Maria, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder (Seren, 2017), a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize and shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award. This publication follows on from your short story collection Pumping Up Napoleon and Other Stories (Seren, 2007) and your flash fiction Tea for Mr Dead (Leaf, 2006).
SG: I thoroughly enjoyed The Chicken Soup Murder and agree with the description which says it’s “part crime fiction and murder mystery, part meditation on grieving, friendship and family”. Essentially, it is a great story, I think, which defies genre, and sits outside all those boxes that the book industry want novels to sit in. Can we talk a little bit about this – did you set out to break with genre or did you set out to write a good story, filled with complex and lovable characters? What was your intention when you started writing?
MD: I tried not to think in terms of barriers and boxes while I was writing. A novel has to be written before it is anything at all and the only way I could see of getting there was to be true to myself, to the characters and the story. Of the story strands only one is the crime, the others have to do with the meaning of family and of ways in which different characters respond to their experiences of bereavement. Having said that, I should not be surprised that it is most often sub-categorised as ‘crime and mystery’. It’s just that it’s also humorous general literary or contemporary fiction, which could be described as ‘coming of age’ since the narrator is an eleven-year-old boy who goes through many changes.
The novel evolved, beginning with an incident in which my husband nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. My reaction, after a bit, was to laugh, as Irma does: both of us laughing in the face of our fear of death. I teased my husband that I would one day write a story called ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ and I filed it away under ‘Crime’. Yes, I did think that a puzzle and a mystery would give the reader something strong to follow but whatever the story was going to be I wanted it to also have emotional significance. I had no idea how that would work, or who the characters in it would be or what the story was or that it would even be a novel, until much time had passed and my life drastically changed. I didn’t begin work on it until I was already two years a widow. I did my best with what I had and was concerned with making something that did my themes justice and made an enjoyable, if sometimes troubling read.
But then comes the business of communicating with agents and publishers and the reading public. You have to succinctly describe what it is you’re offering. It is certainly much easier for publicity and marketing, for libraries, literary festivals, reviewers and reading sites, if you can do that in a few words and have a strong identity. You start noticing the industry use of the word ‘brand’.
It’s logical that booksellers and libraries need to know where you’re supposed to go on the shelf: from there stems an entire system of categorisation. Would it be a neat marketing idea to have a novel on several shelves in a bookshop at once? Or would that just be confusing? Would it seem as if the novel had much to offer or would it be seen a weakness? Anyway a first-time novelist must be glad of being given any space at all.
Only the experience of reading the novel will tell you if you like it but that can be said of many a book. Take it off the bookshelf and read the first paragraph. Online, you can ‘Look inside’. But here we come full circle. In some way you have, in the first place, to give people the notion that this is the sort of book they would like to read.
For the future: while I have learned more about this kind of categorisation, and respect the reasons for it and keep it in mind, I wouldn’t want to feel this put a brake on writing the kind of story or novel I want to write because then I might not do it at all and there’d be nothing to discuss.
SG: That’s quite amazing, Maria, that the idea involving chicken soup came from your own life, and then how you wove this personal incident into a whole fictional world. And then, in relation to how the novel is presented to the reading public, well, I love the idea of a novel appearing across genres – – and on many shelves!
Writer Francesca Rhydderch has described this novel as ‘a lovely, warm-hearted novel about love and grief.’ What makes this exploration of grief so powerful was how it is firstly told through the eyes of Michael, an eleven-year-old who understands life through its patterns and habits. In a way, it’s what we all do – an attempt to control life – but seeing Michael struggle at Irma’s sudden death (which he is convinced is a murder) really brings the vulnerability of being human home to the reader. As Michael reflects:
Sometimes I wanted to cry about it: sometimes I wanted to shout or run to break the tight feeling – but everyone else was being normal so I had to be normal too.
And then later, on a rare trip to the beach “I keep thinking: Luxury. The luxury of being alive.”
This is something that we should all remind ourselves. Did you find that using a child narrator at this key age of transition helped you be more authentic in the exploration of life and death and coming of age?
MD: It certainly helped me that I was filtering everything through Michael’s consciousness. His sensibilities about death and bereavement and how he sees other people cope or not cope were all things I wanted to show in an emotionally realistic way. Remembering what it was like to be that age and having been a child who thought about death quite a bit, I felt I could help him tell his story. Another thing: his observations of the adults around him are all we have and though it is important that his understanding of them as well as himself can grow and change, being Michael saved me, in this novel, from falling down the well of my own grief. If I had been too close to Janey’s mother or to Nan there would have been a danger of that. Though I tried once to change the novel to third person, it felt wrong and I couldn’t do it. It was Michael’s story and, given that I had so many other things going on, I was glad that I kept it in his voice.
SG: Yes, it is such a strong voice that really, I think the story couldn’t be told in any other. Sickness, loss, and the stories we tell ourselves to make things better also run through The Chicken Soup Murder. Janey’s family have lost their father, Michael has been deprived of his father and, without spoiling the plot, both of these subplots grow and change as the book progresses. You do this with a three act structure (the three parts to the novel) rather than using traditional chapters. Was this something that came organically to you as you wrote it or did you impose the structure when you’d finished?
MD: It was my plan to write a novel in three parts because I knew it would give the book a strong dramatic structure and as I have a tendency to incorporate ideas on the fly, it felt good to have reminders that we were supposed to be going somewhere. But the structure also felt organic to the novel. Each part represents a new phase in Michael’s understanding. If it hadn’t been right I suppose I would have done something different. I wanted a flow to it within these three big sections so just settled for white space to show changes in time, place or subject rather than clearly defined chapters. My dad said that this was fine but he didn’t know when to stop reading. Perhaps that could be seen as an advantage!
