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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 di­valit­er­aryfes­ti­

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.

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