Today I’m welcoming Marianne Wheelaghan to the blog. Marianne is the author of The Blue Suitcase and The Scottish Lady Detective series, which includes Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer. She’s also the director of the excellent writing school, writingclasses.co.uk, which I attended and whose alumni and teachers continue to be an incredible support to me.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your writing and books?
I write both crime and historic fiction and am interested in exploring themes to do with “home” and “place” as well as “identity’ in my writing.
Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer are my first two crime novels in the bestselling Scottish Lady Detective series and are inspired by the time I spent living in the Pacific.
My first non-crime novel is the bestselling The Blue Suitcase. It is inspired by letters and diaries I discovered after my mother’s death and tells the true life story of a Christian girl growing up in Silesia in Nazi Germany.
How did you begin writing?
I have six sisters and two brothers. Growing up with so many siblings meant it was sometimes a bit difficult to get heard. My way of standing out was to tell stories. I suppose I must have been reasonably good at it because telling stories quickly became “my thing”. It was only as an adult I started to write certain stories down and quickly realised there was nothing I’d rather do. I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing with Lancaster University to help hone my skills. This changed my life. Not only did I develop my writing skills, but I gained the confidence I needed to take my writing seriously.
Your debut novel, The Blue Suitcase, was loosely based on your mother’s experience of living in Silesia at the time that Hitler came to power. Could you talk a little about how the idea for the novel came about?
Shortly after my mother’s death I was helping my father sort out her personal things. We discovered a scuffed, blue suitcase full of her letters, diary extracts, photos, old postcards and faded documents, written in German, my mother’s first language.
My father wanted me to translate the documents – I’d studied German so it was not as mad as it sounds. I was appalled at the idea, my mother had been a very private person. I thought it a terrible intrusion of her privacy to read her private stuff. But Dad wouldn’t give up. You see, my mother was from Germany but she never talked about her family life before coming to Scotland after the end of WW2. In fact, you could say my mother’s early life was a mystery – we weren’t even sure where she was from in Germany. Dad believed knowing what was written in the letters and documents would bring her closer to him. I resisted doing what he asked, until we discovered this photo of Mum’s family.
Mum is the smiling girl at the front of the photo, next to the older man – I recognised her immediately. The other people in the photo are her family – who knew I had so many aunts and uncles? However, it was not seeing all the family that made me change my mind, it was, rather, seeing the picture of Hitler on the wall behind them: if you look carefully, you can see it above my grandfather’s head. I was totally shocked at the sight of it. My mum was a good, kind, thoughtful person and although I didn’t know her family, I couldn’t believe they were not also good people. So why was there a picture of Hitler, a war criminal, on their living room wall?
Around this time I was also very aware of a book that had been around since 1996 called Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. In it, he argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” in the Holocaust. The book was scathed by historians, and in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, “it is totally wrong about everything and worthless”. However, seeing this photo of Hitler on my grandparent’s wall made me wonder if, after all, there could be some truth in Goldhagen’s theory. I decided to translate the documents to see if I could discover the truth once and for all.
The more I read about Mum’s life, the more shocked I was by what I discovered. When I finally finished translating everything I was both astounded and horrified and felt compelled to share my findings. Like thousands and thousands of ordinary Germans, my mother was not one of Hitler’s willing executioners, far from it. Like thousands and thousands of other ordinary Germans, she was a victim of Hitler’s terrible regime. As if that wasn’t enough, after the end of WW2, in peace time, my mother’s family, along with millions of other Silesian Germans, were forcibly expelled from their home. I knew what I had to do. It was time to set the record straight and the idea for The Blue Suitcase was born.
Your Scottish Lady Detective Series is set in the Pacific Islands, specifically Kiribati and Fiji. Why did you choose to set the novels in this region?
When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of money. This meant we never went on holiday like others did and treats were for birthdays and Christmas only. But one thing we had all year round were books, hundreds of them, bought by my mum and dad from second-hand shops and jumble sales. They included, amongst many others, almost all of Agatha Christie’s 66 novels, RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Stacpole’s The Blue Lagoon. These books fuelled my imagination and shaped my dreams. When I wasn’t reading, I was travelling around the world in my head, voyaging to faraway, unspoiled places, populated by gentle, innocent people.
Then, one day I was lucky enough to get a job in some of the lesser developed countries in the Pacific, namely Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and later Fiji. I was going to live my dream. The reality, however, was very different from what I expected. Yes, there was unspoiled beauty and traditional culture and kind people, but there was also a dark side to life there. My paradisiacal countries were wonderfully different, but also wonderfully not so different.
