people’s lives.

This is your first public interview about The Tainted – and what an in-depth WRITERS CHAT!  We are presenting it in two parts. PART ONE, below, concentrates on your extensive – and fascinating – historical research, the timeline of The Tainted, character development and place and identity (something close to my heart!).

We also have a giveaway of two signed copies of The Tainted – – READERS: to be in with a chance of winning a copy, simply comment on this WRITERS CHAT and I’ll add your name to the draw. 

The Tainted Book Cover

Let’s start with the context and your research. You deftly entwine Indian society and politics with that of Ireland and Europe. We’re told that the twenty-seven men who died of cholera in hospital when the Regiment was first posted in 1913 were lucky because within a few years they would have died in the French trenches. Tell me about the historical research which must have been exciting. Did you travel to Nandagiri and consult archival material such as newspaper reports, hospital records, letters, birth and death records and so on?

I did Shauna. I made a decision fairly early on in the project, to completely immerse myself in the period: so I confined all of my reading to books, magazines, periodicals in the years from about 1910 up to 1947. I watched scores of movies, Hollywood and Bollywood set in the Indian sub continent and Ireland too, that spanned those years. Two films come to mind straightaway: Bhowani Junction starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger, and the evocative and poignant Bow Barracks Forever. If you liked The Tainted, I think these two movies will resonate too. I reconnected with books from my teenage and early twenties reading Somerset Maugham, John Masters and Ruskin Bond amongst many, many others. For an Irish perspective some of the writers I read were Sebastian Barry, JG Farrell, William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien. Happily, I also discovered Barbara Cleverly and her detective stories set in India during the Raj.

Sometimes while writing things would come to a complete full stop till I checked out a detail. When I began research for the chapter on the tiger hunt at Masinagudi, I ended up taking an unexpectedly long 6-month break from writing to read all of Jim Corbett’s books, in order to get my head around the intricacies of hunting big game using elephants and beaters. For a visual guide I poured over many series of  wonderful sketches and drawings in the Illustrated London News. They were big into hunting, fishing and shooting in the Tropics. A good few months later I felt I was an armchair expert and, may I add, one with a special interest in pigsticking!

Many an evening ended leafing through The Army and Navy Catalogue from 1915 which I kept by my bedside. It definitely gave me a feel for the things that were important to people as they lived their lives thousands of miles away from home. Literally anything could be ordered from folding canvas baths to a marble angel for a headstone. The mail order catalogue was a truly fascinating window into the daily lives of every class of the European and the very wealthy Indians too.

The Army and Navy catalogue

To get an understanding of  the  contemporaneous attitude towards and the treatment of  diseases like syphilis and malaria, as well as mental health issues and conditions in mental asylums, I turned to  the work of medical historians and military archives. Additionally, I did field trips to eyeball some of the older mental hospitals in India – very many have still retained and use their old buildings.

I was forever hungry for visual references – I think many writers tend to be, for you need to have settings very clearly in your minds eye: people and places of that era that you can instantly conjure up as you write. I dug up many excellent documentaries about soldiering in the Raj and found art galleries and museums very useful, specially photographic exhibitions. Of course, the military are great at archiving every detail of their war and peacetime activities so there was a lot of material that was available between the three countries. Luckily for historians and novelists a good many young army officers were bored stiff for most of their time in India, constricted as they were for months at a time by the relentless heat or the incessant rains – they wrote extensively, books, diaries and long letters chronicling their lives and travels in the sub continent. And of course there were scores of very articulate and descriptive accounts of daily life by the women of the Raj: wives, daughters and sisters, from Vicerines living in grand splendour to hardy missionaries heroically making do in remote ‘up country’ camps. Their writings were often published in popular women’s magazines of the day and were a very good source for me. I managed to get sets of bound volumes from antiquarian dealers and even though I’ve moved on to writing my next novel, I still love reading them.

A selection of pages from the catalogue
Selection of pages from the 1915 Army and Navy Catalogue

Post Independence, the Anglo Indians diaspora who had scattered all over the world contributed to their own nostalgic newsletters and journals, full of accounts of bygone life, recipes and photographs. Collectively they were an eye opener to life attitudes and the cultural norms of that time.

