I read an article about a bidding war for début novel, The Other Mrs Walker, in The Scotsman newspaper recently and immediately knew it was a book I wanted to read. It is set in Edinburgh, I know the minister who is mentioned in the article and more importantly, it just sounds fabulous. I contacted the author Mary Paulson-Ellis via Twitter to ask if she’s be willing to come on the blog and am delighted to say she agreed. The Other Mrs Walker is published today by Mantle (an imprint of Pan MacMillan) in hardback and as an e-book. You can order a copy here: The Other Mrs Walker
First of all, would you tell me a little about yourself?
That’s a hard question to start with, isn’t it? How to begin! Well, I live in Edinburgh. I have a stuffed stoat called Frederica who resides on my living room wall. The space where I write is under the eaves of a building owned by the Spiritualist Church, which appeals to me no end because I am very interested in life and death and the grey areas in between.
What inspired you to start writing?
I’m not sure. I’ve always been a big reader ever since I was young, so words are my thing. In my twenties I started to jot down paragraphs and ideas. Then in my thirties I turned some of these into actual stories. And in my forties I started a novel and here we are. I was always doing something creative as a child – acting, dancing, singing (badly). But it’s writing that’s stuck. I blame the parents. Reading books is a dangerous game.
Tell me about your journey to publication
How long have you got? I spent 7 years writing a novel that never saw the light of day. I wrote 40,000 words of another one before putting that in a drawer too. Meantime I did what all apprentice writers do and wrote and wrote and wrote; submitted, submitted, submitted – got rejected mostly, but a few things published (which kept my spirits up). I did an MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University which I loved. Then, four years ago with my latest rejection slip to hand, I asked myself the question we all ask at some point: Can I go on? My answer was to give up my job and start writing, The Other Mrs Walker. The rest is history. I suppose what I’m saying is, I never gave up and somehow it came good.
In a nutshell, what is your latest book about?
Well according to novelist Liz Jensen it’s, ‘a gloriously vivid puzzle of lost identities and stolen hearts’. According to the publisher Pan Macmillan it’s, ‘a detective story with no detective’ that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson. According to me it’s a tale about how the mystery of one old lady’s lonely death could unlock the secrets of the past for our disillusioned (and disarrayed) heroine – if she only knew where to look. It starts in Edinburgh 2010 and goes back to London in 1929, and 1944, and 1963, amongst others. My heroine, Margaret, is after paperwork. But my tip is, follow the spoon.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
With some to and fro! I called it, Buried or Burned when I was first writing the manuscript because it was about the journey my (dead) protagonist went on before she got to her funeral. Then when my agent took it on she wanted something involving oranges which are a crucial motif throughout, so we called it, Six Orange Pips Sucked Dry after one of the sections in the book. But that’s a tongue twister, isn’t it? And besides, Jeannette Winterson owns any title involving oranges, I think. So we tried again and came up with, The Other Mrs Walker. There are several Mrs Walkers throughout the novel. You have to read the whole thing to find out which is which.
How do you plan to celebrate/did you celebrate publication day?
Publication day is 10 March 2016 and we will celebrate the night before with a launch party held in the Wohl Pathology Museum at Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh. This is a fascinating place that explores the anatomy of the human body through all its amazing organs, just as The Other Mrs Walker explores the anatomy of a human life through the objects and artefacts that get left behind. I thought it would be fun to invite my guests to raise a glass to the novel’s birth in this unique space and give them something quirky and unusual to look at too.
Do you have a work in progress just now?
I have a work. But I’m not sure I would say it was in progress right now. In fact, I must get back to it soon. It is another novel, also set in Edinburgh, which follows the last case of an Heir Hunter as he attempts to honour a debt from the past.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read in the past few months? Or favourite three if you really can’t choose!
Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, The End of Days was wonderful. At first it feels small, sparse and intimate, yet it reveals itself to be expansive and profound. Deceptive in its simplicity, it tells the story of twentieth century European history through one woman’s various lives. I also re-read, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder for a project called Memories of Fiction. This was a lodestone from my childhood. Returning to it didn’t disappoint.
What are you reading just now?
As of February 2016 I am reading Clare Balding’s memoir, My Animals and Other Family. This is unusual for me. I’ve never kept pets (other than my stuffed stoat) and I’m not particularly interested in sport, and certainly not horse racing. But in the run up to my novel coming out I discovered a need to read something totally unrelated. Now I look forward every night to discovering how Balders progresses through the next dog, pony, chapter of her young life. But on my bedside table is, The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I’ve been saving that one until my own is out the way so that I can really do it justice. I can’t wait.
Tell me about your reading habits: book or kindle, bed or bath, morning or evening?
Always bed. Always hard copy. Always night-time, illuminated by my little red book torch. Though I used to love reading in the bath when I was a child. Maybe I should take Laura Ingalls Wilder’s next adventure, On the Shores of Silver Lake back there and wallow in warm memories of the past.
How can people follow you or connect with you on social media?
Please do join me @mspaulsonellis on Twitter. The more the merrier.
Or, if you want to see a picture of the stuffed stoat, come visit www.marypaulsonellis.co.uk. There’s all sorts of fun stuff on there related to the objects, faces and places that inspired my book.
And finally, if you could be a character in any book you have read, who would it be and why?
Can I be Laura Ingalls Wilder? My hair is brown and I never was as pretty as my older sister. Also, I always did want to live in a dug-out by a river or a house made of logs.
From the back of the book
Somehow she’d always known that she would end like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name ….
In a freezing, desolate Edinburgh flat an old woman takes her last breath surrounded by the few objects she has accrued over a lifetime: an emerald dress, a brazil nut engraved with the ten commandments – and six orange pips sucked dry.
Meanwhile, guided by the flip of a coin, Margaret Penny arrives back at her old family home, escaping a life in London recently turned to ash. Faced with relying on a resentful mother she has never really known, Margaret soon finds herself employed by the Office for Lost People, tasked with finding the families of the dead: the neglected, the abandoned, the lost. Her instructions are to uncover paperwork, yet the only thing Mrs Walker, the old woman in her current case, left behind is a series of peculiar objects.
But in the end it is these objects that will unravel Mrs Walker’s real story: a story rooted in the London grime and moving from the 1930s to the present day, a story of children abandoned and lost, of beguiling sisters and misplaced mothers, of deception and thievery, family secrets and the very deepest of betrayals; in which the extraordinary circular nature of life will glitter from the page. For in uncovering the astonishing tale of an old woman who died alone, Margaret will finally discover her own story too . . .