The writing process fascinates me and I love interviewing authors about their books. Today I’m delighted to welcome Vivien Brown, author of Lily Alone, to Linda’s Book Bag. Vivien kindly gives me an insight into how and why she writes, in my latest author interview.
Published by Harper Impulse, Lily Alone is available for purchase here.
What sort of mother would leave her all alone… a gripping and heart-wrenching domestic drama that won’t let you go.
Lily, who is almost three years old, wakes up alone at home with only her cuddly toy for company. She is afraid of the dark, can’t use the phone, and has been told never to open the door to strangers.
But why is Lily alone and why isn’t there anyone who can help her? What about the lonely old woman in the flat upstairs who wonders at the cries from the floor below? Or the grandmother who no longer sees Lily since her parents split up?
All the while a young woman lies in a coma in hospital – no one knows her name or who she is, but in her silent dreams, a little girl is crying for her mummy… and for Lily, time is running out.
An Interview with Vivien Brown
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Vivien. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and Lily Alone in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I have always loved working with words, rather than numbers. When I left school, a job as an author seemed like nothing but a pipe dream and was never a serious option, and ironically I ended up working first in a bank and then in a council accountancy department, so for a while numbers were definitely winning! It was only when I took a break having given birth to twins that I started to write in earnest. I then made a major career change, working with other people’s children as well as my own, originally as a registered childminder and then in libraries and children’s centres, promoting reading to the under-fives. In my spare time I was sending short stories to magazines and had a go at a first novel. My day to day involvement with young children and their (quite often young single) parents was a huge asset while I was writing Lily Alone. Nowadays my girls are grown-up, I have a new marriage, a beautiful granddaughter and two cats, who all help to make my life complete.
Why do you write?
I always have, and always will. For fun or for money… it makes no difference. I love doing it and can’t imagine a time when I will ever stop.
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
Probably when I sold my first story to Woman’s Weekly and realised that others might actually enjoy reading what I wrote, and be willing to pay for it!
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
When I was going out to work, I got into the habit of writing after 9 a night, to fit in with family routines, often staying up until the early hours. Now that I am an at-home writer, I don’t tend to stick to a routine at all. I can write when the fancy takes me, except when I have a deadline to meet when it becomes a much more frantic and full-time thing. I have a study upstairs, looking over the garden, with all my writing needs around me, and only come out for food!
I know your life has been heavily involved in promoting reading. How has this love of reading impacted on you as a writer?
In my working life, I was running library storytime sessions every week and giving talks to parents about the importance of reading to their children. I was also heavily involved in gifting the national Bookstart scheme, whereby all babies and toddlers receive free packs of books, and I was on the book selection panel one year. I soon became very aware of which stories captured kids’ imaginations and become lifelong favourites, and which failed to hit the mark, so I started reviewing children’s books and writing regular articles for nursery and childcare magazines. I wrote a few funny children’s poems which were published in school anthologies too. I think the elements that make a story work are the same in adult and children’s fiction – strong characters, a good sense of place, a compelling storyline, a satisfying ending, and something to either laugh, cry or care about.
You’ve written scores of short stories for a variety of women’s magazines. Which elements from short stories can easily be adapted to writing full length novels and which others are completely different?
As Vivien Hampshire, I have been a regular contributor to most of the UK women’s magazines for quite a long time, having had around 140 stories in print. My themes are pretty constant. I write about families, romance, day to day life, and I like to chuck in a few animals too! My characters vary from children to the elderly. Endings can be uplifting or sad, but are always plausible and written to suit the readership, and I have been known to add a touch of comedy from time to time. Novels share so many of these elements, but I now have to spread my story over 100,000 words instead of just 1000! That means going into far more depth, adding more minor characters and sub-plots, and allowing myself to develop wider themes. Lily Alone, with its social services and hospital scenes, also involved quite a bit of research, which I rarely have to think about in a short contemporary magazine story.
How did you go about researching detail and ensuring Lily Alone was realistic?
I began with internet searches, as most writers do these days, so I was able to get the basic information I needed about head injuries, comas, etc. My daughter is a nurse, so she read the scene set in A&E and put me right on a few of the finer details, like the order in which Ruby’s injuries would be dealt with. My other daughter had just qualified as a social worker in a children and families team, so I was able to pick her brains, and that of her boss, about some of the procedures that kicked in once Lily was found.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Lily Alone?
