An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Beth Morrey
The Love Story of Missy Carmichael (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 7 April 2020)
Best-selling debut author, Beth Morrey, was inspired to write her ‘coming-of-old’ novel, The Love Story of Missy Carmichael/Saving Missy, about a lonely woman saved by the people around her, when she got to know her community on maternity leave.
The result of her four-month writing stint was a six-figure book deal with HarperCollins, which is now the publishers’ lead title of 2020, described by UK’s The Sunday Times Culture as the ‘most buzzed-about novel at the Frankfurt Book Fair’.
Missy Carmichael’s life has become small. Grieving for a family she has lost or lost touch with, she’s haunted by the echoes of her footsteps in her empty home; the sound of the radio in the dark; the tick-tick-tick of the watching clock.
Spiky and defensive, Missy knows that her loneliness is all her own fault. She deserves no more than this; not after what she’s done. But a chance encounter in the park with two very different women opens the door to something new. Another life beckons for Missy, if only she can be brave enough to grasp the opportunity. But seventy-nine is too late for a second chance. Isn’t it?
AUTHORLINK: Thank you for joining us today at Authorlink, Ms Morrey.
AUTHORLINK: Beth. 😊 We loved your book Saving Missy, published by HarperCollins in the UK and the US by G.P. Putnam’s Sons as The Love Story of Missy Carmichael. The novel has been described as being part of the ‘coming of old’/UpLit genre wave of literature, which is just so great, but it is so much more than that. Loss; betrayal; guilt; anger; and regret, it’s all in there. Yet these themes are woven around a moving and hopeful story. We understand you were inspired to write something uplifting during 2016 with celebrity deaths, Brexit, and the US election. Is that right? Now more than ever, with COVID and isolation, we need more books like yours.
“I wanted to write something that would make people cry in a happy way…”
MORREY: Thank you so much! Back in 2016, I was having a lovely year. I’d had my second baby and was on maternity leave, wandering round the park with a pram, stuffing myself with cake in cafés, browsing the shops. But it felt like everything was disintegrating around me. I was profoundly dismayed by the Brexit vote – whatever your view on it, it was distressing to see the division it caused. While I was calm and happy with my baby, everything else felt unbalanced, in a state of upheaval, so writing the book was my way of trying to restore the balance, persuade myself that there was still some good in the world. I wanted to write something that would make people cry in a happy way – those kinds of tears are cathartic and restorative.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. And believe us, they did…we can think of a few scenes (which we won’t disclose here). We enjoyed the audiobook version which was narrated by Oscar-winning actress Dame Harriet Walter. In fact, it won a bronze award in the New York Festival Radio Awards. What an absolute treat it is. We were completely wrapped up in Harriet’s voice and her pronunciation of ‘real’ (rel) and her amazing job of capturing Missy’s “spikiness and sweetness”. Not only that, we loved all her interpretation of your characters voices.
How did that all come about? Have you met her? Did you feel her voice fits Missy’s in your head?
“Oh my God, I was so utterly delighted that Dame Harriet agreed…”
MORREY: Oh my God, I was so utterly delighted that Dame Harriet agreed to do it. I am a massive fan of hers – The Crown and Succession are two of my favourite TV shows of all time, and she is in both! I particularly loved her performance in Succession – that brittleness, everything under the surface. So, when we were talking about who might read Missy, she was top of the list. But it was all the work of my publisher’s audio director, who persuaded Harriet to come on board. I got to go along to the recording, which was a huge thrill – I practically curtseyed when I met her. She is so very elegant, but also wonderfully gossipy. And her performance was just perfect.
AUTHORLINK: Nearly curtseyed? (Laughs) Totally understandable! We understand it was in your early 20s when you wrote your first book, a spin-off from Mary Poppins, about Winifred Banks. However, you felt, you, “were too young to have anything to say”. The second book was set in the TV industry (given your work background), and your third is Missy. What kind of advice would you give to young or struggling authors, (not necessarily one and the same)?