So you can see Shauna, there was plenty of information to be mined. My problem was I got lost in that mine and didn’t emerge for a good few years! A lot of my research was accidentally tangential: you know I’d start looking at one thing and end up exploring something else, often in the course of the same morning. And even though it meant that so much of the research remained unused and never featured in any form or fashion in the book, it gave me such a clear picture of the period and I hope that has translated into what the reader gets from my book.

That is just incredible, Cauvery and, of course, when you describe the different types of sources you also so accurately describe many of the themes in The Tainted.

The timeline is split between 1920/45 and 1982. By using a split timeline you are able to capture the changes in Indian society and how the injuries of colonialism span generations. In a way I was reminded of the legacy of trauma that bell hooks talks about in her book Can you talk about this in relation to the generational span of the novel, in particular the Aylmers?

When I began the book, Shauna, I had planned to write a novel based on 1920 Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers. I fictionalised the regiment so I could have artistic licence and my story was to be an account of how an Irish regiment, I called them the Kildare Rangers, serving in the British army in the Raj mutinied and how their actions, in those few weeks, panned out. I was barely into writing the first three chapters when I realised that apart from the circumstances of the mutiny, there was a whole different, and indeed far more complex story waiting to be told, one that needed to be told – the aftermath of the mutiny and its ramifications on multiple generations of families in two countries on two separate continents. So I did change focus considerably and having read the book you know that much of the story takes place after the mutiny.

All three groups of characters in my novel are tainted by association and trauma that has come down through generations and it’s this baggage, and their search for identity and a final sense of belonging that has formed the basis of my book. The Anglo Irish Aylmer family had a long tradition of valiant service in the British army. When Colonel Aylmer and his wife went out to India, it was at the height of the Raj and given the observance of protocol and precedence of those days, they assumed the role of de facto King and Queen of the garrison town of Nandagiri where the regiment was stationed. In any army, ancient or modern, valour and loyalty are sacred. For the soldiers to have mutinied under the Colonels watch, amounted to loss of honour of the worst sort. It was a reflection of his abilities as the commanding officer and a huge stain on his otherwise glorious military career.

The Aylmers had the best of times in India, because not only were they the Colonel and the Memsahib ruling the roost in Nandagiri, but away from Ireland, they could also shed their Anglo-Irish identity. When they returned to Ireland, in the wake of Irish freedom, the change in their circumstances was nothing short of dramatic. The Aylmers not only had to reckon with the loss of their prestigious position but they also had to confront all the prejudice and dangers that came with them being Anglo-Irish in a newly independent Ireland. You can imagine how hard it must have been to carry the burden of an ignominious end to a military career all the while coming to terms of their changed status in Ireland. It’s a little wonder they hardly spoke of India! Their children grew up in Ireland with just a few memories that quickly faded, all mention of India was totally avoided, their personal affects from their time in the East stored away and much later even the budding romance between Alice and the Prince of Pudunagari was given short shrift. So when Richard Aylmer, the Colonel’s grandson, arrives in Nandagiri 60 years later, he finds himself playing catch up with history and the role his grandparents played in shaping the lives of people they never knew.

I thought you handled Richard’s discoveries and, as you put it, playing catch up with history, very well – as readers we feel very close to him on his journey. There is another character – Rose, an Anglo-Indian maid to Mrs Aylmer – who is ever-present. She stuck with me long after I finished reading The Tainted. Rose suffered terribly but she also knew real love and kindness. There are several moments where the kindness of strangers – Dr Swamy, for example – allow wonderful connections to happen, and, I found turned The Tainted into a novel about love. Without revealing too much, were these scenes you had planned or did they appear as you wrote? I’m thinking of that magical thing that happens in writing when the story veers off the path we think we’re on and brings us to surprisingly beautiful moments.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my characters have always revealed themselves as I’ve written. I’ve discovered their motivations, fears, weaknesses and strengths as one would of friends as you get to know them. The reason I’m embarrassed is because before I started writing myself, I never gave any credence to writers who said stuff like that. But I’m a fervent believer in letting the characters take over and do their ‘magical thing’ as you call it. I have never plotted any of my books in advance and The Tainted was no different, preferring to let my characters lead me where they will. I guess I was lucky too Shauna. They very quickly became so real to me it was actually quite easy once I got to know them to write their story and make all those timely links through the generations.

