How would you describe Mother Island to a reading group?
That’s a really hard one. I always get a feeling of panic whenever anyone asks me what something I’m working on is about, because for much of the writing process, I don’t really know the answer to that question! And even when you’ve finished a novel it can be hard to take a step back and observe it dispassionately enough to be able to see what kind of book it is. For Mother Island, though, I had a line ready and prepared. If someone asked me what I was writing, I’d say: “A novel about a nanny who steals a child,” and I’d pull a (mildly ironic) how-exciting-is-that face. And it’s true: Mother Island is about a nanny, called Maggie, who one day decides that the best thing for everybody will be for her to take the little boy she’s supposed to be looking after, Samuel, to live with her in a remote boathouse on the island of Anglesey. It’s complicated by the fact that Samuel’s mother, Nula, is Maggie’s cousin, and the two women share a family secret. Which does make it sound like a thriller, I suppose. But it’s also, I hope, a novel that looks hard at what it means to be a mother, what it’s like to try to be an artist, and fail, and how it feels to pose naked for your uncle in a boathouse. So there’s something for everyone…
What inspired you to write Mother Island?
The novel began with the place. The island of Anglesey, in north Wales, is where my father was born and raised, and where I spent many summers as a child. I’d wanted to write about it for a long time. I grew up in the very English, completely landlocked, town of Abingdon, and Anglesey felt very exotic to me, as a child. There were the moody mountains, just across the Menai Strait, the ever-changing blue of the Strait itself, the elegant Menai bridge, the moan of sheep, ancient castles and standing stones everywhere you looked… Even a visit to the local Wavy Line to buy a packet of Chewits was a challenge because everyone spoke Welsh. And my father became strange, in a way, because he spoke Welsh, too. So I always had a feeling of belonging and not belonging, of being slightly on the outside of things, looking in to this odd, fascinating, beautiful, slightly menacing – and yet familiar – world. I suspect that feeling is a very useful place from which to begin writing.
Not long before I started writing, I’d also had my first (and only) child. It was a completely life-changing experience for me, so I wanted to write about the difficulties and joys and dramas and surprises of motherhood, too.
Place, in particular Anglesey, is a key theme in Mother Island. Do you find writing about place dictates the way your stories are told?
I think it dictates the story itself, in a lot of ways. Place is certainly vital for me. Nothing happens nowhere. I often find that, until I know where I’m writing about, I don’t have a story. I think I’m particularly interested in where characters are placed – in a landscape, a society, a community, a family – and what that means for them, how they work with and against that.
Were there any key themes you were hoping to explore, or did the themes emerge organically?
I never think in terms of themes when I’m writing, I just think in terms of characters and situations, and try to go into those as deeply as I can. So themes do emerge organically. Having said that, I’d just gone through a very difficult pregnancy and first year of new motherhood, so those things were certainly on my mind when I started to write. I do remember thinking, when I was employing a part-time nanny for my son, how strange and uncomfortable and interesting the whole process of childcare was. On the one hand I couldn’t wait to hand my boy over – I longed to get back to writing. But on the other, I hated letting him go. Throughout that whole couple of years, I constantly found myself colliding with my own and society’s expectations of what childbirth and motherhood were about. Nothing was as I’d thought it would be, or how I’d been told it would be. I wanted to explore those complexities in the novel.
What does it mean to you to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning author?
It’s absolutely brilliant; I feel really privileged. Mother Island came out to very few reviews and poor sales, which was really disheartening. The prize has given me a big confidence boost, and made me feel that it’s worth continuing to try to have some sort of writing career.
Do you think there are any characteristics that define British fiction writing?
Oh Lord, I don’t know! I certainly think British fiction writing is extremely diverse, and the books that actually get published (and publicised properly) don’t always reflect that diversity, which is a shame.
Can you recommend a contemporary British fiction writer?
I could recommend loads, but one I do think everyone should read, right now, is Andrew Cowan. He’s a remarkable novelist. All his books are worth reading, but I would particularly recommend Crustaceans, which is a quiet, restrained, domestic, exquisitely written and completely devastating novel about the loss of a child.
And finally, do you have any works in progress that we should watch out for?
I’ve just finished writing a five-part radio drama for the BBC Radio 4 strand, ‘Writing the Century’. It’s based on the diaries of an extraordinary woman named Monica Rawlins, who was an artist and goose breeder. She lived in a very remote farmhouse near Aberystwyth, which she bought with her German divorcee lover not long after WWII. The drama focuses on her life there during the 1950s, when she was bullying her neighbours, tending her geese, struggling to come to terms with living alone, and not fulfilling her artistic ambitions. That should be on Woman’s Hour very soon.
And I’m currently researching a novel based on the life of Elvis Presley. (Well, someone’s got to.)
Bethan Roberts was born in Abingdon. Her first novel The Pools was published in 2007 and won a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers’ Award. Her second novel The Good Plain Cook, published in 2008, was serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and was chosen as one of Time Out’s books of the year. My Policeman, the story of a 1950s policeman, his wife, and his male lover, followed in 2012, and was chosen as that year’s City Read for Brighton. Her latest novel, Mother Island, is the recipient of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize. She also writes short fiction (she has won the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Prize and the RA Pin Drop Award), and drama for BBC Radio 4. Bethan has worked in television documentary, and has taught Creative Writing at Chichester University and Goldsmiths College, London. She lives in Brighton with her family.