Excerpted from The Bad Mother's Handbook by Kate Long. Copyright © 2005 by Kate Long. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation with Kate Long
Printed with permission from Kinokuniya, Japan
Kate Long wrote her ﬁrst novel in her spare time, at night after her children were asleep or on the weekends. It became an instant number-one bestseller in her native England, was serialized on a national radio station, and sold in overtwenty-three countries, including Japan. Here she doesan interview for the Japanese bookstore, Kinokuniyu.
Q: Brieﬂy, where were you born and brought up? Where did you go to school? Which university did you go to and what did you study?
A: I was born in Pinner, England, adopted at six weeks and brought up in Wigan. I spent seven miserable years not ﬁtting in at the local primary, then won a scholarship to Bolton School, an independent girls’ school, which is where Monica Ali went. I loved it there. I left to do a degree in English Literature at Bristol University, and won several prizes there for academic study. I was invited to stay on and do a Masters in Literature or Ph.D. but I’d had enough of academia by then and wanted a break.
Q: What made you decide to be a teacher? How long did you teach, and what age groups and subjects did you teach? Would you say a career as an English teacher is a good foundation for a novelist? When did you decide to give up teaching, and was it a hard decision to make?
A: I’d been helping out in classrooms for as long as I could remember–mainly my mum’s, but also when I was at Bolton School in their prep department. I liked it, it was fun. At university I visited a local primary every Wednesday afternoon and took groups for extra reading or math work. In my ﬁnal year it occurred to me I could do this and get paid for it. So I applied to Rolle College at Exmouth, and got a degree in junior teaching. My ﬁrst job was in a primary school in Guildford where I stayed for two years, and then I went to the cinema and saw Dead Poets’ Society and decided I wanted to move into secondary teaching and use my degree again. So I got a position in a small independent high school outside Chester and taught English. I stayed there for thirteen years and really loved it. It was a wrench (and a risk!) to leave teaching but I just couldn’t do two jobs and look after the family as well. I now do an afternoon a week in my son’s primary school–can’t leave the education system alone. Teaching’s a great career base for a novelist because you’re training in communication all the time, and also you have the summer holidays in which to get down to some serious writing.
Q: Did you write stories as a child? When did you take up writing seriously and what prompted you to do so?
A: I’ve been ofﬁcially “good at English” since I was young. I was inspired by Kes–it’s a ﬁlm about a poor boy who brings up a kestrel (a hawklike bird) and how his relationship with the bird transforms his life–and I wrote a poem about a kestrel and was short-listed for a competition with it–I’d have been about thirteen. It was like a switch going on, seeing that ﬁlm. And because I was a complete loner till I was eleven, always had my nose in a book. I might have started writing because I went on a teaching course in about 1990, 1992, and did some ﬁction writing there and got enthusiastic feedback from the group. Or I might have started because I used to suffer from insomnia. Then again, it might have been the moment I picked up a glossy magazine and saw a story in it by someone I went to university with. (How dare she?) It was probably a combination of all three.
Q: Can you describe the process of writing The Bad Mother’s Handbook?
A: I’d read several books that were about “juggling mums” but, disappointingly, they all depicted women from wealthy, upper-middle-class backgrounds. So I had a bit of a mission; I wanted to write about the lower-middle-class mum, and also what it’s like to be a carer for a disabled person. I suppose I wanted to say, “Our lives are important too, us ordinary, unglamorous folk.” It took me a summer holiday to write about 80 percent of it, and then another year to ﬁnish and polish. Not only was I teaching in that year, but I had a young child and an infant to look after, so I used to have to write in the evenings after the boys were in bed–as long as I didn’t have a pile of papers to grade or I wasn’t out at a parents’ evening. But only having a small slot like this in which to write was actually a help because it stopped my procrastinating.
Q: Tell me about your typical writing day, when/how often/ how much do you typically write?
A: It takes me about eight or nine months to prepare a manuscript to the point where it’s ﬁt to submit to my agent. I do about 3,000 words a week, about 600 words Monday—Friday mornings, and the odd sentence or two on the weekends. If I don’t write regularly I have trouble getting back into a rhythm.
Q: How do you begin a novel? Do you do research?
