A Q&A with Helen Chandler
Helen Chandler’s debut novel Two for Joy was shortlisted for the RNA Contemporary Romantic Novel Award and her new book To Have and to Hold is out in paperback on 19th June.
Helen read English at Oxford University before working in various NHS organisations. She lives in East London with her husband and daughter.
Visit her at helenlchandler.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @HelenLChandler
Your new novel To Have and to Hold revolves around the lives of three women who are not entirely happy with their lives and who each, in different ways, make life-changing decisions. Is this something you’ve ever felt or had to face?
Probably the biggest decision I’ve faced in recent years was whether or not to go back to work after my daughter was born. I was fortunate to have the choice, but it did create a dilemma. On one hand every instinct and hormone was screaming that I wanted to be with my daughter, and I couldn’t quite see how my busy fulltime job plus commute was going to fit into the 8am-6pm hours of most day nurseries. On the other hand, I felt I was good at my job, and wasn’t at all sure if I was going to turn out to be good at bringing up a child (jury’s still out on that one), and I also worried a bit about the messages my daughter would absorb growing up in a household which modelled traditional ‘daddy out at work, mummy at home with baby’ gender roles. I was lucky because my decision to spend some time as a stay-at-home mum ended up leading indirectly into my writing career, so I’m managing to combine the best of both worlds at the moment.
Do you base any of your characters on your friends or family, or are they all entirely imagined?
I don’t base any whole character on a real person, but most of my characters contain some element of people I know in real life, often all jumbled up together! I try and write characters who are as believable as possible, and obviously using some aspects of real life people is one way of ensuring that.
In the character of Phoebe you have wonderfully captured the mindset of a fifteen-year-old struggling with herself and her parents. How do you go about writing from the viewpoint of a teenager?
I find it embarrassingly easy to write from the perspective of a teenager, because despite being well into my thirties, I still remember so vividly how it feels to be fifteen! Of course I have changed and grown up since then, I hope, but my teenage life and how everything is always so dramatic, so all or nothing, is very fresh in my mind. Teenagers are great fun to write for that very reason – their emotions are so near the surface.
A lot of women will identify with Phoebe’s battle with her body image and her mother’s disparaging comments. As a mother yourself, what do you think parents should be teaching their daughters in this image-conscious world?
This is such a scary thing as a parent. You are constantly torn between on one hand scares about childhood obesity, and trying to ensure that your child has a healthy diet and body weight, and on the other hand terrifying stories about girls as young as eight or nine thinking that they’re fat and need to diet. I try never to let my daughter hear me, or other female role models, moaning about their weight. I try to teach her to enjoy a wide variety of foods, to understand about nutrition and the goodness and enjoyment which comes from good food. We constantly tell her she is beautiful, but also that she is clever, and kind and good at running, jumping, skipping so that hopefully her self esteem won’t be entirely bound up in her perception of her looks.
The ups and downs in the relationships of your characters feel very real and identifiable. What do you think are the secrets to maintaining a happy relationship?
In his speech at my wedding, my dad quoted the advice his granny gave him and my mum when they got engaged nearly forty years ago. It was to look after each other, and work together. I think that’s very sound advice, and I’ve seen my parents successfully modelling it! Passion and romance are lovely, but they inevitably wax and wane within a long term relationship, but if you are working together towards the same goals, and take the time day by day to care for each other, then I think that’s the basis of a strong relationship. The other thing I’d say, based on my own experience, is to talk to each other. An amazing number of couples seem not to! If something is worrying or upsetting you, then moaning to your mum or best friend might be therapeutic, but not as constructive as actually talking properly to your partner about it.
Forgiveness seems to be a key theme in the novel – are you a forgiving person? How important is that in a relationship?
I hope I’m a forgiving person – I’m sure that holding a grudge harms the person holding it more than anyone else. Equally though, I think I’m lucky in that no-one (touch wood) has ever done anything that bad to me! I think forgiveness is crucial in a relationship, though. And if you’re not able to forgive something then it is much healthier to acknowledge that and move on than to let the issue fester unresolved. I read something once about how in a long term relationship it is impossible to ‘win’ an argument – you and your partner are a team, and if one of you wins, then the other loses, which ultimately means you both lose. I think compromise is very important, as is the ability to let things go, and to resist the sometimes overwhelming temptation to have the last word.
There are times when all the adults in To Have and to Hold struggle with the time constraints of having children.
How do you manage your writing and blogging with parenting?
There are inevitably time constraints, but actually I’m pretty lucky. I’m mum to one, school-age child, and my work is very flexible and home-based. I have huge admiration for parents juggling two fulltime jobs and two or three pre-schoolers! Having said that, there have been tricky moments. I remember having a tight deadline to complete the edits for my first book when nursery phoned to say my daughter had chicken pox and needed collecting immediately, and would be infectious for at least a week. I’m fortunate to have a good support network of other local parents who are balancing the same constraints, though, and we try and help each other out whenever we can.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I sometimes write at home – although since adopting two kittens I find that more difficult, as they’re passionately jealous of my laptop and will try all ways on to get me to stop writing and start stroking! When that happens, or when the piles of undone housework start to get me down then I like to go to a local café. I enjoy having some noise and buzz in the background, and if I hit a wall then I can do some eavesdropping and people watching while I wait for inspiration to strike. Plus, they have cake, which is always good.
Do you have any advice for an aspiring author?
My number one piece of advice is to write what you feel comfortable writing. Don’t try to write a particular genre because you think it might be profitable, or because you ‘ought’ to, just follow your natural voice. The other thing I’d say is to actually sit down and write, and somehow carve out the time to do that. When I first started writing I just had one afternoon a week when my mother-in-law babysat, and that time was sacred. I would sit down and force myself to write, however tired and uninspired I might have felt. You can always change and edit what you’ve already written, but getting those words on the page in the first place is crucial.