It struck me that travelling was not so much about going to new places, as seeing our surroundings with a fresh perspective, and seeing it all: the good and the bad and the ugly. As Marcel Proust once said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes.” As a writer, I wanted to share this lightbulb moment with others and I did what writers do, I wrote a book, or two. Why a crime novel? I believe a good crime novel can tell us as much about the darker side of society as any literary novel. Plus, I have many fond memories of reading an Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham into the wee hours, riveted until I found out who had done it. I wanted to recreate that feeling of suspense in my readers. So Detective Sergeant Louisa Townsend, AKA The Scottish Lady Detective, was born. Maybe not surprisingly, DS Townsend is a kind of modern day Miss Marple: a tad more gritty than cosy, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly but can also be kind, who is shrewd and intelligent but who can also make mistakes and even behave downright silly sometimes, and who has a dark side of her very own.
What challenges did you encounter when writing your novels and how did you overcome these?
In the Scottish Lady Detective novels, one of the biggest challenges is to bring totally alien peoples and places to life for the reader, and in doing so make the unfamiliar, familiar. I hope to achieve this by using very specific sensory details in the writing, so the reader really sees the magnolia trees, hears the traffic, tastes the overripe mangoes, smells the earthy market smells, and feels the giant drops of warm rain on their skin.
The biggest challenge when writing The Blue Suitcase was distancing myself emotionally from writing about my mother. I struggled with this until I had an epiphany: I would create a fictional family, very much like the true family but not exactly the same. This worked. Much of what happened to my fictional family happened to my real family, but some stuff didn’t, although it could have. Certainly, everything that happened in the novel is based on true historic fact: if didn’t happen to my family, it happened to someone else’s family.
Could you tell readers about writingclasses.co.uk? How did the school come about?
I decided to set up writingclasses for two reasons: I love writing and wanted to share my passion for it with others. I also believe to teach a skill is an honourable way to earn a living and in the words of Hanif Kureishi “I felt if I knew something, I should pass it on.”
How are classes taught?
Today, with massive online open learning courses (MOOCs) becoming a part of everyday life, it is difficult to understand how in 2002 online courses of any kind, but especially short courses, were unusual. As a lover of online learning, I was determined that writingclasses should offer short online creative writing courses, the kind of courses that I would have loved to have attended when I began writing. In my opinion online learning offers a flexibility that face-to-face classes simply cannot. Students can join in at a time that suits them, there is no being early or late and no need to find childminders/babysitters. For those of us juggling work and family life, learning online gives us access to courses that would have otherwise been denied us.
One of my favourite elements of the courses was that tutors read and commented on all assignments (quite often in other courses I’ve taken, tutors leave the critiquing primarily to students and, while peer review is always helpful, it’s the expert guidance of a more experienced writer which is most sought after). Why did you decide on this model?
As all beginner writers know, one of the hardest things to find is an experienced writer who will read your work and give you honest, constructive feedback. This is why attending a course can be so helpful. However, when I was a beginner writer taking short courses, a tutor might give feedback on one piece of writing, possibly two, but never three. In my opinion this is simply not enough. We writers learn by our mistakes. It follows that the more we write, the more mistakes we can potentially make and the greater the opportunity we have to develop our writing skills, always assuming we have an expert at hand to help us recognise what the mistakes are. This is why on all writingclasses courses students are encouraged to write something new every week, why “making mistakes” is obligatory, and why our experienced tutor-writers give helpful constructive feedback on every piece of creative writing the student submits during the course.
Several of your students have gone on to become published writers, myself included. Could you talk a bit about your students and why you think it is that so many have been successful in their writing?
A little bit of encouragement and feedback can go a long way but, ultimately, the students who succeed are, very much like yourself, the ones who do not give up. Determination and staying power are often as important as ability and creativity.
And, finally, are you working on anything at the moment?
I am writing two books – the follow on from The Blue Suitcase and a third Scottish Lady Detective novel set in Edinburgh. I’m not sure if it is a good idea to write two books at the same time. Time will tell ;-).
Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us about your writing and teaching!
Readers can learn more about Marianne and her writing by visiting her website: http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk/
Check out the courses on offer at her writing school: http://www.writingclasses.co.uk/courses.html (Tip: The next semester starts on the 3rd October so do sign up early to guarantee your place– they’re great value!)
Buy her books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marianne-Wheelaghan/e/B004AQKRXA/