Thursday, 10 March 2016

Q&A with Kate Thompson

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Hello Simona and thanks for featuring me on your blog!

Did you always dream of being a writer?

Always. It would be fair to say I didn’t excel academically, but writing was something I felt I could do, and so I did. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. Creative stories for school, turned to hormonal angst in a teenage diary, which graduated to newspaper and magazine articles when I became a journalist, and now here I am, writing fiction for Pan Macmillan. In a way you could say I’ve come full circle! Working as a true-life journalist for twenty years for titles like the Mail, the Express, the Sun, Take a Break and Marie Claire helped to bolster my confidence and ability, but it wasn’t until I became a ghostwriter that I got to grips with long form narrative.

How did your writing career develop?

I was working as Deputy Editor for IPC’s Pick Me Up magazine and was heavily pregnant, when I took redundancy. I needed a writing career that I could fit in around raising two children, and I was incredibly lucky to find myself an agent, Diane Banks, who introduced me to ghostwriting. I ghostwrote five memoirs before Diane suggested that I try my hand at fiction. After much research and many, many drafts, Secrets of the Singer Girls was born.

Your second novel is called Secrets of the Sewing Bee, what is it about?

Secrets of the Sewing Bee is a prequel to Secrets of the Singer Girls and tells the story of three young women who all work in an East End garment factory during the Second World War. All harbour a dark secret. When the factory gets twinned with a British Naval Minesweeper, the women form a sewing bee so that they can send their sailors ‘comfort items’ such a socks and gloves to keep them warm. The Blitz then breaks out and the women’s lives are hurtled into peril and chaos. They are forced to take their sewing circle underground to shelter from the bombs, and it is there, in and amongst the burgeoning community of the underground tunnels, that their devastating secrets are revealed. The book attempts to get under the skin of what it really meant to be a young woman during the Blitz. It was a time of unrelenting exhaustion and deprivation, yet also excitement. There is a perception that women were the gentler sex back then, tending to home and hearth, but on digging deeper I discovered a very different woman to the one presented to us though nostalgic dramas, stoically waiting for her husband to return home from the battlefields. My characters, in keeping with the women of Britain, behaved in extraordinary and uncharacteristic ways. Shocked out of their rhythms by fear, necessity and freedom, they indulged in affairs, took part in protests, lynch mobs, stormed from stifling jobs and took on exciting and dangerous new ones. As one woman told me whilst I was researching the book, “Women found their soul. It was the very best time to be alive”. I wanted to place that drama and bravery firmly at the heart of the book. There is also plenty of camaraderie, laughter and romance to keep things zipping along.

What was your inspiration for the book?

Easy. The many women, today in their eighties and nineties, who I interviewed who shared their incredible tales of living through the Blitz with me. I have dedicated a section in the book just to their stories, as they are too good to miss.

Can you tell us more about the main character(s)?

Dolly Doolaney is the office tea lady. She is a chirpy, sunny woman, always full of banter and jocularity, but she hides a heartbreaking secret that is only revealed when the bombs stop dropping. Flossy Brown was raised in an orphanage. The factory is her first job and she finds the ‘East End’s own finishing school’ as the other girls call the factory, a baptism of fire, but she quickly settles in, only finding out what she is truly capable of when the Blitz begins. Then there is Peggy Piper, a former Lyons Corner House Nippy. Peggy immediately alienates her fellow workers with her cool and aloof demeanour, but of all the girls, it is she who goes on the most profound journey of discovery.

Where and when do you write your stories?

I write from the office (sanctuary) at the bottom of my garden and I try to write every day. Afternoons are my most productive time.

What do you do and enjoy when you’re not writing?

A night out with my brilliant mates and long walks in the countryside with my family and our Jack Russell Twinkle.

If you could switch places with a character from a book, who would it be and why?

Vianne Rocher in the novel Chocolat, because who wouldn’t want to open up a chocolate shop in a sleepy French village and weave a bit of magic and mischief?

What books have most influenced your life most? 

So many, and I think it entirely depends what stage of life you’re looking at. When I was younger, I devoured books like Malory Towers because they represented escape and a way of living I longed for. As a young woman, travelling and working, I loved light, funny authors like Marian Keyes. These days, I like something a bit darker. I recently read Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger, set in a dusty post war stately home. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. It was such a gripping read and the pace built stealthily to such an incredible ending. She is a masterful storyteller and everything she writes feel so authentic.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a book set in 1930s Whitechapel about women working in the wedding industry. Two of my characters work in a photographic portrait studio and the third makes wedding dresses. The East End was grindingly poor back then in the Depression, but despite that, or many even because of it, every bride wanted to look like a Hollywood movie star. Having a beautiful wedding portrait was a badge of honour, as was having the very best day your family could afford. It was a time of stark contrasts and the illusion of glamour. The streets were full of danger, with fascist blackshirts marching and the threat of war looming on the horizon, so young women lived for glamour and romance. 1936 was a helter skelter of a year with the Depression, hunger marches, the abdication of the King and the Battle of Cable Street, providing a suitably dramatic backdrop to my character’s lives.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I love the escapism of creating characters and becoming immersed in their worlds.

