I am very pleased to have fellow Edinburgh Writers’ Club member Mairi Wilson on my blog to answer questions about her debut novel Ursula’s Secret which was published in November 2015 by Black and White Publishing.
Desperate to find out if she has any surviving family, Lexy travels to Africa hoping she can unravel the mystery she’s now tormented by, only to find that she’s stumbled into a past full of lies and deceit and that her life is in grave danger.
Mairi –I think Ursula’s Secret is a thrilling read and beautifully written – congratulations on its publication.
Thanks, Kate! Thanks too for inviting me to your blog – lovely to be here.
And congratulations on winning the Sunday Mail Fiction Prize which led to the publication of Ursula’s Secret! Could you tell us more about that? Was your manuscript complete when you submitted it?
And thanks again, Kate. I don’t think anyone could have been more surprised than I was to win the prize – it was an unbelievable piece of luck and I couldn’t be more grateful to those judges. And actually, a big thank you to you too, as I seem to remember that it was from one of your Club updates that I first heard about the competition.
I’d been away on a writers’ retreat in Spain at Casa Ana which I’d first discovered through another EWC member (thanks, San) and for the first time, after three years of writing scenes out of sequence and tinkering with the same bits over and over to avoid moving on to the scenes I knew would be difficult to write, I’d finally cobbled together a rough but full draft. The deadline was just a day or two after I returned so I entered on impulse, with no expectation at all of winning, but in part to justify having had the time away and also because Black and White Publishing had undertaken to read every manuscript. I hoped eventually that might give me a way in when I had a final draft ready to submit.
When I was shortlisted and asked if I had a full manuscript the answer was of course yes – and I spent all that night going through stripping out all the ‘notes to self’ about needing more description here, rewriting this, changing that, and deleting my dozens of footnotes. Each one was deleted individually because by the time I got to those I was so tired I’d completely forgotten about the ‘delete all’ option.
How did you come up with the story? And what came first – the characters or the plot?
Characters are usually first for me and so it was with Ursula’s Secret. The story started to percolate years ago when I was living in London and my elderly neighbour, who had been Matron at the local hospital, ended up back there as a patient in the geriatric ward. Even given the little I knew of her, if she’d had any awareness of what was happening to her, I was sure that would have been the final humiliation.
The story started because I was thinking about what she must have been like in her prime. I was doing an OU creative writing course at the time and had to do a memoir assignment so I wrote about her (she’d become convinced I was spying on her and trying to murder her so sadly I had plenty of material). From there, I developed a short story and then that grew into the idea for the novel, which in its final incarnation bears no resemblance to any of the above, but that’s fiction for you.
I started off with a basic idea for a romance but it’s not a genre I read often and, I’ve discovered, it’s a genre that’s much harder than it looks to write. I read family sagas and most commercial women’s fiction but have a particular soft spot for thrillers and crime so no real surprise that the story started to take a more sinister turn. I was probably about 75% of the way through when it all stalled, though. I thought at first I’d just become bored with it so should keep pushing through, but the plot felt incomplete. And then, bingo! Another character turned up late in the day and it all started to slot into place.
There’s a great sense of place in the book – both when Lexy is in Scotland and when she’s in Malawi. I understand that you’ve never been in Africa so how did you manage to evoke it so brilliantly?
No, I haven’t been to Africa and that worried me. I’d thought I might go this autumn but then the book was about to be published and there was no time so I had to use guide and history books and the internet. There’s an amazing amount of information tucked away online - ornithologists’ blogs, newspaper archives, botanical societies. Clues and details came from all sorts of unlikely sources. I would still like to visit Malawi one of these days but am slightly concerned that I’ll find I’ve got some details wrong, although no doubt someone will point out my mistakes before that. My defence is...it’s fiction!
I don’t want to give too much away – but there’s a heart-stopping scene when Lexy gets up close to a scary creature in Malawi … I’m wondering if you acted that out in your kitchen to try and follow her movements?!
I don’t think my kitchen table would take the strain so no, I didn’t act that particular scene out. I drew instead on memories of playing ‘round the world’ at school – we had to get round the room without touching the floor and to make it more challenging we’d push desks further apart – and I also used that sensation of leaning back on two legs of a chair until it almost falls over. It was that feeling of being right at the tipping point that I was trying to capture in that scene. It was very hard to write, though, and probably the scene I least enjoyed researching. I prefer my wildlife cute and fluffy.
