Today, I’m delighted to welcome Alison Ripley Cubitt to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about the books they’d like to persuade your club to read. If you want to pose a question of your own, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
Alison is an author, memoirist, novelist and screenwriter. Alison has had a successful TV and film production career working on The Big Breakfast, at Walt Disney Europe overseeing supporting programmes for feature animation – including The Making of Toy Story. She then worked for BBC production in Manchester. She had a column on screenwriting for Writing Magazine, has had two lifestyle and travel titles published by Vacation Work Publications and wrote the screenplay for Waves, a short film drama and winner, Special Jury Prize, Remi and WorldFest, Houston. She has also taught screenwriting at Liverpool John Moores University.
Her most recent piece for The Telegraph was a story, which went under the heading of Never Lock Eyes With an Orang-utan, on the filming location of the hit TV series, Indian Summers.
She co-writes thrillers with Sean Cubitt as Lambert Nagle.
Her most recent project is a memoir, Castles in the Air, which will be the subject of our discussion today.
Q: All writers are readers first, so let’s start there. When did your love affair with reading begin?
My mother Molly passed on her love of books and reading to me. We lived in Malaysia, on a remote rubber estate. There were no kindergartens, and I was keen to learn, so Mum taught me at home. At three I would ‘read’ my father’s daily newspaper, except I’d hold the paper upside down and would try to read the words from right to left. On my second visit to the UK, when I must have been nearly six, Mum took me to the local library in West Sussex. I couldn’t believe that I could take out so many books in one go. At about the same time I learnt to ride. I consumed pony books – written by Pat Smythe, the Pullein-Thompson sisters, as well as practically every book written by Enid Blyton.
Q: Doris Lessing says that it was moving from one country to another at a young age that made her a writer. Is this something you can relate to?
I’ve been moving around all my life, not just as a young child. I’ve always been the new girl, trying to fit in. The only time I didn’t feel like an outsider, was when I lived in big cities like London and Melbourne. It was certainly true when I came back from Australia in 2011, and moved to Hampshire. Being an outsider, gave me permission and time to write. Every time you move you’re forced to establish new networks and make friends. But compared with someone who has lived in the same place all their life, I didn’t have as many social obligations in Hampshire, which freed me up to write.
Q: But that wasn’t when you first turned your hand to writing, was it?
No, it was far, far earlier. A precocious child, I won first prize in a writing competition with a pony book. When I saw my book displayed in the front window of her local bookshop in small-town New Zealand, I couldn’t stop smiling. As a teenager, pressure to do well in exams meant that I set aside my creative writing. In my free time, I worked at the family horticultural business and cared for and rode my horse.
At the time when I came back to writing, I’d been working in TV production for ten years, working my way up. I was in discussion with the producers of a major soap opera, talking about the possibility of a senior production role when I realised that my heart was no longer really in it. I’d lost the hunger and the drive, and I realised that I wanted a more creative role in the industry. I applied and got accepted for the MA in Screenwriting at what was the Northern Film School, at Leeds Beckett University, but did so without having the means to pay my fees. At around the same time my mother died suddenly. Her legacy meant that I could take up the offer. It was at film school that I started to write fiction.
Click to look inside or buy here.
An eight-year-old child witnesses her mother’s secret and knows that from that moment life will never be the same
“Honest yet unsentimental and told with abundant love and compassion, this is a profoundly moving portrait of a woman’s life, hopes and dreams. We learn not only about Molly, but about mothers and daughters, secrets and love. A story for readers struggling to come to terms with the trauma of losing loved ones.”
Q: You’ve lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and now leafy Hampshire. With so many moves, you’ve had a very varied career. Has it provided inspiration for your writing?
Often. I found inspiration for what would become the environmental thriller, Revolution Earth (co-written with Sean Cubitt as the pen name Lambert Nagle) on my daily commute from the Wirral to Manchester, where I worked in talent management for BBC North. It took me past the vast oil terminal at Stanlow, and I was struck at how, in daylight, it was an ugly sprawl of dirty grey pipelines, yet at night, it appeared to transform into a magical array of twinkling fairy lights.
