An interview with author
After writing 16 novels, what made you decide to turn to memoir?
It was not a big instant decision, but rather a process over time. I have always loved memoir and the art of the personal essay, not least because the form touches upon universal truths to be found in individual stories, and the way in which they can draw together people from wildly different backgrounds, cultures and times, almost as if the reader were looking into a mirror. I first began writing a memoir over 25 years ago and I have written many personal essays inspired by my family and my experiences over the years – whether traveling, my work, my observations.
This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is more than just your own life story: it delves into three generations of family lore, and captures a fascinating slice of twentieth century English history, ranging from your grandfather’s fighting at the Somme to your parents’ years living in a Romany Gypsy caravan to your own childhood in the Kent countryside, where you started working picking fruit when you were only six. Through different vignettes, we learn about the ramifications of both World Wars on soldiers and their offspring; about the Blitz and the wartime removal of children from their families, the evacuation; about secondary PTSD. Will Maisie Dobbs fans find the roots of some of your fiction in your own family’s past?
I think any writer draws upon experience – that’s why writers tend to travel to do research, so they can walk the paths of their characters, or to get a sense of time and place. However, it’s true that I’ve drawn upon family stories to some extent – but no one in my family has ever seen a murder or committed one, though they’ve done some pretty off-the-wall things!
Will you tell us a bit here about where and how you grew up?
I was born and grew up in the Weald of Kent, in a rural area about sixty-odd miles from the area in London where my parents were from. They left in 1950, four years after the end of WW2. Sixty miles doesn’t seem such a long way now, but when I was a child it might as well have been the other end of the world, and definitely so when my parents took flight. Kent has been known for its agricultural heritage for centuries, earning the name “The Garden of England” (though there’s a funny story about a less attractive origin of the name). Apples, blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, hops, barley and those amazing Kentish cherries – the list of crops goes on, and when I was a child my mother worked on a couple of the local farms, so it was natural for me to work on farms alongside her during the school holidays. I love the landscape of Kent, the soft undulating countryside, the woodland of mixed deciduous and conifer – in fact the word “Weald” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for forest, which is “wald.” Once Kent was covered in this beautiful woodland, much of which remains to this day. Some really good wines are produced in Kent and Sussex, along with local beers and ciders.
Was it hard to write something so personal?
Yes and no. In one respect the stories have been inside me for years, so I know them, I’ve lived with them, but the process of putting the words on the page seems to put rocket fuel under the memory, so more and more stories seem to emerge ready to be told. I left out as many as I chose to include. I think the key for me was to show how love is sustained, even through the worst of times; that we can have our ups and downs in a family, our discord and rough interludes, but if the foundation of love is solid, it can hold fast through thick and thin. I also wanted to write about my late parents because I have so much respect for them, for their work ethic, for their ability to endure and for their resilience even when things became pretty dark. The title wasn’t just something my father used to say when life was tough – it was an attitude, a way of looking at the world that was very much present across my extended family, along with a sense that the future would be just another turn of the page and all would be well.
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This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing