Ninepins was published last week. The eponymous toll-house is in an isolated Fen village outside Cambridge. Standing just a little higher than the surrounding reclaimed flat land, it is home to Laura and her asthmatic twelve year-old, Beth. Laura lets the old pumping station to students, but this year she’s been let down, and instead takes in Willow, a young lass leaving local authority care. Willow brings new complications in her wake, including her social worker, Vince, and her mentally ill mother, Marianne.
Rosy Thornton gives us this intriguing set up with convincing detail about Laura’s ex-husband (new wife, three sons, dog), Beth’s life-threatening loss of breath, and the insecurity of year-on-year funding in academia. They are people I would like to know; I enjoyed sharing their lives for the months from September to spring.
At the heart of Ninepins is the notion of family: what and who are family, how much choice do we have as children and as adults, can a broken family be re-formed or replaced? In the book, you explore the twisted bonds of family but hardly use the word love. It’s there in Laura’s language with Beth, but otherwise hidden, almost fugitive. I thought this was a really clever approach because we get pulled in in to the unstated challenges, particularly between mothers and daughters. What drew you into writing about families that way?
I am very interested in fractured families because of my own personal experiences. Nine years ago my partner and I adopted our two daughters when they were already both of school age, and it has been, I must admit, a very rocky road. Sadly, for various reasons, neither of our girls is currently living with us, but we still see them all the time, are very much their parents and involved in their lives. Kids who have had many years in the care system bring with them all kinds of ‘baggage’ (as they say) and although the people and events of this book are entirely invented, I was interested to use a fictional vehicle to explore the question of whether and how a set of disparate individuals can form themselves into a functioning family – and what the hurdles are to be overcome.
As for not mentioning ‘love’ – that is a fascinating insight, Sarah, because it is not something which had occurred to me about the book. Like most parents I suppose, Laura – the mother in the novel – is constantly feeling her way with Beth, her daughter: needing to find ways of expressing her love, of putting it into practice, which won’t spark a rejection or smother her child. That’s one of the biggest challenges of parenting, isn’t it – the tension between your own feelings, which are so all-consuming, and the need to give your child, at every new stage, the independence and self-reliance she needs.
With an adopted child, of course, the difficulty is all the more pointed: no child of six or seven wants some complete stranger to seize fierce hold of her, physically and emotionally, on day one the way a birth mother enfolds her newborn. Both parent and child are feeling their way more tentatively towards a sense of belonging. I explore that tentativity perhaps most obviously in the novel through the slow-growing attachment between Laura and Willow, her teenage lodger.
Did that journey present you with any technical challenges, and how did you solve them?
I think the main challenge I faced was one of getting the balance right. I wanted to reader never to be quite sure, as the book progresses, whether Laura’s fears for Beth are real or imagined: whether she is just an over-protective, overanxious mother, or whether her daughter really is at risk in various ways. It was a very fine line to tread!
That worked really well. I was certainly unsure about how Beth’s behaviour put her at risk, or whether Laura was dramatizing the problems.
The landscape of the Fens is an extraordinary counterpoint, lifting the domestic dramas onto the bigger stage. I admired the way you used that panoramic background to tell the story. Do you think Laura’s story could have turned out the way it did in a gentler place, the wooded estates of the Upper Thames for example?
Absolutely not! I wanted the landscape, and the brooding feeling of menace which lurks within that landscape, to reflect Laura’s internal anxieties. The fens are land which should not be land at all. Before they were drained a few centuries ago, they would have been marsh and water, an extension of what is now the Wash. The pumps run constantly, and without them – or even in spite of them – the water lurks constantly just below the surface of the soil, waiting to rise up in flood and reclaim its former territory. I wanted Laura’s fears for her daughter to be the same: something unseen but always there just beneath the surface, even on the sunniest day, threatening to rise up and overwhelm her.
I am amazed at the fact that this is your fifth novel, when you are also a senior academic at Cambridge University with an impressive list of legal publications to your credit. How do you structure your time to make sure that you get it all done, as well as having your own family?
When the girls were living with us, especially, I’ll admit it was tough – and it’s still a challenge to fit everything in. A full-time job and a family mean that I do most of my fiction writing in the early mornings. When I’m working on a novel I tend to be very disciplined, and get up and write every day from 5.30 to 7 am! It’s the only peaceful moment of the day. I also ‘write’ in my head when I’m out walking the dogs in the fens – planning out the next scene, solving plot jams, or imagining exchanges of dialogue.
At Hazel Osmond’s blog you talk about transferable writing skills, and what writing about the law has taught for writing fiction, and indeed vice versa. I write a lot of policy and reports too, and find that a key lesson is to think about the audience. Who is likely to read this, and what do they need to know to make sense of it? What don’t they need, being only (using your phrase) just pretty puff with a nice sound to it? Who do you think is the audience for your novels, and do you think there’s any overlap with the legal work?
I suppose the readers I have in my head as I am writing are mainly women – and my books have generally been marketed as ‘women’s fiction’. The central characters in my books have all been women – I find them easier to write about than men – and I
find that the concerns and dilemmas of women’s lives are those which draw my attention as a writer. But I know that some men read my books, too, and I’m always pleased when I come across male readers.
As for whether there is an overlap between those who read my fiction and the audience for my legal writing – well, some of my students and colleagues have read my novels, and one or two have even remarked that they could hear the same voice in them as in my academic writing, some elusive voice which is identifiably me. A strange idea – because ‘voice’ is a notoriously difficult thing for an author to recognise for herself, in her own prose.
You have a site, and you’ve been launching Ninepins with various blog visits and events. I am honoured you came by this site too. The very best of luck with the book, and to Ipswich Town for the remainder of the season.
Thanks! And thank you very much, Sarah, for inviting me along to your blog – and for your fascinating questions.