What can our readers expect from the novel ‘Martha’s Girls’?
Readers will be transported to wartime Belfast and into the lives of the Goulding women - Martha and her four daughters. The three eldest girls are talented singers, who join a troupe of entertainers led by Goldstein, a Polish Jew, who is determined to raise morale and money for the war effort. Martha is torn between allowing her daughters the freedom to perform and keeping them safe from their headstrong personalities. The rise in the girls’ success as the renamed ‘Golden Sisters’ is set against a backdrop of Belfast life – from elegant Royal Avenue, to the mills, aircraft factory, dance halls and the very heart of the Stormont government. It's a heart-warming story of family life and, just as in every family, there are moments of drama, laughter, tears and even a touch of romance.
The story is based on a scrapbook about the Golden Sisters can you expand on this for us?
After the death of my mother I found her scrap book containing concert programmes and newspaper clippings about the Golden Sisters. There were also photographs from the forties showing them looking very fashionable. I always knew they had been singers in the close harmony, swing style - and I remembered the stories they told about entertaining the troops and performing in theatres, concert halls and army camps. It just seemed like the makings of a great story: family life in a house with five women; the vaudeville style shows; the excitement and danger of the war; the opportunities for romance. I just knew they’d want me to write it.
What sort of research did you do for the novel?
I’ve always had an interest in the Second World War, particularly the home front and the everyday lives of women. I used reference books and the internet to research life in Belfast during the war and the major historical events that occurred during the period. It’s not generally known that Belfast was heavily bombed in 1941; it was an industrial city engaged in war work with shipyards and an aircraft factory, but the bombs also devastated residential areas. There was also research to be done into the popular culture of the time - fashion, cinema and especially music. There are scenes in the novel where the Golden Sisters perform on stage and it was important that the songs had actually been released at the time. For example, I particularly wanted to use ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’, but couldn’t because it wasn’t released until 1942 and the novel ends in 1941.
You have had poetry and short stories published. Why move into novels?
I always intended to write a novel, but I had two boys to bring up and a demanding job and it was easier to focus on short pieces of writing. Looking back I think it was good training in being concise, making words work hard and not being afraid of the lyrical.
Do you have a preference for the material you write?
I really enjoyed writing about a different historical period and I think I’d like to continue with that. So many readers of ‘Martha’s Girls’ have asked me if there will be a sequel and the answer is yes. I’d like to take the characters through to the end of the war.
How challenging is it to write about true events and real people, were there difficulties along the way?
I took the characters of my grandmother Martha, my mother Irene, her eldest daughter, and my aunts Pat, Peggy and Sheila and imagined what might have happened to them during that time. The fact that I had known these women all my life - they died when they were in their eighties – meant that I understood how they interacted with each other, how the family dynamics worked. It was as though I was there with them, watching and listening as events unfolded. Sometimes as a writer I planned to have something happen and, in the middle of writing, one of them would speak or do something to take it off in a different direction. Each time I would go along with it and find different situations developing. The challenge I had was being true to the women; there had to be integrity in writing about them. I would not have them say or do something that they would not have done or would disapprove of. That said, I was not adverse to inventing moments of drama, characters and events to make it an engaging story.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer who wishes to write about real events?
Remember the aim is to produce a good read to entertain the reader and keep the pages turning. Historical events in the public domain have to be accurately described, but beyond that be selective because not everything that happened is interesting enough to be included. Focus on the elements of successful storytelling and bring characters and settings to life.
How much has teaching affected your writing?
Teaching English for twenty years and having the opportunity every day to read, analyse and discuss books, plays, poetry with young people, I realised the importance of writing for the reader and not myself. But taking ten years to write ‘Martha’s Girls’, because I only wrote during the summer holidays, was probably the biggest impact teaching has had on my writing!
Interview by Lucy Walton