Shiny New Books Fiction Editor Annabel catches up with Bethan Roberts, author of Mother Island.
Annabel: Baby-snatching, child abduction, particularly when a child is too young to fend for themselves, strikes right to the heart of being a parent. It’s a primal fear we all have, which, as we’ve seen never diminishes entirely as they grow up. However, by keeping it in the family you’ve given it a different dramatic emphasis to the awful cases we hear about on the news, which makes Mother Island less of a race against time thriller and more of a psychological mystery. Was this your plan from the outset?
Bethan: My plan from the outset was to write a book set on Anglesey – that was my only certainty when I started to write this novel. Then I became interested in writing about two women, a nanny and a mother. When I started writing I’d recently employed a very part-time nanny to look after my own one year old child so that I could have time to write, and it struck me that this was a potentially fraught and dramatic situation, and that I hadn’t read many in-depth fictional accounts of such a relationship. The plot of the abduction came after this initial idea. So I didn’t even really sit down and think, oh yes, I’ll write a psychological mystery. I just thought: I’d like to explore this relationship, and I’d like to set it on Anglesey.
Annabel: I could tell from reading the book that you had revisited Anglesey for research – the mention of the new Waitrose on the roundabout at the Menai Bridge gave it away (that was a pleasant surprise for me when I holidayed nearby the summer before last!). That sense of returning to a place with family memories and connections after some years and finding it the same yet not the same really came through into Maggie’s story. Did you have a similar experience?
Bethan: Yes, absolutely. Anglesey is something of a dream-place for me, and when I see something like the new Waitrose, it shocks me into realising that this island doesn’t exist purely in my head! I spent many childhood holidays on Anglesey as my dad was born and brought up there, so as a place it has a very strong pull on my imagination. Going there as a child born and brought up in Abingdon (slap-bang in the centre of England), Anglesey seemed mysterious, exciting, and slightly menacing. Even going to the local shop to buy penny sweets was something of an adventure because I don’t speak Welsh.
It was/is a place where I both belong and am a stranger. I’ve visited Anglesey all my life, but less often now than when I was little, so it’s always different when I go back, and it’s always a powerful experience, seeing the old places that I’ve remembered and thought about so often, and reliving those memories, but always in a slightly altered way. So there’s that strong sense of nostalgia, of something lost, and although it’s sad I’ve always loved that feeling. I think probably it’s one of the most basic emotions from which to begin writing.
Annabel: Although we bond with Nula as the mother of Samuel, especially as she obviously suffered from post-natal depression and thus having a nanny has been a big help to her, she is rather irritating; conversely, I found it quite shocking to find myself feeling more for Maggie as we get to understand her. As a reader it is powerful stuff to be so affected – I wondered how you were able to get into Maggie’s mind to write her character?
Bethan: I’m glad that your sympathies were pulled both ways! I really wanted to challenge the nanny=bad, mummy=good assumption. When I was interviewing women to find a nanny for my son (a strange and uncomfortable experience in itself), it struck me that it was potentially a very lonely profession. Many of the women I talked to were obviously very dedicated to the children they’d looked after, and I began to think how difficult it would be to love a child in this way and then, every day, to have to leave that child behind, and have no real stake in their future at all. Because I think that the chances of falling in love with the child you look after are pretty high, and that this might even be a necessary part of the job. I also began to wonder what that experience would be like if you were essentially without a family yourself. So that’s where Maggie came from.
Annabel: I didn’t dare to ask directly if you’d had a nanny for your child! Finally, on a more cheery note – what are you enjoying reading this summer?
Bethan: I’ve been reading a lot of short stories by Kevin Barry and Lorrie Moore, which are truly brilliant. So funny and rich and surprising. But the novel I’ve enjoyed the most so far is All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. It also involves a lonely woman trying to escape her past on an island. The structure of the novel is breathtakingly good – it’s like an intricate puzzle, but it never loses its grip on you. And the sentences are absolutely exquisite.
Annabel: We love the Evie Wyld book too. Thank you so much for talking to us Bethan and all the best with Mother Island.
Read Annabel’s review of Mother Island here.