Sunday 22 April 2018

An interview with author Fiona Mitchell

This post was supposed to go up on Friday, but my blog has been down due to unforeseen technical issues - however, we're all back up and running now, and I'm so proud to be able to bring you this interview/Q&A I did with Fiona Mitchell, author of The Maid's Room which came out on Thursday. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it inspires you to go out and read her debut novel!

What was your biggest inspiration for writing The Maid's Room? 
When I was living in Singapore I got to know a woman from the Philippines who shared her story with me. She was the inspiration for Tala who, for me, is the centre of the book. Poverty had forced the woman to leave her sons, then 10 and 8, back home to work as a domestic helper, initially in Hong Kong. She didn’t see them again for another three years. Almost as an afterthought, she mentioned that her first employer had made her sleep under a dining room table. It was as if this hardship was nothing compared to her having to leave her young sons. I kept thinking about her story, and The Maid’s Room started to evolve.

What did you hope the reaction would be to such a poignant story? 
I wanted it to set off a discussion about modern-day servitude. And it’s certainly done that; people are asking all sorts of questions about the book – Have I exaggerated the way domestic helpers are treated in Singapore? Should I have focused on a different country with more flagrant human rights abuses? A book containing true life stories from domestic helpers in Singapore called Our Homes, Our Stories, has just been published which might answer some of those questions. But really I wanted to get readers thinking about how everyone presents one face to the world, while in private, they might be suffering a great deal of pain. I also wanted readers to have a good laugh along the way and finish reading with hope in their hearts.

What was the hardest part of writing The Maid's Room? 
It took me a long time to capture Dolly’s voice. For years, I didn’t know who she was and then suddenly it clicked; she’s a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but refuses to be a victim. Once I got this straight in my head, the words poured out.

Growing up, did you always want to be a fiction author at some point? What were your other grown-up-career dreams? 
I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was a teenager. I wrote poems, sent them off to literary magazines and ended up with my first rejection letters. All my jobs have involved writing in some shape or form - first in children’s non-fiction publishing, where I’d frequently daydream about writing a novel. Later, when I became a journalist, the dream dried up because I loved my job and felt so fulfilled. It was only when I went freelance and had more time that the urge to write fiction took hold again.

What has been the best part of the entire process of having your debut novel published? 
My launch party – I had so many people that I care about in that room, so many people who had given me words of encouragement along the way, and it felt fantastic to celebrate with them all. The first time I saw my book in a library was special too - knowing that it’s there for people to borrow for free over and again.

And, of course, the worst part? 
The first bad review really hurts, but you get over it. Reading is subjective after all. I’ve fallen in love with a book, only to pass it to my husband who thinks it’s boring. Although I might have had to divorce him if he didn’t like Eleanor Oliphant! Every
reader brings different needs and expectations to a book, but it’s always wonderful when someone connects with your work.

How do you think your work as a journalist has impacted your work as an author? 
As a journalist I’m used to criticism and not at all precious about my work. When an editor or my agent tells me something doesn’t work, I take note and change things – more often than not, an editor can make your work better.
In terms of writing though, journalism and fiction are poles apart. Journalism deals in facts and explanation, whereas in fiction, you can’t give everything away initially, you have to hold things back to keep your reader engaged.

The Maid's Room has been compared to The Help - do you think this is a fair comparison? 
I knew from the start that The Maid’s Room would be compared to The Help, a book I absolutely adore, and it was important for me to acknowledge this. That’s why some of the expat women in my book choose to discuss The Help at their book group. There are similarities between Kathryn’s Stockett’s book and The Maid’s Room – both focus on oppression, and both are written from three points of view, but my book is set in another culture and my characters face a different set of circumstances.

Do you have any plans for more fiction writing in the future? 
Yes. I’ve just finished my second book called The Swap about an IVF mix-up in the US. It’s going to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in April 2019. I’ve also started working on a third book.

Finally, if there's one message you want readers to take away from The Maid's Room, what would that be? 
It’s easy to sit back and think, ‘well that’s just the way it is and I can’t change anything,’ but small acts of kindness can have impact. Never underestimate the power of kindness.

If you do read The Maid's Room, let me know what you think of it!

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