Dinah Jefferies was born in Melaka, Malaya before coming to England when her parents returned to Solihull, Warwickshire. She studied at Birmingham College of Art and the University of Ulster, Coleraine. ‘The Separation’ is her debut novel. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about your book, The Separation. How did you get the idea for it? How long did it take to finish the book?
As is often the case with a first book, the ideas for the story had been keeping me awake for some months before I began writing. It’s a story of love, betrayal and loss, set in the startling brilliance of Malaya but also in a damp, wintery English town. The sights, sounds and smells of my early life in Malaya during the 1950s inspired the novel – the Chinese markets, the monkeys in the coconut palms, the smell of ginger and lemongrass. Also I lost my teenage son some years ago, and I drew on that experience to develop the story of a mother‘s anguish over the disappearance of her daughters. I think even worse than your child dying must be not knowing what has happened to them.
The Separation begins in 1955, when, after a month away looking after a sick friend, Lydia Cartwright, 31, arrives home to find the house is empty. The servants have left but worse, her husband Alec, and her two daughters Emma and Fleur, are missing. There’s absolutely nothing left and no sign of an explanatory note from her husband. In desperation she phones Alec’s boss, hoping he can tell her what to do.
When she sets off on a terrifying journey trying to find her family, she is in constant danger of attack from ambushes and shootings. This was the time of The Malayan Emergency when the British Administration were fighting Chinese communists hidden in the jungles – a war that lasted twelve years, and cost thousands of lives. It’s a dual narrative novel, so chapters are divided between Lydia in Malaya, and her eldest daughter, Emma, in England. Emma has been given no information about where her mother is, but continues to believe that the ‘invisible thread’ that joins them will never be broken. The strength of the bond between mother and daughter sits at the heart of the story.
NAW- Tell us about the characters of Lydia and Emma. How did you develop the characters?
Emma came relatively easily. She simply popped into my head on day one and from there on had a lot to say for herself. She’s independent, feisty and opinionated, and is very misunderstood by her father, who is a typical 1950s colonial man. She’s very frightened that the family are leaving without their mother, and doesn’t believe her father’s promise of a wonderful new life in England. Without the protection of her mum, she gets into deep trouble and ends up living a lonely boarding school life. However, while trying to find out what has happened to her mother, she stumbles upon a highly relevant past secret. Emma’s story is really a coming-of-age – she starts off at almost twelve and ends up at fifteen – and does in some ways reflect my own life, though the story itself is entirely fictional.
Lydia took a bit more work. Essentially she’s a flawed character with a big heart. In some ways she’s a typical 1950s colonial woman, though she definitely wants more from life than gossip, Pimms at the club and bridge in the evenings. Her desire for more means she makes mistakes and creates a situation she lives to regret. She loves her children passionately but is trapped in a loveless marriage.
It’s difficult to say how I developed these two characters because they dominated my mind for months and I was constantly jotting down ideas about them. By the time I began writing the first draft I already knew who they were.
NAW- Tell us about your time in Malaysia. Did you revisit the place when you began to write the novel?
I loved living in Malaya. My father was responsible for the restoration of the postal system after the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and so we moved to a new region every year. I remember a sense of freedom and fun that was lost when we moved to England in the middle of winter. The fact that the Emergency had been declared in 1948, so soon after WW2 ended, didn’t impact heavily on my life in the 1950s, though I did see guns quite regularly and I knew that several rubber planter friends of my parents had died. I decided not to go back. Malaysia is a modern and very different country, and I wanted to rely on my memories to keep the feeling of being in a time gone by.
NAW- Being a woman, is it difficult (or easy) to write a woman oriented novel?
I find it easy because I draw so much on my own experience of what it means to be a woman, and in particular what it means to be a mother. I’m also genuinely fascinated by issues of family, children, relationships, identity and so on. Not that men don’t care about those things too, of course they do, but perhaps they are a little less ready to admit it. I enjoy writing about periods of history where the social fabric is seriously threatened, and I explore the impact that has on women’s lives. I do have men as crucial supporting characters, but there’s so much to say about women that I’d need another lifetime to get on to a man as a protagonist.
NAW- Tell us about the research you carried out for The Separation? How did you go about it?
I started with my mother’s photograph albums and talked to her about her life out there. After that I mainly researched the Emergency online. I also found audio tapes from the period which helped a lot with the characters and in particular British attitudes at the time. Newspaper articles and YouTube videos helped me visualise the period.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I am always writing! If I’m not writing I’m reading or thinking about writing. I also love to travel and this year I was invited on a book tour of Norway, and I went to Vietnam to research my third book. Last year I went to Sri Lanka to research the second, which is now completed. I do have family close by and enjoy spending time with them, and I have a very naughty dog who has to be walked each day. I don’t cook, my husband is a great cook and for that I’m eternally grateful.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
I like Ishiguru, Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Julia Gregson and many more. My favourites change all the time.
NAW- Can you tell us about your upcoming work?
My second book The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in Ceylon between 1925-1934 and will be published in May 2015, again by Penguin and internationally. As you might have guessed I love the theme of the Empire crumbling and can’t stop writing about it. The story starts as an innocent young woman steps off the boat from England expecting her life on a sweet-scented tea plantation to be idyllic. But at the plantation there are secrets. How did her new husband’s first wife die? And what does the tiny grave in the garden mean? When she gives birth to her first child, she is faced with a choice no mother should have to make. Like The Separation, it’s an emotion roller coaster, and I hope you’ll need tissues.