Sometimes details and connections came out of research and definitely Dr. Swamy was one of them. I researched and visited the Kilpauk Mental Hospital in Chennai and spent some time walking the grounds in the the oldest part of the hospital. I was effortlessly transported back a hundred years as some of the buildings that housed the female inmates dated back to the early 1900s. The ancient trees that covered the vast acreage of the Hospital provided incredible atmospherics and conjured up images that I knew would find a place in the book. Dr. Swamy popped up into the pages of my book shortly after and I didn’t even realise at that time, when he called out to Rose and Micheal from his upstairs window that he was going to play such a pivotal role. The the funny thing is he sailed through life not knowing the true repercussions of his actions! I loved that, the fact that he was drawn to Rose by his medical instincts but never knew that he actually defined her life.

I think there is something so wonderful and true to life in that, Cauvery. The Tainted of the title refers to the Anglo Indians. Neither Indian nor English, their identity, how they identify and how they are seen is difficult for them. You capture this through Gerry, and May who declares that Anglo-Indians “are a whole community strangled by dreams of what we never did have in the first place […] we’re tainted. We were never white enough then and will never be brown enough now.” (256 and 259).

Earlier in the narrative Tom warns Michael in 1920 that “When blood’s diluted, the colour will always come through…You’ll have to pick the ones to take and the ones to leave behind.” (66)

Yet despite these barriers based on race, religion and caste, your characters find that they do belong to this wonderful complex place. Can you expand on the theme of identity, belonging and land?

I’ve always been very interested in delving into the lives of people whose identities and loyalties are tainted by the social and historical limbo they are caught in: Irish Catholic soldiers in the British army, the Anglo Irish officers who commanded them and Anglo Indians (as they are known in India) – many of them the progeny of soldiers of the Raj, fathered in liaisons with Indian women and more often than not abandoned.

I was really struck by Ian Jack’s astute assessment in his book Mofussil Junction in which he writes that, as far as the Empire was concerned, the Anglo-Indians “represented no more than the shaming evidence of sexual transgression by the lower ranks”. And as you know Shauna, Indians themselves, being masters of class and caste consciousness, perceived the ancestry of Anglo-Indians combined with their drinking, beef eating, mixed sex socialising as horribly impure.

It was always assumed that when it came to the crunch, if there was trouble with the native Indians, the Anglo Indian loyalty would lie with Britain, the land of their fathers. But the loyalty that the Empire expected of them was not reciprocated and Anglo Indians never really got further than the very fringes of British colonial society. Post Independence India proved to be a real challenge for Anglo Indians. The ones who had managed to leave India for the UK, Canada and Australia struggled to fit into societies that looked down on them because they were mixed race. Many Anglo Indians who were fair skinned hid their origins and tried to assimilate under the radar. Life was hard for them as is evident in the many archived letters and diaries.

Meanwhile in India, Anglo Indians who remained, many hundred thousands of them, were left bereft. They were too poor in the main to emigrate and families had to pick and chose (sadly, often basing their decision on which child was fair enough to pass for white) who was going to get sent ‘Home’ – when Home was an unwelcoming, unknown country.

But, not surprisingly, they are one of the most resilient communities in India and from the 1960s onwards began to make huge strides in Indian public life. Their near complete domination of what were vital economic sectors like the Railways, Police, Post and Telegraph, Education and Forestry brought them to the forefront of administering the vast nation and all of this combined with their presence in the very senior ranks of the Police and Armed Forces gave them a renewed sense of belonging. I do believe that by the 1980s, the period in which my book is set, that Anglo Indian urge to go ‘Home’ was replaced with a determination to be accepted as full fledged Indians and they went about life doing just that. Most Anglo Indians had deep rooted family links to one sector or trade and they embraced it wholeheartedly. Gerry and May Twomey are typical Anglo Indians. As a Forester, Gerry regards his job primarily as a custodian, a caretaker of the flora and fauna of Nandagiri very seriously – he is far more vested in the land, the tribes and the animals that inhabit his remit than anyone else and I think that defines his identity, gives him his utter confidence in belonging to India and being Indian.

South Park Kolkata

South Park Kolkata

I think you captured that sense of belonging yet feeling outside everything very well in Gerry and May, and how this connects to the landscape and politics around them. 

So, we will leave our WRITERS CHAT for now and come back next week with PART TWO in which we examine landscape, migration, feminism and I put you to the test with some fun questions! And you so generously give our readers a list of wonderful readings and movies! 

