Five ways my mother helped me birth my debut novel – Mary Paulson-Ellis

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By Mary Paulson-Ellis

The first novel I ever wrote began like this: ‘Before I was born my mother tried to get rid of me.’ It was fiction. Of course. It was never published. Of course. But I did do a reading from it at an event that my mother attended. Afterwards she said, Well done.♥

Three weeks later my father told me she had been a bit upset. But why? I said. Because of the opening, he replied. I was perplexed. But it’s not about her, I said. It’s about me. At least that was what I believed at the time. Later I came to understand the idea of the unconscious and how it ends up on the page.

Six years on and my debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker, is full of mothers. Strict ones. Mad ones. Fake ones. Absent ones. And this time there’s no hiding. For my mother is all over it. In fact, if it wasn’t for her, it may never have been born.

Here’s why:-

Firstly, and most importantly, my mother gave me something no writer can do without. Not gin (though that helps), but permission. She never told me I was mad or fake. Or that I should get a proper job. Instead she remained interested throughout, cheering good news, commiserating over bad, no hint that perhaps being a writer was not the most sensible way to live one’s life.

Secondly, my mother leant me all her memories and didn’t even ask for them back. I’d always been fascinated by her stories of growing up in London in the 1940s and 50s. When I started writing the novel, it turned out my Walker sisters lived there too. With no regard for intellectual property rights, I got my mother to tell me all about it. She never tinkered or tried to retract. Instead she trusted me to do the right thing. I don’t think I’ve let her down.

Thirdly, never to give up. My mother always wanted to be a social worker, but found herself mid-thirties with four children and an expertise in Latin instead. Twenty-odd years later she retired from a successful career finding families for children who didn’t have mothers of their own. I always admired how she changed the course of her life to make sure it matched her idea of herself. I did it too when I gave up my career to become a writer … in my mid-thirties. Come to think of it, the field my mother ended up in seems to have rubbed off on me too.

Fourthly, her silverware. My book starts with an old lady who dies and leaves nothing behind but a few odd objects, including an apostle spoon. The original is one of a set my mother gave me. She told me at the time it was her second best silver. It’s my best silver now.

Fifthly, herself. There’s a family photograph from 1944 that perfectly encapsulates the relationships in my novel: two little girls of the same age stand each side of a pram in which there are two little dolls – like my two sets of twins. The girls aren’t smiling. One of them looks particularly grumpy. That’s my mother. When I asked if I could use this photograph to create a fictional family tree for my website she said, Yes. Who else but a mother would let you turn her into someone else and not even complain.

When I first met the agent who subsequently took me on, she asked, Do you have a good relationship with your mother? I was perplexed all over again. Of course, I said. But later I went home and checked with the woman in question. Just in case.

It turns out that I do. And to prove it her name’s on the dedication page.

We all need a cheerleader in life. Thanks, Mum. You’re the best.

©Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2016

Mary Paulson-Ellis is a writer living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker, is out now.


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