How my work as a B&B owner inspired my latest novel – Suellen Dainty

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By Suellen Dainty

Rewind the clock to eight years ago. I’m in the kitchen of one of London’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, Le Gavroche, talking to the chef and patron, Michel Roux Jr. I’ve just been hired to write his memoir and am trying not to show how excited I am. There is so much happening. All around me people are chopping, slicing and dicing. Pots of delicious smelling sauces are bubbling on the stoves. Chefs are braising and grilling, tasting and stirring. The country’s best produce is being prepared for London’s most discerning diners – fat turbot, grass fed beef and tender lamb bred in the Welsh mountains. To accompany these are tender baby vegetables grown to order from the best organic gardens around the country. Nearby, in the pastry section, another team is preparing cakes and tarts of exquisite perfection…

It’s no accident that there are so many television series about cooking and restaurant kitchens. They have the classic ingredients of traditional drama – the conflict of different characters thrown together in close quarters, the constant pressure and competition and the desire to win, no matter the cost.

So I sat down and started to write. I wrote about a young female chef named Anne who fell in love with her boss. But I discovered quite quickly that my story wasn’t working. Nothing was happening. No one was going anywhere. Even I was bored, which is a very bad sign, so I began looking at my own life and somehow the story became clearer.

In between trying to write a novel, and ghosting Michel’s memoir, I was also running a B&B in the English countryside. People who have never run a B&B often say that it must be fun having lots of different people in your house, a bit like having loads of dinner parties and getting paid for it. A hostess with benefits.

Not quite. It’s much more like being an invisible maid in your own home. People, even the nicest, politest people you can meet, often don’t pay attention to the person who pours their tea or coffee, cooks their breakfast or tidies their bedrooms. They only see what you can do for them.

I didn’t mind, because I’m quite nosy and I could watch and listen and they never noticed a thing. And because all sorts of people came and went, I got to know about so many people’s lives.

I wasn’t the first person to think that a housekeeper or servant might make a good character in a story. Downton Abbey proved that point through six internationally successful series, as did Daphne du Maurier when she created the mesmeric Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. And who could forget Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton in Kazuo Ishiguro’s stupendous The Remains of the Day?

HousekeeperSo I took my experience in the kitchens of Le Gavroche, mixed it up with my experience of running a B&B and started again. I revamped Anne’s character. This time around, she had a very weird childhood with no family to speak of. So, of course, all she wanted is a family of her own. For a while, Anne found that family in a busy restaurant kitchen. But when things went horribly wrong there and she was forced to leave, she landed another job as a housekeeper. This was the point where my B&B life came into play. I channelled that feeling of being a fly-on-the-wall, privy to everyone’s secrets with the drama one can find in a restaurant setting to create the world of The Housekeeper.

You would be amazed by how much you can discover about people when you’re cleaning and tidying their rooms; what they read, how they slept and even if they had sex.

It wasn’t snooping, because I was doing my job, but there were times when I felt uncomfortable about what some people left lying about. Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t notice their open diaries or their underwear on the floor. I doubt that they gave it a moment’s thought, but it seeped into my consciousness. I knew how Anne could very easily discover so much about her employers as she made their bed in the morning and ironed their clothes.

There was something about the repetitive and mindless nature of cleaning and washing and ironing that allowed me the mental space to think about my story and what might happen next.

And so, every week, after my guests had left and I had loaded the washing machine and the dishwasher, I would sit down at the kitchen table and begin to write. Thus, The Housekeeper was born.

Suellen Dainty is a journalist turned B&B owner turned author of the novel After Everything. Her sophomore suspense novel, The Housekeeper (Atria; February 28, 2017) follows Anne Morgan who’s in search of a fresh start after her boyfriend, and boss, leaves her for another woman. She decides to take a job as a housekeeper for her celebrity idol, Emma Helmsley (England’s answer to Martha Stewart). On the outside Emma and her family are picture perfect, but inside the house, the dirty laundry is piling up. Everyone has a secret to hide, including the housekeeper, and it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart.

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