I’d like to welcome the remarkable Maria Donovan to my blog today. Maria kindly gave me an in depth insight into her life and what inspired her novel, The Chicken Soup Murder. Full of humour and written with a big heart this is the book that will chase away your January Blues.
Michael lives with his nan in a little town near the sea with its magic hills and the three pebbled dashed semis in a long arc. But everything is turned upside down when the Bulls move in next door and Michael’s magical creative thinking lands him in trouble: why is he the only one who thinks a murder has been committed? Can we believe his story?
As Michael struggles to help himself and the people he cares for to move on, he learns about acceptance and grief, and to what happens to those who are left behind when a loved one dies.
I’ve been reading your blog Maria and what an amazing and varied life you have had. What was (or is)your favourite job and what is the best place you’ve lived in (or visited)?
My favourite job without question is being a writer. It’s all I have ever wanted to do, despite all the other jobs that came first. I’m glad of them though – it’s all experience and I’ve found something to enjoy in all of them. Working at other things just takes up a lot of time and now I want to spend it writing. I feel time is short.
Of the other jobs, I liked teaching creative writing at University, and made some great friends and met many creative people. It was an eye opener to me that I could do a job like that. Nursing is perhaps the most stressful job I’ve ever done but it taught me so much. After that, getting up on stage to perform in shows didn’t seem so daunting. Even now, I often remind myself, if I feel nervous about reading from my work or standing up and talking in front of people, that the possibility of making a bit of a twit of myself in public is really small beans.
I liked being a gardener and working out of doors too.
The best place I have ever lived is West Dorset and Bridport in particular. I don’t know what it is, maybe because I grew up here and I still see glimpses of Bridport as it was when I was small. I also loved experiencing life in Holland and the peace of rural Wales. And city life in Cardiff: I am a big fan of Bute Park. I used to walk my dog there every morning and it is such a vast beautiful space by the river in the heart of the city. It’s special. There’s a particular hilltop in Asturias too – I haven’t been there in 20 years but that was where I first spent day after day writing. I was stuck there in a small caravan and it felt great: to be finally doing the thing that I was meant to be doing – though it was such a struggle at first to get anywhere. I had to learn to finish what I started. Now I can’t keep up with myself and just need more and more time to write.
I also love New York. It’s so busy that I felt peaceful there. Knowing that life is flowing all around me seems to allow me to be quiet and get on with something no one else knows or cares about. Though I think if I lived in New York I’d have to write about living in New York!
The trouble with moving around and loving where you are is that you feel a sense of nostalgia for places you have once called home. But they exist in me – I like to put them into my writing as well. I’m also starting to feel nostalgic about places I might never visit.
How important and inspirational is a sense of place to your writing?
Very! Every place has something special about it and some places seem to lend themselves to a certain kind of writing. I often have real places in my fiction – it gives the characters a place to be and gives me a handle on how they feel and how they experience the world. I like to play with setting. In my short story ‘Harvest’, I put much of the love I feel for the Dorset coastline from Cogden to West Bexington. It was easy for me, in a story, to put a house where no house exists, above the Chesil Bank.
I also wrote several pieces of short fiction set in the house I lived in with my late husband, in Bethania, on a plateau above the sea in the fairly empty countryside south of Aberystwyth. In a half-written novel I moved the whole house to a hillside in Dorset and invented a Dorset village, found it a place on the map and had a fair idea of what the main street looked like.
I like to see the place in my mind and the people moving about in it. I’m also very interested in hill forts especially in West Dorset. Some of my poems are embedded in the Poetry Parks on Eggardon and Maiden Castle.
The world is a tremendously interesting place but in Dorset you don’t have to go far to find something fascinating and beautiful. I could spend the rest of my life exploring here. Having said that, the novel I’m working on now has a Dutch setting, at least to begin with. I do love bearing witness to how it is to be in a particular place at a particular time.
In the Chicken Soup Murder you explore grief in such a subtle but profound way. How important was it to write through your own grief when you lost your husband? Or could you write at all?
I always kept writing while Mike was ill even when that was just half an hour sitting by his bedside. I kept on with that novel I mentioned above. To me it’s soothing to write. I really need it. But after Mike died, it was even harder. I felt lost. I remember my dear tutor and mentor Rob Middlehurst said to a friend of mine when her brother died, ‘You’re going to find it hard to be creative for a while’ and so I was patient with myself. Besides that, I felt such an uproar of grief I really wanted to shout and scream, not measure out my words. Walking was the only thing that seemed to ease the pain at all. I made some fairly desperate recordings on those walks.
