Fiona Mel­rose

Her stun­ning de­but novel set in Suf­folk is on the New An­gle prize short­list

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

NOW would seem the per­fect time to be in the busi­ness of po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis and re­search. Writer Fiona Mel­rose has spent the past two decades try­ing to make sense of the world, work­ing var­i­ously for govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­vest­ment com­pa­nies and academia.

“My brain is good at anal­y­sis, tak­ing huge amounts of in­for­ma­tion and dis­till­ing it into some­thing co­her­ent,” she says. “But just be­cause you’re good at some­thing, doesn’t mean you should do it. I had an ap­ti­tude for it, and when you’ve got to get a job, you fol­low that path. Then sud­denly it’s 20 years later and you’re think­ing ‘I have no idea what I’m do­ing here’.”

A change of di­rec­tion for Fiona meant leav­ing her home in South Africa and mov­ing to Suf­folk, to stay with her brother and his fam­ily on their farm near Wood­bridge.

“It seemed a lovely ad­ven­ture,” she says, as she re­calls days spent walking dogs and keep­ing horses, while she worked out what she wanted to do next. Re­mem­ber­ing how her youth was spent “mop­ing around in black polo necks”, recorded in end­less pages of di­aries and “tragic teenage po­ems”, she de­cided to take a course in cre­ative writ­ing to see if this could once again prove a ther­a­peu­tic ex­er­cise.

“I loved it,” she says. “There was no time to be pre­cious and self-in­dul­gent, sit­ting around wait­ing for the muse, you just had to get the work done. And I think I learned less about how to write and more about how to read.

“Learn­ing how you read changes how and why you write, and ex­tends what’s pos­si­ble in your writ­ing.” When she com­pleted a short story for the course, Fiona re­alised she had more to say about the Suf­folk farm­ing fam­ily she had cre­ated. The novel, Mid­win­ter, was the re­sult.

It’s the story of Lan­dyn Mid­win­ter and his son, farm­ing for a while in Zam­bia be­fore re­turn­ing to bat­tle the frozen Suf­folk landscape, con­tend­ing with their emo­tions of guilt and grief at the loss of their wife and mother. The two men are un­able to com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively and a bit­ter ar­gu­ment re­sults in a drunken night voy­age on the river, with tragic con­se­quences. It is pow­er­ful, bleak and at­mo­spheric.

“I was shocked at the re­sponse to Mid­win­ter,” Fiona says. “The book mar­ket is so crowded and there are lots of big, ex­cit­ing books. Mid­win­ter is a quiet book, a Suf­folk farmer book.

“De­but nov­els can sink with­out a trace. I only hoped for a cou­ple of nice re­views in the news­pa­pers.”

This she achieved, and more. Mid­win­ter was in­cluded on the long list for the Bai­leys Prize this year, and is on the short­list for the New An­gle Lit­er­ary Prize, soon to be an­nounced.

The con­fi­dence she has gained from this en­dorse­ment, the sup­port of her pub­lish­ing team, and the en­cour­age­ment from other au­thors, of­ten through Twit­ter, which Fiona uses ex­ten­sively, has led to a sec­ond novel fol­low­ing this month, and she’s busy work­ing on the third. “I’m a quick writer,” she says. In fact, the first draft of her new book, Johannesburg, set in the South African city she now calls home, was com­pleted in a month.

“I came back to the city in De­cem­ber when ev­ery­one packs up and dis­ap­pears to the coast. I had no idea how to pass the time. So I thought, ‘I’ve got a month, if I bang out 2,000 words a day, that’s 62,000 words, and that’s a book’.”

This was also the time of Nel­son Man­dela’s death, and Fiona spent each day writ­ing a journal of how this loss felt for her, for the city and for the na­tion. Johannesburg has been re­fined since the early draft and thoughts from the journal have been in­te­grated.

The re­sult is an homage to the con­struc­tion and spirit of Vir­ginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dal­loway, with the story tak­ing place on a sin­gle day.

The sear­ing heat of the South African sum­mer is the ever-present back­drop to the prepa­ra­tions for a party. Gin has re­turned home from New York to mark her mother’s 80th birth­day. Memories and former re­la­tion­ships sur­face, and emo­tions are height­ened as news breaks of Tata’s death. For the South African na­tion, with its history of apartheid, it’s a time for tak­ing stock and look­ing back.

Fiona de­scribes the book as a hymn to the city, as much as it is about a city that is bro­ken and frac­tured. Cer­tainly, place has had a pro­found im­pact on Fiona’s writ­ing to date and, while she won’t re­veal the de­tails of her third novel, she ad­mits that she has been drawn back to Suf­folk for the set­ting.

“There’s some­thing un­fath­omable about Suf­folk,” she says, de­scrib­ing how Blyth­burgh church sym­bol­ises all she puz­zles over in our dis­tinc­tive landscape.

“This huge church built on com­pletely un­sta­ble ground. There’s the shift­ing marsh­land, half ocean and half land, half salt and half turf. There are all th­ese in­ter­sec­tions be­tween what’s solid and what’s not, and what’s tan­gi­ble and what’s in­tan­gi­ble. It has an amaz­ing eery, ghostly feel – the Suf­folk gothic!

“There’s some­thing about Suf­folk. I’m not done with it, cre­atively and, pos­si­bly, emo­tion­ally. I have a lot of my­self in­vested in ex­plor­ing it as a sub­ject and a lo­ca­tion. I’d like to spend at least an­other book there.”

Her grow­ing le­gion of fans can’t wait.

Frozen Suf­folk is the set­ting for Fiona Mel­rose’s de­but novel. Photo: Stephen Squir­rell

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