READERS: Don’t forget, comment on this WRITERS CHAT (PART ONE or PART TWO) and I’ll add your name to the draw for a SIGNED COPY OF THE TAINTED. The draw will take place on Wednesday, 8th April. 

Advance order The Tainted at a good discount from Hope Road  and follow Cauvery Madhavan on her website and on Twitter @cauverymadhavan 






Thank You, The Earth


Some images I took from an early morning walk this morning. We are waking up to nature and nature is waiting for us.

It is good for the soul to reconnect with what is around us. I’m feeling it’s also good to connect to our history. Poetry often does just that and Poetry Ireland have a wonderful podcast – have a listen to poet Jane Clarke read “Pit Ponies of Glendasan” on Words Lightly Spoken

Duality – Exhibition opens in Roscommon Arts Centre, 15 Feb 2020


Following on from the wonderful launch of our art book Duality at The Kildare Readers Festival in October 2019, I am delighted to announce the opening of Margo McNulty’s art exhibition in Roscommon Arts Centre.

The exhibition, also entitled Duality, will be opened in Roscommon Arts Centre by Luke Gibbons at 4pm on Saturday 15th February 2020.

In the exhibition, a small selection of my writing complements her visual art just as our work dialogued together in the book. It would be wonderful to see some of you there – everyone is welcome.

See COLLABORATION for some photographs of the opening.


We are both very grateful to Kildare County Council and Roscommon County Council for awarding us Arts Act Grants which helped fund this collaborative project.


Fighting your way through the process…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the hard work of creativity, of life. How the best always seems the most simple and the clearest. How behind this clarity is years and years of graft and inspiration and struggle.

Ira Glass says “You just have to fight your way through that….”
This short video encapsulates all of this – take 2 minutes, 18 seconds out of your day and enjoy!

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.


Writer Chat 25: Sarah Broughton on “Brando’s Bride” (Parthian Books: Cardigan, 2019)

Sarah, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first non-fiction book, Brando’s Bride (Parthian Books: Cardigan, 2019). You’ve already had much success with your novel Other Useful Numbers and you’ve won numerous awards for your documentary productions.

I have to say I devoured Brando’s Bride and there are so many interesting stories and angles that it is impossible to cover them in our WRITERS CHAT so in my questioning I will concentrate on a few of the threads through Brando’s Bride.

brandos bride

Brando’s Bride is described on the cover (with such a great photo!) as “The incredibly true story of Anna Kashfi and her marriage to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars” and I think that really captures what this book is – a really incredible story that I also find incredible that nobody has taken the time, research and care to write it – until now!

Tell me a little about how you came to write Brando’s Bride. In particular I’m thinking of two very strong threads running through the book – how identity is formed and denied through either place or family – or both. Am I right in saying this story – for you – started with a personal connection to Anna Kashfi and Cardiff?

Hi Shauna, firstly thank-you so much for having me as a guest on your WRITERS CHAT – it’s great to be part of the series! So, yes, you’re right in asking about the personal connections to this story – although I had no idea when I started out that there would be more than one! I began researching the story of Anna Kashfi when I was looking for ideas for a BBC arts series called ‘On Show’. I worked for a company that was making documentaries in this slot and so was always looking for arts stories with a Welsh angle. We made documentaries about Tessie O’Shea and Tommy Cooper, for instance, and so I came across this woman who had left Cardiff for Hollywood in the 1950s and married Marlon Brando. She made four films and worked with Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemon and Nat King Cole – quite starry names for an unknown actress to find herself in the company of! But then her career abruptly ended; it turned out to be as brief as her marriage to Brando… I found the story fascinating – although it never made it into the TV documentary series. And I was familiar with the area in Cardiff that Kashfi and her family had lived in (not far from a friend’s house) and I kept wondering just how she’d got from that place all the way to Los Angeles – and how she’d met Brando!

Yes, it’s quite an incredible journey alright. You say several times in the book that Anna Kashfi was “both of her time and one of a kind” and that she was “a part of history and yet also extinguished from it.” Was part of your aim in writing this book to bring her – and her story – back into the folds of history and also popular culture? Did you see her as one of the forgotten women of history?

This is an area I’ve always been fascinated by! I’d written a film script about the Surrealist artist Claude Cahun, sadly as yet unmade, and a radio play about Sylvia Beach (who published Ulysses when no-one else would touch it) so there is definitely a theme going on here! I’ve always been interested in women who are seen as minor characters in history – yet their stories are significant – not least because they tell us something about the bigger picture.

