This evening it’s a pleasure to welcome Margaret K Johnson to A Woman’s Wisdom.
Margaret K Johnson began writing after finishing at Art College to support her career as an artist. Writing quickly replaced painting as her major passion, and these days her canvasses lay neglected in her studio. She writes women’s fiction, romance and readers for people learning to speak English. Margaret has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and lives in Norwich, UK with her partner and son.
What sparked off the idea of your book?
I came across a wonderful book by Olivia St Clair called 227 Ways to Unleash the Sex Goddess in Every Woman. The over-the-top enthusiasm of the book immediately gave me the character of Jade, the workshop leader. I imagined her as exuberant, exotic and over the top, trying to teach a group of women in a sleepy Norfolk seaside town, and I thought of ways I could make the group of women as different to each other as possible to create tension and conflict.
Which character, if any, most resembles your personality?
I think there are probably bits of me in all of the characters – Janet has low self- esteem and lacks confidence, which used to be me a long time ago. Kate is bitter following a relationship break-up, and I’ve definitely been there! Reenie’s family isn’t communicating well – probably most of us have experienced that – and Estelle is outwardly aloof, but in reality she’s isolated and keeps her vulnerability hidden. Again, lots of us have probably put on a bit of a front on occasion. Oh, and sometimes I might be a bit like Jade…
Which character was the hardest to write and why?
Successful and aloof Estelle probably, because she starts the book as something of a bitch, and yet I still needed the reader to root for her. Hopefully I achieved that!
How do you plan/research your books?
As far as planning goes, I need to know my characters, the beginning and the end of the story and some touchstones between the two when I start out. As I get stuck into writing, the theme or thread that runs right through the book becomes clear to me – if it isn’t clear from the outset. Once I have a strong idea of that, I can plan the whole book in more detail, pinning everything to that theme. I do this by brainstorming scenes and events on post-it notes or cards, then arranging them into an order and sticking them onto a huge piece of card, which I keep propped up in front of my desk. Research varies – I’ve already mentioned the book that inspired The Goddess Workshop. For my follow-up novel, The Dare Club, I did scary things like stand-up comedy and the Treetop Challenge at Go Ape.
What are working on at the moment?
I have two things on the go at the moment – I’ve just completed a romance, which I’m waiting to hear back from a publisher about. I’m also writing another women’s fiction novel. Once again, it’s about empowerment, friends and love, with a heroine who grows throughout the novel. This time I’m writing in the first person with a single point of view. Both The Goddess Workshop and The Dare Club are told from four points of view in the third person.
Do you write for any websites?
I post reasonably regularly on my blog – Getting Published, Getting Laughs.
Paperback or eBook?
I do both, because although writers sell more in eBook form these days, I love books myself, and so do people who know me personally.
Favourite book as a child and as an adult?
As a child I used to love a book called Adventures of The Little Wooden Horse by Ursual Moray Williams. It’s a kind of Pinnochio story about a toy that comes to life, and I loved the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and the dire things that happened to the poor horse. I think as readers we do want to wallow in misery at times, so long as it all comes out okay at the end! As an adult, I enjoy stories about relationships, self-esteem, putting right the past and love. I particularly enjoy Lucy Dillon’s novels. I’ve just bought A Hudred Pieces of Me, and can’t wait to start reading it, and I also love everything about Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books.
Whom do you admire and why?
Anyone who has successfully rebuilt their life following adversity, because I’ve had to do that myself and it’s a recurring theme in my books.
Name three people, dead or alive, you would invite to dinner.
Maeve Binchy, because I think she’d be the life and soul of the party and also have lots of valuable stuff to impart about writing. My Uncle Brian, because he was always such a laugh and I’d like to be able to exchange banter with him as an adult. And Eddie Izzard for similar reasons.
Excerpt from The Goddess Workshop
‘Here you are,’ said Ted, coming back in with the tea.
‘Thanks, love,’ said Reenie, taking the steaming mug from him. ‘Here, let me hold yours while you get in.’
Soon they were snuggled together comfortably, sipping at their drinks, the silence between them relaxed and companionable.
‘So,’ said Ted casually, spoiling it all. ‘You haven’t told me very much about the workshop yesterday. Nothing, in fact.’
Reenie tensed up. It was true, she hadn’t. And somehow, she didn’t want to.
‘Well, it’s confidential, isn’t it?’ she said defensively. ‘I can’t tell you about the girls on it and what they said, can I? It wouldn’t be right.’
‘So it’s all women then, is it?’ Ted asked quickly. ‘No men?’
Still reluctant to talk about it, Reenie sighed. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s all women.’
‘Good,’ said Ted, but his expression was still expectant, and Reenie frowned at him.
‘Is that it, then?’ Ted said. ‘That’s all I get to know?’
Reenie felt suddenly irritated. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you wanted me to do the course, so I’m doing it, all right? That’s all you need to know for now, isn’t it?’ There was no way she was going to tell him about this week’s homework, which included going out somewhere without any knickers on. She wasn’t by any means sure she was going to find the nerve to do it anyway, and he’d only wet himself laughing.
‘All right!’ said Ted. ‘Keep your hair on! I was only showing an interest!’
Reenie was instantly contrite. She and Ted rarely exchanged a cross word. ‘I’m sorry, love. Only it’s just… well, it’s a bit embarrassing.’
Ted sighed. ‘No, I’m sorry. You don’t have to go back next week if you don’t want to. I was only thinking of you, you know, when I suggested it. Just doesn’t seem fair that you don’t have any fun.’
