Today it’s my pleasure to welcome Beth Miller to the blog. Beth is the author of two novels, When We Were Sisters and The Good Neighbour, both published by Ebury (Random House). She’s also written a non-fiction book, For The Love of The Archers. She is currently sobbing over her third novel. When not sobbing and writing, she teaches writing, stares out of the window, and mucks about on Twitter (@drbethmiller).
Her second novel The Good Neighbour is published tomorrow; to whet your appetite you can read my review below followed by my interview with Beth.
‘My god, you’re a breath of fresh air,’ said Minette.
‘Sounds like you didn’t get on too great with the last people here?’
‘Slight understatement. They were horrible to us. They couldn’t stand the noise. Tilly, you know. They banged on the walls at night.’
‘How horrible. They were pretty stiff when I spoke to them on the phone. Babies are supposed to cry. I bet you’re not even that noisy, are you, gorgeous?’ Cath clucked at Tilly.
‘Not according to the Miltons. They were unfriendly from day one. They never got over the fact that I was pregnant but not married.’
‘Old-school types, huh?’
‘Totally. They behaved as if Abe was some kind of antisocial yob, just because he’s got long hair. I’m sure they used to spy on us from out of your funny round window, when we were in the front garden. We drank champagne, well Prosecco, when we heard they were moving out.’
‘I hope you won’t feel the same way about us.’
‘Definitely not. I’m so glad you’re here.’ Minette raised her mug and chinked it against Cath’s.
The Good Neighbour focuses on two women who end up living next door to each other. Minette, stuck at home with a baby, is bored and frustrated. Tilly’s nine months old but Minette and her partner Abe haven’t had sex since before she was born. To complicate things further, Minette’s noticed that Liam, who lives across the street is very good-looking and, conveniently, he’s at home during the day waiting for his teaching course to begin. With a bit of a nudge from Cath, the inevitable occurs.
Cath, along with her children, has moved next door to Minette. She says they’ve come from ‘up north’. It seems as though she has a lot to cope with: she’s separated from her husband and both of her children have medical issues. Four-year-old Lola has serious allergies and eight-year-old Davey is wheelchair bound due to muscular dystrophy. And then there are all the little things that don’t quite add up: why can’t the children go on the computer? Why does she give them a different answer as to where their dad is? Why does her friend Gina call her Ruby?
The first half of the novel builds slowly as Minette becomes embroiled in her affair with Liam and Cath goes about building a new life for her and her family. But of course, all is not what it seems and the middle of the book is a tipping point where the reader begins to realise what’s going on and can only watch, horrified, as events move quickly towards two equally interesting but very different conclusions for these women.
I found The Good Neighbour interesting for two reasons: firstly, a wheelchair bound key character is unusual and the discussions around Davey’s condition and the adjustments that needed to be made for him were informative. Secondly, Miller’s build-up in the first half of the book is fascinating when you return to it knowing where it’s leading. I enjoyed spotting all the clues as to what Cath was hiding.
If you’re a fan of domestic dramas with elements of psychological thrillers, The Good Neighbour is worth a few hours of your time on a rainy weekend.
Your novel plays on the idea of what makes a good neighbour. Where did the idea come from?
There’s such a lot of media bewailing that we only connect with each other online, oh woe it’s the end of days, etc. But in my experience of living in a small town, I interact with my neighbours on a very regular basis. We take in parcels for each other, feed pets when we’re away, have sets of keys, and generally look out for each other. But actually, we don’t know our neighbours all that well, and we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors…
Eight-year-old Davey uses a wheelchair, which is a significant part of the plot of the book. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about diverse representations in novels, did this have a bearing on your decision to have a character in a wheelchair?
Not at all. I’m afraid I didn’t even know there were these discussions going on. Him being in a wheelchair worked for the plot, that’s the reason why it’s there.
You write from the point-of-view of three different characters: Cath, Minette and Davey; how challenging is it to ensure each character has their own voice?
It’s very challenging! I found it slightly easier this time than in my first novel (When We Were Sisters) which had two women narrators of around the same age. I had to keep changing lines that sounded too much like the other one. With The Good Neighbour, Davey obviously has a distinctly child-like voice (based a bit on my son!). The challenge was to make Cath and Minette sound different from each other. Cath in particular uses quite a lot of figures of speech, but there was one draft in which I realised that I had given some of these to Minette as well. Ah, the horror! Well, not really a horror as I just used ‘Find and Replace.’ But you know, it was a momentary horror.
The book uses many of the techniques of a psychological thriller, how did you make sure there was enough tension in the first half to keep the reader gripped without giving away too much of the plot?
I don’t know that I did! Others will have to be the judge of that. In fact I do suspect that the beginning is probably a tad slow. Don’t tell my publisher that I said that. Hopefully there are enough distractions in it (snogging, and stuff), to keep the reader going until the top of the rollercoaster. I do think that there’s a point at which the whole thing speeds up mightily, and then it gets rather exciting.
My blog focuses on women writers, who are your favourite female writers?
I have got LOADS. Here are just a few, with my favourite books of theirs. Judy Blume (Wifey), Laurie Colwin (Another Marvelous Thing), Monica Dickens (One Pair of Hands), Norah Ephron (Heartburn), Margaret Forster (Have The Men Had Enough), Anne Patchett (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), Anne Tyler (Patchwork Planet), and Molly Weir (Shoes Were For Sundays). In alphabetical order so as not to upset any of them.
Thanks to Beth Miller for the interview and to Ebury for the review copy.