SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author FIONA MITCHELL about Singapore, DOMESTIC HELPERS and ABANDONING BOOKS …
English writer Fiona Mitchell’s eye-opening first novel, The Maid’s Room, is a story that was aching to be told. Described by many readers as a modern day The Help, the book is set in Singapore, where Fiona lived for three years. In this vibrantly wealthy city, thousands of domestic helpers largely from the Philippines, as well as Indonesia and India, raise children of the privileged for low wages in a place they themselves could never afford to enjoy. Meanwhile, their own children sometimes don’t see their mothers for years at a time, while they dutifully send money home. Sadly, this situation has been the status quo for decades in the Far East, along with countless cases of exploitation. Thankfully, awareness is now being raised for the rights and dignity of domestic helpers, many for whom “live-in” roles have meant sleeping in a utility room – that’s only the start.
The Maid’s Room gathers ground when an anonymous blogger is found publicly naming and shaming domestic helpers in order to sabotage their prospects – until one gutsy member of their community takes matters into her own hands. Fiona’s refreshing and respectful prose gives voice to a nation of people that are often seen and not heard, and shines a light on a system that should have been challenged long ago. In preparation for her novel, she interviewed many women working as maids, who opened up to her about their treatment.
As well as a novelist, Fiona is an award-winning short fiction writer, journalist, blogger, editor and mentor. Plenty More Where You Came From won the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and UFO Dad was commended in the Yeovil Literary Prize, while Sea Gift was shortlisted for the 2016 Bristol Prize and published in the ninth anthology.
Her other short fiction credits include Black Lines and The Colour of Mud, which were published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volumes 7 and 8 respectively, and The Quiet Numb of Nothing in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2015.
Fiona Mitchell lives in London with her husband Mike Allan and their daughter Olivia. Her second novel, The Swap, will be published in April 2019, and she is currently writing her third.
The Maid’s Room (€18.95) is published by Hodder & Stoughton and available from bookshops nationwide.
I live in Teddington, Middlesex, which is a quiet, leafy London suburb beside the River Thames. It feels like living in the country and the city at the same time. I need my regular fix of central London energy which is just half an hour away on the train. I start most mornings with a run – aka slow jog – around Bushy Park. I don’t like the physical exertion much, but what I love are the deer, the wild rabbits, the ferns blowing in the breeze. It’s such a calming place to be. My favourite place for breakfast is Mada Deli near Hampton Court; it’s also a pretty good place to write, although I’m often distracted by other people’s interesting conversations. Sometimes I meet up with writer friends for a chat – and Francesca Jakobi, author of Bitter, has recently introduced me to a lovely little tea room called Rosie Chai in Twickenham. As well as having a spectacular array of teas, it also has inspirational quotes painted on the wall.
I was brought up in Wembley, northwest London, and the sound of distant cheering always takes me back. We lived two miles away from Wembley Stadium and sometimes, you could hear the crowds at the football. Ice cream was a huge feature of my childhood. My dad worked in an ice cream factory and the workers were allowed to take home a box full of ice cream every week. My dad would put the empty cardboard box onto the lawn and I’d watch as the dry ice melted, sending plumes of white smoke into the air. It was mesmerising.
I’ve got a little office with a new desk, so there’s a lovely smell of wood. There’s an enormous framed poster of The Maid’s Room on my desk, as well as a pile of my favourite books. I dip into them and read random sentences to get me in the mood before I write. I can’t deal with social media when I’m writing. It gets inside my head too much, so I force myself to turn off WiFi. I work for forty-five minute slots, award myself a short break then start again. There’s often a mug of tea on my desk and sometimes flowers. If I need to stretch my legs, I usually go into our conservatory which is a lovely place to be, especially when it’s raining as you can listen to the rain plinking against the glass in the roof.
My favourite bookshop is Waterstones in Richmond. They’ve been so supportive of my book, hosting my launch there and featuring it on a “reading group fiction” table. I love the upstairs café, and the staff are always so friendly.
