I’m delighted to be talking to Caitlin Davies, a wonderful writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
Family Likeness, Caitlin’s fifth novel is published by Hutchinson on July 4th. The novel explores identity, belonging and race – moving between contemporary north London, a children’s home of the 1950s and the tantalising life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th century black aristocrat.
We’re told we have to be able to give an ‘elevator pitch’ about our own books. How would you describe your novel in a sentence?
Oh no, don’t ask me that! The answer is – with great difficulty. There are three main strands in the novel, but I’d have to focus on one and say, ‘This is the story of a babysitter with a hidden agenda.’
The abandoned child of a black GI father and a white English mother, Muriel Wilson encounters a racism in 1950s England that compounds her isolation. How painful was it to write about her experience?
It wasn’t so much painful to write but it was harrowing researching Muriel’s story, reading recollections from people who grew up in children’s homes and talking to those who had backgrounds similar to hers. One woman told me that as a child she often wished she were dead; I never forgot that.
In the novel, children growing up in families seem to have an experience almost as challenging as orphan Muriel Wilson had growing up in an orphanage. Is childhood always a difficult time, do you think?
Childhood can be difficult, yes. And whatever a child’s circumstances, if they’re missing a parent and if they have questions no one is willing to answer then it’s really difficult.
Rosie Grey initially appears a Mary Poppins-type figure but soon proves to have a more complex motivation for joining the Murrey family. Is the spectre of the nanny who’s not what she seems something that haunts you, as a mother?
I think I more identified with the nanny herself! I worked as a babysitter and nanny for years – all through my teens and 20s – and I was aware that I was being trusted to look after someone’s child but that really the family didn’t know much about me. That’s why I wanted to write about a babysitter, because you’re both insider and outsider, and that’s what Dido Elizabeth Belle was as well.
Dido Elizabeth grew up partly at Kenwood house in luxurious surroundings. Muriel spent her childhood in a spartan orphanage. Can wealth ever compensate for lack of belonging?
I think love can compensate for lack of belonging, wealth makes things easier on a day-to-day basis.
I enjoyed the vivid evocation of the streets and houses of north London, as well as the dismal picture painted of the ‘branch home’. Is place important to you as a writer?
Yes – it’s probably my favourite part of writing, trying to build up a picture of somewhere so that even if it’s imaginary to begin with it eventually becomes real. I especially like writing about houses, I love walking along roads looking in through people’s windows. When I got stuck with this novel that’s what I did, wandered around peering in.
The story arc suggests that secrets threaten happiness, that if skeletons can be released from cupboards then peace may be found, even towards the end of life. A quiet redemption occurs, for Muriel and for Rooster.
Wow, that’s a nice summary. I think it’s also a question of making assumptions; Rosie is the sort of person who jumps to conclusions. When she hears the real story, the secrets turn out to be different from what she expected.
Family Likeness is your fifth novel. Has it become easier to write novels?
I’ve definitely learnt a lot along the way, but I’m not sure if it’s become easier. I’m probably more critical of myself – and a better editor – than I used to be. There’s a little critic in my ear most of the time. Sometimes she takes a red pen and writes ‘crap’ all over the manuscript.
The easy bit, the fun bit, is that first idea and following that idea and doing the research. The first draft is fun too. After that it tends to be hard work. Although in the end it’s not heart surgery, I’m only writing a book.
How long did this one take to write?
I think about a year, it usually takes about a year including research. But that’s not full time, I can only do it in between doing jobs that really pay the bills, like journalism and teaching.
Last year, you had a book out on the ponds, Taking the Waters. This summer, you have launched another non-fiction book on Camden Lock and the Market, also published by Frances Lincoln.
How do you manage to live in your imagination, writing fiction, at the same time as finding the rigour required for the non-fiction?
It’s quite good switching between the two. When I’ve spent a few weeks writing non-fiction it can be a real relief to turn back to a novel and not feel I have to get everything ‘right’ and double check facts and balance people’s conflicting stories and memories. With a novel I can take it where I want to, you still have to get it ‘right’ but in a different way.
After writing seven books in 10 years I’m a bit exhausted really. But having said that, I’m now half way through another non-fiction – a social history of swimming the Thames – and 50 pages into a new novel about the amazing life of a Victorian diver.
And finally – do you have any writing rituals or any talismans that are important to you?
My only ritual is peace and quiet, and not being interrupted. I can’t stand being asked what’s for dinner….
Thank you, Caitlin!
Family Likeness is published on July 4th.