Today I get to welcome Clare Furniss, who’s debut novel The Year of The Rat has just come out in paperback ready to break a whole new host of hearts, to talk about mother-daughter relationships.
I’m often asked whether my novel The Year of The Rat is autobiographical. It’s not; Pearl, the teenage narrator of my story, is coping with the death of her mum in childbirth and her relationship with her baby sister Rose, who survived. My own mum is alive and well, and I’m an only child, so Pearl’s story is definitely not mine. And yet central to the story is a mother-daughter relationship and I am a mother and a daughter myself, so I suppose inevitably I’ve drawn on my own experiences.
It feels really fitting that my debut novel should be a story about mother-daughter relationships because my own mum is a big part of the reason I’m a writer. She’s an avid reader herself and as a teacher was passionate about literacy and not only getting kids reading but also loving books. She always made sure I had brilliant books to read when I was a kid and later as a teenager. Young Adult books weren’t really a ‘thing’ then in the way they are now, back in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was a teenager, but the beginnings of it were there. Mum gave me books by Judy Blume, Margaret Mahy, Berlie Doherty and Jan Mark to name just a few, and I can feel the influence of these books in what I write now. She also, more recently, gave me Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, which was one of the books that made me decide I really was going to give writing a try.
She’s always been incredibly supportive of my writing, and from a practical point of view made it possible by looking after my own kids once a week while I studied for my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, where I wrote The Year of The Rat. She’s also a tactful editor and a brilliant copy editor. I talked through plot issues with her when I got stuck and gave her the manuscript to read before I sent it off to my agent. So really I couldn’t have written it without her, and being able to hand her a copy of a book with my name on it was one of the proudest moments of my life.
That said, my own mum couldn’t be more different from Stella in The Year of The Rat! She’s calm, reliable and practical whereas Stella is... well perhaps she’s a little bit more like me! Becoming a mum myself was really the starting point for this book. I was pregnant with my youngest child when I started writing it, and looking back I guess it was partly a way of working through some of the darkest fears that I think lurk in the back of most people’s minds. What if something happened to me? How would my kids cope without me? That feeling was what sparked Pearl and Stella’s story.
My own three children were very young when I started writing, and it was a very intense time trying to write a book and be a good mum. Writing and motherhood are both very full on emotionally – children and books both demand a lot of energy, love and patience, and they require you to give a lot of yourself to them, often at very inconvenient moments! Balancing two things that felt all-consuming felt impossible at times and Cyril Connolly’s assertion that "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” often came to mind.
But I honestly think that it also made the book better. Parenthood lays you bare emotionally and I think that fed through into the story I was telling. The Year of The Rat is about family relationships: how they are at times complicated and difficult but also powerful and loving and sustaining and funny, and that was very much how I was feeling at the time. I didn’t want to idealise these relationships. I wanted them to feel real. And writing the book also gave me a chance to express a side of myself that I couldn’t in my day-to-day life. My world at that time was full of feeding times and changing nappies and it was great to have a part of my brain that was working on something that was all mine. It meant that when I sat down to write I really put everything into it – no half measures. I had to make the little time I had count.
It feels right that my own mum and children played such a big part in the creation of this book which has those relationships at its heart.
Thank you so much, Clare! What a wonderful post. Now go out and spend your Christmas book tokens on The Year of The Rat!
My review here.