The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Lizzy Mumfrey

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Lizzy Mumfrey

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Summary: Sue was stunned by Fall Out by Lizzy Mumfrey and simply couldn't put the book down. She had a whole list of questions for the author when she popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 15 May 2017
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue was stunned by Fall Out by Lizzy Mumfrey and simply couldn't put the book down. She had a whole list of questions for the author when she popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Lizzy Mumfrey: I see my friends, my daughters and my nieces. Definitely intelligent, thinking but vulnerable women. I discovered that I am a bit of a closet feminist and wanted to create strong, meaningful women characters. I didn’t set out to do that – they just took me over and did it for themselves. I was then very surprised that my husband loved reading my novel just as much as my sisters and he wasn’t just being polite.

  • BB: I can agree with that: my husband has just picked up the book and is enjoying it. He doesn't do polite either! Lizzy, where did that story come from? You're a farmer's wife and the story starts as though it's going to be a delicious story about village politics and secrets. Then we get an amazing story about the after effects of a terrorist attack. What inspired you to write such a story?

LM: I started with the premise “what happens if you fall down the stairs and it stops you going somewhere and then something happens….” I have a strange and vivid imagination and my mind tends to wander off all on its own accord. The avenue that it trotted down was “suppose someone else you really care about goes in your place and is killed – how would you feel?”

I then became rather over excited about the fact that if it were a really big “something” that it could affect a whole community in many different ways.

I had been intrigued by 9/11 and how people reacted to it. It was quite straightforward where people working in the buildings were killed, everyone expected them to be there, but what about people who should have been there but weren’t. Then there were people who were there and shouldn’t have been. Stories abounded of people who used it as an excuse to disappear. Others used it as an excuse to “disappear” others. All of this is just the most amazing fodder for a big story. How could I resist?

  • BB: How did you do the research into the effects of a nuclear attack? Your story is remarkably detailed about what would happen at a personal level.

LM: It was vital to me that everything to do with the nuclear attack was correct and realistic, we all know how people are picky about getting details right whether it is in costume drama or in their books, and that includes me.

I spent ages on the web and found an amazing modelling tool where I could put in the size of bomb, pinpoint exactly where it was detonated and the direction of the wind and voila – there was a map showing the extent of the damage, the number of casualties and where the fallout would drift. I researched the effects of a bomb on physical structures and people, the treatment and possible outcomes.

I took it a step further when I consulted widely about major incident management. One person I went to was Peter Power of Visor Consultants, a renowned, indeed notorious, man after his incident management rehearsal just happened to exactly mirror the actual bombings on 7/7.

I also visited my local Police Headquarters and was shown how they were set up to handle a major incident and to get the detail right on ranks and secondment to London. I was warned to expect a visit from a spook because GCHQ were sure to have picked up my sudden interest in improvised uranium bombs but no-one has appeared on my doorstep yet.

With all this information at my fingertips I just imagined myself right in the middle of it all. To me writing a novel is a bit like method acting, thorough immersion in the subject and then just let the feelings flow. I wrote each character's story in one go and then wove them all together so that I could really involve myself in their characters and live their lives with them.

  • BB: Leah Farrukh is an inspired character - a Muslim from Pakistan - and an easy target in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Do you think that we'll ever reach a point where we don't judge people by their colour and their religion?

LM: Leah is a very important character to me and the keystone of the novel. She is based on a person I know, admire and who is as beautiful inside as out. As a parent at school she was subject to a great deal of behind the hand gossip about her cultural beliefs and resulting behaviours. It used to make me so angry. Why were the Christian beliefs that we were marinated in deemed more worthy than hers? There always seems to be an undercurrent of casual racism and intolerance that I express in the novel.

I am delighted that the next generation just don’t seem to have the same hang ups that we have been indoctrinated in. My daughter lives with a Hindu and my stepson who is one quarter Jewish is married to a Vietnamese Buddhist. My other daughter is marrying a “ginger”. My niece’s daughter is a right old mixture of West Indian, Portuguese and English and I love that it is so. Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way.

  • BB: I'm definitely with you on that, Lizzy. You killed off vast swathes of people in the story. Did this hurt at all? Had you grown attached to them?

LM: I only now realise that I quite deliberately didn’t get attached to most of the people who were killed off and in terms of characterisation the ones that die are far less well defined.

I truly believe that when there is a major disaster, think Boxing Day tsunami, that unless we actually know the people concerned that we just can’t care as much. In that respect I think the media does a good job in winkling out the personal stories that then make it real for the rest of us.

PS There were a fair few characters that I was happy to see the back of!

  • BB: Has writing the story affected your stance on nuclear weaponry?

LM: It doesn’t matter a jot whether we have our own nuclear capability or whether the UN bans the bomb. Just like Pandora’s Box the means is already out there and there is nothing anyone can do about it. My worry is that just after going to print with the book the Sunday Times published an article “Not If …When” saying that a terrorist attack based on a nuclear device or a chemical weapon was highly likely. The technology is available, the method of delivery is obtainable and, probably most scarily, the motive is too. It makes me shiver to write that.

  • BB: You captured the complexities of village life perfectly with all its conflicts and tensions. Would you ever live anywhere else?

LM: I was brought up in the country, a farmer’s daughter, and inducted in the hierarchies of village society from an early age. I must confess that my mother was a bit of a Hyacinth Bucket and therefore my antennae are well tuned to the nuances of the English class system and social mores.

Throughout my working career, thrown into the corporate world, I became increasingly intrigued by anthropology observing how people thrown together by fate behave towards each other, the petty squabbles, jealousy, creation of warring tribes, the posturing and need for recognition. Fascinating!

I am now a farmer’s wife and all the same behaviours are right here in village life - and don’t get me started on committees.

Would I live anywhere else? No I don’t think so. I rather enjoy all the shenanigans in a perverse way!

  • BB: I think this is your first book! How did you learn to write in such an accomplished way?

LM: Thank-you for your kind compliment.

As a child I wrote endless stories, churning out four or five or six for homework when asked to provide just one. I loved it. Surprisingly I went on to become a scientist and ended up doing Maths and Physics for A Level where everything was condensed, precise and factual.

When I went into IT as a career I ended up writing business proposals, with reasonable success, but they too were technical and somewhat unimaginative.

Quite randomly my urge to write creatively has always been channelled into my annual Christmas letter which has become somewhat renowned.

My confidence was then stoked up when I started a travel blog when my husband and I decided to buy a yacht and cross the Atlantic. I developed a small but very devoted following and my husband loves it and spends happy rainy afternoons reading it all again. So do I!

Laid up with a broken back last year, and encouraged by my sister and my niece, I decided to have a go at a novel. I didn’t know whether I had it in me but I have absolutely relished it. My inner child has loved throwing herself back into the world of make believe and I just lose myself in it – hence the dedication to my husband Bob with the apology for all the late suppers.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

LM: I am so incredibly blessed with my life, wonderful husband, devoted daughters and everything that I need materially that it is incredibly difficult to wish for anything else. I should really wish for world peace but it has to be “I wish I could eat as much as I liked and not get fat”. Like Susie I am inclined to be somewhat voluptuous or perhaps, and I quote you on this, “Actually, some of that voluptuousness might be better described as fat”.

  • BB: What's next for Lizzy Mumfrey?

LM: I can definitely feel another novel coming on. It has been just so much fun gestating and delivering Fall Out that I am hooked. Fall Out started with what happens if a fateful fall changes everything. I now find myself asking how life could have turned out if I had decided to marry someone else…

  • BB: I'm definitely looking forward to that one, Lizzy! Thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

You can read more about Lizzy Mumfrey here.

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