I recently had the privilege to read The Palace of Strange Girls, the first novel by British mum Sallie Day.
From the publisher: Blackpool, England, 1959. The Singleton family is on holiday. For seven-year-old Beth, just out of the hospital, this means struggling to fill in her 'I-Spy' book and avoiding her mother Ruth's eagle-eyed supervision. Her sixteen-year-old sister Helen, meanwhile, has befriended a waitress whose fun-loving ways hint at a life beyond Ruth's strict rules.
But times are changing. As foreman of the local cotton mill, Ruth's husband, Jack, is caught between unions and owners whose cost-cutting measures threaten an entire way of life. And his job isn't the only thing at risk. When a letter arrives from Crete, a secret re-emerges from the rubble of Jack's wartime past that could destroy his marriage.
As Helen is tempted outside the safe confines of her mother's stern edicts with dramatic consequences, an unexpected encounter inspires Beth to forge her own path. Over the holiday week, all four Singletons must struggle to find their place in the shifting world of promenade amusements, illicit sex, and stilted afternoon teas in this touching and evocative novel.
After reading the book, and learning a very little bit about the author, I wondered why someone would choose to become a writer later in life than many, and how she went about building her craft. Below is Sallie's response to that question.
I’m sure you can picture it. I’m a 48 year old full-time mum waving off my last child who is about to fly the nest. A new life awaits me. Mornings when I can surface from sleep without the thump of ‘drum ‘n bass’. Afternoons in the quiet company of an empty ironing basket and idle sewing box. Salads for tea. Reasonable bed times.
'What will you do with all your spare time? my husband asks. 'You need to take up a hobby. Why don’t you try a writing group?'
If I’m not bubbling with enthusiasm it’s because I’m agoraphobic, claustrophobic and chronically shy. I can’t help it. It’s down to all those years I’ve spent at home. I can’t think of anything to say when in company. I hate shopping for clothes because of the crowds. I’m terrified of getting trapped anywhere - in queues, in elevators, in dresses by broken zips, the list is endless. Also I’m sick when traveling, especially on buses. It is a 40 minute bus ride to the place where the writers’ group meets.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I say.
A week later I have a patent anxiety medicine, two acupressure wrist bands that aid relaxation and a tube of travel sickness tables (non-drowsy). In the flurry of armouring myself against every possible disaster I have lost sight of what I’m going to do if I actually get to this writers’ group. I haven’t packed pen and paper. I’m so concerned with disasters - from diahorrea to collapse - It hasn’t occurred to me that I’ll be required to write.
Six weeks later the tutor says. ‘Why not try to write a novel?’ My husband finds a course - an M.A. in writing novels. I apply and am offered a place. I change medication in the light of this next seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Four tablets before the compulsory tutorials / workshops will relax me whilst keeping me sufficiently alert to answer the odd question. Nevertheless I return home at the end of the semester a broken woman. It’s not enough that the majority of my fellow students are half my age, I haven’t written an essay for 25 years and my marks reflect this, I can’t sleep at night, I keep on getting lost, I miss my dog and I’ve no idea what to write. My husband listens then bundles me in the car and drops me back at university.
The M.A. is completed. I write a novel. The novel is published. It wins the Portico Prize. Overnight I am expected to give interviews on the radio, undertake library talks, attend bookshop promotions, travel long distances and have lunch with complete strangers.
Yes, it’s true, getting published at an age when my contemporaries are planning their retirement has changed my life beyond recognition. I may dread a radio interview but I also know that I will do it. My knees may be giving way but, if required, I can give an impromptu speech. It may take several visits to the restroom but I will leave home and travel. I don’t have the luxury nowadays of doing anything more than just acknowledging my anxiety and continuing with the job in hand. I haven’t the time to refuse the elevator, queues are unavoidable and lastly it’s only the audience who have the option of sitting near the exit.
It’s not just a new chapter in life, Elizabeth - it’s a whole different book.
I was thrilled to receive a response to my question, and definitely wanted to share it with my readers. I hope you'll look into The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day, and encourage your library to get it.