In 2000, I returned to live in New Zealand with Sean, who’d been recruited to run the media department at a university there. A new life in a new country with few opportunities in television resulted in a career change. I moved into corporate relocation, helping expats find their feet in a new country. A move to Australia in 2006 enabled me to combine relocation with writing, and I pitched a non-fiction title to Vacation Work, a small UK press, which resulted in a two book commission: Buying a House in New Zealand and Retiring to Australia and New Zealand (with Deborah Penrith).
In 2011 another job move for Sean brought me back to the UK. I worked as an events manager for an art gallery in a part of central London that was gentrifying at an alarming rate and seemingly overnight, turned into a favourite playground of the super-rich. No longer able to afford the spiralling rent, the gallery closed its doors in 2015. The million pound property deals on that street in Marylebone were the inspiration for the short story Contained, published by Endeavour Press in the anthology Capital Crimes.
Q: But much of your working life has also involved writing.
Yes. After a brief but unhappy stint in advertising – which made Mad Men’s sexist work culture look tame – my first writing job was summarising press stories for a news monitoring agency based in Sydney. But after two and half years, the lure of London proved too hard to resist.
At the end of my screenwriting degree, I became the screenwriting columnist for Writing Magazine and also taught screenwriting at Liverpool John Moores University.
In 1998, I wrote the script for the short film drama, Waves, which was optioned by the same director who made my graduation film at Leeds. It took another seven years for him to find the financial backing to make the film. By then I’d returned to live in New Zealand with Sean, who had been recruited to run the media department at a university there.
Q: Castles in the Air is a memoir. What is it that makes it a must-read for book clubs?
A: It’s partly a story of what it was like to be an emigrant in the age of Empire, as well as a snapshot of what it was like to be a teenager in Asia at the outbreak of World War Two. It’s also a story about mothers, daughters, secrets, love and longing, in an era when women couldn’t have it all. Readers who enjoy historical fiction and or reading about the darker side of family relationships will find plenty of material here for discussion. I am keen to visit book clubs, either in person or via Skype.
Q: Tell us a little about the major areas you had to research.
I no longer have any relatives left alive from the generation above me, so I wasn’t able to conduct any form of primary research, which I found frustrating. And my mother’s parents died long before the truth about Bletchley Park’s wartime operations was revealed to the public. But it was only after I read a book about Bletchley’s overseas outposts in Asia and Africa that I was able to put two and two together about yet another family secret. Although my grandmother would drop hints, when we asked her what she’d done in the war, she’d smile, put her fingers to her lips and say, “codes and ciphers”. And I was too young to know what that meant. But all the clues were in my mother’s letters, as the family kept moving around to all the countries mentioned in the book. My grandfather’s war record, which by 2011 should have been in the public domain, was hidden away in the archive of our national spying agency, GCHQ. I knew from my experience in documentary research that I had to find a way to bypass the official channels, and through a sheer stroke of luck, and a good contact, I managed to do so.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
‘Building castles in the air’ was an expression my mother Molly, the main character, used to describe her dreams and schemes. Here she is, writing in a letter in Chapter 9.
‘one of my latest ambitions if we go back to Hong Kong after the war is to go home via the Trans-Siberian railway. I mean to travel all over Europe and then retire in my little cottage in the country. When I relate all these things to Daddy, he looks at me enquiringly, and politely asks where all the money for these ventures is coming from, which completely spoils things. Why do people have to be practical and spoil all your nice castles in the air?’ I thought that the phrase summed up the kind of person she was too, so felt that it had to be the title.
Q: In which ways was writing the book transformative for you?
In my twenties, with the optimism of youth, I thought that I could fix my mother. Through the course of writing this book, I found out that I couldn’t. I didn’t set out to write it as therapy, and although the writing of it was very painful, at times, the process has been cathartic.
Alison and Susan Ripley in Uplands school uniform
Q: There’s a rather glib saying: ‘All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction’. Do you agree?
