I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’
‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.
Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:
‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.
Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’
After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.
You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?
I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.
So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.
I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.
What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?
The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.
Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?
Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!
If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?
I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.
Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?
I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.
And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.
What are you writing now?
While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.
When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!
More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.