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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Born in 1958 and brought up in Hammersmith, Lesley Thomson graduated in 1981. She lived in Australia after completing her degree. To support her writing - and sometimes to avoid writing - Lesley has worked in many different places: a factory producing plastic make-up display stands (that operated far beyond the realms of health and safety), an estate agents and an underground station newsagent in Sydney. She was a senior manager in one of the first Internet companies and was the only person she knew with an email address. Her first novel, Seven Miles From Sydney (1987), was in the City Limits top ten best books for that year. In 1990, Lesley worked with Sue Johnston on her semi-autobiographical book, Hold On To The Messy Times. In 2005, an extract of A Kind of Vanishing was included in The Brighton Book with pieces by Jeanette Winterson, Nigella Lawson and Louis de Bernieres. In 2006, Lesley completed an MA in English Literature and finished A Kind of Vanishing.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for A Kind of Vanishing?
Lesley Thomson: It’s difficult to answer this without throwing too much light onto the plot and giving away the story which I am keen not to do! But the germ of the idea grew ten years ago when I listened to Sandra Brown on Women’s Hour talking about her book: Where There Is Evil . This is about the disappearance of twelve year old Moira Anderson in Glasgow in 1957. I am loathe to explain her particular interest in the case as it is a bit of a giveaway! But I can recommend her book. Moira is still officially listed as missing and Sandra Brown, who got the case reopened in the nineties, is still campaigning for the truth of what happened to her to be revealed. Last year she was awarded an OBE for her work for child protection in Scotland and she has set up the Moira Anderson Foundation – a charity that helps children and families affected by child sexual abuse.
As well as this a few years later I heard a package on You and Yours (also Radio Four!) about helping primary school children deal with their grief over the death of a classmate. The bit that interested me was the point made that some children may not have liked the child who has died and would need support in dealing with their less comfortable feelings about the death. This last idea took root in my imagination and I wanted to explore it.
MT: Your book is about the rawest of subjects -- a child's disappearance. What drew you to want to investigate such a harrowing subject?
LT: One of the worst things that can happen to a person is the death of their child. For parents whose children are murdered there is often a period of time when they are missing before the body is discovered. I wondered what it would be like for parents to have a child go missing and hear no more about them. We see these ‘stories’ in the press from time to time (and one is of course in the news at the moment) and then they fade from the front pages. But what happens to the people involved? How do they continue with their lives in the face of the terrible uncertainty and unsolved mystery that leaves room for the imagination to fill? I wanted to know.
MT: You have set your book back in 1968 on the day that Kennedy was shot -- why the historical setting?
LT: 1968 was a critical year for me. I was ten that year became properly aware of the outside world when Martin Luther King was shot. I heard the news on the radio while eating Shreddies! This was followed only weeks later by the assassination of RFK. I remember reading the paper and listening to the news with interest. These two incidents influenced my enduring interest in US politics. In my late teens I read about the civil rights movement and later still a considerable amount on the Kennedys.
In A Kind of Vanishing I used the killing Robert Kennedy as a symbol of lost hope and potential that affected the whole world: it was the end of an era. I contrasted his abrupt ‘absence’ with the loss of a young working class girl in a little village in the UK: literally the personal and the political. I also wanted to show the role of the media even then. The first event knocked the other out of the headlines. Years later the world still remembers Robert Kennedy’s shooting, but Alice Howland is long forgotten. Today Madeleine McCann’s parents understand the need for publicity only too well, and have worked hard to ensure her disappearance is getting sustained global attention. Part of Kath Howland’s learning process over the decades is when she recognises her comparative naivety and gullibility in the 1960’s both around class and the media. She thinks of this as another way in which she failed her child.
MT: How long did it take you to write your book?
LT: Actual writing time was probably about a year, but I was working while I wrote A Kind of Vanishing and so didn’t work on it consistently. I didn’t touch it for one year altogether because my work was so full on and in addition I was supporting my Mum who had Parkinson’s. However all this time the story was continually taking shape in my mind and being nourished and reshaped by my life and by what I was reading and thinking.
MT: How much background research did you do?
LT: I researched into the history of the Tide Mills, but besides this did very little reading for the story itself. It grew from my existing knowledge. I have read so much about the Kennedy family and their role in US politics that I needed only to check on dates and times, which involved minimal work. Aside from this I relied heavily on intuition. I have experienced the death of loved ones, so could this to imagine the trauma of losing a child. Although unless you have actually had this happen, there is no way you can truly describe how it is. In my early twenties I met a couple whose son had been killed in a road accident. He was their only child and I was terribly moved that they had lost the active role of being parents along with their boy. I am an only child and I became very aware of my own personal responsibility to keep safe for my parents’ sake.
I read Sandra Brown’s book after hearing her on the radio, but I wouldn’t call this research as I wasn’t about to write a novel on the subject at that point.
MT: How do you write Lesley? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
LT: I do some of all of the above. First sketches are scribbled in a notebook. I am obsessed with notebooks and cannot resist buying them. While the proverbial blank page on my laptop scares me into light housework, a clean sheet on a notebook presents an exciting mouth-watering prospect to me. I do the actual writing on my laptop, rarely referring to my initial hand-scrawled notes. I prefer a laptop to a computer as I can then write anywhere. Although once the story is underway and the panic has subsided I usually end up at my desk. I write fast and furiously and then revisit the text at a slower pace and rewrite some of it. Some chapters simply flow from my fingers and need little reworking.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
LT: I work to earn money as a copywriter and business development manager. I read - a wide variety of fiction and non fiction. I see my friends and family; I sit about thinking of the next story and fretting I’m not getting on with it. I don’t decorate my house, which needs it, nor do I do very much housework.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
LT: I don’t have an ideal reader – unless you count someone who reads this story in one sitting – which every book cries out for – and then tells their friends to buy it and do the same. Any reader is an ideal reader. I tried to write the kind of book I like to read myself. This is one you don’t want to put down and look forward to picking up again. I do write for an audience and see writing as a way of being in touch with people and beginning a dialogue. I only consider my characters to have come properly ‘alive’ when the book is published and has readers who might give them life.
MT: What are you working on now?
LT: A novel with the working title The Unwilling Detective about the daughter of a dead Chief Inspector who decides to investigate a murder that her father never solved. The connection with A Kind of Vanishing is place. This new story takes place in St Peter’s Square – where the Ramsays live. They make a brief appearance.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
LT: I don’t have a favourite writer, I read so much that I am always finding new writers who influence me. But Virginia Woolf remains consistently at the top of my chart. In a very loose way A Kind of Vanishing is a reworking of To The Lighthouse. Woolf’s story centres around the Ramsay family presided over by Mrs Ramsay, a powerful matriarch who dies halfway through the novel. She protects her family and those who come in touch with it – a preserver of an already vanishing world. Isabel Ramsay is in some ways the antithesis to the first Mrs Ramsay who continually absents herself from her family with headaches, but is quietly working to preserve her family from shame or harm. Another influence for this book and a writer I have liked since I was a student is E.M. Forster. The White House owes a lot to Howards End. Besides this I read loads of crime fiction and novel owes a big debt to the long hot summer of 1976 in A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
LT: Don’t talk about writing or wait for inspiration just get on with it. It’s hard work, be prepared to write rubbish initially, but keep going. Be critical of what you write, revisit it and be ready to toss out bits you think are great if others don’t think they work.
I don’t think about what sells in a conscious way, I write what matters to me and hope that this amounts to the same thing because it might matter to others too. As I said earlier, I write the kind of story I want to read. Finally, remember that loads of people have been writing for years so read continually as it will enrich your life along with your writing.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
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