Chaplin & Company, published by Jonathan Cape, is a highly original first novel from Mave Fellowes, graduate of the Goldsmiths MA in Creative and Life writing. It’s fresh, quirky, exploring dark areas with a light touch. She talks here about how her observations of life on the Grand Union Canal in London, plus the performance of a grumpy magician at a children’s party, sowed the seeds for a story that wouldn’t go away
PJ: The boat is as much a character with a history as Odeline, which came first – her or the boat?
MF: Odeline came first. I watched a very surly magician performing at a childrens' party and she grew from that. I enjoyed thinking and writing about her, and she kept me interested throughout, although it took a while to get her going in her own story. I used to live by the Grand Union Canal in NW London and liked exploring stretches of it – some parts are romantic, some are completely derelict, most aren't really seen anymore because of how built up the city is. It felt like an intriguing setting. A lot of boat owners live alone and take great pride in the appearance of their boats, so I think the boats are like companions, in a way. I wanted Chaplin and Company to be a companion to each of her owners.
PJ: There’s a playfulness in the tone of the omniscient narrator who, at the start, gathers together the ensemble cast – did that come easily?
MF: It came more easily than other parts of the book. I'm happier observing and describing things than writing sections of action or dialogue which felt way out of my comfort zone on the first attempts. I wanted to root the reader and set out exactly where we are, who we are looking at. My favourite writers do quite direct narration, perhaps I was trying to emulate them... Possibly it helped make things clearer for me too!
PJ: Living by a canal in London I imagine you had plenty of people to ‘audition’ for the various roles – do you spend time people-watching?
MF: Not consciously although I am usually happier doing little than being busy. Some of the boaters I met gave me ideas as to the various lifestyles existing on the canal. No one was copied directly but I definitely used things I'd seen and heard, from outfits to boat design and bits of lingo.
PJ: One of your themes is the importance of storytelling and how it can bind people together. Their stories are so well braided together, was there much pre-planning or did the braiding develop organically?
MF: At first draft the boat's story and Odeline's had fewer connections than they ended up having. They were more like tangential short stories coming off the main thread. I realised that if I wanted to keep them in, I was going to have to make them more relevant so that they advanced, or at least informed, the modern-day plotline. I tried to do this through the objects inside the boat, which I hoped would tell a story that Odeline couldn't see, but was also glad when I found a way to bring Inga back in as she was one of my favourite characters.
PJ: Clearly boats and canals inspired the book but equally there’s a preoccupation with mime, in particular Marcel Marceau – have you ever tried mime?
MF: No, nor any form of physical theatre. I would be very bad and far too embarrassed. There are some avant-garde forms of mime around but I wanted Odeline to be into a more dated, retro form, that doesn't really have a place anymore. Marcel Marceau was hugely talented but there's something clunky about the footage if you watch it now – in the same way that programmes we watched in childhood seem clunky compared to the slick, airbrushed products we see on our screens nowadays. Odeline is self-educated and cut off from mainstream culture, high-minded, solipsistic, with a theatrical gene inherited from a father she doesn't yet know. She is disappointed by her provincial existence and yearns for a more romantic life - I thought mime was exactly the kind of thing she'd pin her dreams on.
PJ: How did it feel to finish the novel and find a publisher?
MF: Finishing was a relief as it had taken ages with moving house/having a baby etc getting in the way. I knew my agent liked it but she had told me not to get my hopes up (she is very blunt!) so I didn't. I knew it was quite an offbeat story that she'd found hard to pitch. I couldn't believe it when I heard Jonathan Cape was interested. My first thought was that they make very good looking books.
PJ: Has getting published changed the way you view yourself as a writer?
MF: Yes, it has been a big endorsement. For a long time I wondered if I was wasting my time or was being self-indulgent. The best thing about it is the excuse to carry on writing.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked you about the process of getting published?
MF: Writing is a loner's business so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the editing process. In the case of Chaplin and Company, this was quite considerable. We didn't change much but added a lot and 'unpacked' scenes that I'd only sketched out in the first draft. I think the fact that the collaboration worked so well was down to an excellent editor, who saw what more could be made of the first draft manuscript and asked all the right questions.
PJ: You are at work on a second novel - can you tell us anything about it?
MF: I love whodunnits, in book and TV form, so wanted to try and write one. It is a murder mystery set in a girls' boarding school, so quite different in style to Chaplin and Company. It has felt very different to write as I had to plot the whole thing out before starting to write, and has been a technical - and often confusing! - exercise. The timing and release of information is so hard to judge. I have newfound respect for Agatha Christie and co.
PJ: You’ve done it – finished and published a first novel – what was the single most important thing that got you there? What advice would you give for someone embarking on their first novel?
MF: I am not particularly disciplined so could not have finished the book if I hadn't enjoyed working on it above almost anything else. I was lucky in that the main characters kept me interested from start to finish. At Goldsmiths we heard about many different models of writing practice, I think its important that each person finds their own. For me, this wasn't 1000 words per day or many redrafts – it meant learning when to get away from the computer for a day or a week and go back to my notebook until I could feel a way forward. The best piece of advice I heard on the MA was about characters – get to know them as well as you can and they will direct the story.