As I’m here at Virtual Book Club discussing my memoir, I feel that now I’m qualified to answer this question as a yes. I think I’d struggle to name a novelist, particularly of literary fiction, who hasn’t mined their own emotions, experiences and lives for source material. You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface of my screenplay, short stories and thriller to find autobiographical material.
I don’t know about biography as I haven’t written one, but memoir is to me at least, a form of fictionalised reality. I’ve previously compared it to reality TV, which is real life curated, in order to create a story. And if you put yourself at the centre of a story, you can’t be objective. Nor is it about getting the facts right, either. My siblings would have a very different take on the life events I depict, as that is I think the nature of families: all living under the same roof, but experiencing life very differently.
Q: Man Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan said that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the book he couldn’t avoid writing. Is that how you felt about the book?
I’ve explored themes about mothers and daughters, secrets, lies and longing in film and short fiction, but I realised that this was my way of avoiding the real story I had a burning desire to tell. It took me until 2011, when I finally sat down to read my mother’s letters and diaries, that I realised that Castles in the Air was the book I had to write. And I knew that this time that I could no longer hide behind fiction and that the story needed to be told as narrative non-fiction. I knew that it would take courage, as revisiting traumatic moments from the past were bound to be upsetting, not just for me, but for my family.
Q: You’ve had experience of both traditional and indie publishing. How do the two compare?
Compared with TV, publishing has always appeared to me to be curiously elitist and old-fashioned, and about twenty years behind broadcasting and the music industry. All the innovation is coming from the indie side and traditional publishing is being dragged along with it, whether it likes it or not.
I’ve always regarded myself as an indie, as most of what I’ve had published has been with small publishing houses. When I had my two travel and lifestyle titles commissioned I had a good relationship with the small, independent publishing house. My contract indicated that if the titles sold well that I would have an opportunity to update them every few years. Unfortunately, my publisher sold his business and retired, just as ebooks and travel apps were taking off. The larger publisher who acquired the imprint decided that the market was waning for property and lifestyle print books, and took the decision to cease publishing them.
The way I found out I’d been dumped was by going on their website, where my name, books and author biography had disappeared. It was a classic business merger and acquisition, where the new publisher had decided to concentrate on the profitable side of the business. But as an individual author, I had no control. I did, though, manage to get my rights back to one of my titles, although I’ve yet to do anything with them.
Q:Is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on?
I’ve self-published two books. I’d dearly love to have been able to afford two rounds of developmental editing. I was used to this, as screenplays are batted backwards and forwards between writer and producer and then writer and director. I’ve been very fortunate with the editing I received from Daydreams Dandelion Press, a model publisher, who published my short story Blue Silk Dress in the Mosaics 2 anthology.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
I’ve ended up living in the countryside for the first time since I left home, and have at last been able to re-kindle my passion for horse riding. It’s my once a week treat. I don’t know why, but I’ve grown to love dressage, which I always hated as a kid. Dressage is a cross between ballet, Pilates and steering a vehicle, albeit a four-legged one, that doesn’t particularly like being kept straight. Every horse has a favourite side and will do its best to lean one side or another, but the rider has to make subtle adjustments, and at the same time, make it all look easy.
Maybe I like it now because I’ve grown risk-averse as I’ve got older: I had a fall in a cross-country riding competition as a teenager, which left me with concussion, lower back and neck injuries. I’m very conscious too that writing is such a sedentary occupation, that I spend many hours a week walking, cycling, lifting weights and of course, riding when I can.
Want to know more about Alison?
Other books by this author:
Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women
Buying a House in New Zealand
Retiring to Australia and New Zealand (with Deborah Penrith)
She co-writes thrillers with Sean Cubitt as Lambert Nagle.
Their books and short stories include:
Fractured (short story)
Find out more about future publications, including the short story, Blue Silk Dress published on May 1st by Daydreams Dandelion Press in the anthology Mosaics: 2 at smarturl.it/Mosaics2.
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