Wednesday 1 March 2017

The Gingerbread House by Kate Beaufoy

Published by Black and White Publishing on March 2, 2017

Thank you, Kate, for joining me for an interview on my blog.

Thank you, Sophie, for giving me this opportunity, and for asking the kind of questions that really make me think hard.

Can you tell us one thing we would be surprised to learn about you?

I harbour a dream of becoming a breeder of Burmese cats. I have always had a Burmese in my life – sometimes two at a time! We have a shack on the west coast of Ireland, and I would love to run a cattery there. Can you imagine the potential for cat memes? My current Burmese is a little chocolate female. She arrived the day before I got a cancer diagnosis six years ago, and life during treatment would have been a much bigger struggle without her. At one stage the radiotherapist warned me not to go near babies or pregnant women for 24 hours, and I had to ask if it was OK to go home and cuddle my kitten? He’d never been asked that question before!

The Gingerbread House will be published by Black and White Publishing tomorrow (March 2). Can you tell us a bit about it?

The Gingerbread House tells the story of three generations of women – Eleanor, Tess and Katia. Eleanor is suffering from dementia, and her daughter-in-law, Tess, and granddaughter, Katia, have moved into her house to care for her. I wrote the first draft of the novel ten years ago, very fast: it took me just five weeks. It was written as a form of therapy, I guess – a way of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings. A couple of close friends read it, and encouraged me to restructure it; and of course once I started editing, I had to make it the most beautiful book I could. That’s my job! But it was so unlike anything I had written before that I never submitted it to a publisher. I had more or less forgotten about it when Black & White came calling.

What inspired your setting of the Gingerbread House?

I wanted somewhere set at a geographical remove, away from the buzz of the life that Tess - a former advertising copywriter - had once enjoyed. A beautiful garden was important – somewhere for Tess and Katia to recharge and chill - but despite the inviting exterior, the house itself needed to be dark and claustrophobic with a sense of the walls closing in: since Tess does not have a car, she and Katia have no means of escape. My father was an architect, and when I was a child I used the back of his plans as drawing paper; I think it helped give me a sense of the way people inhabit spaces, of how interiors affect mood and behaviour.

The Gingerbread House is told by teenager Katia. Personally I really loved how the story was narrated but how did you find writing from Katia’s perspective?

Thank you for loving Katia - I love her too! I wanted to create a young heroine who was feisty but who had her head in the clouds, so Katia is a book lover with a sense of adventure. The first draft was narrated by Tess, in the first person, but I felt it was necessary to take a step back and tell the story from a more objective point-of-view. Katia has just the right amount of emotional detachment: while she is fond of her grandmother, she has never really known her. And of course all her sympathy lies with her mother: although she can see that Tess is constantly making errors of judgement, her loyalty is such that she can’t condemn her.

Did you find being able to draw on your own personal experiences with caring for someone with dementia made writing The Gingerbread House more or less challenging?

Both. In the immediate aftermath of the time I spent caring for Eleanor I felt I had to capture the experience while it was still vivid. It was distressing to write, but I’m glad I did. It is not the kind of book that could be written from a retrospective viewpoint.

Do you have any plans to celebrate publication day?

Publication day is a working day for me! I love that my family and friends can get together for a chat and a few drinks, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to meet readers and sign books, but – even though I was an actress in a former life - I have an awful fear of public speaking. I try to keep my speeches short and pray that I won’t get dry-mouth. My worst nightmare is not recognising someone or getting a name wrong – I suffer from a mild form of prosopagnosia (face blindness – I once didn’t recognise my own daughter when she approached me unexpectedly at an airport!), and the possibility that I may offend someone scares me rigid.

What does your typical writing day look like?

Once upon a time my writing day was idyllic! I was living on my own in a tiny village on the west coast of Ireland, and I used to start the day with a run on a beach. In the evening I’d light a fire before heading down to the local pub for supper – crab claws or chowder. At weekends, my husband and daughter would join me, and then leave me to get on with it. These days I try my hardest to impose a routine, but it invariably goes askew because real life tends to get in the way. People say you have to be disciplined to be a writer, but in my experience it’s more to do with hard work, making the most of whatever time is available to you. I’ll work in bed, at the kitchen table, in the passenger seat of the car, in the doctor’s waiting room, in the garden (if I’m lucky!) – anywhere.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

When I’ve finished a book and am starting to think about the next one, I tackle the ironing pile. No kidding – it’s the only housework I don’t mind doing because it’s so repetitive it allows your mind to drift off elsewhere. I’m also a big devotee of Bikram yoga (the hot, sweaty kind that has been known to make grown men cry). Nothing beats the feeling you get when you unroll your mat in the certain knowledge that you have just made yourself unavailable for the next ninety minutes. I try to get to four or five classes a week, and even though it’s intense, the feeling of buoyancy afterwards is incomparable. My dream holiday would be somewhere like Bali, with yoga in the morning, scuba-diving in the afternoon, and a beach to chill on between-times. And a great book for pool-side, of course!