MORREY: I was a bit of a late bloomer, publishing-wise, though of course lots of writers have produced wonderful books in their 20s, so it’s obviously not impossible! I don’t feel like those first attempts of mine were wasted in any way – I was learning all the time. We’re all different in our needs and approaches, so I would say take time to work out what sort of writer you are, and what you want to say. Try to find a balance between what will resonate with your readers, and what matters to you. Your heart has to be in it, but there also has to be a degree of pragmatism. You have to take criticism on the chin, and be prepared for the long haul. All writers get rejections, and a lot depends on luck, so if you have managed to write a novel, and are revising and refining it, then you are a writer. Keep going, don’t give up.
AUTHORLINK: Great advice. We understand you wrote the novel in 2016 while on maternity leave where you finished about 80 thousand words in about three months, with another 15,000 words in a weekend. However, it took you the whole of 2017 to edit your manuscript over and over again. How many times did you review your book before you showed it to your first reader(s)? Who was your first reader(s)? Did your agent make further editing suggestions? Did your publisher do the same later?
“…that’s the way I write – a quick, slapdash first draft, followed by endless revisions…”
MORREY: I’ve discovered that’s the way I write – a quick, slapdash first draft, followed by endless revisions with a fine-tooth comb. I plan in my head for ages, but barely make any notes at all. When I start, I don’t think about it, just empty my head onto the page to see what’s there. It’s quite an organic process, though obviously can result in a lot of rubbish! Edna O’Brien described waiting for the electric charge – she wouldn’t put pen to paper until she had it. I’ll happily dive in and churn out complete tosh, but occasionally I’ll write my way into that charge, and surprise myself. When I get to the edit, that’s when I start to think hard, and consider what’s emerging.
I probably didn’t edit enough before my first agent approaches – I had no idea what I was doing – but managed three rounds of queries with re-writes in between. I was probably on about draft 5 or 6 when I approached Madeleine Milburn, who became my agent. Before that, I’d only shown it to my husband, and my dad. My husband told me there were too many Greek quotes, and my dad told me to drop the last chapter. Good advice. Madeleine was incredibly clear and precise about what she wanted me to do with the manuscript. That edit felt fairly straightforward because she was so obviously right. I signed with her in June 2018 and we submitted the book in September that year. My UK and US editors worked together to help me with the revisions – again, I was always pretty clear on that re-write because I understood what they wanted me to do. If you’re thinking ‘she’s making it sound easy’ then rest assured, I did not feel that way about Book 2…
AUTHORLINK: That’s so interesting; thank you for sharing that. Your background in television was a huge influence in informing your book. For example, you developed a series called 100-Year-Old-Drivers, which made you think about older adults very differently – what they were like, and what they could achieve. They were all so vibrant, active and curious. This informed the character of Missy. What were some other influences and inspiration for creating this story?
MORREY: So many different people and influences came together when I wrote the book. One was my childhood piano teacher, an elderly lady who lived alone. She was rumoured to have lost a sweetheart during the Second World War, but she never mentioned it. There was a mystery about her, a stoicism and sprightliness that I found fascinating. Another inspiration was a literary figure – Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal. I was drawn to her waspish tone, and interested in creating a redeemable version of her. And finally, the feeling I wanted to recreate – the emotion – was the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. Such redemption – the joy of coming-together.
AUTHORLINK: It was a wonderful ending! You achieved it brilliantly. We also loved the scene with Adrian. (I nearly got up off my seat and applauded to a half-bus full of commuters). One theme that your book touches upon is ‘mother’s guilt’ – particularly the mother-child relationship between Missy and her daughter, Mel, who was always ‘difficult’. In comparison, is the beautiful image of Missy’s own loving and supporting mother – that scene when Lena helps Missy to breastfeed her tiny daughter, is so tender. Why was Missy so not like her mother towards Melanie – Mel? The explosive anger she felt when Mel said ‘do not blame yourself’ triggers Missy so vehemently. Her daughter was being kind. Mothers lugging around emotional baggage about themselves, then transferring them onto their children (especially daughters) is a common problem in parental relationships and it warrants examining.