The book is really asking the question: What sort of mother would leave her two year old daughter alone? And what could possibly have led her to do it? Little Lily wakes up alone with only her cuddly toy for company. She is hungry, afraid of the dark, can’t use the phone, and has been told never to open the door to strangers. In the flat downstairs, a lonely old woman keeps herself to herself, wonders at the cries coming from upstairs but decides not to interfere. Lily’s father hasn’t seen her for a while. He’s been abroad, absorbed in his new job and his new girlfriend, and her granny lives miles away. In a hospital bed, a young woman lies in a coma. No-one knows her name or who she is, but in her silent dreams, a little girl is crying out for her mummy…
The concept of a child left alone like Lily is quite disturbing. What made you choose this as a premise for your novel?
I’m not sure it was a conscious decision from the start. I like writing about the complicated dynamics within families, and about children, and started off with nothing more than the image of a road accident victim and who might miss her if she didn’t come home. Having worked with kids, I love watching them develop their independence as they learn and grow. My first (self-published) novel as Vivien Hampshire – Losing Lucy – was about a baby taken from her pram and the impact on the lives of those around her, and Lily Alone follows similar themes. I wanted to explore how one simple mistake could have lasting effects not only on the girl who made it but on everyone around her – so expect some drama, some life-changing decisions and some romance, when all the other characters are thrown together by Lily’s plight!
One of the themes of Lily Alone seems to me to be the way in which many of us are isolated in our lives. How important is it to explore such themes through fiction do you think?
In writing this novel – my first as Vivien Brown – I wanted to step away from romantic comedy and light-hearted stories into domestic drama, and tackle something a lot more serious. By placing Lily and her mum Ruby in a block of flats in London, miles from her home town, and giving Ruby no close family of her own to fall back on when things got tough, I was isolating her from any kind of support network. Her neighbours have their own lives and problems, and nobody has made any real effort to get to know each other. Village life may well be very different, but I’m sure many people in cities live this way, and for those who are without family, or may be elderly, shy, jobless or poor, loneliness is an inevitable result. I don’t think fiction will change that, but it may help raise awareness.
Lily Alone has a cover that suggests a bleak life because of the grey background and danger through the red in the dress. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
I had no input in creating the cover which was all the work of Harper Impulse and their book designers. I was shown some earlier versions which neither I nor the publishers felt was quite right, but when we saw this one it immediately felt perfect for the book. It conveys that sense of Lily being all alone except for her bear, and the moving curtain and big bed add to that, I think. Lily does not actually wear red in the story so there is a little poetic licence going on, but it is very effective. There have been many comments and compliments about the cover, which I am so pleased about.
You’ve also written romantic comedy under the name Vivien Hampshire with How To Win Back Your Husband. Which genre is the most challenging for you as an author?
I find romantic comedy relatively easy to write, as it sticks pretty much to a tried and tested formula, where every reader knows from page one that the hero and heroine are going to get together by the end. I have enjoyed writing that sort of story, but now I need more to get my teeth into. Domestic drama is tougher to write, without such an obvious clear-cut path through the story, and is more emotional for me and for the readers. That’s where I now see my future as an author.
If you could choose to be a character from Lily Alone, who would you be and why?
Most of them have problems and sadness in their lives, at least when the story begins, so I think I would opt for Laura, a nurse who befriends the comatose Ruby in hospital. She is young, with a close group of female friends, has her whole career ahead of her, and there is the hint of romance to come!
If Lily Alone became a film, who would you like to play Lily’s mother Ruby and why would you choose them?
Lily’s mum Ruby is only twenty two, quite thin, fragile and unglamorous, so my list of possible actresses is quite limited. Emma Watson from the Harry Potter films would be great, but even she is 5 years too old now!
And when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I tend to stick largely to women’s fiction, in the broadest sense. I veer between contemporary romance, 1940s and 1950s sagas, and psychological thrillers, usually ones written by women and with female protagonists, but I also like Dick Francis books set in the world of horseracing, and occasionally revisit some of the old classics, especially Jane Austen’s. My favourite authors in recent months have been Clare Mackintosh, Veronica Henry, Iona Grey, Jean Fullerton, Elaine Everest and Milly Johnson.
Finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Lily Alone should be their next read, what would you say?
A child left alone. What might happen while you’re gone? To her? … or to you?
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions Vivien.
Thank you for inviting me today, and I hope your readers will fall in love with Lily and care about her just as much as I do!
About Vivien Brown
Vivien Brown lives in Uxbridge, Middlesex, with her husband and two cats. For most of her life she has immersed herself in words – as an avid reader, writer, poet, library outreach worker, storyteller, gifter of Bookstart packs to babies and toddlers, creative writing tutor and crossword fanatic. She enjoys dipping into dictionaries and exploring the meaning of words, and watching and/or taking part in TV quiz shows. In the evenings she loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book, a compelling TV drama or her regular supply of women’s magazine short stories – which all help to provide inspiration and ideas for her own fiction. Lily Alone is her debut novel.
You can find out more by following Viv on Twitter.
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