Kashfi was very much one of these women. She is entirely dismissed by Brando biographers who regard her as a charlatan (I find it quite bizarre that, given her appearance, they made no attempt to investigate her story at all). Kashfi was very much part of the world of young women who went to Los Angeles in their thousands during the 1930s/40s and 50s trying to find work in the film industry. They were pretty invisible unless they made it as movie stars – which, of course, the vast majority didn’t. But she was also part of an almost entirely forgotten wave of Anglo-Indian immigrants who arrived in Britain after India gained her independence in 1947. Kashfi was unique in that she attempted to make it in Hollywood as a mixed-race actress at a time when Katharine Hepburn was doing ‘yellowface’ and Natalie Wood, an American of Russian descent, was playing a Puerto-Rican. Her ‘studio-bio’ enhanced her background – as they did with every contract player they were trying to turn into a star – which she was to pay a heavy price for. So one of my aims with this book was definitely to reclaim her in a sense; to place her story within the context of the times she rose to notoriety in. That is to say, we should look again at these stories and not just accept them at face value.

Yes, and that’s exactly what you’ve done in Brando’s Bride. Tell me about the research which must have been both exciting and, at times, difficult. Could you talk about the journey to find Kashfi and the interviews you conducted with her?

The research took a long time…. Partly because I started out (naively!) by believing what I read in the papers! By which I mean that it did not occur to me initially that the O’Callaghans might have been not entirely truthful in their statements about being born in London. But when I found out that they were not born in the UK it set me off on a different path and into trying to untangle the complicated and dense family backgrounds of the O’Callaghan & Shrieve families in India. I was certain from early on in the research that I wanted to meet Kashfi – if I could find her! I presumed she was still alive because a French Journalist had tracked her down and interviewed her a couple of years before I began looking. But obviously the article didn’t list her address or phone number so I really didn’t know how to begin to get that kind of information in a country as vast as America. In the end Karen Lee Street, who I met through the MPhil course at Glamorgan University, told me about a service you can pay for to locate people. So I paid my $20 and got a list of women with variations on the names Kashfi had used and worked out which one through her birth date. I wrote to her a couple of times and didn’t receive any reply so, as I needed to go to the Margaret Herrick Film Library in LA (a trip funded by my award from Literature Wales) to do some research I decided I would cold-call. I wasn’t happy about intruding on her life in that way so I wrote again saying I would call by at a specific time on a specific date so that at least she could just not answer the door if she didn’t want to meet me.

Until the day I turned up (which I talk about in detail in the book) I didn’t know whether she would be there or have any clue to what her circumstances were so it was a huge gamble. Luckily she was happy to meet me and to talk so I went back over the following three days and recorded our conversations. I still can’t quite believe it happened…. My intention was to go back the following year but time and money meant that I didn’t manage to organise it before she died five years later. In retrospect I don’t think I would have got more information about her life with Brando but I very much regret that I wasn’t able to ask her very detailed questions about her family background. I didn’t have a lot of information about that aspect of her life when I met her – part of the reason for going was to fill in the blanks – but it turned out that she knew very little herself about, as she put it, why she ‘turned out like that’ (she was referred to her racial background). Much later, after researching her ancestors in the British Library, I had knowledge about generations of her family and I’m sad that I didn’t get to share that with her. I think it might have focused her memories on anecdotes she heard as a child which might have been useful. But I’ll never know that now.

And that is just so sad, but at the same time, how wonderful that you had taken the time and energy and kindness to persist with your research and eventually meet Anna and she knew, at least, that a Welsh writer was interested in her real story…Much of the Anna Kashfi/ Joan O’Callaghan story of identity is intertwined with the times she lived through and places she lived in. She had to negotiate leaving India, growing up as a teen in Wales and then adapt to living and working in the Hollywood star system as part of her film career. Is it a surprise then that, both her family and her, as you say, “altered their story of themselves” and that she, “Joan O’Callaghan altered it again, and again.”