The book is set in Scotland and Malawi, and in two time frames, plus you spin things out so that the reader is kept on their toes with new revelations right to the end. It must have been a challenge to work out the structure – how did you go about it?
Yes, it was a challenge, and I’d no idea when I started out just how much tricky it was going to be. I wanted to make both the present and the past equally interesting and compelling so it was like writing two novels in one. I did consider only writing the story that takes place in the 1950s but quickly dismissed that as what interested me most was how something in the past could have such huge repercussions generations later.
I didn’t work out the structure in advance and experimented with different options as I went, getting increasingly frustrated with it all. The breakthrough came when I realised it was Lexy’s story, so the narrative thread had to stay with her. That meant following Lexy’s quest for truth so the reader discovers things as she does, feels the frustration and confusion she feels when first bombarded with names, dates and no answers, and then gradually the reader begins to make sense of it all just as Lexy does.
One advantage of two time frames was that when one storyline needed a ‘breather’ I could switch to the other, although that brought its own problems. How do you show the reader that the scene that’s happening ‘live’ on the page in the past is being shared with Lexy? Finding credible ways to segue from present to past was one of the hardest parts of writing this novel, but I think it would have become tedious to have had Lexy discover everything simply by reading Ursula’s papers.
How have you enjoyed all the publicity and promotion associated with winning the prize and the publication of Ursula’s Secret?
Well, mixed response to that, really. Like most writers, I’d probably prefer to keep my head down but that’s just not an option if I want to give the book the best chance it can possibly have to get into readers’ hands. I’ve given myself a talking to about ‘getting over myself’ and it’s becoming more enjoyable now. The launch event itself, once we got underway, was great. I knew most of the people there so it was like having an extended conversation with friends, and after the first time, of course it gets easier.
When publication was just a distant dream, I’d considered hiding behind a pseudonym but winning the competition meant things moved very quickly and I’d done an interview for the Sunday Mail in my own name before I could do anything about that. With hindsight I’m glad; it’s much simpler to be myself and not pretend to be someone or something I’m not. I’m fortunate too that in a previous life I had to do a lot of presentations and so on, so I’ve become quite good at concealing my nerves. They don’t ever go away but it helps if you can tell yourself other people probably don’t realise how nervous you are.
Who are your favourite authors and have any of them influenced your own writing?
Every single book I’ve ever read must have influenced me, but of course I have favourite authors like Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Jessie Burton, Lesley Glaister, Ken Follett, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and on and on through to Ian Rankin, Ann Cleeves and a whole slew of crime and thriller writers, and for years essential summer holiday reading was always the latest Robert Goddard. I’m not aware of direct influence from any one particular author but inevitably I’ll have absorbed something from all of them.
Do you have a writing routine and what are you working on now?
No, no writing routine. I work better late in the day - I’m a wonderful procrastinator so maybe that’s why – and I don’t write every day, although most days I’ll try to think about the story at least, even if only fleetingly. I’ve discovered it’s really important to keep it alive in your head. Otherwise one day away becomes two, then three and before I know it weeks might have passed and getting back into the story then becomes a daunting prospect, and that’s why Ursula’s Secret took me three years to write.
For the novel I’m working on now, I started with a very clear idea of three of the characters and a very vague idea for a plot so I sketched an outline and set to work with the objective of getting the story down as quickly as possible. I got through to about 70000 words and then stopped, By then I knew the story I wanted to tell so needed to recap and refine storylines and characters. I’ll probably end up cutting the first 15-20000 words as the story has evolved into something very different along the way, but I’m happy to do this as it feels right. I sometimes don’t know what I’m going to write until it’s written and that inevitably means there will be some degree of ‘wastage’ but then, who was it who said all writing is really rewriting?
This next one is set in Spain – a county I know well and which is a lot easier to visit for research than Malawi . The story centres on two women who meet and become friends when they both go there to study the language and to leave difficult pasts behind. When one of them disappears the other sets out to find her and gets caught up in an underworld of flamenco, crime and revenge. I’m really enjoying working on it and, purely in the interests of research, I’ve started flamenco classes and feel compelled to consume tapas and Spanish wine as often as possible.
Do hurry up and finish it! Thank you for answering my questions.
Buy Ursula's Secret here
Find out more about Mairi:
(with links to some YouTube interviews)
Mairi Wilson Writer on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Mairi-Wilson-Writer-1639028853036099/)