MORREY: I think this is a very complex question. Missy and Lena are different beasts, brought up in different circumstances, and I didn’t want anything to be too clear-cut or clichéd. The main reason Missy can’t connect with her daughter is the thing that happened to her as a student, which left her emotionally scarred and unable to process her feelings. Lena is a loving and supportive mother, but she’s also an absent one. She’s quite driven, and focused on other things. Missy may not have been the demonstrative type, but she was always there, whereas Lena was often off on her marches and jobs, leaving her children in the care of their grandfather, who was a formidable influence. Missy learns, through him, that men are the providers and protectors; that they have to be deferred to, like Fa-Fa’s wife Jette defers to him. She chooses a similar man as her own husband – a focus-puller who is self-absorbed, happy to see her stifle her own ambitions to facilitate his own. Missy and Lena have different natures, and nurture also sends them in different directions.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that makes sense. Fascinating. You wrote a story about Icarus, the character in Greek mythology when you were in primary school, and it was at that time you first had the feeling that you wanted to write. In Missy, there are a few Greek references, like word ‘oikos’ (from the ancient Greek word οἶκος meaning the family; the family’s property; and the house), or, the meaning of the word, ‘melania’ (from the Greek word μελανία meaning black or dark). Why do you think Greek popped into this novel so much? Did Missy’s education at Newnham College, Cambridge influence her academic perspective on life?
MORREY: I never planned for Missy to be a classicist. Originally, she was going to be an English scholar like me. But, going back to that organic process, when I started writing, it was like she was telling me she read Classics, not English. So I had to listen to her, and then do a load of research. I always liked reading Greek myths as a child, was a bit obsessed with the goddess Athena. It worked really well in the end, because I got drawn into the numerous Greek definitions of love, and realised that was what the book was all about. There’s an old-fashioned quality to the story, I think, and having the ancient world woven through suits it.
AUTHORLINK: It’s enchanting. Have you been to Greece? Your literary agent, the wonderful Madeleine Milburn, said she hadn’t “felt this strongly about a character since the day I met Eleanor Oliphant”. We understand you started submitting to agents in June 2017 and that it took you a year of submissions and rejections to find Ms Milburn, and then the book deal came in a rush in September 2018. What a roller coaster! Tell us about this process. How did you keep your positivity while struggling to find the right agent? How many agents did you submit to before finally being offered representation?
MORREY: I’ve been to Greece several times – to various islands, and the mainland. Although I’ve visited a few ancient sites, I must admit it was always the sun and sea I was more interested in! I’m keen to go to Corfu, as my youngest son is a huge animal lover and Gerald Durrell fan, so we’d love to explore the island and discover the wildlife.
“… I got used to rejection. In development, about 99% of what you work on goes nowhere.”
With regard to the publication process, it was very much up and down! Working in telly, I got used to rejection. In development, about 99% of what you work on goes nowhere. You learn to be pretty stoic about it, otherwise you’d go mad. So I think that set me up really well for the process. It felt more personal, obviously, but there was a muscle memory there, so when I got a ‘no’, I would think ‘oh well’, and carry on.
I did three rounds of querying – about six agents at a time. The first round, I got NOTHING. Nada. Either no reply, or standard rejections. Second time round, I had a couple of more personal rejections (woo-hoo!), and maybe one full MS request that didn’t come to anything. My third round was better, but still didn’t punch through. I was also submitting the book to various writing competitions, without success. So I gave up. I decided this book wasn’t meant for the world, so I would put it in a drawer and forget about it. But, just to show I was a proper writer who could take it on the chin, I’d send it to one more agent… That agent was Madeleine Milburn. I have no idea why I didn’t send it to her before! As I said, I really hadn’t a clue what I was doing. She responded so quickly, and within a week I was meeting her and signing a contract. She told me exactly what she wanted to do with my book, and I nodded and smiled because it sounded so ridiculous, I couldn’t believe her. At one point she said ‘you’re not taking me seriously, are you?’ It was crazy! But everything she said in her office that day came true. I think she might be a witch.