SG: My favourite character was that of Nan. She’s witty and she’s wise and she is a very complex character – she feels very real to me. When everyone around her is struggling, she manages to surmise the situation with humour and grace. She says to Janey when she’s worried that everyone has forgotten about her father because Irma has died “Ah, the league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.” Tell me about how you developed Nan.
MD: Nan is like an old friend now, one I loved from the start though I had to get to know her with all the experiences of her years. I felt I could rely on her to be herself and do and say what came naturally in any given situation. It is important that I knew her well because she has been the biggest influence on Michael’s life and character. Their relationship is key. I wanted her to be funny, forthright and fearless though for a long time her presence is muted by her need to keep a big secret.
In developing Nan it helped things along quite a bit to think of her as a person with more to her than her identity as Michael’s grandmother, though it is important to her to do a good job in that role. She’s a young grandmother though it might not always seem like that to Michael. She and I share certain cultural references and I wanted to show glimmers of her as the woman called Zena, who back in the day had been a rebellious teenager listening to Wreckless Eric. For a time, to remind myself that she has never quite lost her attitude, I kept a postcard of ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ in view, in which the heroine is scowling, alongside the caption, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his ribcage’. Nan takes no prisoners but deep down she’s kind and if you can make her laugh you’re halfway to disarming her. Nan has had some adventures in her life but now she’s dedicated to looking after her grandson and that is her strength and purpose. But she’s still her own person. I wanted her to use her sense of humour as a shield and to be willing to follow her own judgement. I made her wary of commitment, because she can’t bear to do half a job. If she takes on a responsibility she takes it seriously and does her very best. I also allowed her to speak her mind, which is useful, since what Michael tells us about what she says and does is all we can know about her. She is unabashed about giving what she thinks is good advice, such as the quote you mention. I’m grateful to her because if it weren’t for Nan that observation would have stayed in my mind, instead of which I could write it down and let the words come out of her mouth. And if Janey rolled her eyes when Nan said that, we don’t know, because Michael was in the back seat of the car.
SG: I love how real Nan has become to you, and you’re so right; perspective is everything in a novel. The first line of The Chicken Soup Murder is a great one – “The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich”. It captures the tone of the novel – serious topics told with humour and tenderness. Was it the first line you wrote or did it come to you when you’d finished the novel?
MD: As I recall I had that first line from the start – or very early on. I liked the idea of introducing my hero and identifying his enemy in one go, of Michael making a joke, half at his own expense, while establishing the important fact of the murder on which the novel depends. I liked the idea of him having not one big fatal flaw but a series of small ones, like lactose intolerance. It also helps to know that the big event is coming soon. Before we get to it Michael tells us about his paradise lost. Life has already changed because of the coming of the bully and the falling apart of his ‘family’ after Janey’s dad dies from cancer.
The only real difference is that the character also known as Bully started out with a different first name associated with yet another theme. When I’d nearly finished I had to deal with the fact that the name, which Michael uses most mockingly and cruelly in that draft, was also the name of a boy I knew. I struggled with this and though his mother gave me the go-head to use his name, in the end I decided that the whole theme, which was about child abduction and abuse, was pulling so hard that it was going to move the story away from where I wanted it to be. It was the right thing to do to remove that storyline. Changing the name to George gave me a name with a similar sound and a new set of associations that fitted fine with the novel as it was meant to be.
SG: It’s fascinating to hear about these big changes which are invisible to the reader but so present, even in their absence to the writer.
Lastly, Maria, some fun questions:
Mountains or sea? Sea. I’m scared of heights. But looking at mountains is fine too. I’m also fond of the Dutch mountains.
Ha! I love it. Brown bread or white bread? I nearly always buy brown but sometimes look longingly at white as if that is the greater treat.
Cats or dogs? Both have been wonderful friends to me but now I have neither and am mostly interested in the doings of the birds and insects in my garden and anywhere I go. Creatures that have the power of flight amaze me, as does the idea that birds still manage to live amongst us – just about. Blue tits built their nest in the garden last year and raised six young. That felt like an achievement.
What writing project are you working on now? I am aiming to finish another novel called The Miller’s Wife. It’s set in a dystopian near future in the southernmost part of the Netherlands and mostly concerns the miller’s agony of uncertainty as he tries to find out what has happened to his wife. There’s also an odd but possible romance with his new neighbour, an immigrant woman, who has been in the country for many years and who sets up her own investigation out of mistrust of the miller’s version of the story. Like Michael and Nan in The Chicken Soup Murder, these two will need each other’s help to solve the mystery. As you can see, I’ll need to work on that fifteen-word description.
SG: Well fifteen or fifty-word description, The Miller’s Wife sounds fascinating… I look forward to it!
I have in the background the novel I stopped writing when my husband died, and a few short stories I would like to complete to put together another collection.
For that short term finishing and publishing hit, I sometimes write very short fiction, poetry (of a sort) and songs. There are blog posts over at www.mariadonovan.com. There I experiment with ideas about truth and time, and question various assumptions. I am also trying to write a little more about the background to The Chicken Soup Murder so I thank you for your kind comments and your questions and the chance to go back and think about it all again. It has been educational.
SG: Oh, Maria, it has been wonderful to chat to you and it has been educational for me, too. Thanks once again and I’d encourage everyone to read The Chicken Soup Murder and check out your website.