1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to write books, but never really dared to dream that I could. I floundered at school and came out with woeful GCSE results. My old maths teacher actually rang my mum at home to tell her that I was unteachable. Fortunately, my English teacher at primary school instilled in me a passion for creative writing that has never left me. Because I struggled academically, I never had the confidence to go to university and study, which I regret now. But it’s never too late; perhaps I could go back and do a degree? Either way, I am absolutely chuffed to bits to be doing what I love most – writing stories.
2. How long did it take you to write Secrets of the Singer Girls?
All told, two years. There was an awful lot of rewriting! Fortunately I have a fantastically patient and lovely agent who stuck with me while I found my feet and got used to writing in this style. I was also involved in ghostwriting projects, which dominated my time, but I just kept chipping away at it every spare moment I had.
3. Can you tell us about your book deal moment?
My agent Kate rang me at home while I was bathing the kids, and left a message saying to ring back as soon as I could. When I did she told me I had better sit down. There are no words to adequately describe the feeling when she told me that Pan Macmillan wanted to publish Secrets of the Singer Girls, suffice to say I cried, then laughed, then cried again. I called my mum and dad and they came straight over and together with my husband we cracked open the bubbles. It’s a moment I will cherish always.
4. Is there a particular place where you like to write?
Visit my house on any given day and you will find us in a state of controlled chaos, with small boys and dogs chasing each other around the house. My seven-year-old son Ronnie is passionate about fossils, so much so that our spare bedroom has been converted into Ronnie’s Museum of Antiquities (every piece tells a story). I’m not kidding. I used to work on the desk, which is now a home for various fossils and animal bones, so I’ve had to decamp to the end of the garden and work in a shed-cum-office. I love it; it’s my space with the sorts of things I’m not allowed in a male-dominated house, like yellow gingham curtains and pale pink bunting. It’s a wonderful place as it’s calm, quiet and gives me the peace I need to write. Best of all, there are no fossils in there – unless you count me!
5. Do you have a routine as a writer?
Any mum knows how chaotic the mornings are, so once I’ve done the school run and have got the boys into nursery and school, I take myself off for a run down by the river to clear my head. When I get home I shower, fix myself a large, strong coffee and then head down to the end of the garden to write. In order to be able to work effectively I have to switch off my email, Facebook and Twitter. I also find that listening to Classic FM helps de-clutter my thoughts and gets me in a good place to write. I know that sounds a bit cheesy but I need to lose myself in the story and listening to music really helps. So much so, that often I look at the clock and realize in panic that I have two minutes to get to the school gates!
6. How are you going to celebrate publication day?
By buying as many copies of Secrets of the Singer Girls as I can! Seriously, it will feel like a very emotional day so I’ll spend it with my family. I’m also going to celebrate with my wonderful group of girlfriends, and it felt quite fitting to plan a 1940s night in honour of the book. Together, we’re going to rent a vintage coach and go on a beano, which will no doubt involve a lot of singing on the way down to the coast! To celebrate my friend Anna’s fortieth birthday recently, we did a 1940s photo shoot and all got dressed up in pencil skirts and did our hair in victory rolls, it was so much fun and we can’t wait to dust down the outfits again.
7. Which books have inspired you?
I love reading Margaret Dickinson’s novels. They are flawlessly written and absorbing, with the most wonderful characters. I also absolutely loved Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. It’s such a powerful novel, but the most incredible bit comes at the end when you read the true-life story about the author, which is as moving as the book itself.
My friendships and all the joys that come with them inspire me the most, though – particularly when I was writing this book. Strong female friendship is a powerful force. Recently I was quite ill following an operation, and I woke one morning to find a wonderful parcel of goodies on my doorstep from my friend Amy, who had left them to cheer me up..
She had bought my favourite sunflowers, and attached a note that said ‘Look at me’, chocolates with an enticing note saying ‘Eat me’, a healthy juice that imploringly said ‘Drink me’ and lastly, lavender-scented sticks with an encouraging message to ‘Smell me’. It was the most thoughtful gesture and it reminded me that in hard times, true friends are always there for you, just as they are in Secrets of the Singer Girls.
8. What was the hardest part of writing Secrets of the Singer Girls?
Finding the time to be able to write and research, whilst raising small children. When it comes to research you really can’t do enough, and juggling trips to Bethnal Green around school runs was tricky. Learning how to manage my time has been a steep learning curve.