No, not a surprise when you understand something of the background to the family’s story. When you see it in the framework of the politics of the time and place them in the context of post-war British life, the fact they altered their story was both an act of survival and also extremely common amongst Anglo-Indians who emigrated to the UK at that time. For Kashfi this was then compounded by her career in 1950s Hollywood – a time when the studio system was still all-powerful and would-be movie stars routinely had their life stories rewritten to suit the image that the studio wanted to promote. So Anna Kashfi was ‘groomed’ as an ‘East Indian’ actress and ‘India’s answer to Grace Kelly’ and as such her biography had to fit that persona.  She, as we know, happily embraced this persona and chose to identify with the Indian side of her mixed-race heritage. The unbelievable twist of fate that led to her parents denying their ancestry in order to protect their identity as white Catholics, living in an almost totally white (at that time) area of Cardiff, meant that it was their word against their daughter’s. The surprise really was that Kashfi was so castigated for embellishing her story when it was known to be a common practice in the entertainment business. Even Brando himself once pretended to have been born in Calcutta – a long time before he met Kashfi!

So, the reality of this is that we wouldn’t be having this chat had Kashfi not ended up in Hollywood and married Marlon Brando.

A number of things you say about the Kashfi/Brando relationship really struck me. On the one hand, as you outline in the brilliantly titled chapter “Lightening Hits”, their first date is reported by their chaperone as being “funny and romance-filled…each of them wanted so badly to seem right to the other” and on the other hand, we have reports of Brando’s “need” for Kashfi and that, as Kashfi herself recalls, “He rarely acknowledged the prefatory niceties of courtship. After making love he could vanish without a word.” This relationship as you say, from the beginning had something fated about it. Kashfi’s fate “feels inextricably, lethally, linked with his [Brando’s] from the very beginning.” Can you talk a little about the impression that Kashfi had of that relationship?

It’s hard to know now what she originally felt for him… did she fall madly in love? Why wouldn’t she? Brando, at that point in his life, was intelligent, good-looking, successful, funny, charming – and besotted with her. He also was her first serious romance (she was just 21 when she met him) and a hugely acclaimed, iconic film star – a key player in the city she had just moved to. I think she did fall in love and he with her. And I think her illness – she had TB and spent many months recuperating in hospital – then affected how their story played out. Although he was attentive – visiting her most evenings when he wasn’t away filming, he also maintained relationships with other women. By the time she was discharged he had proposed to her and, while that should have made her feel very secure, his continuing infidelities were painful for her. And then she became pregnant and so this flawed, volatile relationship which probably would and should have ended then became a whole different proposition with a tragic outcome for all concerned. However, when I interviewed Kashfi, decades after the events I’ve just described, she maintained that it wasn’t love on either side – but I think that was looking back through the prism of many horrible experiences that happened in her life as a direct result of her relationship with Brando. I choose to think that they began as two beautiful people who found each other and were delighted with that.

And that is a beautiful start to a tragic story. Given that so much of Kashfi’s story comes from invention, lies, truths and hidden truth, how did you negotiate the literature and stories about Kashfi that came from the Brando quarters and the press? In particular, how the press portrayed her first as such a beauty, then as a bitch and then as a crazy woman. I can’t help wondering if these impressions were symptomatic of how female actors were treated at the time. You cover this in the fascinating chapter “Valley of the Dolls” (the lives of Pier Angeli and Gia Scala, for example), and really, I can’t help thinking it’s a miracle Kashfi survived those years.

Interestingly, it was reading the ‘Brando biographies’ which first began to give me an insight into the collective antagonism (I can only really describe it as that) towards Kashfi which I found really quite strange. There was not only a generic dismissal of her claim to Indian heritage but, more importantly, a total lack of interest in whether there was any other side to the story. Which, of course, they would have discovered if they had looked into her background as I did. She was essentially framed as a (Welsh or possibly Irish) gold-digger – a white woman who had deceived Brando into thinking she was Indian by dressing up in a sari. And this story was repeated in various forms throughout every biography I looked at – and I read at least thirty! But not one of these biographies was authorised and not one of them had interviewed Brando himself. The only book Brando contributed to (his ‘autobiography’) didn’t mention Kashfi. And of course a lot of the stories that the biographies repeated were stories that had originally appeared in the press who mostly adopted a contemptuous attitude towards her.

