Diary of an Unsmug Married is primarily a story about relationships, and how nothing in life is clear-cut or certain. One reader described the blog the book is based on as “funnier than Adrian Mole and more tragi-comedic than Bridget Jones”, which was a really lovely compliment!
You were born in Wales so what drew you towards East Anglia?
I didn’t leave Wales voluntarily, but because my mum had fallen in love with my stepfather who is from “up North” and so we initially moved there to live with him. I was dead set against the move and sobbed all the way across the Severn Bridge, and on and off for ages after that. Then I vowed that I’d go back to Wales “and never, ever leave again”, as soon as I was old enough.
My mum and stepfather developed rather itchy feet after that, and so we moved around a lot over the next seven years, ending up in East Anglia when I was fifteen – almost old enough to make my escape.
That never happened, probably due to something people often say about East Anglia: that it’s a bit like sinking sand – once it gets hold of you, it doesn’t like to relinquish its grasp, and marrying a local made sure of that.
It is a really nice place to live and full of writers – so I’m always torn between staying put and going “home”, especially as I have close friends and family in both places. I do still get terribly homesick for Wales, though, especially the Welsh sense of humour and the beautiful landscape. (East Anglia’s pretty, but seriously lacking in mountains and rugged cliffs, as far as I’m concerned!)
You were an avid reader when you were young so who were your favourites?
Gosh, there were so many – and some of them I still re-read, even though my children are now far too old for me to get away with pretending that I’m reading to them!
The first book I remember being unable to put down was “The Secret Island” by Enid Blyton (in the days when political correctness didn’t exist and every child read her books).
I became obsessed with finding a secret island of my own and decided to prepare for living on it by working my way through all Blyton’s other books, with the exception of those about the Secret Seven. (I disapproved of them, purely because they weren’t the Famous Five.)
My secret island still hadn’t materialised by the time I’d read all the Blyton books in my local library, so then I moved on toThe Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which sparked a whole new obsession: books about time-travelling and moving between different worlds.
I read and re-read Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, Alison Uttley’s “A Traveller in Time”, and Joan G. Robinson’s “When Marnie Was There” – which was and is my favourite of the three. (I read it again only last year, and was amazed by how subtle and “adult” the writing is.)
I might have been an expert on time travel by now, but I still hadn’t found my secret island, so I switched to reading funny books to cheer me up. Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” did the trick nicely, as did Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals”, but my favourite was a book called “Marius” by a Norwegian writer: Rolf Docker. It was about a peculiar child (the Marius of the book’s title) and it used to make me howl with laughter.
I must have been quite a peculiar child myself, given that I liked such an odd book so much. Although Marius spent half his time involved in spectacularly funny arguments with his parents and older sister, he spent the rest of it having long and surreal conversations with Death, who wore a black top hat and kept turning up unexpectedly.
I know it makes me sound quite mad, but “Marius” is still my all-time favourite children’s book (closely followed by “When Marnie Was There”). If you can beg or borrow a copy for your own children, then do – I think the English translation is out of print.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to become a writer yourself?
At the age of about four, I think. I was an early reader (probably because I was quite a solitary child), and I’d also started school by then as that was the norm in Wales at the time.
All the children were given “news books” in which we were supposed to write about what was happening in our home lives, and my teacher always seemed to laugh more at mine than at the other children’s, which I took as an enormous compliment.
I intended to become a ballet dancer but they spend a lot of time hanging about in rehearsal rooms and backstage, so I thought writing funny books would be a brilliant way to amuse myself when I became a prima ballerina myself. (Best-laid plans and all that: I never became a ballerina, prima or otherwise.)
Anyway, I’m not sure that my family were as enthusiastic about my novel-writing idea as I was, as they didn’t seem to find my news books anywhere near as funny as my teacher did. That’s probably because they knew that, every morning, I’d be writing yet another detailed report of whatever they’d done the night before, concentrating on all the most embarrassing incidents, and embellishing those with illustrations, just to add pictorial insult to verbal injury.
I was obviously a compulsively-honest diarist even then, so the frank way in which family life is portrayed in Diary of an Unsmug Married probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has the misfortune to be related to me!
Tell us about some of your early diaries!
Oh, God, they’re hilarious – as well as extremely embarrassing. I do very little except moan, especially in the early ones, though I’m quite articulate about it for my age.