9. Have you researched your own family history?
No, I haven’t, but perhaps I should, especially now I know what fascinating results it can yield. I employed a genealogist to research Kate Thompson and it was fascinating to see how he worked, searching through the old records, many of which are now digitized, to come up with a fuller picture of her life. I got his number from a list registered with The National Archives at Kew on a visit there. For more information log onto: http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/irlist/
10. How did you come up with the title of the book?
It came to me when I was talking to former machinists. They explained how the best part of their job was the sing-songs, which helped to keep up morale throughout the war. ‘It helped to put a good face on things,’ explained one lady. ‘Singer Girls’ instantly sprang to mind. The concept of ‘putting a face on things’ in wartime got me thinking how it must have been easier to hide secrets during those turbulent times, and so Secrets of the Singer Girls was born.
11. Secrets of the Singer Girls is inspired by a real person and real events, so how much of the book is fact and how much is fiction?
Kate Thompson was the catalyst for the book, but she doesn’t actually feature as a character. However, her strong, feisty personality and deeply entrenched loyalty and love of community, family and friends are traits that I hope I’ve brought to my characters. The wonderful camaraderie that existed in the wartime factories of the East End, as described to me by so many former machinists, really inspired me to write the book. They were living through a period of cataclysmic change and terror, yet they managed somehow to keep going with smiles on their faces and a song in their hearts. I found the bravery of everyone in Bethnal Green during the war utterly humbling. The themes that run through the book, such as domestic violence, illegitimate children, forbidden relationships and women forced into giving up their babies, are heart-wrenching events that, sadly, happened all too often in London and everywhere else in 1940s Britain. However, the characters and their storylines are entirely fictional.
The tragedy that took place at Bethnal Green Tube station on 3 March 1943 is a fact. Everything I have written about the Tube disaster did actually happen and I hope I have stayed faithful and accurate to the events of that dark day.
12. What would you like readers to take away from Secrets of the Singer Girls?
An appreciation of how privileged we are to live in Britain in 2015. I’m not trying to belittle modern women today, as there are many stresses and pressures we face today that women of yesteryear didn’t. However, the women who lived and worked in the East End throughout the Second World War were absolute grafters. They worked their fingers to the bone each and every day, with none of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. There were no washing machines, dishwashers, hot and cold running water in your kitchen, inside toilets or supermarkets that my ‘one click and it’s yours’ generation take for granted. They fed large families on rations and worked all year round in order to keep a roof over their children's heads and food in their tummies. They didn’t even have the NHS or a welfare state to fall back on. It’s a cliché, but times were tough back then, and yet they coped with remarkable grace and good humour. The mothers of wartime Britain were heroic in my eyes and I hope readers agree.
13. Are you writing a new novel at the moment?
Yes I am. It’s a prequel to Secrets of the Singer Girls. It’s set in the same factory with some old familiar faces, as well as some new ones. This book starts two years earlier in the summer of 1940 and takes us through the Blitz and the East Enders’ fight for the right to take sanctuary in the safety of the Underground. Already my research has taken me to some interesting places, such as a tea dance in the East End and a guided tour of an Underground station by a man named Alf, who showed me where he used to sleep on the tracks as a boy.
14. Do you have any tips for people researching their family trees or historical events?
If you can’t consult a professional genealogist then local archives are fantastically helpful and free. The people who work there are a mine of information and often have a wealth of knowledge about local historical events. The National Archives at Kew has digitized records you can access to help unlock your past. For more information, log onto: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk.
Also, you can’t beat just going out and talking to people in the areas where your family used to live, or in the area where the event that you’re researching happened. People – not records – have the most interesting things to say. For example, I spent many months searching online to find out more about Kate Thompson, then on a research trip to a tea dance in Bethnal Green I ended up, quite by chance, sitting next to her granddaughter! The most wonderful thing about that chance meeting was that she didn’t know anything about her cousin, Kate Thompson’s other granddaughter, and I was able to put them in touch.
15. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Just write. Don’t get hung up about where to begin, chapter breakdowns and detailed plot, just write and the rest will slot into place. I was lucky enough to speak with the author Penny Vincenzi recently and ‘Just write’ was the advice that she gave me. She has written fifteen bestselling novels so she knows what she’s talking about.
Also, be passionate about the era and people you are writing about. I really like my characters' personalities, flaws and all. There isn’t a Singer Girl that I wouldn’t like to go out for a drink with.