Maggie Joel has followed up her first novel The Past and Other Lies with The Second-Last Woman in England (Pier 9, April), which received five stars in the April issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Anastasia Gonis spoke to the author.
There are strong themes, outstanding characters and various sub-stories woven together in The Second-last Woman in England. Which comes first with you: character, theme, storyline, or other?
For all three books—my previous book The Past and Other Lies, this one and the one I’m currently working on—it starts with a single image. If that image is strong enough, interesting enough, it will nag away at me until I write it down. At that point, I will have no idea of a story, but if the image that I’m describing, and if my writing down of that image seems to work, I keep going with it until a scene has been written, perhaps two or three scenes. At this point it’s time to stop and sit back and review what I’ve done. It’s here that the characters, the subsequent plot, and the setting for the story start to appear.
Although fiction, is The Second-last Woman in England inspired by real events?
The story is not inspired by any real person or events, no, but I do remember coming across some reference to a murderess being hanged in Britain in the mid 1950s, and the idea of this—of the state exacting such a punishment—really struck me. It seemed so barbaric, so archaic. If you grew up in Britain you are likely to have heard of the case of Ruth Ellis who, in 1955, was the last woman to be hanged for murder. It’s a famous case—they made at least two movies about it—not simply because she was the last, but because she was a glamorous young woman who lived what appeared to be an exciting and enviable lifestyle. The idea that the state could put her death shocked a lot of people at the time and probably went some way towards ending capital punishment for women in the UK. So I thought, well, how shocking would it be if our murderer was a very respectable, very well-to-do society wife and mother? And there was my opening scene.
The Past and Other Lies was a superb observation of family interactions. How and why did you return to the subject of family relationships, their hidden cruelties and secrets?
It seems to me that the family, and the family home, is a microcosm of the society you live in, a tangible representation of the moral values, the ideas, the beliefs of that society. That’s fascinating to me, it offers so many possibilities. In The Second-last Woman, the setting is a family home in early 1950s England, a period with a morality and a set of conventions that seem almost alien to us growing up in the 21st century. The Wallises (the family in the book) reflect those ideas and conventions and at the same time struggle against them—much as any family would in any place and setting in history.
Women who murder are always a fascinating subject. How did you come to choose it?
I think when a woman murders, we look for a reason—how could she have done this, what drove her to it? —in a way that perhaps we don’t so much for a man. It seems to be me that something exceptional must occur for a woman to commit murder. And add to that a woman of a certain class living a certain, perhaps very privileged, lifestyle, and there is a basis for an intriguing story. My story began with the single image, as I mentioned earlier—a woman waiting in the condemned cell, the walk to the execution room, the crowds standing silently outside the prison, the death notice stuck on the prison gates. And juxtapose that with the same woman a year earlier at a cocktail party in Chelsea and all I had to do was get her from point A to point B.
What are you working on next?
Happily, I have some time off work at the moment and I’m about a third of a way into the first draft of a novel set in late Victorian England … I thought the early 1950s was alien––but this is a whole other universe! And there’s so much to research (I didn’t even know that Victorians drank coffee before I started this book) that it will be a long time before it’s finished. So it’s just as well you have The Second-last Woman to read in the meantime.