The Secret Children

The Secret Children

The Secret Children is set in 1925 in Assam. James Mcdonald has no interest in going to England. He feels at home in India in the hills of the tea plantation and does not want to choose an English bride. He eventually takes on a beautiful courtesan and so the story unfolds.

Mary and Serafina, two young girls are thrust into the realisation of their parents' secrets and desperately try to find a way to fit in. The novel follows them into womanhood and the journey they embark upon to get there. McQueen's novel is inspired by true events and captures the author's keeness to reveal India's buried history.

1. Can you tell our readers about your current project?

Right now I’m working on another novel set in India. It’s a long and arduous process and I dare not talk about it as it is not yet finished.

2. When did you first know you wanted to write?

It never occurred to me that I wanted to write. Not consciously anyway. It is something that I have always done, since childhood, and it never once crossed my mind that it was a peculiarity. Writing is my compulsion and there is nothing I can do about it. It keeps me sane and helps me to make sense of the world. I used to write commercially, having worked in advertising for many years before my first novel was published. It was a relief to give that up.


3. What is your writing process?

A friend of mine once said that anyone who wants to be a writer should just buy a typewriter and bang their head against it until blood rusts up the keys.

For me, the process of writing is, for the most part, utter torture. In my head, I can see the big picture so clearly. The troublesome part is trying to transcribe it onto the page one word at a time. It’s like building a galleon out of tiny matchsticks with no instructions, and there are days when I fall into despair. I wish I could say that I am one of those writers who adheres to a regime of writing for certain hours every day, taking brisk walks and eating a healthy breakfast. Instead, I wear trenches in carpets or stare at the walls and wonder what the next word should be. When I hit my stride I write for hours, sometimes all day and most of the night, and weeks slide by unnoticed.


4. What do you like to read?

My reading choices are often dictated by whatever it is I am working on, which usually involves delving deep into historical archives and tracking down old volumes long out of print. There are so many wonderful books out there, some of which I have stumbled on completely by chance, others which have been thrust into my hands by someone saying you really must read this. I love reading and I love books – fiction and non-fiction, any genre, so long as it’s good. That’s why I refuse to plough on with any book I’m not enjoying. If I’m not really into it after 50 pages, it’s gone. Life’s too short, and there’s always another one waiting on the shelf. When I can’t decide what I want to read I return to my old favourites, and I make a point of reading Daphne du Maurier’s intensely brilliant Rebecca every ten years or so.


5. What advice can you give aspiring writers?

A friend of mine once said that anyone who wants to be a writer should just buy a typewriter and bang their head against it until blood rusts up the keys. It’s not a pretty business. For those who refuse to be put off, I would probably suggest that they take the healthy breakfast and brisk walk approach. Alcoholic sprees of the sort favoured by Ernest Hemingway are rarely creatively productive, although I expect Dorothy Parker might have had her own opinion about that. The only way to write is to sit down and get on with it. Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is marvelous.


6. Can you tell us about any future projects following this one?

The Secret Children is currently being translated into several foreign languages, so I’m hoping to use that as an excuse to take some time out for travel once I have finished the manuscript for the new novel. I try not to think too far ahead and I find it pretty much impossible to concentrate on anything else when I’m writing.


7. Your current novel is inspired by true events, can you expand upon this for us?

My mother was born in India in 1928. She never talked about her life. I used to ask her about where she was from, to which she would say Assam, but not much else. I had to look it up in an atlas. I knew that I had a grandfather and that he lived on a farm in Africa. She never mentioned anything about her mother, ever, and for one reason or another, I knew not to ask.


I had no idea at that point that she and her sister were the illegitimate daughters of a British tea planter to his Indian concubine. It was unthinkable, and the shame of it had followed her like a shadow her whole life.


Even now I find it hard to imagine what she must have gone through, losing both parents as a child without the closure of death. There are parts of The Secret Children that I wrote over a decade ago. I felt compelled to write a complete story, to give those scattered fragments some kind of cohesion in my mind, to fill in the gaps that my mother had left, either because she wouldn’t tell me, or more often that she simply didn’t know.


My mother imparted her stories to me over many, many years. She told me things that she had never told to anyone else – not just her secrets, but those of her friends, my ‘aunties’. I came to know things that their own children didn’t know, and probably still don’t to this day. All my aunties are now dead, my mother the only survivor. My fear was always that I would forget her stories, because they were too important to be forgotten. Nobody talked about these things. They still don’t.


8. Do you believe that all novels should have an element of the author's history, however close to reality or not?

I think it’s inevitable that a writer will trawl through their own emotional packing cases and life experiences when they are working on a novel. People have a habit of cropping up just when you least expect it – a certain idiosyncrasy displayed by an old neighbour, perhaps, that seems to fit with the character they are drawing. The author’s voice must feel authentic, believable, but they need not necessarily have murdered someone to describe how it felt to have blood on their hands.

9. How does it feel to relive inspired moments from your past when you are writing them as a novel? 

The past requires careful handling, particularly those parts of it which have caused hurt or heartache to the innocent. Yet life’s dilemmas and injustices are often the seeds to be found deep within the pages of a novel, because those are the stories that move us most. Very few people will go through life without being touched by the cold finger of fate. It is how we deal with it and emerge on the other side that matters. We all know what it’s like to remember joy or tragedy. Writers are no different. 

10. What element of being a writer do you enjoy the most?

There is not a single day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars for being in the fortunate position of being able to do what I love, no matter how well or badly it’s going. I am happier than I have ever been, content to sit in solitude for hours and to craft stories that have long been in my head. Best of all, I can stay in my pyjamas all day if the mood takes me, and nobody bats an eyelid.

McQueen is the daughter of an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father. She lived in London attending a convent school. When she finished her education, she opted for a career in advertising and then took her retirement to write. She now lives in Northamptonshire with her husband and her two daughters.   

Lucy Walton

by for
find me on and follow me on