Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interview with Liz Trenow, author of The Forgotten Seamstress

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Liz Trenow to our little corner of the net to discuss The Forgotten Seamstress.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Liz. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Forgotten Seamstress.
Two stories are told in parallel: In 1910 a young seamstress, Maria, is noticed by Queen Mary, patron of the London Needlework Guild, and employed in the royal household. In 2010 Caroline discovers that a patchwork quilt inherited from her grandmother contains unique royal silks. Through the fading memories of her mother, some family letters and photographs, some old cassette tapes and the help of a local journalist Caroline uncovers an extraordinary story involving a royal affair, a life of incarceration and two women whose lives collided with devastating consequences. Finally, she comes to understand what her Granny wanted her to know – the truth about herself and how she wants to live her own life.

What inspired you to write this story?
When I went to the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree, Essex, doing research into my own family history, I chanced upon a case of the ‘May Silks’: beautiful damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand woven by Warner and Sons for the trousseau of Princess May for her wedding to the heir to the British throne in 1893. The silks themselves were entrancing but it was the story behind them which most intrigued me. 

What research went into The Forgotten Seamstress and did your research yield any surprises in terms of historical events or illuminate a character in any particular way? 
The character of Maria, told in first person, seemed to arrive almost fully-formed. I had a clear visual picture of her and could actually hear the sound of her voice in my head. But finding out about what her life as a servant in Buckingham Palace was more difficult. I visited the building of course, but you are only allowed into the royal reception rooms and are never shown ‘downstairs’. Downton Abbey was quite helpful! I read a number of accounts and histories of the Palace and of the royal family at that time, but couldn’t discover whether they had ever employed a seamstress.

The setting of the asylum was straightforward. As a teenager, I was an inpatient in a ward set aside for minor clinical operations at an enormous Victorian mental hospital close to my home town. The sights and sounds of the place left a deep impression on me. It was like a country mansion set in its own grounds but surrounded by high fences – outwardly grand and yet with such an oppressive and ominous atmosphere. 
I owe a great debt to the sociologist and author Diana Gittins for her book, Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998). She includes first-hand accounts of staff and patients, which really brought the place and people to life and led me to one of those light-bulb moments: solving the problem of how to tell Maria’s story. I created a character – Professor Patsy Morton – who had undertaken a research project not unlike that of Diana Gittins’, although a couple of decades earlier. This was the perfect way of allowing Caroline – and the reader – to hear Maria’s story first hand. Although we never actually meet her in the book, the tapes help us to feel that we know her.

The Forgotten Seamstress is a multigenerational story. Did you find it difficult working with characters from such different background, decades and social circumstances? 
That’s an interesting question because, as I said, Maria came to life almost instantly. On the other hand Caroline, a thirty-something contemporary metropolitan girl, was much harder to conjure. Fortunately I have two daughters who live in London (aged 27 and 33) who became my regular advisers and helped me see into Caroline’s mind. It can be a tough time, your late twenties and thirties, trying to make sense of what you want for your future and, at the same time, worrying about your parents getting older, and I wanted to reflect some of that. I really enjoy writing multi-generational stories because our own histories resonate so powerfully through our lives, even though we sometimes don’t appreciate it until we are a little older!

I would like to have spent more time with Caroline’s grandmother, Jean. But I already had two strong characters and storylines (Maria and Caroline) and to have expanded on Jean’s would have made the story confusing. Also, because Jean’s life story reveals the secret at the heart of the novel, this could only be told ‘posthumously’ at the end of the novel.

You probably have many, but is there are scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Definitely the scenes in which Maria is seduced by the Prince of Wales. I read several biographies of the prince and, by all accounts, women were mesmerised by his charm and his astonishingly blue eyes. We may not approve of what he did in later life (sympathizing with the Nazis, for example) but at the age I was writing about him, he was young and innocent, hating being a royal, and he had not yet gained his later reputation as a serial womaniser. 

I also loved writing all the sections about the quilt. I needed an expert to help me and was fortunate to be introduced to the internationally-acknowledged patchwork quilter, teacher and author: Lynne Edwards, who in 2008 was awarded an MBE for her services to arts and crafts. With typical enthusiasm, Lynne completely embraced the project. We met several times and, over bottles of wine and lots of laughter, ‘devised’ the quilt that Maria made, taking into account the influences and sources of inspiration that she would have had at different times of her life, and the sort of fabrics she might have had at her disposal. 

By the time we had finished I had, in my mind’s eye, a very clear view of what the quilt would look like. We very much hope that someone, someday, will be inspired by the pattern Lynne has very generously devised (available for free at and create ‘Maria’s quilt’.  If you do, please let us know!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The relationship between Caroline and Ben was problematic at first – I didn’t want it to have a straightforward trajectory, but at the same time there had to be a spark of something from the start. Perhaps the most difficult scene to write was their first meeting in a café, and then later when they went for a meal in a pub. I used the dismal pub and its terrible food as a metaphor for Caroline’s discomfort.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Definitely Maria. There are so many more questions I want to ask her!

Buckingham Palace Gate
Image by Carlos Delgado
Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like?
Ooh that’s really difficult. I don’t think I really see myself in any of the characters, although of course there must be aspects of me in all of them. I sympathise with them and feel an affection for them, but would not want to be more like any of them!

The Forgotten Seamstress is your second novel. How did your experience writing it differ from that of The Last Telegram? 
It was a completely different experience, from start to finish. My first novel, The Last Telegram, was based on real-life characters, events and places from my family history and childhood, and by the time I’d finished writing it I felt that all that a lifetime of memories and experience had been ‘used up’. My husband wisely counseled me to write ‘something completely different’ and not to try to recreate the atmosphere of the first one, which is what I set out to do. As I wrote, The Last Telegram was published and received almost unqualified five star reviews. Each time someone told me how much they loved it I would start to panic again, wondering whether The Forgotten Seamstress would ever match up. 

As I struggled, I happened to watch a television documentary in which the crime writer Ian Rankin talked about the process of writing Standing in Another Man’s Grave (now out in paperback). He talked about how, with each novel, he experiences what he describes as ‘the fear’, a point at which he thinks he’s writing complete rubbish that will never get published, and even if it did, that reviewers would slate and readers hate. He talked about having to work your way through it and hold faith that it will come right in time. It was so reassuring to hear that even Britain’s number one bestselling crime novelist should suffer such crises of confidence that I came back my manuscript with renewed determination. After a major restructuring and quite a lot of rewriting I found my rhythm again, and now believe it is just as good as the first (although very different). I hope readers think so too.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
A greater curiosity about human nature, and how our own family histories make us what we are today. I would also urge all readers, if possible, to talk to their parents, grandparents and other older relatives about their own lives and record what you hear, before it is too late. There is so much to learn from them.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I have already written the first draft of my next book, The Poppy Factory. It will be published in August 2014, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. As the title suggests, the story revolves around the work of the real-life Poppy Factory which still employs disabled veterans making Remembrance Day poppies in Richmond, Surrey. Besides a poignant First World War strand it also has a powerful contemporary storyline based on interviews with two extraordinary young women who served as army medics on the front line in Afghanistan. 

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About the Author: Liz Trenow's family have been silk weavers for nearly three hundred years, and she grew up in the house next to the silk mill which provided the inspiration for her debut novel, The Last Telegram, and still operates today. Instead of becoming a weaver, Liz worked for many years as a journalist for national and regional newspapers, and for BBC radio and television news, and is now a full time writer. The Forgotten Seamstress is her second novel. For more about Liz, please visit her website

About the Book: It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity. But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company. Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?

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