Q1: What was your inspiration for writing The Forgotten Seamstress?
I come from a silk weaving family and have always been fascinated by fabrics. One day I was visiting the famous Warner Archive, in Braintree, Essex, when I saw a case of ‘May Silks’ – beautiful cream and white damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand-woven for the trousseau of Princess May (1867-1953), also known as Mary of Teck, for her wedding to the heir to the British throne, the Duke of Clarence.
Sadly, the Duke died just six weeks before the wedding and, with typical royal pragmatism, it was decided that she should instead marry his younger brother George, who later became King George V. Another design from the May silks was chosen for her wedding dress.
More than a century later, these silks still glimmered and shimmered in their case, and I became fascinated by the way that the designs, featuring roses, thistles and shamrocks with May blossoms and lovers’ knots, had been interpreted into the weave of the fabrics. They are truly unique, and have never been woven before or since.
Q2: Are you a quilter yourself?
I’m afraid not: I once made a very small patchwork cushion cover out of simple hexagons, but beyond that have absolutely no experience of quilting. However I have always been captivated by the way that quilters manage to juxtapose and manipulate fabrics into such extraordinary and unexpected effects.
A few years ago I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Quilt Show, of 70 quilts dating from 1700 to the present day, and this fascination was revived. Most of all, I was reminded of the many different ways in which quilts tell stories, and decided that I would write a novel one day in which a quilt would become a ‘main character’.
As I set out to write The Forgotten Seamstress, I was incredibly fortunate to be introduced to the internationally-acknowledged patchwork quilter, teacher and author: Lynne Edwards, who in 2008 was awarded an MBE for her services to arts and crafts. With typical enthusiasm, Lynne completely embraced the project. We met several times and, over bottles of wine and lots of laughter, ‘devised’ the quilt that Maria made, taking into account the influences and sources of inspiration that she would have had at different times of her life, and the sort of fabrics she might have had at her disposal.
By the time we had finished I had, in my mind’s eye, a very clear view of what the quilt would look like. We very much hope that someone, someday, will be inspired by the pattern Lynne has very generously devised (available for free at www.liztrenow.org) and create ‘Maria’s quilt’. If you do, please let us know!
Q3: Setting the story in a mental asylum creates quite a contrast to the royal theme. What inspired you to do that?
I love novels with a strong sense of place, and having set my first book in the house where I grew up, I was determined to find somewhere just as evocative and atmospheric for this one.
When the Severalls Mental Asylum, on the edge of my home town of Colchester, first opened its doors to patients in 1913, it was considered to be a state of the art institution which would become a centre of expertise in the very latest treatments for mental illness. It was built on a vast scale like the estate of a country mansion, with gardens and sports facilities and a range of other houses for staff, with the ideal that patients could be safely contained and soothed in these beautiful surroundings.
Of course, with hindsight, we now understand that the treatments used were sometimes inhumane, even brutal, and patients often became institutionalised by the strict routines. Occasionally its use was also sometimes abused, and tales of people being locked up for little more than social breaches (such as umarried pregnancy) once used to abound.
In the 1970s, when patients began to be discharged into ‘care in the community’ (now itself discredited) some of the buildings and wards were used by other hospital departments, for example clinical treatments and minor surgery. This is how, as a teenager, I became an in-patient at the hospital, having a benign cyst removed from my arm. It was only two days, but that experience of the place has never left me: the scale of it, both impressive and oppressive, the locked doors and bars, doctors riding bicycles down the miles long corridors and the people – mental patients –sometimes behaving or reacting quite oddly, as they walked or worked in the gardens.
A collection of old photographs is available on the website www.severallshospital.co.uk and, although most of the buildings are now closed (pending redevelopment), it is still possible to walk in the grounds among the pine trees. The atmosphere of the place remains as strong as ever.
Q4: Where did you get the idea of using old recorded cassette tapes of Maria, to tell her story?
Because there is a century between the two characters they could not have met, so there had to be a way for Caroline to learn about Maria’s life story. While researching the history of Severalls Hospital, I came across a wonderful book by the sociologist and author Diana Gittins called Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998), in which she quoted from her recordings with staff and patients. These first-hand accounts really brought the place and the people to life, and in one of those light-bulb moments, I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do with Maria.
So I created a character – Professor Patsy Morton – who had undertaken a research project not unlike that of Diana Gittins’, although a couple of decades earlier. This was the perfect way of allowing Caroline – and the reader – to hear Maria’s story first hand. Although we never actually meet her in the book, the tapes help us to feel that we know her.
Q5: Your main character, Maria, is a very ‘unreliable narrator’. Did you find her difficult to write?
Maria was not difficult to write at all – she just flowed onto the page! The tricky bit was managing the reactions of the other characters, especially Caroline, to the fantastical things that they learned about her. Because I knew the outcome of Maria’s story, I had to imagine what it would be like to know nothing about her except for the small clues that we gathered along the way, so that I could establish how much (or how little), Caroline should believe (or not believe) about Maria’s story.
Q6: People always say that the second book, or music album, can be trickier than the first. Did you experience this with The Forgotten Seamstress?
My first novel, The Last Telegram, was based on real-life characters, events and places from my family history and childhood, and by the time I’d finished writing it I felt that all that a lifetime of memories and experience had been ‘used up’. What would I turn to next? My husband wisely counselled me to write ‘something completely different’ and not to try to recreate the atmosphere of the first one, which is what I set out to do.
As I wrote, The Last Telegram was published and received almost unqualified five star reviews. Each time someone told me how much they loved it I would start to panic again, wondering whether The Forgotten Seamstress would ever match up.
About half way through, I watched a television documentary in which the crime writer Ian Rankin talked about the process of writing Standing in Another Man’s Grave (now out in paperback). He talked about how, with each novel, he experiences what he describes as ‘the fear’, a point at which he thinks he’s writing complete rubbish that will never get published, and even if it did, that reviewers would slate and readers hate. He talked about having to work your way through it and hold faith that it will come right in time.
It was so reassuring to hear that even Britain’s number one bestselling crime novelist should suffer such crises of confidence that I came back my manuscript with renewed determination. After a major restructuring and quite a lot of rewriting I found my rhythm again, and now believe it is just as good as the first (although very different).
I hope you think so too.