What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor, which is about a little boy who sees the world through a pinhole and his quest to expose the sinister nursing home housing his grandmother, was published in paperback last week. In between playing this addictive What Milo Saw game, we caught up with Virginia to learn a little bit more about her writing process, her journey to publication and what she calls her 'cauldron' of inspiration.
I love writing about contemporary life so I magpie ideas from everyday life: an old man with a yellow cap that I speak to on the bus to Reading (see Petros in What Milo Saw); my neighbour sitting in her hot tub in her back garden; a news item about nursing homes on the radio; my little girl, Tennessee, jumping out of her skin when a dog barks; conversations I have with my husband; lots of eavesdropping in coffee shops. All these ideas get thrown into a cauldron to which I add a good dose of imagination and out bubble my characters and my stories.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
My baby girl has thrown everything into chaos so now I write in fits and starts – the minute her eyelids grow heavy I grab my pen! But in the days before Tennessee, this was the pattern: 7am wake-up, bowl of porridge, Radio 4, a few hours of writing at my desk overlooking the garden; a power walk (idea-fusing time); a bowl of soup and a bit of bread for lunch; a walk to town; more scribbling in Reading’s Costa Waterstones with the prop of a biscotti and a skinny, extra-hot latte; bus home – a good opportunity for reading; dinner with my husband, Hugh, talking about his day (magpieing more ideas) and telling him about my writing (he’s a great sounding board) and then settling down to a DVD box set. American TV series (The West Wing, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Six Feet Under etc.) are masterclasses in plot and character. And then, to bed by 11pm with some more reading.
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
I’m inspired by ordinary people with all their quirky qualities and flaws. I want my novels to be about the everyday: our lives are sufficiently dominated by celebrities who, in most cases, strike me as everything but ‘real’. So, everyone I meet inspires me – and strangers tend to inspire me more than people I know well as they leave gaps for the imagination.
That said, I am currently working on a biography of my mother and her identical twin sister (Strangely Close): they hitchhiked through the 20th century and had the most extraordinary encounters and experiences – my mother danced with Jacques Cousteau, shook Salvadore Allende’s hand before he was assassinated and exchanged letters with President de Gaulle.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I love The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: a glorious novel, beautifully written and full of wonderfully real characters. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different woman: a mother and her four daughters. They recount their move from America to the Congo with a husband and father crazed by his commitment to religion and his status as a preacher. Kingsolver brilliantly fuses the ups and downs of ordinary family life within an extraordinary setting.
What female writer has inspired you?
The Canadian writer, Carol Shields, who sadly died of cancer far too young. The first time I read one of her novels I thought, ‘this is how I’d like to write’: simply but intelligently, tackling big ideas through the every day. I also love Anne Tyler and, on this side of the Atlantic, Maggie O’Farrell. And then there’s the amazing Toni Morrison who brings together poetry and prose in her beautiful and harrowing novels. Was I only meant to choose one?
Can you give us three book recommendations?
Only three? That’s mean. But here we go – and I thought I’d better mention some male authors.
Wildlife by Richard Ford
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon Mcgregor
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (half way through and loving it)
I start with the germ of an idea and an opening scene. Then I mind map each scene before I write it in a special notebook (a different colour for each novel). I also create long character profiles as a way of getting to know them on a more intimate level – things that may never come out in the novel but that I need to know so that I can inhabit them and write them authentically: things like what they eat for breakfast and what kinds of shoes they wear and what they’d take from a burning house. I work chronologically, from beginning to end, and then go back to the beginning and edit, cut, flesh out. When I’ve plucked up enough courage to show it to someone I share it with my husband, Hugh, and with my mother: once I’ve got their initial impressions I do another edit and then pass it on to my agent, Bryony. She is a wonderful editor and understands my writing like no one else. Once we’ve gone through a few drafts together we send it to my publisher, Manpreet. And then I sit on my hands and cross my fingers and my toes and hope that she’ll like it and want to publish it! And then there’s more editing…
What was your journey to being a published author?
I’ve written stories since I was a little girl – it was my way of escaping a rather chaotic, ramshackle family. In my school yearbook, next to ‘person most likely to,’ I have the comment, ‘be in the window display in Blackwell's’ (I grew up in Oxford). And then the sensible bit of life took over: university, teacher training, building my career as an English teacher and a Housemistress. I kept writing but never gave myself the time to really learn the craft and write enough to produce something saleable. Until I met my husband, Hugh, who encouraged me to take a year out of teaching and to do nothing but write. So that’s what I did. I started by writing Young Adult fiction and, through that, found my wonderful agent, Bryony Woods. Unfortunately, I hit the Young Adult wave a little late and she hasn’t been able to place these novels yet. She did, however, find a home for What Milo Saw, which I wrote in a few months, very much from the heart, as I was waiting for publishers to respond to my YA work. That’s one of the nuggets of advice I would pass on to any would-be-novelist: keep scribbling and try writing in different genres and for different audiences – eventually, you’ll find your voice, and so your publisher and your readers. Manpreet Grewal, my editor at Sphere of Little, Brown, took on Milo and helped me to shape it into the wonderful story that it is now. I secured a two book deal and so spent most of this year writing the novel that will follow Milo: the submission deadline was the same day as my little girl was due, which felt wonderfully symbolic. People say I’m lucky but I’ve never been a big believer in luck: I’ve worked hard and haven’t stopped writing and have knocked on doors and taken advice: that is what has paved my way to becoming a published author.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That you have to be struck by the thunderbolt of inspiration before you can sit down and write. It’s a job: you learn the skills and put in the hours. Of course you need to have a degree of ability – you choose a job because you’re good at it – but more than anything, you need to plant your backside on a chair and write, write, write.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Be curious about everything. Read lots. Write. And write some more. And never give up – be tenacious and if one novel doesn’t grab anyone’s attention, write another, and another. And don’t be afraid of trying new things.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m editing the novel that will follow What Milo Saw. We are still playing with titles: Home Again, Finding Mum, On The Sunny Side Of The Street… It’s the story of a mum who walks out on her family for seven years and then turns up again, out of the blue when her children have grown up and her husband has moved on. The novel starts with her standing on the doorstep of her old home, just about to ring on the doorbell. The novel takes place over a May bank holiday and, like Milo, is told from several points of view. I’m also working on a piece of narrative non-fiction: Strangely Close, the story of my mother and her twin sister’s journey through the twentieth century: from post-war Berlin to America in the swinging 60s, to the student riots in Paris – and much, much more.