CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Sussex Life today CLICK HERE

Bethan Roberts on the inspiration for her latest novel

PUBLISHED: 10:21 11 May 2016 | UPDATED: 10:22 11 May 2016

Bethan Roberts at the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015

Bethan Roberts at the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015


Brighton author Bethan Roberts had a fantastic 2015, scooping the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered award for her latest novel, Mother Island. She spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell about the inspiration for this taut, suspenseful domestic thriller

Bethan Roberts published her first novel in 2007. The Pools was well received, even scooping her a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers’ Award. I last spoke to her for Sussex Life in 2012, when My Policeman, her tragic, yearning tale of forbidden love in 1950s Brighton was chosen as that year’s City Read. Then last year she won two prizes: Jerwood Fiction Uncovered, for her latest novel Mother Island, and the RA Pin Drop Award for her short fiction (her story was read aloud by Stephen Fry at the prize-giving).

Bethan says last year’s plaudits were “a lifeline. It’s having occasional bits of recognition that allows you to carry on writing,” she continues. “Mother Island came out and it got some nice reviews, but it just didn’t sell at all really. I was feeling like things were pretty dire. [Receiving those prizes] felt like a reason to carry on writing when I had actually felt not that I would give up, but should I?”

If you have ever hired a nanny, childminder or even a babysitter, the fear at the heart of Mother Island will be familiar to you. It is the story of a love triangle – or rather, two interlocking love triangles – that joins two women who share a family history and love the same little boy.

Nula, adrift on a sea of new motherhood, insecurity and regret for her old life, employs her cousin Maggie to look after her little son Samuel while she returns to work. Finding themselves rivals once again, the two women judge and nettle each other until Maggie decides to abduct Samuel.

Mother Island is a very personal book in many different ways. The crucial summer that takes place 16 years before the abduction, and which seals the course of the characters’ lives, takes place on Anglesey, where Bethan spent many childhood summers. “It’s one of those places that live in your information because they are so important to you as a child,” explained Bethan. She knew she wanted to write about Anglesey and initially planned an historical novel, but despite her father speaking Welsh as a first language, she didn’t know any herself. “In the end it was through the lens of motherhood.

“At the time I had a very small child – he’s six now – and I just didn’t have much time. So I had to do something that involved very little research or where I could research my own life.” At the time Bethan was interviewing childminders after deciding to go back to work – “I had always thought I would be a stay-at-home mum and then of course when I had a child I thought no way, how did I think that? I’m a writer and I need to sit down and write. That was a massive change where I thought my eyes had been opened, and I was interested in all the stereotypes around the mother-nanny dynamic and how it worked.”

Throughout the time she was interviewing, Bethan was struck by the love people who care for children have for their charges – a love that is necessary to the profession, but which must take its toll when the time comes to leave a child and go on to another. “Of course people do it all the time and they get used to it and it’s all fine, but I thought, what if you were slightly damaged in some way or very needy – how could you do it then?”

The events of the book begin and end in Anglesey, with the seeds sown in a golden summer when even the adults are behaving like adolescents. Friendships soured, motherhood made and marred, love thwarted. At the centre of it all is the hothouse relationship between Maggie and Nula: the close, clutching friendship of the cousins. Bethan says she was interested in that particular dynamic: “On the one hand you’re very close because you’re closely related and on the other you have completely different experiences of growing up. I basically wrote two separate stories and one of the earliest sections was Maggie and Nula on the island together. I was thinking about intense female friendships and then I thought I really wanted to write about motherhood, and thought about how I could connect the two.”

Now Bethan is writing her next novel, alongside her position as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Sussex, where she was an undergraduate in 20th Century English Literature 20 years ago. This one is a departure, being written mostly from the point of view of Elvis Presley and detailing the period from his childhood to the death of his mother. Again, Bethan’s looking back to her childhood, as “my mum is a big Elvis fan. I suppose I would have hesitated to call myself a fan before but I’ve spent the last two years researching it and having a lovely time reading all about Elvis and listening to his music. My husband is feeling slightly threatened!” 


Andrew Bernardi at Shipley Arts Festival 2016 - The recent history of the 1696 Stradivarius is worthy of a Hollywood thriller. After it was stolen and recovered, violinist Andrew Bernardi had to race against the clock to raise the money to buy it. Now, as he prepares for his 16th Shipley Arts Festival, Andrew explains that the violin has galvanised his mission to build community through music.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Sussex Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Sussex Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Sussex Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Academy Award nominee, beloved comedienne, and organic cattle herder: Dame Julie Walters is certainly a woman of many talents both on and off the screen

Read more
Monday, November 12, 2018

This year marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s horror novel Frankenstein. Amanda Hodges explores its Sussex connections

Read more
Monday, November 12, 2018

As giant snails take over Brighton and Hove between September and November 2018, Sally Turner speaks to an artist behind two distinctive snail designs about what inspired her creations

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Former Shoreham Labour candidate Sophie Cook discusses being the first transgender person to work in the Premier League, transitioning and her vision for the county

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Community groups and good causes across Brighton and Hove are being invited to bid for grants to put pride in our city

Read more
Monday, October 29, 2018

Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit

Read more
Monday, October 22, 2018

Pagham Harbour has inspired photographer Richard Dunkley for 20 years. Ahead of a charity event he introduces his favourite shots

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Latest Competitions & Offers

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search