The Other Mrs Walker’s author on her debut novel
“An old lady dies alone in a flat in Edinburgh, nothing left behind but a series of objects. An orange. An emerald dress. A brazil nut with the Ten Commandments etched in the shell. Nobody knows anything about her but her name: Mrs Walker”. Mary Paulson- Ellis’s debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker, stormed The Times’ bestseller list and rightly so. Its tight, descriptive prose, cleverly constructed interlocking plots, and the ability to force the reader into questioning their own family relationships has resulted in characters that fascinate and enthral. Its author, Mary Paulson- Ellis, tells DIVA about the journey her debut novel took her on.
DIVA: What gave you the idea for The Other Mrs Walker?
MARY PAULSON-ELLIS: About 15 years ago I saw a documentary about council workers who went into the flats of people who had died alone. Their job was to try and identify the individual, if this hadn’t already been done, and to find any details that could be used to track down next- of-kin. I have a vivid memory of these people going through the drawers and bookshelves and kitchen cabinets of the deceased, reading birthday cards or thank you notes, checking calendars and diaries, sifting through bank statements or any other paperwork they could find. What they most wanted to get their hands on were certificates – for birth, marriage or death. Also contact details – address books or diaries – so that they could pass the case on. I thought at the time that these council workers had a very interesting job, detectives almost, who must come across all sorts of strange and peculiar things. Then I began to wonder about the deceased and how their whole life was being reduced to paperwork, black ink on a white form. Most of us live a much more colourful and complicated existence than paperwork can ever convey. When I came to write The Other Mrs Walker, I realised that I wanted to combine the two.
Mother/daughter relationships are a main theme that run through the
book. Why do they interest you so much?
The Other Mrs Walker is full of mothers. Strict ones. Mad ones. Fake ones. Absent ones. I do have an abiding interest in families and the idea, as expressed by Hilary Mantel, I think, that they are both the safest and the most dangerous place to be. That is rich territory for a novelist. So I think my subject matter lies here, really, rather than in mothers and daughters per se. In this case I wanted to write about women and girls, so that inevitably meant mothers and daughters. My next book is all about fathers and sons. What’s interesting is everyone asks about my relationship with my mother, assuming this must be the basis of my interest, but no one ever asks about what kind of mother I might be.
How well did you need to know your characters before committing them to paper?
I needed to know them very well. In fact, for me, I think everything starts and ends with character. When I was writing The Other Mrs Walker I thought it would be all about the lady who is dead at the beginning. But then, when I sat down to write, this other girl popped up and she just wouldn’t go away so I had to work out who she was, too. Whenever I’m stuck on what should happen next in a piece of writing, I realise it is probably because I don’t know my characters well enough to understand what they might do in the situation I have put them in. I really have to feel them live inside and then outside of me before I feel that what I’m writing has any sort of traction. Of course, it’s only by writing them that this familiarity develops, so it is rather a catch-22 situation. Names also matter to me. I have to find just the right one before I can really commit on the page.
Are there certain events that trigger your thought process when it comes to writing or thinking about plots?
I never thought of myself as a “plotty” kind of writer, but when I finished The Other Mrs Walker I realised it was stuffed full of twists and turns. Partly this was to do with building narrative momentum. But it’s also because most families are full of secrets and lies. Like a lot of writers I am a bit of a magpie in that I hoard all sorts of little bits and bobs that I come across, including stories that people tell. There is a particular incident with a laburnum tree in The Other Mrs Walker, which arose from a true story an old friend told me about her grandmother combined with memories of the warnings my mother used to give about the tree when I was a child. These came together to make their way into my novel. Never tell a story to a writer. It will almost certainly end up in their book!
Your debut novel has been a huge success. Does that make writing the second harder or easier?
Harder! But I’m only saying that now because I’m right in the middle of trying to write the next one and it’s driving me crazy. A wise friend of mine, who is also a novelist, said that the second is always harder because you know that someone will read it, whereas with the first you have to accept along the way that perhaps no one ever will. Of course, once any project is completed, it’s very easy to look back from some distance and only remember the good times when the writing flowed, the characters sang and the plot knit seamlessly. It takes good friends and partners to remind you that it was nothing like that. As a beginner, I can’t really say whether it is harder or easier because I don’t have much to compare it with. Maybe once I’ve written a few more books I’ll have some sort of perspective.
Many writers talk about how they close themselves off from everything so they can write. What’s your process? Do you have a routine?
It took me years to work out that I had a good time of day to write and a time of day when however long I sat in front of the blank page nothing would happen. So my writing routine is based around trying to maximise that. That means staying at home in the mornings and doing admin – emails, phone calls, interview questions, website stuff etc. And also procrastination – web surfing, doing the washing, Twitter! I then try to go and write in the afternoon and into the early evening. I do this in a studio space I rent about 15-20 minutes walk from where I live. It is in the attic of a building owned by the spiritualist church, so perfect for me! The minute I go there and close the door I feel much more able to get stuck into my work than if I try to write at home. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I read a lot there too, to help me get into the swing of things, and try to go most days if I can. If I had my way entirely I think I’d become a complete night- owl and write into the dawn. But I have a partner and other commitments which mean that is impossible. Probably a good thing. Otherwise I’d never come out of the dark at all.
You’re appearing at the DIVA Literary Festival in November. What do you think is the appeal of these kind of events?
There is something visceral about the live, isn’t there? Something that is totally unique and utterly different from reading a book and becoming immersed in the fictional world. I think readers (and writers) enjoy that contrast. Any live event is a one- off and therefore special. There is something very appealing in that. There is also something important about the communal experience. Reading is a solitary activity. It is quite a thrill to come together and discover lots of other people have loved the thing you found so special too. Apart from that, events like literary festivals give us all a chance to get answers to the questions we’ve always wanted to ask but been too embarrassed to ask ourselves. As a reader I always loved going to events. You always learn something and come away inspired, irritated, motivated in some way or other – to read more, write more, be the best you can be. As a writer, I love doing events too. It is such a pleasure to meet others who love books and writing of all descriptions, including those who want to interrogate me about my own. Then there is the opportunity to have a glass of wine or an ice cream while getting stuck into a debate or discussion (argument!) with like-minded folk. Always the perfect way to spend an evening or an afternoon. If there are also books involved, then to me that is heaven. I suppose it must be for lots of other people too.
The DIVA Literary Festival takes place 3-5 November in Birmingham. To book tickets, visit divaliteraryfestival.com.
WOULDBE NIGHT OWL MARY PAULSON-ELLIS TALKS TO AJ HIGGINSON ABOUT HER DEBUT NOVEL, THE OTHER MRS WALKER “My novel is full of mothers. Strict ones. Mad ones. Fake ones. Absent ones”
The Other Mrs Walker is available now marypaulsonellis. co.uk