The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Maggie’s Kitchen
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Brighton, England and lived there until age 19 when I went to London to study.
I always wanted to work in a creative industry so I managed to get a summer job with a production company and was offered a role when I graduated. While I was working I studied an MA in Film & TV and have worked on a variety of factual and entertainment projects.
I moved to Sydney with my partner at the end of 1999 so it was a very exciting time to be here – for the Olympics and the millennium.
I worked for an independent production company and then SBS before our first son was born, then I studied an MA in Creative Writing at UTS part-time. I wanted to continue finding stories and creating, however for it to also balance with family life, so it was a good choice. Even though it’s been challenging, it’s been a great journey so far.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I wanted to be a social worker when I was much younger but by the time I was eighteen, I was certain that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. There was a journalist called Kate Adie on the BBC who was always reporting from a war zone; I thought it would be a fascinating, exciting and worthwhile job to do. Unfortunately I didn’t get into the journalist training college I applied to so I studied economics and social policy instead. Still, that might explain why my new novel is about a war artist, even though it’s set during Second World War!
At thirty I was enjoying what I was doing so I wanted to continue writing and producing projects … but I had an eye on having an adventure overseas and so here we are!
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I’m not sure there’s any one particular belief that I held then that isn’t as strong now except for the fact that everything isn’t as black and white as you think it is when you are young. That’s why it’s good to harness the single-mindedness that you have when you are eighteen and channel it in the right way; use the wisdom you gain from experience.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc. – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
My love of film preceded my love of reading and writing – I was a huge fan of Roger & Hammerstein musicals as well as anything in technicolour, or black and white for that matter! My favourite film is Cinema Paradiso and I love the musical scores by Ennio Morricone; the scale and sweep of the music is still spine-tingling.
Another film that had a great effect on me, because of context more than anything else, was Backdraft. I co-wrote a screenplay that was in development with a US production company and visited the set when they were filming Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. I didn’t meet Kevin Costner, but it was an amazing experience and it was so exhilarating watching their new film Backdraft on the same trip when we met the screenwriter; I learnt so much about the craft from him. It was invaluable.
More recently Light Between Oceans showed me how a novel that is compelling enough can take you on a journey, even when happiness is not necessarily the inevitable outcome.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I did consider making a documentary about the wartime British Restaurants that are at the centre of Maggie’s Kitchen, but fiction seemed to offer up more possibilities. It is an interesting part of our history but it’s also one that is great to bring to life through creating characters that lived it, rather than showing it through archive, dramatic recreation and expert interviews. With enough research I felt that I would be able to imagine what it was like at the time so it wasn’t just speculation.
My grandmother is 95 and was in the Land Army during the Second World War; she said Maggie’s Kitchen took her back so hopefully I got some of it right! She also helped me with research. I am also developing Maggie’s Kitchen for drama so I hope the characters will get a new lease of life on screen too.
My next novel is about a war artist and is also set during the Second World War, but it has a contemporary storyline woven through that helps solve a wartime mystery. The role of Second World War artists in recording events and lives during wartime really interests me, especially when you compare them to how the media depicts conflict now – so there will be plenty of drama, romance and intrigue!
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Primarily I hope they will be entertained… and to have enjoyed the read. For me, a good book takes you on a journey; it’s escapism, and if you discover things you never knew about before, whether it’s about history or an understanding of human nature, then that’s a bonus. I hope some readers will appreciate this new perspective on history, and that the characters and setting feel authentic. If the book stays with you after you have finished reading it, then you know it’s had an impact.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire writers who find something that they think is worth exploring and manage to successfully recreate the world – Tracy Chevalier for The Girl With The Pearl Earing and Anthony Doerr for All The Light We Cannot See; Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer because it buzzes with life and totally captivated me, and Helen Garner for her sparse prose and for tackling the stories she does.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I would like to publish my second novel next year and to also secure a deal for the TV drama with broadcasters. I have other ideas and projects that are in various stages of idea or development, so I’ll see what comes to the surface next. I’ve learnt that things seem to have their own timing so I’m quite pragmatic about life and work. I also just want to continue writing and enjoy the people I meet along the way.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Advice that has come to me from other writers that I would wholly endorse:
- Write about what you know – you are already in front if you have experience in a specific area or field. Your writing will be authentic (and just think about all that research you won’t have to do!)
- Write from the body – involve the fives senses in your writing, in the same way that you use them to engage with your world in daily life.
- Persistence is everything – writing is a craft and you need to keep on with it, relentlessly writing and rewriting until you’re at a stage where you think it’s ready to send to an agent or a publisher.
- Do a credible writing course – it gives you a formal structure, provides the discipline, feedback and sharing of knowledge and ideas that are invaluable. The Faber Academy was invaluable for me.
Thank you for having me!
Thank you for playing, Caroline!
Amid the heartbreak and danger of London in the Blitz of WWII, Maggie Johnson finds her courage in friendship and food.
They might all travel the same scarred and shattered streets on their way to work, but once they entered Maggie's Kitchen, it was somehow as if the rest of the world didn't exist.
When the Ministry of Food urgently calls for the opening of British Restaurants to feed tired and hungry Londoners during the Second World War, Maggie Johnson is close to realising a long-held ...