My first diary, which I started when I was eight, is only half-completed, as the other half is filled with entries saying, “Forgot to write”. The completed half contains nothing more than a series of complaints about being made to tidy my room, leading to gems like, “Oh, the unfairness of it all!!!!!!!!” (It’s like a manual demonstrating how to over-use the exclamation mark.)
By the time I was eleven, I seem to have discovered boys. (I say boys – plural – as I was apparently unable to like the same one for longer than a week or so at a time. And I was obviously reading far too many of my stepmother’s romantic novels, as well.)
For example, this is what my diary has to say about a boy called Laurence:
Sunday, October 3
Even more madly in love with my darling L.
Thursday October 7
Saw my darling. Ignored him. (I’m a silly fool.) (Author’s note: One who’s obviously living in the 19th Century, which was probably the last time that people actually spoke like that.)
Friday October 8
Repenting ignoring my darling. I love him so much, it’s difficult to say. (Author’s note: See previous author’s note, above.)
If we fast forward to the end of the month, though, things already seem to be changing – almost too quickly to keep up:
Sunday October 24
Saw Robert. Think he still loves me. Am thrown [sic] between him and Laurence. (Author’s note: I added the [sic] because I assume I wasn’t actually being hurled backwards and forwards between L and R, though anything’s possible in a playground prior to the existence of Health & Safety.)
Monday October 25
All I said yesterday was rubbish. (Author’s note: Never a truer word was spoken.)
Tuesday October 26
Still love Laurence.
Wednesday October 27
Still love Robert. (Author’s note: Oh, for God’s sake, get a grip.)
I didn’t get any more bearable as I grew older and became even more obsessed with boys, but I did also start trying to organise myself by keeping records in the back of my diaries – in the form of lists of everything.
Some were sensible, such as the lists of what I bought and what it cost – for example, face pack: 9p; bus fare: 2p; sweets (tut tut) 9p – but others seem ridiculous now, like a chart which listed every boyfriend I’d ever had, and which rated them under the following headings: personality, looks, and whether they were “tall/med/small”, as well as on their temperament.
There’s even a section for “comments”, which includes such classics as, “Nice, but likes folk music, uneasy” and “Moody, too possessive, immature, argumentative, but good to be with. Sticks up for you.” The absolute peach of the lot has to be this one, however, about someone I’ve listed as John M: I credit him with being “repulsive but thoughtful”.
God only knows what John M made of me, but you can probably see why my family worry about the fact that I still keep a diary to this day!
Can you tell us about the light bulb moment when your employer told you that you needed a change in vocation!
One of the MPs that I worked for used to like to read all the letters that I’d written on his behalf while he was at Westminster, so I would keep copies in a folder for him to look at on Fridays when he returned to the constituency. One day, he read through a stack and said, “God, you’re so good at writing! You ought write books for a living, not letters, you know.”
I think he was probably joking, but I’d already had a bad week at work, due to a couple of regularly abusive constituents, and so I was already starting to feel that I’d had enough. That’s probably why, when my boss said that he thought I should be what I’d always wanted to be – but had never thought I could actually become – it did feel like a light-bulb moment, in that it made me think, “Maybe I really could be a writer, if I tried”.
After that, although I carried on working for a little while, my thoughts kept returning to my boss’ comment, and eventually I talked to my family about what he’d said. They were really taken with the idea, and offered to support me while I went back to university and did another degree, (this time in Creative Writing). In fact, they seemed even more relieved than I was when I gave in my notice and started my course – probably because they were fed up with worrying about me on a daily basis.
MPs caseworkers have much more difficult and challenging jobs than I think the general public realises, and they are often subjected to threats – and sometimes actual violence, too. I’ve been grabbed by the throat on several occasions by constituents, or backed into corners and threatened (as have many colleagues), but I’ve been lucky compared to some.
When an MP’s caseworker was murdered by a constituent some years ago, I think most caseworkers’ families were profoundly shocked by how dangerous the job could be, and my family certainly were. I’m sure that’s why they were so relieved they could help me to change direction, as that meant they wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.
How much did your degree in Creative writing kick start your novels?
In some ways, a lot – and in others, not at all!
