Shortlist Spotlight: Rachel Malik

14th May, 2018

Rachel Malik, author of the astonishingly accomplished debut novel Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, discusses her work in the third in our series of Q&As.

Q: What do you think about being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction?  Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?

I was thrilled when I found out. I had just given a talk about historical fiction at Gladstone’s Library where I’d been talking about Scott’s influence on the historical novel and the novel more generally. I’m reading the shortlist now and what strikes me most, apart from how good the other books are – is how differently they approach history, what they do with history in their fiction.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is my first novel so I think it’s too early to say if I’m a historical novelist. It’s easier for me to answer the question do I think Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a historical novel, in which case the answer is definitely yes. The love story and crime narrative in the novel are completely shaped by the historical world of which they’re a part. The novel I’m working on now is set in the 1920s and 30s – so I seem to be travelling that way.

Q: How did the people and times you write about in this novel first lodge in your imagination?

I don’t think it was a single ‘bullet’ to the imagination – there were a few. One of my two main characters made her first appearance in a family history story my mother told me many years ago. The Miss Hargreaves of the novel is her mother, my grandmother. It was a very short story because for reasons which become clear when you read the book, my mum knew next to nothing about her mother’s life: Rene Hargreaves left her husband and three young children just before the start of World War Two and never returned. The few other details were also extraordinary. Rene was later tried for murder and this was certainly enough for me to want to find out more. My mum had one photograph of Rene from her wedding and her marriage certificate – that was it. The first occasion I really started thinking about the historical world in which Rene and her enigmatic friend, Elsie Boston, lived, was when I was reading police statements and the newspaper reports of Rene’s trial. So much of that material brought me closer to their world: the language used by various expert witnesses (and by Rene and Elsie) and the press; tiny details like the reference to Boots Libraries (which I had to look up); the ingrained, everyday character of post-war austerity; the open snobbery about working-class lives and ‘odd’ women. Reading these records was the first time that Rene and Elsie stopped ‘floating’ and became lodged in a particular history.

Q: What role does research have in your writing?  When does the fiction take over from the facts?

Research is very important to me. I think I need to be completely immersed in the world of the novel when I’m working on it, even though rather little of that research goes directly into the book. I feel very at home in libraries and archives – partly I’m sure because I was an academic for many years and studied history for part of my degree. I read a lot of history anyway so it didn’t seem so odd to be reading about farming and land politics in twentieth century England. I take a wide view of research. I did a lot of virtual and real walking in most of the places I was writing about, some of which have changed very little. I tried to read and look at as much as possible from the period of the novel: local newspapers, adverts for farm auctions, fiction, photographs, films, anything.

For me, so far at least, fiction and ‘facts’ are inseparable, there’s a dynamic between the writing and the research. I built the novel up layer by layer and there was never a point when I wasn’t writing, or a point, even near the end, when I wasn’t reading. There are also the stories, the fictions you tell yourself which make it possible to write. My mother is named after a Hollywood film actress and from this came the idea – very important in the novel – that Rene loves the cinema (something which I do too – especially silent films). Odd things can make you bold. When I started writing the book I knew nothing about farming (though quite a lot about animals including goats and horses) So much of the novel is about living and working on the land and I knew it was going to be difficult to try and capture the everyday of a character like Elsie who always has. I was very worried about it, then very happy to discover that the Boston family were first generation farmers, Elsie herself was born in Willesden, then a suburb of London. Everything must have been new to them too. I also came across a wonderful book,The Smallholder’s Handbook, first published in the early 1900s, which I made into Elsie’s bible – just as it was mine.

Q: Do you think that writing about the past is important for society?

Very important. I’m always wary of anyone who says that ‘the past is the past’ which is another way of saying it’s dead or unimportant; or of anyone who insists that some parts of it are sacred and shouldn’t be tampered with. In both cases it’s a denial of history’s relevance to the present. For some time now, a lot of history and historical novels are practicing ‘history from below’ or from the side: opening up worlds that are little known to readers, or approaching more familiar periods of history from a different place, the perspectives of different characters, a different micro-world or mood. Sarah Waters and Helen Dunmore, to take just two contemporary examples, do this to brilliant effect. And one of the effects of this writing is challenge official histories which are important in the present. I don’t believe that history repeats itself or that there are easy parallels to be drawn between various kinds of then and now. But there are important connections.

As I wrote Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, all the journeying that Elsie and Rene do became increasingly important. They are forced to leave one home and then spend much of the novel trying to find and make another. Elsie and Rene, like many agricultural workers of the early and mid-twentieth century were migrants of a kind (though they never left England) – they could never return to their old life. This is one of the ways in which another part of my family history influenced the book. My father left India in 1947, days before Partition for, what became, days later, Pakistan. But he couldn’t settle and make his home there and left for England eight years later. He came to study – he was not driven by economic need – but he stayed, driven after the loss of one home to find and make another.

I think the most important thing that all kinds of history writing can do is encourage us to think about ourselves historically: to see our own worlds with a little historical distance and see ourselves as part of much longer and bigger histories.