AUTHORLINK: And an angel! We, like almost everyone else we’ve spoken to, love the book cover. Did you have a say in the book’s design? Is that how you pictured your book to look when you imagined it?
MORREY: I had no say in it at all, and a bloody good thing too. Do you know what I wanted on the cover? A NOOSE. I had this ‘clever’ idea that it looked like a noose, but it ran over the top and onto the back cover, and you realised it was a dog lead… I don’t know what I was thinking. My editor sent me the illustration they’d put together and I loved it immediately. It was warm and melancholy and mysterious, and the colours are lovely. I love the little version of Bobby on the spine carrying her toy rabbit. Gorgeous. I did have input on that – they asked me what breed Bobby is, and what she looks like, and I was very specific. How cool is that? Describing your fictional dog to your US editor so they can design your book cover… It was a dream come true.
AUTHORLINK: We are happy for you. We really enjoyed how you juxtaposed the first time Missy met Leo at the Cambridge party in 1956 (which was the same party where Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes and she bit his ear) and how you painted your story against the canvass of an actual event. Your Director of Studies at Cambridge attended that party, and as you said once, you “all found the anecdote thrilling. To be there, when two literary powerhouses encountered each other for the first time!” What made you decide to set your characters story in this setting?
MORREY: Because I went to Newnham College, I was always a bit fan-girl about this. Sylvia went to Newnham and wrote about it in her letters and journals, and of course my Director of Studies was a contemporary of hers. I used to go on a kind of Plath pilgrimage round Cambridge – the house on the playing fields where she had a room, the street she and Ted lived on, the pub they went to, the statue of the stone boy with dolphin that she wrote about. Soooo studenty-precocious of me!
But I was particularly entranced by the party where they met. There seemed to be an electricity about the occasion – such violence and excitement. I wondered if there was something in the stars that night (just to be clear, I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but you know what I mean). And then I started to imagine another couple meeting on the same evening, being sparked by that same charge… It was irresistible. But what it also did, was set me on a path where my personal, domestic tale touched on various other events in 20th century history. Missy’s story covers World War Two, the suffragette movement, the introduction of the pill, the Cambridge Garden House riots – even the courgette shortage of 2017!
AUTHORLINK: How interesting. About the above question, Missy was equally as clever as her husband to be, Leo, when they first met. Yet Missy sublimated her career to raise the children and create a home.
So many women’s lives and careers were subsumed by their husband’s ambition in this era. Was this something you wanted to highlight?
MORREY: There’s a passage in Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty, which always resonated with me. It’s where Yvonne Carmichael (see the link?!) complains that her husband Guy always assumes that her priority is their children: ‘my time was considered to belong to our family unless I signalled that I wanted out. His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.’ They study for PHDs while child-rearing – his takes three years while hers takes seven. I was so struck by that, and how this scenario plays out everywhere in a thousand little ways. More recently, with the lockdown, it’s been reported that women are overwhelmingly taking on the bulk of the childcare, while still working. Like Yvonne, I suspect many women find it an effort to hide the sourness. I wanted a taste of that in Missy.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, and it’s so relatable. You were lucky to have from all accounts, a spectacular launch party in London in February of this year and did a few events on your tour in the UK before the rest got cancelled because of COVID. Your book also had a chance to become a Sunday Times bestseller for three weeks, which must have been so exciting. Other authors may not have been so fortunate. It also helps your book is a perfect ‘lockdown read’! Warm and comforting and totally engrossing from start to finish. How strange has it been to publish a book during these strange and difficult times?
