Maggie Joel’s dark, deliciously funny novel The Past And Other Lies marks the debut of Sydney publisher Pier 9’s fiction list. It’s a page-turner with a host of hidden revelations, set over three generations of one ordinary London family. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings.
The Past and Other Lies hinges on missed opportunities, misguided intentions, and lies that turn out to be oddly close to the truth. What came first – this undercurrent or the story and characters?
What came first was the opening scene – the suicide attempt. Out of this came the family and out of the family came some rather strange and mysterious stories from their past. Initially the book was going to about two present-day characters and their memories of events 25 years earlier. It was only as I wrote these early chapters that a second set of characters with their own story from a much earlier era started to emerge. It was very much character and place that drove the novel; I had little thought for themes. When I write a novel now I know exactly what my themes will be, what my structure will be, but when I wrote the first draft of The Past it pretty much decided its own journey and I went with it. That undercurrent of lies and distorted family histories only became apparent to me afterwards.
This book focuses on three generations of sisters in one family, at three different periods in time (the early 1980s, 1920s and mid-1940s). What made you choose these particular moments in time? Was there something significant about those times that helped you to tell this particular story?
Really, it came down a question of logistics. My opening scene was the teenage memory of a woman who is in her late thirties in the present day – that meant the opening scene needed to be set in the 1980s. Similarly, her elderly grandmother’s memories of her own youth needed to be set in the 1920s and the middle generation therefore ended up in the 1940s – and war-time London was a setting I had used in a previous novel, so was a period I felt confident writing about. And that era obviously lends itself to a storyline of intense and dramatic events. The largest portion of the book is set in the mid-1920s, an era I’ve long been fascinated by – it seems like such a vibrant, hedonistic but also almost a post-apocalyptic age. And I’ve always found that the books I’ve read from that time seem to focus on the upper or upper-middle classes. I wanted to know what the lives of ordinary people were like. To that end, I spent long hours at Ealing Library in West London poring over old copies of the Acton Gazette in order to get the flavour of that place at that time as it was lived by working people.
The sisters in this novel are deeply bonded, but equally plagued by the jealousy and suspicion of sibling rivalry. Was this idea of sisterhood (or perhaps, of siblings) something you wanted to explore?
Absolutely not! Indeed, I had no idea I had written a book about sisters until a literary agent described it to me thus. I thought, whose book have you just read? Certainly not mine! My book was – in my own mind and whilst I was writing it – about a family and an event from their past that suddenly re-emerges and impacts the members of that family in their later lives. As other characters began to surface and I found I had two sets of sisters on my hands, it seemed natural to make the characters in my final section sisters too – so, really, it was more from a sense of symmetry rather than any particular wish to explore the sister or sibling relationship.
This is a very funny book, despite several dark themes and moments, and its beginning with an attempted suicide. What made you decide to blend humour and darkness in this way?
I had no choice! That’s just how I write. But, if I had to analyse it, I would say that it’s partly out of self-doubt at my ability to write a ‘serious’ book which, I am convinced, would turn out to be either pompous or melodramatic or just plain absurd. And partly because the writers and the books that have inspired me blend humour and darkness so gloriously and, seemingly, so effortlessly. Books like Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party or A Room With A View or even Brideshead Revisited or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – they’re such heart-breakingly tragic stories, but yet so wonderfully droll! I love that. To me, the skill is in blending the two elements. If a book can make me laugh out loud then and reach for the tissue box then I know I’ve had a good read.
Deidre, when contemplating her daughter’s television revelation about an attempted suicide 25 years earlier, dismisses it with: ‘They were a normal family. They didn’t have those kinds of dramas.’ Is this, in fact, a normal family? It seemed to me that this was a very ordinary family, and that the book is showing that normal families do have hidden dramas, if you look for them.
Yes, couldn’t agree more! You only have to watch SBS’s fabulous Who Do You Think You Are? series to realise that every family has a story, every family has been involved in incredible events and contains long-dead family members who have lived through great wonders and terrible catastrophes. And sometimes that story is passed down the generations and becomes mythic. More often than not, it is lost. Forever. What a tragedy! But here, in the case of Deirdre and this incident from the past that she is suddenly confronted with, I think her anxiety derives, not from a realisation that things might have happened without her knowledge, but from a fear that things are going to ‘come out’, that the great middle-class need to keep things hidden away has been breached. It’s fine for things to happen, so long as no one mentions it out-loud over afternoon tea. I think Deirdre’s sense of the ‘normal family’ is one that avoids any sort of confrontation, an idea that is outmoded in an age where public disclosure has reached epidemic proportions.
The situation of women evolves greatly as the novel progresses – beginning with women having recently (and controversially) won the vote in 1924, and daringly taking up men’s occupations during the bus strike. Was this a story you wanted to tell, too – the way women’s lives and expectations of women have changed?
Interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I think, if anything, I wanted to look at how similar people are across these eras by which I mean, they have the same fears and anxieties, the same strengths and weaknesses. Many of the incidents that affect the present-day female characters in the book are deliberately mirrored in the experiences of the earlier generations - both face employment pressures and unwanted attentions from men they are not interested in and find that the men they do find themselves with may not be the right ones. Yes, they wear vastly different fashions and have very different expectations, but they laugh at the same things, they cry at the same things.
Keeping guilty secrets turns out to cause more drama for this family – the fears not shared or explored spawn their own chain of unfortunate events. Do you think that this family’s problems come from secrets and lies as much as anything else?
Hmm ... could be. Or is that those secrets and lies just keep popping up at awkward moments? Though it’s worth remembering that the biggest secret of all remains hidden. Except, of course, to the reader.