I met Caitlin Davies via email a few months ago when I came across her blog about the book she is currently writing, Downstream: A Social History of Swimming the River Thames. I was researching a piece of creative non-fiction about a swimmer called Ivy Hawke and I contacted Caitlin to see if she could help me—she very kindly shared what she had learned about Ivy Hawke with me and was also very helpful in pointing me towards some other resources.
Caitlin writes novels as well as non-fiction though. Her fifth and latest novel, Family Likeness, weaves together the stories of three women, living in three different times: Dido Elizabeth Belle an 18th century black English aristocrat living at Kenwood House; Muriel, daughter of a black GI father and a white English mother, growing up in a Kent orphanage in the 50’s; and, in present-day London, Rosie, a schoolteacher-turned-nanny with an ulterior motive—to discover the connection between her family and the family she is working for. The three different strands seem to reflect the idea that our sense of identity is not always straightforward and is influenced by many different factors. Family Likeness is a fascinating story, and a moving exploration of issues of race, family and belonging.
I asked Caitlin a few questions:
As a parent I found there was something a little sinister about Rosie the babysitter in the opening chapters of Family Likeness. Was that intentional? I read somewhere that the book was even originally called The Babysitter?
Yes, I wanted to make her intentions unclear and to make the reader a bit unsettled, as Rosie is herself. The Babysitter was the working title, but my editor felt it suggested it was just one person’s story, whereas it’s really the story of several women—and their families.
As the book progresses Rosie’s motive becomes clearer—she is trying to track down someone in particular. As I discovered recently when I explored the world of ancestry.com, tracking down your ancestors is big business. But I think people are not always cognisant of the emotional implications when you do actually find that long-lost family member. You have balanced the dynamic of fear vs. curiosity nicely between Muriel and Rosie—was it difficult to get that right?
Yes, you’re right, often a grandchild is looking for a grandparent and they might not think things through, to them it might all be a bit of fun, but to their parent it could be really traumatic. When I visited Barnardo's headquarters a social worker told me some grandchildren are so eager to build a family tree they might not actually think, why was my mum or dad in a children’s home, what brought them there?
Muriel’s abandonment is very painful to read about. Did you come across a lot of stories like hers in your research? Did you get to visit any 50’s children’s homes?
I didn’t come across many stories of people exactly in Muriel's situation, it just hasn’t been written about much, but I read personal accounts about growing up in children’s homes, and I spoke to people in two groups, GI Trace and GI & Family International Search, and they told me their experiences. When I went to Barkingside, Barnardo’s headquarters, I was shown around one of the old cottages, which is set out the way it would have been in the 50s. That was an inspiring, although upsetting and unsettling, trip.
There was obviously quite a lot of research required for this story. Do you approach your research differently for your novels and your non-fiction books?
That is such an interesting question and I haven’t thought about it before. My instinct is to say no, but actually I think the answer is probably yes. For non-fiction a lot is about establishing facts, as far as possible, in order to build an accurate story, whereas with fiction it’s more about building atmosphere, I’m looking for that tiny detail that might bring a place or a person to life.
Dido is a fascinating character. Was she your starting point? Were you ever tempted to research and write purely about her instead?
Yes I definitely was, I thought about writing a non-fiction book about her years ago but I thought, hmmm 18th century…I'd have to really educate myself. With fiction you can be a little freer.
There is also an element of the supernatural—a suggestion of some kind of spiritual connection between Dido and Rosie. Do you enjoy the freedom to play around with these kinds of ideas that writing novels, as opposed to non-fiction, allows?
Yes, there was even a whole past life strand to the novel involving Bobby to begin with, I had fun with that but ultimately it all had to go…
You’re quite a prolific writer—it seems you are frequently working on two or more projects at the same time. There does seem to be a common thread that runs through your themes though—do you find that your research for your current book often sparks the next idea?
Ah so true! I always want to know what the next book will be, and the one after that. In the Ghost of Lily Painter a modern day woman becomes a bit obsessed with an Edwardian music hall singer and at the end of the novel she starts looking for her GI grandfather. I knew then that I wanted to learn more about ‘war babes’ and searching for GI fathers.
Another example is that while researching a book on the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath I began thinking about women swimmers in Victorian times, and that inspired both my current non-fiction and my current novel.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
It’s about love, betrayal and swimming! It tells the life story of a famous Victorian diver called Daisy Belle, and parallel to her story, and taking place in 2013, is that of her great, great niece Lizzie, a lifeguard on Hampstead Heath. So again it’s a multi-narrative, multi-time frame story—loosely based on actual historical figures whose daring deeds have been lost to history.
As the daughter of two writers (Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies), did you always want to be a writer? Was there ever a time that you wanted to do something completely different?
I always wanted to be a writer, but not because of my parents. I just always, always wanted to write; it’s like an urge, a scratch I have to itch. People seem to think writing is a gene that you inherit, but my mum grew up in a household that never read books, let alone wrote them so where did she get it from? I also knew that earning a living as a writer is tough, and that’s why I trained as a teacher.
Finally, have you got any advice for writing students currently trying to decide between writing fiction and non-fiction?
Do both! Why choose? Both forms mean you’re telling a story, just in slightly different ways. A lot of my fiction comes from true events, while in my non-fiction I try to give it a narrative that reads as easily as fiction.
However with non-fiction, on the whole, if a (traditional) publisher likes your proposal then you get a contract and some money up front before having written the book and that can be reassuring. With a novel, until you’re really established, you generally have to write the entire thing first and then try to find a publisher. Either way, have faith in yourself, do it because you love it, and never give up!
Family Likeness, by Caitlin Davies, was published by Hutchinson on the 4th of July 2013. See Caitlin’s website for information about her other books.