On her “To Be Read” Pile
Publishers sometimes send me books and I’ve just finished How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee which will be published in spring 2019. It’s about a Singaporean girl forced to become a “comfort woman” to Japanese soldiers during World War Two. It was harrowing and deeply moving and I’m still in mourning for it. I want to read Clare Empson’s Him next, because it sounds so suspenseful and gripping. I’m also keen to have a look at Liane Moriarty’s new book – Nine Perfect Strangers. I’m hoping it’ll be a page turning read with a bit of wit thrown in.
My favourite place is Anna Maria Island in Florida. It’s quiet, beautiful and easygoing with stretches of sugar white sand. It’s also the place where I’ve set my next novel, The Swap. I love returning to Singapore too – I still miss it, and when I go back it feels like a homecoming. Closer to home, I always seem to find my peace in the library – people reading the papers, children listening to stories, and the rows and rows of books. Libraries are such a necessary part of our communities – they provide windows into other worlds, knowledge, escapism and they’re a balm to loneliness too.
My cousin has recently settled in Sandymount, so I hope to visit Dublin again very soon. I was lucky enough to have spent several weeks there after finishing university. My mum’s friend let me stay in her house in Stillorgan, so I went out every day, soaking up the atmosphere at Trinity College, and often climbing aboard buses to take me to all the amazing beaches. I fell in love with Killiney and Malahide.
It was my husband’s job that took us to Singapore and initially it was a bit of a culture shock – everything was different, the smells, the food, the light. I absolutely loved the vibrant colours and the humidity. Early on, I noticed that many people employed domestic helpers from countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and India. One day, I noticed a young woman in a café eating her food from a plastic box on a separate table to the family she was working for. She looked so alone. Many people treated their live-in domestic helpers well, but some casual comments astounded me. “I lock her passport away,” one expat told me. Another said, “I issue curfews so she doesn’t stay out too late.” It was as if the women were somehow lesser beings.
On domestic helpers
I remember one Sunday when the rain was bucketing down. I was walking along the road, drenched through, when this shiny black car drew up in front of some driveway gates. As I passed by, a domestic helper opened the gates and the bars cast shadows across her face. I saw domestic helpers shopping at the wet markets, looking after people in wheelchairs, playing with children. Of course they were earning money to support their families back home. But it seemed to me, if they had to live with their employers and their employers didn’t respect them, what might be happening behind closed doors?
On The Maid’s Room
I became pre-occupied with thinking about how we all make assumptions about people when we know little or nothing about them. I was on holiday in Sri Lanka watching a Pakistani family, thinking that the children looked so happy playing amid the fireflies as the sun set. I later learned that the father was a journalist who had been captured and tortured for writing a report about the intelligence service in Pakistan. It was half an hour after I found that out that I scribbled my first chapter. I was more inspired by Maggie O’Farrell’s work than The Help. In fact, when I started writing I hadn’t even read The Help. It was only later that I realised there were similarities. My book asks a question – what would you do if you wanted to be a mum but you couldn’t because you were thousands of miles away from your child, or because you suffered from infertility? In addition to this, just like The Help, The Maid’s Room also explores racism, albeit in a different time and place.
My worst moment was when several literary agents were reading my entire book at the same time. One by one they rejected me, one agent spelling out exactly what didn’t work for her. I knew I’d reached the end of the line with that book – I’d spent years writing it. I managed to scrape my bruised ego off the floor and come up with a new storyline for my characters Tala and Dolly. The high point arrived a year and a half later, when I signed with my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton.
Yes, I did abandon a book! While I was writing it, I spoke to a writer called Alice Clark-Platts who told me about the book she was writing called The Flower Girls. The basis of her story was similar to mine, but I knew we’d write in very different ways, so I wasn’t put off. Somehow though, I couldn’t commit to my story at all – I’m not very good at killing off children in books and this story hinged on that. Sarah Pinborough then published Cross Her Heart and although she writes in a different genre to me, my opening chapters seemed far too similar to hers. I gave up, but if I had really believed in my story, I would have battled through. Every writer has their own unique voice after all. I’m now working on a third book and although I find writing a first draft hard, I’m enjoying myself.
On what’s next
Well, my new book The Swap is out in April 2019. It’s about two women who undergo IVF and end up having their embryos swapped by mistake; they only find out almost four years later. I hope to complete this third book of mine, and I also want to carry on editing other people’s work and mentoring writers who need some encouragement to keep going.
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