Bethan Roberts on the inspiration for her latest novel
PUBLISHED: 10:21 11 May 2016 | UPDATED: 10:22 11 May 2016
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!”
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