Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. April 2008.
Elizabeth Noble’s ten year old daughter has been learning the facts of life. She’s at a Catholic school in New York, and asked her mother if it was true that you can only get pregnant if you are married.
Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth explained that a woman can get pregnant every time she has sex with a man. The conversation, though, did not end there.
“Tallulah said, ‘so you and Daddy have done it more than twice then,’” recounts Elizabeth with a laugh. “And I said, ‘Yes. A few more times.
“When she asked if I had done it with anyone apart from her father I thought, ‘I am not ready for that conversation right now!”
The English mum of two daughters is in Dublin to promote her fourth book. It’s called, ‘Things I want my Daughters to Know,’ and we’re drinking coffee in the Merrion Hotel as we discuss whether daughters should know their mother’s secrets.
It’s a dilemma for a character in Elizabeth’s book. Barbara, mum to four daughters has cancer, and knows that time is running out. She’s had a chequered life. Her first marriage failed, leaving her older children with unresolved issues. Her second; to a younger man, was blissful; but she has secrets.
“Lisa and Jennifer are in their thirties; Amanda in her twenties and Hannah is just 15. She feels that none of them are quite ‘set.’ None is in a really good place and there are things she wants to help them with. So she leaves them letters and a journal. Hoping that this way she can help them.”
Three of the letters are gentle declarations of love. But the one to the rootless Amanda tells a devastating secret that threatens to derail her life completely.
“Leaving that letter was deeply cowardly; it leaves Amanda with this emotional crevasse. I wanted to show Barbara was flawed. I didn’t want her to be totally idolised after her death,” says Elizabeth.
Elizabeth shot to fame when her first novel, ‘The Reading Group’ made number one in Britain. She writes movingly about friendship; about love, and the dilemmas women go through, and she makes you care. You will laugh; cry, and remember the characters long after you have put the novel down.
Why, though, did she decide to write about mothers and daughters?
“It is the most complicated relationship,” she says. “I am very close to my mother, but the bond is not without its dark side. We are alike; but we were raised differently. My mum’s mother was ill, and she had to, virtually, bring up her five siblings.
“She hasn’t tried to live through me; but she is aware that she could have done the things I have done. That has sometimes caused a struggle for her.”
Elizabeth studied English at Oxford, and worked in publishing before she turned to writing.
“Mum was a great support. But she didn’t like my third book,” says Elizabeth. “It was published when I was 37 and it completely floored me. I was devastated. I thought, ‘I am nearly 40. I have got my own children, but my mother’s approval is still vital to me.’
“She is pleased with this book and pleased with me for it. Big sighs of relief!” laughs Elizabeth. “But the most relieved is my husband, David. Because he has to mop up the aftermath.”
It’s not just her mother’s opinion that worries Elizabeth.
“Publication time makes me feel vulnerable,” she says. “It’s great when you get good reviews and feedback; it’s wonderful when you get good sales figures, but it’s the bad reviews that become imprinted on my brain.
“These days, though, I am more relaxed about my writing and about life in general,” says Elizabeth. “I mind less about a lot of things. I wonder if I am going to be upset when I reach 40. In ways I feel quite excited by it.”
Things I want my daughter to Know is so perceptive on the fall out of divorce on adult children, that it comes as a surprise to learn that Elizabeth’s parents are still together, and that she hadn’t been married before.
“I am married to a man who is divorced,” she says. “David is a publisher, and is 18 years older than me. He has brought such patience wisdom and knowledge to this marriage, but I think the divorce did terrible things to my stepson.
“The embarrassment of Lisa and Jennifer when their mother is pregnant is based on my stepson William. He was 16 when I was pregnant with Tallulah. It meant that his father was having sex with me. He was so revolted and horrified that he could hardly bear to be in the same room as me.”
Elizabeth recently moved from her dream house in Surrey to New York. She loves it.
“I’ve been there for 18 months. We live in the middle of Manhattan. It is clean; safe, and can be easily navigated. New York is rich in parks and facilities like museums. We all love it.
“I feel so settled there, that I am setting my next book there. I have a British heroine who lives in New York. It’s about the residents of an apartment block and its provisional title is ‘Love Storeys- because it tells three or four love stories of the people who live there.”
Isn’t Elizabeth a little worried though, that her mother might dislike it? Given that the third book she so disliked was also about romantic love?
“She will just have to get over it,” says Elizabeth. “And going on current form she won’t get to read it. She read the first in chunks as I wrote it; the second in manuscript; the third in proof and the fourth when it was in the shops. So each time, she is waiting until further down the line.”
Every time Elizabeth starts a novel, she tells herself she will write it in chronological order. But that never happens.
“I don’t write in linear fashion,” she says. “I write episodically. I write hundreds of short stories that have to be linked together with a narrative.
“It’s a tricky way to write and I have tried to change. But I do know where the book is going, because the plot is in my head. One day I might be in the mood to write love scenes; the next I’ll write a fight or a long discussion. It doesn’t work any other way for me.”
Elizabeth if quietly pleased with her latest novel.
“We could all do with thinking of the things we want to tell our daughters,” she muses. “We should all express ourselves more than we do with the people we love. I have heard someone say, so many times, ‘I wish I had had that conversation with my parents. And now it’s too late.’
“Somebody asked me if this book was a love letter to my daughters. I said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But I think it might be a love letter to my mum.”
Things I want my Daughter to Know by Elizabeth Noble is published by Michael Joseph at 19.75 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008.