Interview With Sue Reid Sexton - Mavis's Shoe
Mavis’s Shoe is your first published novel. What inspired you to write the book?
I was writing another novel, Esme's Way, which has never been published. It was about rural Scotland and the incredible mix of people who lived there during the war, land girls, evacuees, refugees, prisoners of war, and lots of the men away fighting and so on. One of my characters came from Clydebank and had lived through the blitz. When I tried to write her story I realised I knew absolutely nothing about what that must have been like, so I set out to find out. I was also deeply concerned about the invasion of Iraq. Many journalists were killed in the early months and I began to wonder what it was really like out there.
Your background in trauma counselling and working with refugees obviously gives you an insight into the survivors of the Clydebank Blitz, but what additional research into the Blitz and its impact did you do?
The first thing I did was read Untold Stories by the Clydebank Life Stories Group which is about local people’s experience of Clydebank during the war. Then I read IMM MacPhail’s book The Clydebank Blitz and thereafter everything I could get my hands on. I also read material on other more recent conflicts. I spoke to people who lived through it too and others who were evacuated, like Lenny, to Carbeth. I spoke to someone from the La Scala picture house, a fire-watcher, some retired doctors and many others. Everybody had a different story to tell. My aim was to get the real experience of living through a bombing raid. Most of the details are historically correct, with only a few details invented in the absence of data.
The descriptions of the bombings, and particularly the damage and destruction witnessed by Lenny when she finally returns to Clydebank, are quite harrowing, and not just for a young girl. How did you decide what to write when describing the aftermath of the Blitz?
I looked at lots of photographs and read about this bombing and others around the world, then and now. Then I imagined what would be happening inside Lenny, how she felt physically as well as emotionally, what she might be thinking. I often simply try to describe what ‘is’, without adding emotional pointers or instructions, and by doing so perhaps reveal the awful truth of what happens when you are going about your daily life and bombs coming flying out of the sky at you. This is about Clydebank but it is also the universal story of the effects of war on ordinary people.
Lenny’s time in the Carbeth huts seemed like a curious mix of refugee camp and holiday home. What did you know of Carbeth before writing Mavis’s Shoe?
I had a hut myself for a couple of years when my kids were babies and loved it. I’ve always regretted giving it up. It was fantastic to be able to go back and spend time there and to learn so much of its history as part of my research. I knew vaguely that the first huts went up after the First World War, but didn’t know about the new piece of land given to the hutters after the Blitz. I knew about the Socialist Sunday Camps who camped there, but not that they’d been there since the late nineteenth century. I knew there was a swimming pool but not how busy and complete it was in its heyday.
Lenny shows remarkable strength and courage throughout the novel, but she remains a little girl who cries and misses her mother. How did you create her character?
She tried very hard to be a boy, which is probably why she has a boyish name. But I had to insist! There are lots of boys’ adventure stories, less for girls, and anyway I’m not a boy, never was one, and didn’t feel I could do a boy justice. Then after I’d written a couple of pages I heard her say ‘For those of you that don’t know…,’ which is the opening phrase. It seemed to sum up her gallus-ness, that childish assumption that everyone knows her business, and she’s going to tell anyone that doesn’t. This included me. She had to be a strong character to contrast with the awful things she has to endure. But she had to be human too, and no child (or adult) could live through such terrors and not cry or need comfort.
As an adult reader, I noticed that the true story behind the relationship between Lenny’s mother and Mr Tait is never fully explained.
Lenny never fully understood, so it’s not really important. These are the complications of writing from a child’s point of view. Sometimes you want to know more about the adults than the child can tell you. Perhaps I should write another book.
What do you think would have been the future of Lenny? Would she have returned to Clydebank, or stayed in Carbeth with Mr Tait and her family there?
Both of these could have happened and there are many other possibilities. People from Clydebank can be found all over the world and are certainly well dispersed through the west of Scotland. What do you think?
Sue Reid Sexton, thank you.