Wonder Girls tells the story of Ida Gaze, the first woman to swim the Bristol Channel, and her friend Freda Voyle. Seen partly through the eyes of the elderly Ceci, it is an exploration of the span and course of women’s lives and friendships, in the context of the changing times in which they live and love.
I loved the novel. It is subtle, witty and poignant as well as being finely felt and observed. I am delighted to have author Catherine Jones here to talk about her exceptional novel.
Have you always written stories?
Thank you very much for your kind words. I feel you have read the book exactly as I hoped it might be interpreted! I’ve always felt the need to get things down on paper. From a young age, I wrote stories on a 1950s’ Imperial typewriter. My first proper effort at a book made it as far as the legendary Lennie Goodings at Virago suggesting a rewrite. Though ultimately it wasn’t to be, this gave me confidence to continue – not that I would have stopped.
All the characters in the book, major and minor, are intriguing. I particularly liked the complex, charismatic Freda Voyle, and the depiction of her only partly requited love for Ida Gaze. The delicacy of the way you show Freda and Ida’s intimacy and then their growing apart is wonderful. Did you have a favourite character?
I think Freda is the character I would most like to witness in action, putting people who sit in judgement straight, though as I was writing, her pain was always close to the surface. Freda’s sexuality, as well as her inability to tolerate what she sees as insincerity and mediocrity, was always going to isolate her, in whatever age she lived.
One of the interesting things about Wonder Girls is that it is about women of different ages, as well as in different eras. The evocation of the teenage Ida and Freda is as immediate and convincing as the first person voice of Ceci, in her eighties. In between, we see modern day Sarah, younger Ceci, and Freda later in her life. Was it a challenge, to enter into all these times in women’s lives?
I enjoyed writing Ida and Freda’s earlier years and that bursting desire to escape, which can surface many years afterwards too, in a job or relationship or any situation where one feels misunderstood. Having worked on their childhood and adolescence, I found it easier to write these characters’ later years.
With Ceci, I wanted to capture the wry wisdom I find in many elderly people. I’m not a fan of the old being degraded and hope attitudes to ageing will change as the post-war baby boomers come to expect an intelligent dotage. My intention was to write about invisible women over time, not those with what Freda might call a sense of entitlement.
Parts of the novel are set in 1928, parts in 1937 and parts in 2009. Overall, do you prefer writing in the present day or the past? Does it make much difference?
I’ve always been driven, in life and writing, by the past – by the ‘story’ which makes someone how they are – so in that sense I see the time setting as incidental. When I meet someone, the first thing I wonder about is what has happened in their lives, the nature of their relationship with their family, what might have made them kind or cruel.
The dialogue is fantastic – rich with Welsh wit and caustic truths. Does writing dialogue come easily to you? Are you someone who carries a notebook in which to record things you overhear?
It’s gratifying to hear you enjoyed the dialogue as I put a great deal of time into it. As with the rest of my writing I’ll go over and over a sentence, reading aloud, until it has the sound I want. I hope I’ve given a flavour of the kind of ‘repartee’ I grew up hearing. I’ve tried to capture the mood of the Welsh people I know – sharp, shy, and independent to the point of cussedness. As for making a note of things, I wish I didn’t feel self-conscious about carrying round a pen and paper as there is always something. I was in the Post Office recently, and a woman went up to the counter and said, ‘I thought it was cold but it isn’t.’ I enjoy listening for rhythm and humour.
The Welsh seaside town in which Freda and Ida – and later Ceci and Sarah – live is an atmospheric and distinctive setting for much of the world of the book. It is evoked both physically, in the architecture, the lido, the lapping sea, and emotionally, as a place of gossip and restricted horizons, especially in the 1920s. Do you have a strong feeling for place? Where does that come from?
I think the effect of the environment on anyone who doesn’t have a strong sense of self can be significant. I wanted to show a clawing, gossipy flip side to the apparently safe idyll of a seaside town in 1920s’ South Wales. I live in Penarth and its geography inspired the setting for much of Wonder Girls. I wanted to create a fictional location which combined stern stone terraces – a legacy of the town’s maritime wealth – with the fluid liberation of the Bristol Channel. Water is so important. I’m a keen swimmer and nature lover and feel the sea and the sky are as essential as peace and privacy.
I’m very interested in the writing process and would like to ask a bit about yours.
I share your curiosity about writing habits. Sometimes I think it’s all about graft, other times I feel the ‘muse’ can flow. In a recent interview, Edna O’Brien talked of knuckling down to her next book as like ‘going back into the tunnel’ and that’s how I see it. I couldn’t write if I was socialising in coffee shops or going on European breaks. For me, it has to be all-consuming. It’s a pleasure to inhabit a world of one’s own making but it’s also a strange way to be. Edna O’Brien also said you have to be lonely to write, and I agree with that too. I don’t stray far from the computer.
What prompted you to begin Wonder Girls?
I discovered that in 1929, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Edith Parnell, swam the Bristol Channel. She wasn’t the first person to do so – that was Kathleen Thomas, 21, in 1927 – but it was Edith and the stout brittleness she communicated through the pictures and copy in old newspapers who compelled me. I wanted to write about young women trapped in a moment and place and what happened if they moved one way, and another young woman travelled in reverse. The swimmers gave me the metaphor of crossing from one country to another in a medium which can be both therapeutic and threatening.
How long did you spend writing the novel?
Around three years in all. For me, it’s a process of building the characters and story in broad strokes, though occasionally a passage will go down on paper as smoothly as though I was transcribing a real moment. In addition, came the input of my agent who so informed the direction she felt the book should take, and my editor, who helped immeasurably with its final incarnation.
Do you enjoy research?
To a point. I like sitting in libraries staring companionably at dust motes in the sunlight but sometimes feel research gets in the way, both in the doing of it, and then the temptation to do all that work justice by over-egging detail. It then becomes a case of writing, knowing that it will need to be cut and cut. I suppose it’s about building on firm foundations. The research is crucial though you hope the end result isn’t crass with detail.
Wonder Girls is so free and immediate, in style; it reads as if it was written in a notebook, in longhand. Was it?!
No but I wish it had been! I’m pleased if it appears spontaneous though I’ll admit to working at one sentence for as long as it takes to get the cadence I’m after. I do a lot of reading aloud.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
Currently with the title of Funny Peculiar, it’s about an unbalanced Welsh family with secrets – how small town mores and the judgments of strangers can cage a fragile mind, and how one person’s notion of ‘oddness’ is another’s way of being oneself. I’m a great believer in live and let live.
Thank you, Catherine, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Wonder Girls by Catherine Jones appears in paperback on February 14, 2013