Yesterday I published a post about Jo Parfitt’s mouth watering debut novel, Sunshine Soup. I asked Jo if she’d respond to a gentle inquisition about the project. This is what she had to say:
You are a highly successful author of 27 non-fictional books. What made you throw your knickers to the wind and write your first novel? Are you prone to bouts of madness?
Writing non-fiction is easy to me. Like falling off a log. I can write 1000 words in half an hour, easy. So, to me, only writing a novel would count and make me believe I was a ‘real’ writer. Something to do with suffering I guess. If it doesn’t hurt it’s not good enough. Madness indeed. I must have been mad to make myself do this, because my own standards are frighteningly high but also because this is easily the most exposing thing I have ever done – rather as if I had removed my knickers. I am scared of a chilly reception. Aren’t we all?
The world of shopping malls and housemaids is a fabulous backdrop to the book and the life of your main protagonist, Maya, will resonate with many expat women. How much of the book is based on your own experience?
Maya is not me though she loves to cook, has billions of brilliant ideas, a husband who changes into his shorts for dinner parties and two sons, as I do. I went to live in Dubai at 26. Maya goes at about 40. She is maybe the person I might have been had I waited to go abroad until later in life. But there it stops. All my characters are a culmination of many people I have met and some I would like to have met, along the way. Not one is a carbon copy of someone real. It is hard to create a character who is plausible when you base him or her on someone you know, because your own familiarity with the real person can make the carbon copy rather one dimensional. Characters aside, I have lived abroad 24 years now, in 4 countries and, as a journalist, I have specialised in expat issues, culture shock, loss of identity and so on. Sunshine Soup is a bit of a parable and has allowed my characters to demonstrate some of the things I have learned while on my own journey.
Food is an important element of my life with Liam (my new Mrs Beaton). In Maya’s case, cooking seems to keep her sane in the pressure cooker of expat life. Do you think it’s important for expat women to find an occupation?
I think it is important for anyone who does not have the marvellous bill-paying distraction of a ‘real job’ to find some fulfilling to do, whether for money or not. We all need to find out what turns us on and then find a way of incorporating that into our lives, often. For Maya, it’s cooking. For me, it’s the arts (and food).
Without giving away the plot, Maya’s life takes a twist when she re-connects with her ex; her temptation adds real tension. What advice would you have for couples who move abroad (presumably not to join a local swinger’s club)?
I have seen many expat couples go down the divorce road because, once you are abroad and there is a housemaid to cook, clean and babysit, it is easy for both partners to have active, and often separate, social lives. This can be a slippery slope. Temptation is everywhere. Free from the chattels of housework and soap operas affairs can fill the void nicely. My advice is to find joint hobbies and ensure you enjoy them weekly.
Many people say they have a novel in them. Is it that easy?
No. Most of my books take 9 months to create start to finish, like a baby. My novel took four years, three rewrites, cuts of 30%, sleepless nights, crises of confidence, four editors and that heart-sinking feeling of vulnerability when I set it free. But would I do it again? Definitely. It may have been tough, but it was also the most thrilling writing I have ever done. Creating Maya and her world filled me with utter, unadulterated joy. The day that I went to my own kitchen to try out Maya’s recipes (she has 20 in the book) and I found she was rather a dab hand in the kitchen – my character really could cook – was one of the happiest of my life.
What three words would you use to describe Sunshine Soup?
Insightful, steamy, mouth watering.