And you are right in wondering if some of this was indicative of how female actors were treated then – and some might argue today as well. Elizabeth Taylor famously had horrendous things written about her pretty much from the Eddie Fisher period on. Kashfi was a very minor fish in the Hollywood pond, as were the women I write about in the ‘Valley of the Dolls’ chapter, and it appears that judgement could be made about them and fed into the popular press that they had no means of defending themselves against. Ironically two of the most vicious columnists in the film community were women – Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons – and they wielded enormous and malign power over the lives and careers of actors in Hollywood for several decades. And they didn’t discriminate – attacking as many male stars they disapproved of as females. But to go back to Kashfi – her story has effectively been shaped for all these years by writers who didn’t bother to investigate her background and assumed that what they’d read in the press was true. I’ve written an alternative version; one in which her mixed-race identity is in no doubt and her place in history is acknowledged – at least by the readers of Brando’s Bride!

Oh I keep thinking of the term “fake news” as I hear your answer….!

Lastly, Sarah, some fun questions:

    • Cardiff or Welsh countryside? Cardiff – as they say here ‘I loves the ‘Diff’!
    • LA or NY? NY
    • Book or film? Book
    • Hollywood or Bollywood? Hollywood
    • Tea or coffee? Tea
    • What are you reading right now? My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Oh that book is an incredible read, Elizabeth Day has a most moving interview with Sissay on her How To Fail podcast – check it out. Once again, Sarah, thank you so much for your generosity of spirit with our Writers Chat and I wish you must continued – and deserved – success with Brando’s Bride

Keep up to date by following Sarah on Twitter @sjbroughton124



Writers Read: The Joy of Re-Reading

This is the week when there are so many “best of” lists that it feels like too much  pressure to finish the already large to be read pile before engaging with these lists and adding even more to your to be read pile.

So I have decided to revisit books that have given me joy – without searching out books from my bookshelves but going on memory and finding books within easy reach.


What books remain with me, years after reading them…..A small pile. A delightful pile. A pile of well-read and well-worn books that await fresh eyes.

And one book, yes, the faded yellow Salinger at the top of the pile, from my teenage years when I wrote my name and followed it with an exclamation mark! And the second from my childhood – Watership Down. Both of these to hand as I have passed them on to my teenagers. The rest are more recent reads, but diverse and wonderful – poetry, non-fiction, short stories and a novel. 

In advance of the 31st December ….  Happy Reading and Happy New Year!



Writers Chat 24: Helen O’Leary on “The Heart Stone”.

Helen, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first novel The Heart Stone (Millbrook Press: Kildare, 2019). You write both short and long fiction and have won a number of prizes for your work, the most recent being the Michael Mullan Short Story prize –  many congratulations!

The Heart Stone Photograph

Let’s first start with the geneses of The Heart Stone – your dual identity as writer and counsellor. Could you speak a little about how these professions fed off each other as you wrote the novel?

The Heart Stone grew not out of my desire to write a novel but out of my need to tell a story.  Over the years, in my work as a teacher and therapist, I have met many children like Danielle and her classmates.  I have long been concerned about the quiet child in the classroom; the child who may have suffered trauma or loss; the child who is anxious or sad but who is unnoticed because there may be other needy children in the room more actively seeking attention, and the child, who, like Danielle, slips by until her feelings become unbearable.  I hope this book will be of help to teachers in understanding the process of therapy with grieving children, to therapists in understanding the dynamics of a busy classroom, and most importantly to children and teenagers in learning that they are not alone.

I think your need to tell a story about a quiet child is a wonderful way into writing The Heart Stone and it is a novel which is accessible for adults and younger readers. You’ve also given a beautiful, moving story a fitting title. Did the title come during writing the novel, before or after? And if there were other possible titles, what were they?

The title The Heart Stone came to me as I was writing the book.  Many children who find it difficult to verbalise their feelings can work very well with art materials, therapeutic stories, play therapy, drama and music.  Putting myself in Mollie’s shoes, I asked what materials I as a therapist would offer her and what would she be likely to choose.  Some children like working with clay, shaping it to see what emerges rather than setting out to make something in particular (a bit like the writing process!).  It seemed natural and maybe expected, that for Danielle a heart would emerge, but her feelings are more complex than that, so she goes on to use the heart to express what she needs to express.  It also tied in nicely with a happy memory she had shared with her Daddy, so it seemed a fitting title.

The split structure of The Heart Stone enables the narrative to be revealed in short chapters. Did you find that your experience in short story writing fed into writing your novel or is it the other way around?