Pick three authors you want to have dinner with and tell us why.

Joanne Harris (Chocolat) Irene Nemirovsky (Suite Fran├žaise) and Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet) All of these authors write strong, authentic and fascinating female characters. 

You are also a ghostwriter, can you tell us more about it?

I started ghost writing in 2011 and instantly fell in love with the profession. Along my ghostwriting journey, I have shared innumerable pots of tea with Brenda Ashford, Britain’s oldest living nanny until her death last year. Then there was irrepressible Mollie Moran, whose saucy antics as a 1930s scullery maid, made Philip Schofield blush on This Morning, and who at 96, became the oldest author ever to top the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list when her memoir, Aprons and Silver Spoons was published. Who knew a butler’s bum could be so firm you could bounce a penny off it? And I could never forget the harrowing story that Jenny Smith confided in me. Jenny was one of Britain’s early domestic violence pioneers and the first woman ever through the doors of a woman’s refuge in the 1970s, back in the days when police regarded it a man’s right to beat his wife. When Jenny revealed her inspiring story to me in her tiny kitchen over plates of Oxtail stew, we had no idea her book too would go on to become a bestseller. I feel proud to have had a hand in, and shaped the stories of these astonishing women.

Coffee or tea?

Both. Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and plenty of it please!

Paperback or e-reader?

Many of my friends could never be parted from their Kindles. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned sort, but to me, nothing beats reading a book. I love to see them stacked by my bedside and lined up on bookshelves, and I adore turning the pages and the feel of it in my hand. There is a physicality to reading a paperback that never fails to thrill.

Mountains or the sea?

Beaches were made for lazing on with a good book. You can’t do that in the mountains.

Summer or winter?

Summer every time. If I could hibernate through winter I would. I love the feeling of sun on my skin, walking about in flip-flops and balmy summer evenings. London feels so much more relaxed during the summer and the frenetic pace of life seems to slow.

Sweet or salty?

Can I be greedy and say both? How could I choose between Maltesers and Twiglets? Hmm, now I’m hungry!

You can connect with Kate on:

Twitter - @katethompson380

About the author:

Kate Thompson is a journalist with twenty years' experience as a writer for the broadsheets and women's weekly magazines. She is now freelance and, as well as writing for newspapers, she's a seasoned ghostwriter. Secrets of the Sewing Bee is her second novel, following the Sunday Times bestseller Secrets of the Singer Girls. 

The blurb:

Secrets of the Sewing Bee tells the story of the defiant and courageous women on the home front, from the author of Secrets of the Singer Girls.
Orphan Flossy Brown arrives at Trouts garment factory in Bethnal Green amidst the uncertainty of the Second World War. In 1940s London, each cobbled street is strewn with ghosts of soldiers past, all struggling to make ends meet. For the women of the East End, their battles are on the home front.
Flossy is quickly embraced by the colourful mix of characters working at Trouts, who have turned their sewing expertise to vital war work. They fast become the family that Flossy has always longed for. Dolly Doolaney, darling of the East End, and the infamous tea lady, gives her a particularly warm welcome and helps Flossy settle into wartime life.

Things arent so easy for Peggy Piper, another new recruit to

the factory. Shes used to the high life working as a nippie in
the West End, and is not best pleased to find herself bent over a sewing machine. But war has the ability to break down all sorts of class barriers and soon Peggy finds the generosity and spirit of her follow workers difficult to resist.

Dolly sets up a sewing circle and the ladies at Trouts play their part in defending the frontline as they arm themselves with their needles and set about stitching their way to victory. But as the full force of the Blitz hits London, the sewing bee are forced to shelter in the underground tube stations on a nightly basis.
In such close quarters, can Dolly manage to contain the secret that binds them all? And how will Peggy and Flossy cope as their lives are shaped and moved by forces outside of their control? 


  1. What a great interview. I wanted to be a journalist but got dissuaded by teachers. I did do a work experience for a local paper and wrote a few articles. A big regret of mine. Maybe one day I will write a book.

    I admit I have my eye on your books and love the sound of them as would my nana.