What inspired the book or triggered you to sit down and write it?
Writing is a very old itch that I’d never properly scratched before Mrs Narwhal’s Diary. I took a prize in a Mail on Sunday competition in the 90s, which led to an agent and a novel, but I couldn’t get it past the first draft. It was the wrong sort of hard, like pushing a door marked pull, and I abandoned it.
It was an unexpectedly hedonistic visit to my husband’s relatives in the Czech Republic that triggered the determination to try writing again; a reminder that I wasn’t dead yet and that there were still adventures to be had. Writing was my reaction to a midlife crisis, basically. (My husband went for the motorbike option.)
You’re a mum of two boys living in Herefordshire and once owned an Interiors business, how much of the book is taken from your own life and experience?
I know – isn’t it an astonishing coincidence that Mrs N has such a similar life to mine?? But seriously, if you met the Narwhals & the Norburys you’d find we were quite different!
It’s the same with places. I don’t envisage Narwhal Hall as Morville Hall, but the latter was definitely an inspiration. My husband’s great aunt gifted it to the National Trust, so my mother-in-law has known the place from childhood, and was the first tenant (with her family) in the main house in 1984. I could fill pages with all her stories, but one in particular stuck with me.
It was her responsibility to show visitors around the house. My husband was not a tidy teenager, and neither was he likely to clear up when she asked him to, so instead she just cleared a path through the detritus before each tour. This is actually in the book. I loved her practical, unpretentious attitude to the issue, and loved the fact that the visitors were thrilled by this glimpse of familiar teenage life in a National Trust property. It enriched the experience for them; elevated them from observers to participants in a way.
There’s a wonderful moment in the novel, where the husband, Hugh, hides a disparaging ditty in a client’s upholstery. Was this inspired by your clients at your previous Interiors business?
Most of our clients were lovely, and our upholsterer would never have hidden a rude poem in the furniture of anyone who wasn’t! As to whether we wished he had on occasion, I couldn’t possibly comment.
You’ve mentioned that some readers have shown a strong dislike of the husband in the novel, Hugh and his seemingly selfish behaviour. Without giving away any spoilers, what’s your personal take on the narrator’s process in handling the situation?
Yes – poor Hugh! He is selfish for a great deal of the book, and then has the audacity to ask his wife for space and time so that he can try to sort himself out. It’s a huge request. His own sister berates the narrator for putting up with it, while Mrs N herself wonders if she’s mad to do so. But she trusts her husband, as he trusts her, and I wanted to explore this rather unsexy, some would say anachronistic, attitude to a marriage in crisis. Hold on. Keep the faith. Don’t give up.
The heroine of the novel is a keen gardener. Is this a passion of yours and are there any local gardens you love to revisit time and time again for inspiration?
Gardening is indeed a passion of mine (dangerously close to obsession at times), and yes, there are several gardens locally that I love. Stockton Bury is a delight, with a famous dovecot that had to have a version of itself in the book, and a fantastic cafe too. Kathy’s Swift’s garden at the Dower House at Morville is just the sort of dreamy, very English garden that I’m a sucker for – grown by Kathy almost entirely from seed. But probably my favourite of all is Bryan’s Ground, which has a mischief and joie de vivre that lets you know it would never take itself too seriously. The makers of this garden are just about to leave it; lucky, lucky new owners!
About the book
“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”
Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from drama to drama; not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment… When Hugh’s pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn’t. But now that Hugh’s gone, the question must be faced: does Mrs Narwhal really want him back? Funny, evocative, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.
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