Intersquawk by Pat Black
Lesley Thomson is the author of the award-winning A Kind of Vanishing. The novel looks at the disappearance of a child in the summer of 1968, and examines the effect this incident has on the girl’s playmate and her family. Here, Lesley chats to Booksquawk about the writing of the novel...
Booksquawk: A Kind of Vanishing delves very deeply into the minds of young children. Can you talk about your inspiration for the exchanges between Eleanor and Alice, and their very different attitudes and behaviours?
Lesley Thomson: I am captivated by children talking with each other and to how they manage their differing concerns and passions. I remember my own childhood was populated with stories, objects were imbued with magical significance, you could get lot of Fruit Salad chews for a sixpence and any new location was sized up for its Hide and Seek or climbing possibilities. My nine-year-old self is close in emotional proximity, if not in decades, so I found it easy to imagine how the two girls might interact. They quickly emerged as different personalities: Eleanor hectic, well-meaning and brimming with imagination, Alice timid and anxious to please and unable to read the signs and signals in the place she finds herself. Each child unnerves the other with their view of the world.
How important was the setting and the sense of place to the book?
Hugely. Sense of place is vital to me in life, and I try to express this in fiction. For me, bricks and mortar, landscapes, rivers and streets hold the memories and associations of those that have been there, whether fictional or real. Places are visited by readers too – both literally and as they turn the pages of the book. The novel I have just finished is also set in and around St Peter’s Square where the Ramsays live. This geographical link between my books is intended to show the different stories that a place harbours.
Head-hopping is a very difficult proposition for any writer, but you managed it very well. As a writer, how much of a challenge did you find the multiple perspectives?
I find it harder to maintain one perspective both in fiction and in life too. Sitting at a meal table with a group I will be wondering what someone else at another table is thinking, how a situation is affecting them, if they feel at ease, how they are dealing with an issue. In A Kind of Vanishing the engine of the story is driven by the actions and responses of the different characters. We need to understand what motivates both girls for the story to work.
The disappearance of a child forms the main theme of the book. Did you find any parts of A Kind of Vanishing difficult to write?
When I write I am absorbed by the story and any difficulty is less about the subject matter and more about making a scene convincing or giving a character ‘life’. However, last year I was asked to record the audio version. After one particular chapter the sound engineer and myself remained silent for several seconds after I had finished: the enormity of the event I had just narrated hung in the sound-proofed air between us. I had gained sufficient distance from the writing to be quite deeply affected.
As well as a detailed portrait of family life, the book is also a mystery story which keeps its secrets as well as any more formulaic thriller. I'd like to know more about the inception of the book - did you conceive it as a mystery story to begin with?
I imagined what it would be like for a young girl to lose a companion who she had not liked. How would she manage her difficult feelings? I wanted to explore what it would be like to lose an only child and be parents with no children. The themes are grief, loss, class and family: the stuff of life. The central event, a missing child, provides mystery, regardless of genre. However, the psychological thriller genre allows me the freedom to tell a complex but, hopefully engaging story about how people live their lives.
One strong element I noted was the idea that individuals can become a prisoner of decisions made by their parents and families - sometimes for the best of intentions. Did these match your feelings towards Eleanor's family, or do you feel that the course of her life was affected by simple bad luck?
I feel compassion for both girls. Eleanor is the youngest of three children. She is the focus of the Ramsay family’s unspoken troubles; a receptacle for their anxieties and blame. Like many children, perceiving problems in her parents’ marriage, observing her mother’s ill health for example, she tries to solve these with the meagre power at her disposal. This only lands her in trouble. There is little about luck - good or bad - that steers her fortunes. Most of what happens the result of choices made, actions taken, by Eleanor herself, by Alice and by the adults around her.
There is an odd twist in the book, about mid-way through following the first big temporal shift. Without spoiling the secret, how difficult did you find it to write this story strand?
I wanted to show how we are marked by the footprints of our parents and our parents’ parents and how this affects our lives. This section made psychological sense to me and once in that mindset, I could see how the rest would work.
A Kind of Vanishing is available now.