Along with your Kate Thompson books, The Gingerbread House is your fifteenth novel. Many authors say of the process, the nerves and the anticipation, that it doesn’t get any easier. Would you agree with that? What do you enjoy the most about being an author?

I love the process! When I’m deep in a book, it feels like the best job in the world. The run-up to launch time, when you realise that you’re going to have to get out of your work clothes (pyjamas) and into a frock is always unsettling because you have no idea how the work is going to be received. You feel for your characters as though they’re your own children, and you know you are finally running the risk of exposing them to criticism.

If you could choose one book published during the past year that you would recommend we read, what book would that be?

Liz Nugent’s Lying in Wait, which is a Richard & Judy Book Club choice for spring. A clever, intense, emotionally dark thriller, it grips from the very first line. A word of warning – don’t buy it as a Mother’s Day gift!

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

Like my historical novel Another Heartbeat in the House, my new novel is split between the 19th and the 20th centuries. One of the protagonists is herself a character in a well-known novel, the other is a well-known writer. More echoes of Heartbeat, where life and fiction merge – in Heartbeat my heroine inspires William Thackeray to write his most famous novel, Vanity Fair.

Finally, if you could pick the dream cast for The Gingerbread House, who would star in the movie?

A British cast would have to include Millie Bobbie Brown as Katia, with Keeley Hawes as Tess and Dame Judi Dench as Eleanor. And it would be a bonus to have Matthew MacFadyen (husband in real life to Keeley Hawes) as Donn.

The Gingerbread House is a book that I couldn’t stop thinking about whenever I put it down. When I read the blurb for it, a tale of three female generations of a family now affected by dementia, I knew this was a book I had to read. But The Gingerbread House, though only around 200 pages long, was far more moving and powerful that even my high expectations had thought it would be. The story inside is surprising and honest, sad and funny at the same time and it will make you consider every emotion each character is feeling and how you would respond in a similar situation.

Tess is a writer and so working from home means that when her mother-in-law Eleanor needs someone to care for her for a few weeks, Tess is the ideal cost-free choice. So the book sees Tess and her teenage daughter Katia move into The Gingerbread House where Eleanor lives. Tess’s husband Donn works a lot, but he is always just a phone call away and his dialogue with Tess brings a sense of light relief to a difficult story of an eighty-nine year old woman with dementia. Tess and Donn both have a dark sense of humour and one of my favourite parts of this book early on was the jokes they would share with each other. Humour is an important part of life when you’re caring for somebody and often it is those moments that get you a little further through the day. I could recognise that in Tess’s persona, how occasionally thinking back on those moments would put a brief smile on her face before she was back to being Eleanor’s carer – bathing her, cleaning up any messes, feeding her, putting David Attenborough on for her…

Katia narrates this book, which was something I found truly fascinating as she was a very interesting character. Wise beyond her years, I found Katia to be the perfect character to deliver this story. The way she tells the story is very inviting to the reader and allows us to pick up on small details, quick conversations and the mixture of emotions each character is feeling.

I found hearing about Tess through Katia’s eyes a very touching experience. Katia is very protective of her mum and sensitive towards her feelings which helps us see more of how caring for Eleanor is a harrowing experience for Tess. She struggles to keep her emotions in check at times and she feels isolated so any contact with the outside world is a welcome relief for Tess. I found she was a character I couldn’t help but respect as she was patient and calm with Eleanor despite how tough she was finding things. The book may appear repetitive in some ways, such as some of the things Tess would relay to Eleanor, but this was simply a true-to-life representation of what it is like in that situation and I found that Kate Beaufoy, who has had personal experience of caring for someone with dementia, told this story with sensitivity but also with great honesty, something which did the theme justice. I have not read many books that have made me cry recently but I will admit I did shed a tear at the end of The Gingerbread House. It is a frank and incredibly moving story which I will be recommending everybody to read.

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