Beth Morrey is a former TV producer who now writes full-time. She has previously been shortlisted for the Grazia-Orange First Chapter Award, and she had her work published in the Cambridge and Oxford May Anthologies while at university. Her first novel, Saving Missy is published on 6 February.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
As a child, I was a big L. M. Montgomery fan, and was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables. I loved the writing style – chatty, droll and dense with detail.
I also adored Sue Townsend and read the Adrian Mole diaries over and over again. Such vivid characterisation and warmth. Later on, I got into Nick Hornby and really liked his pared-down prose – straightforward and easy to read, but by no means simple. About a Boy was a huge influence.
2. I read somewhere that you wrote this book while looking after a newborn. Is this something you would recommend?
I had a newborn when I wrote the book, but I was not looking after him when I wrote it. My husband and I were lucky enough to be able to afford childcare a couple of days a week at the end of my maternity leave, so I was able to have the time and space to write.
I hugely admire people who juggle childcare and writing – it’s tough. I did tap out Chapter 17 with one hand while the other held my son’s as he watched TV. But mostly when I was writing, I was child-free, and really valued that time to myself.
3. Can you give Suffolk readers a brief flavour of what to expect from your new book Saving Missy?
Saving Missy is about a prickly, lonely old woman who has lost or severed connections with her family, and is also disconnected from society. The story is about how she reconnects, and comes to terms with her life choices. Told partly in flashback, the book plays out against the backdrop of twentieth-century history – big events like the Second World War, but also smaller historic occurrences like the party where Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes, or the Cambridge Garden House riots of 1970.
Primarily, it’s a love story, but not in the conventional sense. It’s about how love affects our lives in different forms – not just romantic love, but parental, platonic, and even love for a pet. Missy’s story explores her thorny relationship with her husband, but also her friendship with two women, her estrangement from her daughter, and her falling in love - with a dog. But ultimately, it’s about how she grows to forgive, accept and love herself.
It’s a coming-of-old-age story, showing it’s never too late to change, never too late to want something better. I set out to try and make people cry in a happy way, and I hope that’s what the book does.
4. It is great to see a book with an older heroine that touches on themes like loneliness. How did the character of Missy take shape in your imagination and grow?
I loved Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller and was particularly drawn to the distinctive voice of Barbara Covett – such a waspish narrator. I was intrigued by the idea of a Barbara who could be redeemed through the kindness of others. That was how the character of Missy started – a ‘nice’ Barbara. But I spent months not writing a thing, just hearing her voice in my head, working her out.
I was interested in loneliness because it’s obviously a huge problem that affects all sections of society, but perhaps elderly people suffer more than most. There’s a pride in the older generation – a stoicism – that perhaps makes it more difficult to talk about.
5. Is there anything you can share about your next project?
I am currently working on Book 2 and it’s really hard! I’m writing under such different circumstances. It’s a story about education, but in the broadest possible sense – about making life better for yourself, widening your horizons, learning new things. I feel extremely lucky to be able to go to my writing café every day and add a little more to it. But there are days when I want to put the whole thing in the bin.
6. Have you ever read a book that changed your life or made you look at things differently?
I think every book I read does that, on some level. But the one that springs to mind is Watership Down, by Richard Adams. My dad read it to me when I was a child, and there was a moment when I picked up on something tiny in the description – I think it was a fly buzzing in the background. The tremendous draw of that detail made me hope that one day I might write a book and use detail like that.
7. Do you have a message for your readers here in Suffolk?
The idea that my book is stocked in libraries in Suffolk and might get picked up by someone and taken home – for free! – is an utter delight to me. I adore libraries, spent so much time in them as a child, and now take my own children to our local library. They are precious places and they need to be protected at all costs. So my message would be to use, enjoy and celebrate your local library.
8. Can you tell us one thing your readers may not know about you?
I have very straight, boring hair and I’m obsessed with it being curly. So a lot of my characters have curly hair.