I didn’t continue with that novel set in an imaginary Dorset village – my first attempt at a murder mystery. I just couldn’t inhabit that world any more or go back to seeing things through the eyes of those characters. Maybe I could now but some works are really of their time (or where you are as a person) and you’d better write them quick before their time has passed. Short fiction is so handy for that but it’s great to have the space in a novel to explore the surroundings and what they mean to the characters.
It was tricky for a while, after Mike died, to write anything, for practical reasons too. The way things had worked out, we had been moving house at Mike’s request when he died and I was effectively homeless. You really need your own space to write and I feel for anyone who doesn’t have that basic comfort of a warm quiet safe place to sit. Often, I did have that, but I was staying in other people’s houses and had to pick my moments.
Then I became ill too and in the midst of that I was supposed to fulfil a commission to write a short story for New Welsh Review. I had major surgery and didn’t know how I would manage but was persuaded to carry on. I am so glad I did it. That story was ‘Slaughterhouse Field’. It was set in a real place, a caravan park-up, where I spent some of my time in Holland. I am grateful for that experience now because it made me realise I could nearly always produce something. And that it was better to try. Deadlines are invaluable.
When I moved back to our house in Bethania after a year or so, I spent a lot of time there on my own. I wrote some short fiction that really mirrored how I was feeling myself, so when it came to writing a novel I wanted to move away from my perspective. That’s how I end up, in The Chicken Soup Murder, with a first-person narrator, Michael, a boy of eleven going on twelve. It’s the other end of the telescope.
The nub of the story is a true incident: my husband once nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. That was years ago, long before he became ill, while we were still living in West Dorset, before we moved to Wales. I always said I would write something about it – but had no idea what. The whole genesis of the novel derives from being a tribute to him, fulfilling a kind of promise, and trying to see what my experience of grieving looked like from the outside – though Michael is grieving too, of course. The element of solving the mystery helped to keep me going, as I hope it does for the reader, but that became just one part of what the novel is about.
In my own grief, I felt some kind of longing to be like Janey’s mum, who simply refuses to ‘move on’ or even get dressed. But responsibilities to others are important too – people need to see that you’re going to be all right, so you try. Writing is like that too. You either give up or you carry on and do your best.
I loved Michael and his view of the world. So genuine and perceptive. Did you have any difficulty revisiting the sense of what it was like to be a child of eleven?
It wasn’t difficult to remember being that age: I’m glad I had a chance to revisit how I felt back then and express some of that interior life. There didn’t seem to be a way to speak about it in the real world at that time.
I needed to update those experiences too: luckily I had younger family members to turn to. It’s probably then that I first heard the term ‘resilience’ being used in the context of giving children coping skills. If I wondered about such things as whether a child of the times would think in yards or metres, it was good to be able to ask.
I did my share of observing behaviour too. That’s one of the things that makes writing so enjoyable. The smallest encounters can teach you something you need to know and if you know what you want to write about then your attention is drawn to those things that will help you understand your characters.
You firmly anchored your story in 2012 by using the Olympics and other sporting events. What made you decide to use a particular year and why 2012?
It started because I began writing The Chicken Soup Murder in 2012 and wanted to keep myself on track by writing a novel that took place in real time. I soon found myself slipping behind though, because I wasn’t entirely sure of the route the novel was taking. I ended up keeping a very detailed diary of things that were going on (including the weather, events, cricket scores, even the cricket commentary) so that I could go back and use what I needed when I knew where it would fit in. I remember 2012 quite well because I kept these close records and lived through it over and over while writing and editing the novel. There was so much that I had to leave out, things that weren’t right for the narrative. I tried to be strict about that.
I wanted the characters to be of their time and of their world so that they would respond as real people would to outside events. It was a very wet year and that was grim and yet there were highlights: there was a sense of hope (and a wee bit of sunshine) around the time of the London Olympics, for instance. Michael learned that if you had talent and showed dedication and weren’t held back by fear of failure, you could possibly do great things. The idea that you really ought to do your best somehow – that rubbed off on him. There are times when he felt like giving up but he really was inspired to carry on.
Also, the cricket in the background – if anyone is interested, you can work out the timing of events according to the commentary – is meant to show a continuity, a kind of reassuring comforting life going on outside of the events that affect the main characters in the novel. But there’s something else too that I think people notice when they are grieving: this odd sense that everything is carrying on just as before, while for you everything has changed. Sometimes we feel connected to each other through sharing common events, but when your world stops and everything carries on regardless it can feel quite lonely. The novel is partly about re-engaging: the characters, who have these bereavements in common, coming to an understanding of each other’s needs. It sounds so serious – but there are humorous moments too. It’s inevitable, because life is funny and strange, and new things happen whether we want them to or not.
I think of Michael, Janey and Melissa in particular, who were a certain age in 2012 and it bothers me sometimes that I know how old they would be now – and I keep thinking about what they would be doing! I wonder how they’re getting on without me.