Reenie suddenly felt like crying. ‘Silly old fool!’ she said. ‘D’you think I’ve been lying here suffering all these years?’
Ted put his arm around her and pulled her close. ‘Not suffering, no. Just not…well, experiencing the earth moving.’
‘I nearly did that time in Blackpool,’ Reenie re-minded him.
‘Nineteen ninety-nine,’ Ted confirmed.
Then he caught Reenie’s eye and the pair of them burst out laughing again.
Ted gave her another hug. ‘I mean it. Don’t go back again if you don’t want to.’
‘No,’ said Reenie. ‘I’ll give it another go.’
Next door, their neighbours had started up again. Reenie gave Ted a nudge. ‘And if it doesn’t work, I can always go round there and ask those two for some advice, eh?’
Ted groaned. ‘Not sure I could keep up with that! Come on, might as well get up.’
When Reenie got downstairs, Ted had made a start on the breakfast and was frying bacon with the back door wide open.
‘Didn’t want to risk waking up Sleeping Beauty with the smoke alarm,’ Ted explained. ‘Not sure what time she got in last night, are you?’
‘No,’ Reenie said. ‘It was pretty late though.’
‘Might be time for a little father-daughter chat soon,’ he said. ‘She needs to think about what she’s going to do with her life now she’s not on that course.’ Ted reached over to switch the radio on, filling the kitchen with the over-cheery voice of a DJ on the local radio station.
‘Good morning, Shelthorpe! It’s Saturday 18th September, and it’s a fine day out there, so get up you lazy lot!’
And just like that, as soon as Reenie heard the date, everything changed. The eighteenth of September. Reenie sat down before she fell down, her heart racing.
Over at the cooker, Ted carried on cooking the breakfast, but there was something different about his actions now. They were quieter. He was attacking the preparations with less gusto. Going through the motions. More than anything, Reenie wanted him to reach down to switch the gas off and turn to speak to her. But she knew he wouldn’t.
When he did finally turn with her plateful of bacon and eggs, his eyes were deliberately turned towards the crispy bacon.
‘There you go, girl,’ he said, his voice as artificially cheery as the DJ’s. ‘Get that down you.’ And when he sat down opposite her and began to eat his own food, Reenie experienced, just for a moment, a feeling something close to hatred for him. How could he carry on as if nothing had happened? How could he?
With a great effort, she pushed herself up from the table. She was trembling with emotion, but somehow she managed to speak. ‘I…I’m not very hungry at the moment. Think I’ll… go for a little walk.’
‘I’ll put yours in the oven to keep warm then, shall I?’ Ted offered, still not making eye contact.
When Reenie didn’t answer, he got up and did it anyway, while she stood and waited. But afterwards he just sat down again and carried on eating.
‘Do you want to come, Ted?’ Reenie asked in a small voice. ‘Do you want to come for a walk?’
He smiled briefly, focusing his gaze somewhere over her shoulder. ‘No, thanks, love. I think I’ll go down to the allotment. Take your coat with you. There’s a chill in the air.’
There’s a chill in our relationship! thought Reenie, I don’t know about the air! And she grabbed her coat off the peg without bothering to put it on, closing the door after herself and hurrying off down the garden path without another word.
So desperate was Reenie to reach her destination, she threw caution to the winds and took the most direct route, walking straight down Bartolph Street and turning right along St Mary’s Drive. It had been three years since she’d last walked this way. This was where it had happened, and ever since then she hadn’t been able to come near. Normally these days she took the long way round, skirting the industrial estate and the shops. But it took a good twenty minutes longer going that way, and today she just didn’t have twenty minutes to spare.
But by the time Reenie reached the point of no return, she realised it had been a big mistake to walk through these streets. She was still trembling and now she felt cold as ice as well. She dared not look anywhere but straight ahead. If she could have walked safely with her eyes closed, she would have done. At any minute, she expected to see someone she knew; to hear someone calling out to her, mouthing off. But it was still early, so mercifully she saw no one, which was as lucky as Reenie expected to get that day of all dreadful days.
That blooming, sodding workshop. Thinking about it had driven everything else from her mind. Everything else. How could she have forgotten? How could she? She felt ashamed of herself. And so very sad.
At last she reached the ornate gates and turned into the entrance of the cemetery. The grave was in the far corner, much closer to the road and the traffic than Reenie had ever wanted it to be. But its exact location had been, like so many things, out of her hands.
Once there, Reenie knelt down on the ground to be as close as possible. ‘Hello, love,’ she said. ‘Hello, my darling. Dad says sorry he can’t be here.’
At the lie, the tears came, sliding silently down her cheeks. She didn’t speak again until she heard footsteps behind her; felt a comforting hand on her shoulder.
‘Hello, Mum. Knew I’d find you here today.’
Reenie reached up to cover her eldest daughter Gaynor’s hand with her own, her sobs deepening at the thought of how she so very nearly hadn’t been there.
‘Three years,’ Reenie said. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘No,’ said Gaynor, her voice thick with tears. ‘I can’t.’
‘Grandma!’ called a voice, and quickly Reenie blew her nose, doing her best to pull herself together before her grandson reached her.
‘Hello, Charlie, mate,’ she said.
Charlie’s face was wearing an expression of puzzlement. ‘Grandma,’ he asked her seriously, ‘why are you wearing your slippers?’