I’d never read a Mavis Cheek novel until a month ago, when Ipso Books announced ebook versions of several of her books. I began with Dog Days, which I loved and I’m thrilled to have Mavis on the blog today to answer some questions about her writing.
Dog Days is the story of Patricia, her divorce from her husband of eleven years and the setting up of a new home for her and their ten-year-old daughter, Rachel. The novel begins with a trip to Battersea Dogs’ Home to procure a dog for Rachel, a canine substitute for her father’s absence. Unfortunately, Patricia hates dogs:
They are but crap on legs, beleaguerers of the sandalled foot on a summer’s eve, providers of that little pile of excrement right where the honest citizen walks by, scratchers in grass and sniffers of personal places as they vile progenitors exhort you to enjoy the experience for they are simply ‘trying to be friendly…’ My best friend, to my certain knowledge, has never lifted my skirts with her nose to establish rapport.
However, they take home a small, thin, ginger mongrel named Brian who provides an excellent bit of comedy plot later in the novel.
We then learn how Patricia and Gordon met, how they were on the verge of splitting up when Patricia discovered she was pregnant with Rachel and how this put an end to her time as a mature student. We’re privy to her discussions with a solicitor as to why she’s divorcing Gordon and why she doesn’t want any money for herself.
The plot that emerges centres on Patricia’s new, single life and her friends’ attempts to get her dating again, despite Patricia’s protests that she’s perfectly happy as she is.
The novel considers the practicalities of divorce – moving house, sharing the children, new partners – and what life is like for women, losing something of themselves to marriage and childcare. This sounds like heavy going but Cheek brings a lightness to the book with some great comedy set pieces and a misunderstanding by Patricia over a local vet.
Dog Days is insightful and funny. I was gripped, finishing it within a day and now I’m looking forward to the rest of Cheek’s back catalogue.
Why did you decide to write comedy?
It came naturally. It surprised me that after I tried suppressing every glimmer of humour in my fiction (you should read my first, thankfully unpublished, novel) I allowed it to come out in my second novel which made me laugh as I wrote it and made readers laugh as they read it. It is, I suppose, how I view the world. Full of awful things, yes, but much to be laughed at within the awfulness (Look at Donald Trump).
Divorce doesn’t strike me as a particularly funny topic yet you make it one in Dog Days. How did the idea that you could write a comedy about divorce come about?
Largely because I was going through something similar in my life and one way of making it easier was to poke a bit of fun at it all, to laugh at our absurdities but at the same time, I hope, to keep it truthful and not to belittle the experience. Brian is wholly invented.
Some of the set pieces – Patricia and Gordon’s first meeting and the rabbit scenario, for example – are absolutely hilarious. Are these completely made up or do you collect stories from friends to adapt?
Pretty well everything in Dog Days happened to me – or a version of it happened to me – though the story about Bulstrode and Brian is based on a story that was going the rounds, which I thought was both funny and painful. So much comedy is made up of those two elements – as – indeed – is the first meeting between Patricia and Gordon. I had many letters from women who had gone through or were going through divorce after this book came out thanking me for writing it. And of course, my ex-partner was furious and called it my ‘vile fiction’.
Readers seem to dislike novelists killing off dogs. You avoid that but Patricia’s disdain for Brian is clear. Have you had any complaints from dog loving readers?
Well – no – not as far as I know. And when this book was first published there was no such thing as the Internet. If it was to be published for the first time now I would probably be trolled and have death threats. I should add, because it’s another example of how funny life can be, that I have since been asked to judge local dog shows – which I did with a mixture of delight and fear – everything from The Waggiest Tail to The Dog Who Looks Most Like Its Owner. I developed a great deal of respect for the dogs who clearly thought their owners were nuts but obliged them by participating fully.
Despite Patricia’s decision to remain single, her friends repeatedly attempt to set her up with various men. Why did you choose to explore the idea that women can be alone and contented?
Because it is true. Women can be alone and contented. And I have seen (and continue to see) so many women friends (and men friends) take up permanent relationships with wildly unsuitable new partners just because they think it better than being on their own. Maybe it is. I wouldn’t know as I value my independence and happiness to take that risk. But if someone whom I fancied madly and admired as a person should come along and say ‘How about it…?’ I’d be delighted.
There are a number of perceptive comments in the novel as to how society views and treats girls and women. Did you set out to write a feminist novel?
I’ve never set out to write anything fictional that is ideologically based. It’s just my natural view of how things are. I’m a feminist to my bones without even trying. Girls are doing brilliantly at school and university but that’s still not reflected in the balance of the world. Look at Zaha Hadid – who was virtually number one in a field of one so far as great women architects were concerned, and boy she paid for it. Look at the top UK 100 Companies and their Boards and Chairs… woefully few women… Women still lag behind men in all sorts of ways despite their equal or surpassing qualifications and intelligence. The dark side of this is Rotherham and Savile. Things are not that much further forward since I wrote DogDays though I suppose we have stopped being patted on the bum and told to run off and make the tea. I’m about to employ builders and in the cause of getting decent service I’ve roped in a male friend of mine to be part of the dealings. You can say I’m letting the side down but experience tells me that it will smooth the path – I’ve fought my battles over the years with The Great Unliberated Male – and I’m a little bit tired of it.
My blog focus on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Those great 19C novelists – Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth,Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (all fell foul of male critics in their lifetimes). 20C – Richmal Crompton, Beryl Bainbridge, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Forster, Agatha Christie, Edna O’Brien, Anita Desai, Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Margaret Drabble, May Angelou, Sue Townsend – it’s a rich mix.
A huge thank you to Mavis Cheek for the interview and to Ipso Books for the review copy.
You can find out more about Mavis at mavischeek.co.uk
Mavis is on twitter at @mavischeekbooks
Readers can get two free short stories by letting Mavis know to send them at mavischeek.co.uk/signup
And you can read more about Mavis Cheek and Dog Days on various blogs this week: