Article published on October 20, 2016.
Reviewer Jade Craddock speaks to Virginia Macgregor, author of nb Recommended Read The Return of Norah Wells…
JC: I absolutely loved The Return of Norah Wells and in particular was so impressed by the way you inhabit each of your characters so convincingly, how do you manage to get inside such different characters so thoroughly and maintain each of their individual styles and quirks?
VM: Getting into my characters and making them distinctive and believable is the most important part of my job. Just as with real, flesh and blood people, it takes time. I interview my characters, I live with them, I ask them millions of questions and I make notes on them. I also open my eyes to the world around me and draw inspiration from the world: someone’s smile, their funny way of walking, how they dress, what they say. My characters are a mix of experience, research and imagination and that little bit of magic that makes them come to life.
JC: Following on from that, did you find any of the characters easier/harder to inhabit?
VM: I have a soft spot for child narrators, as with Milo in ‘What Milo Saw’, so I found Willa and Ella easy to write. Grown-ups are always trickier, though no less interesting. I think I found Norah hardest to write as I knew that, right from the first page, my readers would judge her for walking out on her young family – and yet I wanted them to understand her and develop some sympathy for her. That was hard but I hope I got there in the end.
JC: What appeals about these younger characters and how do you write them so authentically?
VM: Someone once said that all writers are children at heart. Maybe I find it easier to tap into the child than the adult in me…I imagine it’s also because I have a little girl who, although much younger than Willa, very much has the same spirit: ‘bonkers cute’! From a writer’s point of view, I love to write about children as they have such an original way of seeing the world, one that is filled with magic and humour.
JC: I love the story of Willa’s foxes (and the echoes of Fantastic Mr Fox) and the parallels to the family’s story, how did this come about?
VM: Every few years there seems to be a story of a child being bitten or scratched or, tragically, even killed by a dog or a wild animal like a fox. I’ve always wondered how families coped with that. And I liked the idea of how a terrible experience could be flipped on its head by a child who comes to love the animal that hurt her (which is also a metaphor for what Norah did to Willa, of course). There’s also something interesting about the boundaries between the domestic and urban life we have created for ourselves and the ‘wild’: we’re closer than we realise. Finally, I think foxes are beautiful, mysterious, wonderful animals. And that Roald Dahl is an awesome writer!
JC: And turning to the other sibling, it was interesting that Ella plays the story out on social media, which seems to be the way of the world these days. What do you make of social media and its inveiglement in our lives?
VM: It’s a double-edged sword, of course. It’s brought us closer and further apart from each other. It’s opened up all kinds of wonderful opportunities but also shut down others and exposed us to all kinds of dangers too. It allows us to become public and to disappear. It reveals and disguises in equal measure. I have a love hate relationship with social media but generally, I don’t think it’s the media itself that’s the issue, it’s how we choose to use it.
JC: The whole concept of the novel is utterly refreshing but also very believable, how did you come up with the idea?
VM: Several things inspired me. Every year I teach the 19th century play, ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen. At the end of his play, his protagonist, Nora, walks out on her young family. I’ve always asked myself, ‘what if she came back?’ Norah Wells is an answer to that question. I also researched a case in America where a woman walked out on her family, quite out of the blue, and showed up 11 years later, expecting to pick up where she left off. And on another level, I wanted to tackle the taboo of mothers leaving: even in the 21st century, we can’t quite get our heads around mothers walking out, whereas fathers leaving feels quite normal. It’s a debate I think we should have.
JC: Yes, it would be quite easy to have assumed that Norah is the ‘bad guy’ in all of this, being the one that walks out, but you obviously seek to challenge this black and white thinking by implicating Adam and exploring the other reasons that Norah has to leave. How convinced were you in Norah’s decision to go and how important was it to you to challenge the idea that a mother who walks away from her family is a villain?
VM: There is no more wonderful job than being a mum. And no harder job either. I have a little girl who I adore and yet, there are times when I feel completely overwhelmed by her demands and my responsibility to care for her. Just as I feel that she is the best thing that’s ever happened to me I grieve for elements of my old life: the freedom to write and live and breathe on my own terms. It’s this paradox of motherhood that I wanted to explore in Norah Wells. I believe that most mothers, at one time or another, have fleeing fantasies; with Norah it’s taken one step further: she actually leaves. Her desire to leave was very real for me; although I can’t ever imagine walking out on my husband and little girl I can identify with her feelings and motivations.
JC: And staying on the question of motherhood, there are two very different figures in Norah and Fay, and it’s easy to see Norah’s weaknesses and Fay’s strengths in this role, so what would you say were Norah’s strengths and Fay’s weaknesses as mothers?
VM: Norah and Fay are the two parts of me as a mother: the selfish, needing to have my time, work on my art, escape part and the doting, super-responsible, over-protective, obsessive mother part. Although drawing such stark contrasts might be misleading. Norah loves her children very much and Fay is sometimes so concerned with organisation and with being the perfect mum that she misses the important bits – she gets things a bit wrong with Ella, for example. So, they’re both awesome and flawed mothers, like most of us.
JC: I wonder in a novel like this when you’ve got two central female characters whether you can stay neutral as an author towards the characters and whether you need to, or if you lean towards one more than the other?
VM:This question is a bit like asking me, ‘which of your children do you love most?’ I understand both Norah and Fay: their hopes and dreams and fears as well as their strengths and their flaws. It is easy to judge Norah more harshly but I feel just as deep an empathy for her as I do for Fay. I really hope that my readers feel the same.
JC: Absolutely. I love the question that the novel poses about what it means to be a mother, and whether biology or nurturing is a more important qualification – did you have any thoughts on this before you began writing and did your attitude change as you wrote?
VM: A few months ago, when I was writing an article on Norah Wells, I realised that every single book I’ve ever written has touched on motherhood, whether that be biological mothers or psychological mothers. It’s a topic I keep circling around. I think it’s because I had quite an unconventional upbringing with a dad who walked out and a mother who, though wonderful in a million different ways, wasn’t a mother in the conventional sense of the word. She was definitely more of a Norah than a Fay. As a result, I was always on the look out for surrogate mothers, older women who could fulfil the bits of the role that she hadn’t. There are some wonderful women in my life who have mothered me even though we don’t share a drop of the same blood. I also have a godson adopted from Romania and I’m very close to his mother, who is also my godmother, so I’ve watched, at close hand, what it means to raise a child you didn’t give birth to. Interestingly, my third novel, out in January 2017, is on the subject of international adoption.
JC: Excellent, that’s one for the diary! I was wondering was there any significance in you choosing two female children? And do you think the story may have played out differently if Ella or Willa had been male?
VM: Milo was so much about a little boy that I wanted to try something new – and didn’t want to risk writing a child who was too similar to him, even though I think that Milo and Willa would be really good buddies, should they ever meet! The novel is also very much about what it means to be a woman as well as a mother so I wanted to have some strong female voices. Finally, I may be wrong but I think that the relationship between mothers and daughters is particularly complex and difficult and so great material for fiction!
JC: Similarly, I wonder how the novel would have looked if it were The Astonishing Return of Norbert Wells and the two competing characters had been fathers?! But on a serious note, mothers tend to get closer examination as parents in novels rather than fathers, why do you think this is?
VM: I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess I don’t think that there are enough ‘female leads’ in books or on screen (or in life!), so I thought I was doing something new and important by putting two women centre stage. However, I guess that you’re right, the male-female issue aside, fatherhood isn’t looked at quite as much as motherhood. Maybe that will be the subject of a future novel…
JC: the fact that you didn’t feel that you needed to prioritise the romantic love story in the novel but also that the love story/stories themselves are as unconventional as the main narrative, although I must admit I wasn’t sure how I wanted the romantic set-up to pan out, did you question how this romantic storyline should develop and who would come out of it together?
VM: I wanted to explore different kinds of love. The young love Ella has for Sai – and the young love Norah and Adam had for each other. But also the fact that you can fall in love when you are older, in a different but no less powerful way and that [being] head over heels in love is not necessarily more powerful, beautiful or long-lasting than the slow burning love that gently comes to life, as with Fay and Norah. And, the thorny issue of being in love with two people at the same time, as is the case for Adam. I don’t believe he ever stops loving Norah. In other words, love is a complex beast and shouldn’t be pigeonholed.
JC: Thinking about Adam and Norah, we learn a lot about how Adam has changed in the six years Norah has been away, but how do you see Norah having changed in that time?
VM: I think she’s been bruised by life: her guilt at having left; the ache of being away from the man she loves and her children; her illness. But she’s also become a wiser, gentler, less selfish and more complex person. In ‘A Doll’s House,’ Nora Helmer left because she felt she couldn’t be a good mother to her children or a wife to her husband until she found herself. I think that Norah Wells has found herself, that she’s grown up and that she is ready to come home.
JC: And without giving too much away, did you struggle to reconcile Fay’s actions with those of a best friend?
VM: This is about love again. The love you have for a best friend can be as strong as romantic love. And Fay is very, very loyal so when she has to face the best friend she lost, who has now come back, and the man she loves, her life is torn apart. That’s what makes her story so heart wrenching.
JC: Norah’s return naturally affects each of the characters, who do you think it affects the most?
VM: Ella. She still remembers her mum. And she spent six years looking for her and idealising her and then had to come face to face with the reality of a mother who fell short of her expectations.
JC: here is a question over whether Norah would have returned if circumstances hadn’t pushed her, do you think that Norah always planned to return?
VM: Ah, that’s something I want the reader to figure out for themselves…
JC: Of course. It would be easy to see Norah’s leaving as a selfish/bad decision especially at the start of the novel but by the end do you feel that it was the right decision?
VM: I try not to judge my characters: that’s the reader’s job. My job is to present real characters and to raise questions and to make my reader’s experience of my characters rich and complex. I hope that my readers feel torn about Norah’s actions, just as I do. If you were to ask me to get off the fence, I’d say that I don’t know if Norah’s was the right decision but I understand the decision. I suppose that’s still sitting on the fence…
JC: ’m always intrigued by the matter of a book’s ending as there’s always several possible routes an author can take and I wondered whether the decision to end the way you did came easy or whether you considered alternatives?
VM: The trickiest part of the ending was deciding what would happen to Norah: would she leave again or would she stay? Though once I’d given it some thought and done some planning, I knew what my decision would be. Norah leaving would have been too simple. By staying she has to face up to what she’s done and to how she’s going to relate to each member of the family who she abandoned. Her staying made things more interesting for the other characters too: it meant that Adam really had to nail his colours to the mast; that Ella had to decide whether she would forgive her; and that little Willa would have to work out what it meant to have two mums. And, looking forward, there’s the uncertainty of her illness, which adds a whole other layer of complexity to her staying.
JC: With all of its various members, the family at the end of the book is a varied and hybrid collective but one that seems to work and function perfectly well. Your novel seems to say that the connections and the strength of those connections is more important to the success of a family than who it contains, would you agree?
VM: I’m fascinated by cobbled together families. My family is a patchwork of blood relations and wonderful individuals who have come into my life and become so much part of who I am that I see them as my mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and grandparents and daughters and aunts and uncles and cousins. And within this patchwork there’s a cacophony of characters who are all flawed, like me, but also wonderful. And it’s the wonderful that wins every time.
Patchwork families are also a modern day reality: with divorces and remarriages or no marriages and people having children twenty years apart and adopting – our families are no longer straightforward in the way they were even twenty or thirty years ago. I want my novels to reflect real life so that’s why I write about these kind of families.
JC: There tends to be a lot of talk these days of how the family is no longer sacred and important, but the novel is a celebration of family, and family diversity, do you feel that the family is a bit undervalued today?
VM: Oh, I think that families matter more than anything in the world, but that the definition of family is much more complex than we assume. Family is about community, about closeness, about friendship and love, about the people we let into the deepest part of our lives. It goes beyond biology. We need such families to thrive as human beings.
JC: And finally, the soundtrack to the novel is Louis Armstrong’s [version of] What a Wonderful World – how does the narrative for you fit in with this song?
VM: It’s my mum’s favourite song, so it has a personal resonance. But I also wanted to use it ironically. Louis Armstrong creates a romanticised and idealised view of what a perfect world is. I want to show that a truly perfect world is one that is far quirkier and more nuanced and complicated than that, one that is filled with ‘imperfect’ people trying hard to do what matters most: love each other.
The Return of Norah Wells by Virginia Macgregor, published by Sphere on 20 October, 2016 in paperback at £7.99
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