In the first week of college, one of my tutors (the wonderful novelist Elspeth Barker) set the class an exercise, and I panicked and my mind went blank. I felt I was probably expected to write a highly literary piece, but all I could think of was something based on my old job, which I’d resigned from in order to take the course – and so I ended up writing a comic scene in which an MP’s caseworker called Molly Bennett loses an arsonist in the lift and finds a bomber on the stairs.
Anyway, when it came time to read my piece aloud for critical feedback, I was really worried that Elspeth and my classmates would find it disappointing, but everyone started laughing (in a good way) almost as soon as I began to read it, and they didn’t stop until I’d finished. It was a fantastic feeling, and made me want to carry on writing comic fiction for the next three years.
However, although my course did include genre writing, commercial fiction was usually treated in a rather disparaging way by most of my tutors, and so I realised I’d have to concentrate on writing literary fiction if I wanted to be in with a chance of a first-class degree. (I really wanted one of those, if only to prove to myself that I hadn’t been a complete idiot to give up my job to return to college.)
As a result, I spent the rest of the course writing a series of rather earnest short stories (which did the trick and got me my First), but which I enjoyed writing less and less. By the time I finished college, I was finding it hard to make myself write anything at all – until I remembered that very first writing exercise and how I’d enjoyed making people laugh. That’s when the blog that eventually led to Diary of an Unsmug Married was born.
Please tell us a bit about your blog and finding your voice.
I decided to blog rather than writing a book to start with, because I thought I needed a daily deadline to force me to write, as I’d lost so much enthusiasm for the process of writing by then. Also, I was curious to see whether anyone would enjoy reading about Molly Bennett as much as my classmates had, and I thought blogging would be the best way to get honest feedback from people that I didn’t know.
My theory was that, if I couldn’t interest anyone in reading my work for free, I might as well abandon any idea of eventually being paid to write. It seemed important to find that out as soon as possible, given the strain the family finances had been under since I gave up my job to “become a writer”!
This theory was all well and good, but then I made my first big mistake: I didn’t plan what was going to happen to Molly before I started to blog. I’d assumed I wouldn’t get any readers for ages – if ever – and so I thought I’d be able to work the plot out as I went along. Instead, the blog got picked up and publicised by several influential bloggers in the first couple of weeks and all of a sudden I had a readership who were desperate to know what would happen to Molly next. I was pretty desperate to know what would happen to her myself, seeing as I had absolutely no idea.
To make things worse, I’d committed myself to writing a blog post every day, and as if events were happening in real time, and this led to my biggest problem: how did I keep on top of current events (to make sure the blog was topical), while planning, writing and editing a 1000-word post by 9pm each night? The answer turned out to be by working 18-hour days, almost every day, for a year.
I must have been mad, but I was loving it, even though I was exhausted – and despite the fact that I ended up looking like Michael Douglas in the film Wonder Boys.
Basically, the blog gives a day-by-day account of Molly Bennett’s personal and private lives, both of which are equally shambolic, and – as soon as I began to write it – I knew I’d found my voice, or rather, Molly’s. I just seemed to be able to hear her clearly in my head, along with the voices of all the other characters, as well.
I’m not sure why this was, but I suspect it was because I was finally following the well-known advice to writers to write about what you know. Whatever the reason, I immediately felt as if I knew Molly inside out, and so I felt very comfortable writing as her. Luckily, readers seemed to find her voice almost as appealing as I did, which I think was probably because she’s so honest and self-deprecating, and always tries so hard to do the right thing – with variable results.
What is next for you?
I’m currently working on a sequel to Diary of an Unsmug Married, or at least, that’s the theory. In practice, I’ve been so busy since the first book has been nearing publication, that I’ve barely had time to deal with anything other than that, so the next few months are going to be a bit frantic as the sequel is due at the end of May!
If and when book two is finally delivered, however, then the editing process will begin, and that will probably go on for much of the summer.
In between the various edits, I’ll probably either start work on a third book, or begin writing a sit-com, which is something I’m very keen to do. (I love writing dialogue and making people laugh, so writing a sit-com would be a dream come true.)
I’m fairly sure my husband will want me to take some time off, too, as he’s barely seen me for years, as I’ve continued to write for up to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, ever since the blog began in May 2010. If I want to remain married, preferably as smugly as possible, then it’s probably about time I paid him some attention – before he trades me in for someone like Annoying Ellen!