The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mavis Cheek

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Mavis Cheek

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Summary: We thought that Mavis Cheek's Truth to Tell was a good story, thought-provoking, beautifully written and laugh out loud funny in places. We wondered what more we could want and decided that we couldn't resist the opportunity to ask Mavis a few questions.
Date: 26 May 2010
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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We thought that Mavis Cheek's Truth to Tell was a good story, thought-provoking, beautifully written and laugh out loud funny in places. We wondered what more we could want and decided that we couldn't resist the opportunity to ask Mavis a few questions.

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

Mavis Cheek: I'm only just back from Crete so I suppose, currently, I see a woman somewhere between 35 and 60 - lying back on a sun lounger by the pool and reading a book. Probably she is or has been a working Mum. She's practical, intelligent, funny, nobody's fool and a good conversationalist. Keeps in shape to some extent but mourns the passing of the buttocks. She drinks like a fish. I'd be very happy to spend an evening nattering with her over a bowl of pasta. (She also reads out bits of the book to her husband/boyfriend/partner).

  • BB: Nina Porter decides that she will tell the absolute truth and avoid all those white lies which bolster our lives. It was political propaganda which inspired Nina to do this. What inspired you to write the book?

MC: Exactly that. Watching friends demanding absolute truth from politicians yet allowing themselves a lot of leeway in their own attitude to telling lies..

  • BB: Have you tried – I mean really tried - this truth lark? I decided that I would do it for a day and I came to the conclusion that the only way I could survive would be if I shut myself in the bathroom and refused to speak to anyone!

MC: I tried. I really tried. I didn't make a day. It was honourable of me to choose a day to begin when I was likely to be out and about and seeing quite a few people. On a normal authorial day when I see no-one and speak to no-one it would have been dead easy. Locking yourself in the bathroom is an impractical solution. So is demanding that no-one asks you any questions. All politicians know that they must lie, they just lie about it.

  • BB: I came to the conclusion that there’s a difference between truth and honesty. The truth is bald and incontrovertible but honesty allows me to shade the truth (you do look well! to a friend who’s recovering from illness) whilst moving life forward. What does truth mean to you?

MC: Most interesting was at a reading the other night a man took issue with my saying that Truth is an Absolute. He said that I was talking about facts - ie. that table is brown. that table has four legs. (instead of saying the table is white with three legs). But that Truth was altogether more open to interpretation. I countered him by saying that I'm an existentialist and therefore what I know to be True is True.

What was interesting was the number of people who became confused about whether Truth was absolute or not. How so? Just like the curate's egg, something can't be a little bit true and the rest of it false. I love chocolate. That I also love other things does not detract one jot from the Truth of the statement about chocolate.

  • BB: There was a moment in the book when I shuddered. It was the realisation that there were occasions when I had told the truth, knowing that it would hurt and knowing too that a lie would have been kinder. Have you ever done that?

MC: Not very often. It's the cement of life to tell lies to keep people happy. Mummy is very proud of you, you say, when your child has made some completely hideous picture of you. Who, in their right mind, would say 'Yuk - take that horrible picture away and do something nicer?' Only those Mamas and Papas who star in misery memoirs.

  • BB: Venice came over as a character in its own right in Truth to Tell. Is it a city you know well?

MC: Venice was one of the great rapturous discoveries of my life. Our daughter was two years old and we were pretty broke and living in a crumbling six-bedroom pile in Chiswick overlooking the M4. We couldn't afford a holiday abroad in the standard sense, and I'd had quite enough of cold English beaches. So I wrote to a gallery I used to deal with in Venice and asked if they knew someone who would like to swap houses. They did. We went the following year for three weeks to the area around Salute (not far from the hotel in the book, La Calcina) and it was amazing, extraordinary, wonderful. My partner was a painter and he made the most beautiful watercolours of the place, our daughter soon got the hang of the Italian for 'ice-cream' - the Venetians loved her blue eyes and blonde hair - we went to the Lido every other day, did cultural things on the other days, or just lazed around. I did the shopping on the Rialto. Fish, fruit, veg, bread, meat - absolutely everything. Oh the smell of those sexy peaches... Fantastic. And wherever we walked was completely magical, a revelation. We also had good friends who stayed on the Lido at the sumptuous Hotel des Bains (featured in Death in Venice) so they wined and dined us there - and we returned the compliment by cooking for them. I saw Jamie Oliver buying vongole (clams)on the Rialto in his television programme recently and longed to be back there doing the same. It was the first Venetian dish I ever cooked in situ.

  • BB: Nina recommends that women wear white linen when in Venice. Do clothes matter to you and what do you wear in Venice?

MC: Yes, clothes matter tremendously to Venetians, I think. I was told by a Venetian that they might only buy one new outfit for the summer, but it would be good.

White linen, if you have nothing else, is a must. My first time in Venice was a bit clunky, clotheswise - I was lent a lot of stuff by friends (had a very small wardrobe myself) and never felt quite at home in the Marks and Spencers kit. The following year I'd learned a thing or two. White linen, black linen, and a bit of bright jewellery - I felt much more part of the place. This is most odd as I'm not a clothes horse generally.

  • BB: I’m ashamed to say that my first experience of your writing was Amenable Women. I fell in love with Flora Chapman whose husband plummeted to earth from a burning balloon and landed in a river – thus ensuring his death three times over. What inspired that book?

MC: Well, that death scene was homage to Ian McEwan's balloon in Enduring Love. And great fun to write. Anna of Cleves had always been a heroine of mine, she was just so good at wriggling her way through dark and dangerous waters without losing anyone's respect. And she was a woman who enjoyed a party. In the end she was totally vindicated as everyone who turned their back on her, faced her again, and loved her. Even the toad Henry. What a satisfying experience.

Flora was her contemporary counterpart, but not in too heavy a way (I hope). Flora grew on me as the book progressed. A total invention, she was, and a totally invented scenario. But I had so many letters from widows expressing similar (though not quite so harsh) feelings.

  • BB: With Truth To Tell I sensed a move to a more popular storyline than in Amenable Women. Was this deliberate or just the way that the story worked out?

MC: If you read Three Men on a Plane, or The Sex Life of my Aunt or Patrick Parker's Progress - you'll see the range and type of stories is wide (I hope). It's not a deliberate thing - Truth To Tell started out as a little morality tale (I'd hoped to write it in less that 40,000 words) but - like Topsy - it just growed. I ended up liking Nina very much. This is just the way novelists create, or some of us do - and - heck - I'd love to be really popular. Nothing wrong in having a storyline that keeps you reading to the end. I'm all for it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is balm for the novelist's often bruised heart, than the sight of a living, breathing human being sitting down on the tube, bus, park bench - anywhere - reading and totally engrossed in your novel. It's considerably better than sex or chocolate..

  • BB: What's next for Mavis Cheek?

MC: As I said, I've just come back from Crete (supposedly refreshed) and I now have to go back to the beginning of the new book I'm working on. Currently it's 92,000 words of execrable prose, with somewhere a book buried inside. Now I have to edit, hone, polish - or throw away and walk outside of the tent into the ice... This new book is more like Janice Gentle Gets Sexy in that it has a lot of characters and a heightened reality - let's just say that there is a hill by a village, a very steep hill, and on that hill, instead of an ancient chalk horse, there is an ancient chalk gnome - with a rather large appendage... And a pretty and clever young archaeologist who wants to know why...

  • BB: Mavis - I can't wait...

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