MORREY: My launch party was such a highlight. It was in a beautiful old church on the edge of Clissold Park, where the book is set. I got wildly drunk, wore inappropriate shoes and signed copies of my book for my friends. It was glorious. I found out Missy was a Sunday Times bestseller in my gym changing room, and had to hide my face in a towel so no one could see me sobbing.
“It never occurred to me that people would actually buy it! So that has been a great and unexpected joy.”
I felt so very lucky that I got to enjoy that experience, plus several weeks of normal sales and events, before everything shut down. Many other authors had to cancel their parties and didn’t even get to see their book in a shop. Debuts were disproportionately affected by the pandemic – the way that readers get to discover new books is often by browsing, stumbling on them, and that’s much less likely to happen if the shops are closed.
In America, my book came out a few months later, smack in the middle of the lockdown, so that was obviously a bit of a disappointment. That said, I’ve had so many lovely messages from US readers and, really, I’m just delighted that the book has touched a few people, and hopefully made a difference during a difficult time. When I imagined getting a book published, I had a weird idea that it was like a museum – your book was ‘displayed’ in a shop, and you could go to visit it and admire it. It never occurred to me that people would actually buy it! So that has been a great and unexpected joy.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely. We read that your next book is about a single mother. Can you tell us a bit about it? Will any of the characters from Missy feature in it? Are you able to talk about it? Did you add any element of climate change, which is something you expressed an interest in doing?
MORREY: I am DEEP in Book 2. This has been a very different process. I wrote Missy in my own time, as a hobby, blithely typing away in a café with no constraints or expectations. Now I have two editors, deadlines, responsibilities – all sorts of pressures which make writing a whole new experience. That said, I am enjoying it, despite the fact that I’m on draft 243. It’s the story of a young single mother whose life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. It’s about thwarted ambition, the wonder of teachers, wanting to build a better life for yourself. And yes, there’s the odd bit about climate change woven in, right from the very first line…
AUTHORLINK: Great. Looking forward to reading it. And finally, just to end off our chat with some fun; which three people, living or not, would you like to invite to dinner and why?
MORREY: After so long only seeing people on Zoom, the idea of an IRL dinner party is very exciting, even if it is only make-believe. I would invite Elizabeth I, because I am a huge fan. She was so clever and witty, and she’d have some stories to tell. We’d slag off both Marys (Bloody, and Scots) and I’d ask her if she and Robert Dudley ever did the deed. I’d also try on some of her jewels. In this fantasy, she’s really approachable and accommodating.
Next, I’d have Michelle Obama, because I’d like to know if she ever felt like Yvonne Carmichael, or if it was always a sacrifice worth making. Plus, I just feel like she’s so wise and calm, and could advise me about my life. I bet she’d get on well with Elizabeth; there would be some good sparring, with red wine and much state gossip.
Finally, I’d invite my dog, Ben, who my book is dedicated to. He passed away when I was 16 and I still miss him. I’d lay on a feast of roast chicken, and tell him he was a good boy while he ate it. The chat wouldn’t be up to much, but the company would be just fine. Elizabeth and Michelle love dogs too.
AUTHORLINK: How delightful. What a fantastic answer. Beth, thank you so much for your time today. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you about Saving Missy/The Love Story of Missy Carmichael and wish you the very best for your next books!
MORREY: Thank you so much for such great questions – it was a true pleasure. And thank you to anyone who has bought or borrowed my book, and stopped it being a museum piece.
About the Author: Beth Morrey is a TV producer by trade. For a long time, she worked in development where she created quizzes, documentary formats and reality shows.
She has been trying to write a novel since her early 20s, when she wrote a spin-off of Mary Poppins, called Sister Suffragette, which was all about Winifred Banks’ adventures when she wasn’t at home singing. It’s probably for the best that it’s still in a drawer somewhere.
The Love Story of Missy Carmichael/ Saving Missy is Beth’s first full-length novel, and she wrote it on maternity leave, inspired by the people she met while she was walking her dog in the park. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking curries, and reading the entire internet when she should be sleeping.
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable publications.