Imagine being told your first novel wasn’t a first novel after all? Mind you, given the extraordinary range of Mavis Cheek’s incredibly popular novels, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that she defied categories from the start.
In interviews, she is frank with her own autobiography and fearless in using parts of it in her fiction. But not always, of course. She’s a writer who keeps readers on their toes. And being equally fleet of foot, it seems, is what sustains her as a novelist.
Enjoy leaping from book to book as Mavis answers my questions …
- What was the first book you wrote?
My first book was Pause Between Acts – condemned by the then head honcho of Michael Joseph as ‘not a first novel’ – which threw me completely. Apparently first novels were supposed to be either autobiographical or a roman a clef. What she didn’t spot in mine was that I was writing against the grain – about the possibilities of solitude and quiet – because I was living with five people including a brand new baby when I wrote it … and it was a fantasy of peacefulness. Also pretty funny.
- For which book would you like to be remembered?
Probably Janice Gentle Gets Sexy which was my fourth book and my first proper novel – and I loved writing it – to my very great joy it is the one more than any other that my readers refer to as being their favourite. Though Amenable Women comes a close second.
- Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
Not abandoned but had to change my mind on fundamentally – and that was Sleeping Beauties. I began it as a satire on the beauty business but as I went further and further into it I found that what went on woman to woman in the salon and the beauty parlour was part of a very ancient practice for well-being – and had to change my whole approach. I did want to write a book about a successful couturier, gay, Cape Coloured living in the heart of Mayfair and thinking about going home to South Africa. I began it but had a computer meltdown and lost the ten thousand or so words – so that was that. It’s still buzzing about somewhere in my field of possibility. It’s based on one of my dearest friends who is a Cape Coloured and who did return after Mandela’s release. But he’s not a couturier.
- Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
After Amenable Women I was asked over and over again if I would write another historical novel – and I doubt I ever will. I’d have to love my character enough to write a whole novel (which is damned hard work and hopeless if you don’t care) and I don’t have anyone in mind. It might happen one day that someone will swim to the surface. Never say never.
- Which book do you believe should have fared better?
I thought Truth to Tell might have done better – mind you, it had little promotion and not much effort to get it out for review etc. – but I know that people who read it liked it a lot – and the idea of how lying is in our social fabric no matter how hard we try to be honest is an interesting one that affects us all.
- Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
I think I was taken by surprise when Mrs Fytton’s Country Life did so well. I really wanted to write it but I struggled over it – so I think I was unsure about whether it quite worked or not. But it has sold loads. And – a bit like Janice Gentle – people mention it to me quite often as being the one they have read.
- What book do you wish you’d written?
How long have you got? Most of the work by the great 19C novelists – Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Thackeray, Gaskell – but of the contemporary world I’d single out two – Love in the Time of Cholera – Marquez just gets to the heart of love, age, women, sex and desire so wonderfully well – I loved every bit of that book. And up-to-the-minute I (and everyone I have given it to or recommended it to) was absolutely gripped by Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a masterly taking of unlikely material – (Oh come on – the story of the last woman in Iceland to be executed for murder? Set in 1828? You could hardly get a less seductive possibility) – and yet she makes it page-turning and instantly re-readable. If you have not read it – do.
- What are you writing now?
Just finished a novel about a woman who finds the world so bleak and unedifying that she decides, on the basis of someone doing it in a biography she reads, to go to bed for the rest of her life. It’s been hard slog as there are two narratives – the contemporary one is quite funny and shows how the woman manages to withdraw herself – and there is also the serious story behind the biography which is set from the ‘Twenties through to the ‘Fifties and based in Ireland. Phew. So currently I’m not writing a thing. But that won’t last very long …
Make sure you visit Mavis’s website, here – there’s fascinating biography, background details to her many novels, and FREE short stories. Here’s a link to a video discussing Mavis’s first historical novel, Amenable Women, mentioned above. And, although it’s from 2002 (several books ago), I enjoyed this profile in the Guardian – you might, too.