A: I have to write a synopsis ﬁrst. But I wouldn’t embark on something as long and complex as a novel without having it pretty well planned out ﬁrst. I do change direction sometimes as the novel develops, yes, but never dramatically. Like most writers, I ﬁnd my characters arrive fully formed, but I still have to sit down before I start writing and ﬁx their details; I use a set of questions, like a resumŽ, to help me do this. That way I don’t make so many factual errors, such as accidentally changing someone’s age by putting in the wrong date for them starting school. I have done bits and pieces of research; my optician has told me everything I needed to know about age-related macular degeneration, for instance, and I spent a lot of time watching reality TV for the background to the third novel. I ﬁnd if you ask, people are usually prepared to tell you about their jobs or experiences, and of course the internet is wonderful. I’ve been in touch with a lady I found online, and she’s been able to tell me some details about what it was like to grow up in Wigan, England, in the 1920s. And a lot of the anecdotes in TBMH came from tape recordings of my grandparents.
Q: Was your second novel already written when you got the publishing deal? Can you give me a brief idea of what the book is about? What are its main themes?
A: Here’s the ofﬁcial description of my second book, which Ballantine will publish in 2007:
Katherine’s father, Poll’s adored only son, was killed in a car crash when Katherine was a baby. According to Poll, the crash was the fault of Katherine’s mother, who disappeared shortly afterwards, never to be seen again. Poll is pushing seventy, half-blind, and utterly poisonous. Her ambition is for things to stay exactly the same forever, and for Katherine never to leave their small town of Bank Top; indeed for her to leave the house only when strictly necessary. Katherine has other ideas, especially when on her birthday she receives a mysterious parcel of glamorous, grown-up clothes–so unlike the ones Poll makes her wear. And then the handsome and self-assured Callum turns up, claiming to be a cousin she never knew she had. Katherine can feel that change is coming; the omens are all around her. In the meantime, she cleans up after Poll, revises for her exams, watches daytime television, and surfs the net at the library trying to ﬁnd out how to be bulimic. What she doesn’t quite realize yet is that life won’t always wait for you to catch up.
Q: Do you have any favorite authors who have particularly inspired you?
A: Alan Garner is a writer who I deeply admire, and Jeanette Winterson. But the one who switched me on and made me want to write is Kate Atkinson, possibly because her style is so fresh, possibly because I happened to read her at the “right time.” I know she too wrote while bringing up small children. And of course I had a background in the classics–Austen, the Bront‘s, Dickens, Hardy, et cetera. I’d say immersing yourself in quality writing–poetry and prose–is the best thing any aspiring writer can do, because you can’t help but absorb good practice. Read widely, read for enjoyment.
Q: Now that you have established a new career as a novelist, how real does it all feel to you? Did you expect, ﬁve years ago, to be where you are today? Where would you like to be, in your writing career, in ﬁve years’ time?
A: The exciting thing is, I don’t know where I’ll be in ﬁve years’ time. It could all have bombed, in which case I can say I had a good bash at it and it was fun while it lasted. It might carry on at the same pitch, which would be fantastic. I never expected to get published in the ﬁrst place because the odds are so stacked against it. Does it seem real? Well, light is slowly dawning and I’m not getting bouts of panic like I used to. I hate to sound like a ’70s car sticker, but I think we all of us have to take each day as it comes.
1. How are the sections in Nan’s perspective different from what you’d expect? How did they affect your understanding of Nan throughout the book?
2. Karen says she feels she’s been living the wrong life. Have you ever felt the same way?
3. Do you think that discovering the truth about her birth mother helped Karen make her life “right”? How?
4. Do you think Charlotte is an admirable character?
5. Compare the men in the novel: Paul, Danny, Mr. F., and Steve. Do these characters remind you of people you know? Are they realistic?
6. Did you expect Karen’s relationship with Mr. F. to turn out differently? Why do you think the author chose to end this way?
7. Which character do you identify with the most: Karen or Charlotte? Why?
8. Was Karen too hard on Charlotte? How do you think you would have reacted in Karen’s situation?
9. What, if anything, do all three women–Nan, Karen, and Charlotte–have in common?
10. Do you think this book has a surprise ending? If you had to write an alternate ending, what would you write?
11. What does the novel have to say about the choices we make in life, or that are made for us?
12. According to the novel, has life gotten easier for Western women over the twentieth century, or harder? Do you agree with the novel’s presentation?
13. Do you think The Bad Mother’s Handbook is an appropriate title?