Today I’m thrilled to say it’s my turn to host the blog tour of The Museum of You by the very talented Carys Bray. Carys’ first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, was winner of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel award 2015, and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award 2015 and the Desmond Elliott prize 2015. A hard act to follow some would say but, judging by recent reviews, The Museum of You looks equally amazing!
Here, Carys talks about her writing process for her new novel and, just to whet your appetite, is followed by an excerpt of The Museum of You.
Writing The Museum of You
As I started to think about writing a second novel I remember listening to a couple of radio interviews with dads who, due to tragic circumstances, were raising their children alone. These men articulated their devastation with moving eloquence. As I listened to them, I wondered how a self-effacing parent might respond in such a situation. And I began to imagine Darren Quinn: bus driver, allotment tender and single Dad of twelve-year-old Clover.
My first novel A Song for Issy Bradley was set in my hometown of Southport. I wanted to write another local novel so I climbed aboard a bus to Liverpool, notebook in tow (the poor driver probably thought I was spying on him), and I wrote a long account of the journey. Then I interviewed two friends who are bus drivers.
As I made notes for Darren, I thought about how it would feel to make plans to leave a place, only to end up circling it every day of your working life. I made notes for his daughter Clover, thinking about what it would be like to grow up in the saddest chapter of your Dad’s story, and how it would feel to hear a carefully rehearsed recitation of the story of your birth, all the time suspecting that things had been omitted, smoothed over somehow. And then I started writing.
I opened the novel at Darren’s allotment which is (conveniently) situated at the same plot as my own allotment. I took my notebook with me and wrote about the place. It’s amazing how writing about a place can make you see it differently. I took photographs, not realising how beautiful it is there until I rediscovered this picture of the allotment behind ours, weeks later, as I played with my phone.
Clover Quinn also has a notebook. And she has an idea. Unbeknown to Darren, she intends to spend her summer curating a museum in the second bedroom; the room that is full of her absent mother’s belongings. Her exhibit, Becky Brookfield – the Untold Story, will tell the full story of her mother, her father, and who she is going to be.
The Museum of You – Excerpt
When she got home from the museum Dad was kneeling in the hall. He’d unscrewed the radiator and his thumb was pressed over an unfastened pipe as water gushed around it. The books and clothes and newspapers that used to line the hall had been arranged in small piles on the stairs. Beside him, on the damp carpet, was a metal scraper he’d been using to scuff the paper off the wall.
‘Just in time!’ he said. ‘Fetch a bowl. A small one, so it’ll fit.’
She fetched two and spent the next fifteen minutes running back and forth to the kitchen emptying one bowl as the other filled, Dad calling, ‘Faster! Faster! Keep it up, Speedy Gonzalez!’ His trousers were soaked and his knuckles grazed, but he wasn’t bothered. ‘Occupational hazard,’ he said, as if it wasn’t his day off and plumbing and stripping walls was his actual job.
Once the pipe had emptied he stood up and hopped about for a bit while the feeling came back into his feet. ‘I helped Colin out with something this morning,’ he said. ‘The people whose house we were at had this dado rail thing – it sounds posh, but it’s just a bit of wood, really – right about here.’ He brushed his hand against the wall beside his hip. ‘Underneath it they had stripy wallpaper, but above it they had a different, plain kind. It was dead nice and I thought, we could do that.’
Dad found a scraper for her. The paint came off in flakes, followed by tufts of the thick, textured wallpaper. Underneath, was a layer of soft, brown, backing-paper which Dad sprayed with water from a squirty bottle. When the water had soaked in, they made long scrapes down the wall, top to bottom, leaving the backing paper flopped over the skirting boards like ribbons of skin. It felt like they were undressing the house.
The bare walls weren’t smooth. They were gritty, crumbly in places. As they worked, a dusty smell wafted out of them. It took more than an hour to get from the front door to the wall beside the bottom stair. That’s where Dad uncovered the heart. It was about as big as Clover’s hand, etched on the wall in black, permanent marker, in Dad’s handwriting: Darren + Becky 4ever.
‘I’d forgotten,’ he murmured. And then he pulled his everything face. The face he pulls when Uncle Jim is drunk. The face he pulls when they go shopping in March and the person at the till tries to be helpful by reminding them about Mother’s Day. The face which reminds her that a lot of the time his expression is like a plate of leftovers.
She didn’t say anything, and although she wanted to, she didn’t trace the heart with her fingertips. Instead, she went up to the bathroom and sat on the boxed, pre-lit Christmas tree dad bought in the January sales. When you grow up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story you’re forever skating on the thin ice of their memories. That’s not to say it’s always sad – there are happy things, too. When she was a baby Dad had a tattoo of her name drawn on his arm in curly, blue writing, and underneath he had a green, four-leaf clover. She has such a brilliant name, chosen by her mother because it has the word LOVE in the middle. That’s not the sort of thing you go around telling people, but it is something you can remember if you need a little boost; an instant access, happiness top-up card – it even works when Luke Barton calls her Margey-rine. Clover thought of her name and counted to 300.
When she went downstairs Dad had recovered his empty face and she couldn’t help asking a question, just a small one.
‘Is there any more writing under the paper?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘She didn’t do a heart as well?’
‘Help me with this, will you?’
They pulled the soggy ribbons of paper away from the skirting and put them in a bin bag. The house smelled different afterwards. As if some old sadness had leaked out of the walls.
The Museum of You is available from your local bookshop and online.
A moving and surprisingly funny novel – The Independent