** SPOILERS ALERT! **
How did the idea for The Rival come to you and was it something that you thought about for a long time before putting pen to paper?
I was on maternity leave and looking for books that reflected the experience I had had of leaving my job before having a baby. I couldn’t think of any that really covered the hugely mixed emotions I experienced at the time. I’d also heard lots of stories from friends who had lost their jobs while pregnant, or on maternity leave, and wondered why this hadn’t been covered much in fiction. I’m not a planner at all, so I sat down and simply decided to write about two women, one who had lost her job while pregnant, and another who had replaced her. I suppose the two characters are a reflection of the two women I feel I was – before and after having my baby. I wanted to examine how the experience of becoming a mother changes you, especially in relation to your career and sense of identity.
Who are the writers who inspire you today?
This is very hard to answer because lots of different writers inspire me for different reasons! I love contemporary fiction – I am not snobby about fiction and believe that it should exist primarily to entertain. Therefore writers who appeal to a broad audience really inspire me – people such as CL Taylor, Louise Doughty, Clare Mackintosh, Philippa Gregory, JoJo Moyes, Lisa Jewell and Cass Green. Keeping people gripped by a book in the age of social media and omnipresent-internet is a real skill. On the more literary side, I love Maggie O’Farrell – everything she writes is exquisite. But I also love classic writers like Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood... I love biographies and memoirs and recently adored Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt. There aren’t many books I don’t enjoy for one reason or another!
You completed a six-month creative writing course while writing this novel. What would you say was the most helpful outcome from the course, and did it affect the storyline of The Rival in any specific way?
The most helpful outcome of the course was that I finished my first draft in ten weeks. Being on the course really motivated me and gave me a sense of purpose that had perhaps been missing from my previous attempts to write. I loved meeting with other writers every week and reading their work, and really enjoyed workshopping everyone’s extracts. I don’t think it affected the storyline specifically but I definitely had a lot of help with character development from my peers and my tutor, Joanna Briscoe. Joanna was wonderful and also really gave me faith in my ability to write. I wish I could do it again!
The Rival is told in the first person, alternating between the viewpoint of Ashley and Helena. How did you find the experience of writing the two voices? Was one easier or more enjoyable than the other to write?
I really enjoyed writing the two voices. I was desperate to portray both sides of the story authentically, and wanted to leave the reader able to make their own mind up about who they felt the most sympathy for. I have a fundamental belief that most people are generally trying to do their best in any situation with what they have. We are all products of the baggage of our past. So it was important that both voices were flawed but also sympathetic in their own ways. I probably found Ash a little easier to write – especially in part one – as she’s a more active character and has more energy. Whereas at the beginning of the novel Helena is in a very dark place and this is always more of a challenge to write. But I loved them both and it was great to be able to examine the situation from both their points of view.
Helena considers Ashley to be partly responsible for her dismissal. Do you think that Ashley is to blame for Helena losing her job?
I don’t think Ashley helped the situation. However, I don’t necessarily think that’s her fault. She’s ruthlessly ambitious and is morally murky when it comes to getting what she wants, but I think if she was a male character no one would bat an eyelid at her behaviour. It’s this inequality in the workplace that I was keen to highlight.
What inspired you to write about post-partum psychosis?
I had friends who suffered with post-natal depression but had never heard of post-partum psychosis until I watched a documentary on it on BBC One when my daughter was about eight months old. It broke my heart to see these poor women struggling so desperately, and I wondered why this hadn’t been covered much in fiction either. I did some more research and as I was writing the book realised that it would make sense for Helena’s extreme stress to push her to the absolute limit. I will say though that I used some artistic licence in dealing with the condition in the novel, and if readers are interested to find out more about it, the charities listed in my author’s note are definitely worth checking out.
What would you like readers to take away from The Rival?
Before I got pregnant, I had a pretty unsisterly attitude towards mothers and pregnant ladies in general. Especially in the workplace. If I heard them complain about their lot, I was dismissive – thinking they had wanted children so why were they moaning? But now I am a mother I realise what a massively challenging task being a parent is. I would love readers to realise that new mothers need and deserve support. Not just in the workplace, but in shops, on public transport etc. If you see a mother struggling to get her buggy down a flight of stairs, then offer her a hand. If you see a toddler having a tantrum in a restaurant, don’t glare at the mother for ruining your peace. She’s probably desperately embarrassed and exhausted. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to mothers but to all parents, and anyone looking after children! I wish as a nation we valued carers more than ambition. I think it’s something we need to work on.