Yes, it certainly was my experience in short story writing that fed into the novel.  The Heart Stone grew out of a short story about a child’s experience of grief – not actually a story about Danielle, but about her classmate Dylan, a much more out- there, attention seeking character.  This led to me thinking about grief in the silent child in the classroom and how that might be explored.  As I began to write, the novel came to me scene by scene, in no particular order.  It was almost completely character driven.  As I got to know Danielle, I began to explore how she might react in different situations so gradually a narrative thread emerged.

Danielle is a feisty, strong and yet very vulnerable young girl with whom readers can identify with on an emotional and nurturing level. Can you tell us a little bit about how her character is the driver behind some of the difficult themes – such as depression and suicide – that you skillfully tackle in The Heart Stone?

Danielle is vulnerable, but she is also strong.  She lives in a world where depression, drug taking, jail sentences, poverty and disadvantage are the norm.  Young though she is, she may have already encountered suicide in her community.  She and her friends are tough because they have to be.  In some ways Ms. Phillips, Mr. Power and Mollie are part of another world – softer and less harsh, because that has been their lived experience.  Yet Danielle and her friends survive, kept going by the love of the adults in their world but also by each other, as each child, at some level, recognises the struggle in the other.  She is feisty and strong, and it may be necessary for her to become even more so.  Although the book has a happy ending, the story must remain real.  And in the real world, Danielle and Lisa and the others will inevitably face many more challenges.  Resilience is a buzz word at the moment, but I have to say I admire children and adults like these because they are resilient without even knowing the term.  They don’t have to be taught it – they embody it.

You are so right, Helen, I love how you express Danielle’s strength – that she doesn’t have to be taught resilience, she embodies it. While The Heart Stone is about grief and truth on one level it is also filled with humour and is, I feel, really about what it means to be human and perhaps delivers an important message about being kind. Did these sentiments emerge for you as you were writing or after you’d written the novel?

What I would like to say about this, is that it has been a privilege for me to work with children like Danielle, her classmates, her parents and her teachers – people often dealing with the most unimaginable circumstances.  For some, like Danielle’s Daddy, it all becomes too much and they just can’t cope.  But for the most part, they just get on with it, and fun and humour, and joy and laughter are a huge part of it.  I enjoyed imagining what they might say or do in certain situations.  The character of Nicola becomes an important one in lightening the mood, as does Dylan with his classroom antics.  It was important for me too, that Danielle’s mam Lisa, not only survives but thrives, as transformation following adversity is possible too.  As teachers and therapists, we are often told that one kind person or perhaps an act of kindness remembered, can make a difference to a child’s later life and I know that in schools up and down the country there are many people; teachers, principals, classroom assistants and other members of the school community who strive on a daily basis to be that one person who makes the difference.

I think you’ve touched on something very important here – how kindness can be the greatest gift and difference. Can you speak a little about your experience of the publishing process – from idea to draft to manuscript to editing and finally to launching and selling The Heart Stone?

This is, by choice, a self-published book, because I wanted to do the project that felt right for me.  I did not initially set out to publish it but when the project was complete, I strongly felt that if it could help one child, one parent, teacher or therapist then it was worth putting it out there.  I have had very many positive responses including from adults who have themselves lost a parent in childhood, and who found the book of benefit in terms of understanding their own experience of loss and grief.  The editing process was interesting, I had to lose some parts that were dear to my heart, but which didn’t really contribute to the overall project.

The self-publishing process was made surprisingly easy by the staff at Millbrook Press and although a steep learning curve for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The launch was of course daunting, but I surrounded myself with family and friends and through the whole publishing process I read and re-read Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World, constantly reminding myself, “A book deadline in not a NASA launch.  A concert date is not a countdown for nuclear testing.”

Lastly, Helen, some fun questions:

    • Mountains or sea? Sea.
    • Tea or coffee? Coffee.
    • What’s on your Santa list? The Faber and Faber Poetry Diary 2020. I use it every year to record what I am currently reading, writing, studying and events I attend which feed my creativity.
    • What are you working on now? After I finished The Heart Stone, I subconsciously distanced myself from Danielle’s world by writing a short memoir of a time I had spent living abroad. Some short stories arose out of that, but I am now back in there and working on a collection of stories featuring some of the more minor characters in the novel.
    • What are you reading right now? Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Some lovely suggestions for books and the Faber and Faber diary. Thank you, Helen, for being so open and honest about your motives and experience in writing your novel. It has already found its way into the hearts of many and I wish you much continued success with The Heart Stone

The Heart Stone is available for purchase at: