Wendy Perriam: ‘Mother’s Day – And we’re all awash with schmaltz’

Wendy Perriam on mothers in fiction.

‘“Mothers are angels in human form, divinities on earth”; “God moulded my mother’s heart from gold and put shining stars in her eyes”. Such tributes paid to mothers online are surely only fitting for unbelievable paragons like Marmee in Little Women. Most psychologists agree that the mother/child relationship, and especially the mother/daughter relationship, is often intractable and fraught. According to research, women only finally appreciate their mothers after 183 rows and 164 door-slammings. (Don’t ask me how they record such things!) And serious mother/child disruptions are all too familiar in literature, from Ancient Greece to modern times – think Oedipus, Medea, Hamlet, Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, or Lolita’s mother who puts her own sexual satisfaction above the safety of her daughter. And most crass and vile of all mothers must surely be Matilda’s, depicted by Roald Dahl as neglectful, idiotic and tyrannically abusive.

Even some of my close friends are in constant daily conflict with their daughters, or despairing of children who seem distant, recalcitrant or downright bolshie. So we’re faced with a dichotomy: angelic mothers, on the one hand, hymned and praised in treacly Mother’s Day cards and, on the other, the unwelcome truth of slammed doors and family rifts. Last year, I asked my Creative Writing students to write a one-page study of their mothers and was shocked by the number of callous harridans who nagged and scolded from those pages.

And, when it comes to me and mothers, I didn’t have the best start in the world! Born in the middle of the war to a highly anxious mum, who already had an underweight toddler, born prematurely and still giving much cause for anxiety, the last thing she wanted was another child. And who can blame her, with my Dad away, bombs raining down on the family home, and us forced to sleep in the cramped and smelly air-raid shelter under the dining-room table?

Even my actual birth was far from serene. Mum’s labour started in the middle of a horror film, precipitating a mad dash from cinema to hospital, where I emerged in an undignified rush, sickly-yellow from jaundice. One look at my ghastly hue and satanically dark hair was enough to convince my parents to change my name from Angela to Wendy – I was clearly more devil than angel. But, since Wendy isn’t a Saint’s name, the nuns who schooled me from age 4 to age 21 disapproved of it intensely.

Those same nuns constituted a whole troupe of alternative “mothers”– scary forbidding figures with, apparently, no hair and no discernible bodies, just long black gliding robes. Nor could one expect much mercy, let alone mothering, from such strict, judgemental disciplinarians, who regarded touch as dangerous and pleasure as a one-way ticket to Hell. My schoolgirl diaries record how often we were told we were “vegetables”, “hopeless failures” and “miserable worms”, who would never amount to anything.

9780709093862So perhaps it’s little wonder that my latest short-story collection has Bad Mothers in the title. However, I didn’t consciously set out to write about mothers, good or bad, and it was only when I re-read the whole collection that I realized how many bad mothers feature in the stories. The thing about short stories is that they require much less pre-planning and structuring than novels, and seem to arise spontaneously, often prompted by childhood experiences. And, certainly, as a child, I was in frequent trouble both from my mother and the nuns. The latter eventually expelled me and told me I was in the devil’s power – the most frightening moment of my life, since Satan seemed totally real and terrifyingly evil.

In the story A Cuppa and a Biscuit, I recreate a younger version of my troubled schoolgirl self and re-enact her dread of Hell and damnation – still with me at the age of 74! This story is based on a real-life incident, when I was told by Reverend Mother (the most daunting of all mothers) not to keep fainting at Holy Mass. But how could I stop what she called “this pernicious habit”, when it seemed to happen automatically and I’d find myself blacking out and slumping to the floor? Truth to tell, I was probably just weak and hungry, since we girls ate nothing from early supper to post-Mass breakfast the next day.

However, as a counterbalance to punitive Reverend Mothers and cantankerously critical real mothers, there are some benign and gentle mothers in my new short-story collection. The title-story, Mouse, for example, features a kind and decent mother, whose only fault is her fear of mice. (This is an extremely common phobia, judging by the statistics, so I hope musophobics readers aren’t unduly alarmed by the book-jacket!) And Debs’ Mum in Presents is genuinely loving and caring, a supportive figure who cooks her daughter proper porridge in the morning; has her supper waiting when she returns knackered after work; makes her a hot-water-bottle if her period-pain is bad; sews new eyes on her old, balding teddy bear, and offers to make her curtains if and when she moves away from home. And the reason Debs doesn’t move, despite her desire for her own flat, is because of the very strength and solidity of that love, which she now sees as a precious gift – a gift of time, effort and devotion

And talking of gifts, I hope that, despite its title, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers will make an apt and unusual present for Mother’s Day. After all, if a few of the mothers prove alarming, the brilliant lovers may well compensate!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here 

Wendy Perriam: ‘All set for Valentine’s Day!’

Wendy Perriam talks to us about Valentine’s Day and romance in her recent works.

‘Brilliant lovers sound just the ticket for Valentine’s Day! If we’re lucky enough to have one in our life, we can expect a profusion of hearts, flowers and chocolates on 14 February – and of course fireworks in the sack!

9780709093862But, in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, romantic relationships don’t always pan out quite so well. Even in the story Unbelievably Wonderful – again a title promising rapture all the way – Frances can only respond to her, yes, truly brilliant lover, Duncan, by pretending he’s someone completely and utterly different: her first teenage love, Josh, whom she’s never forgotten and regrets ever having left. So, in her mind she changes the tall, distinguished wealthy, high-powered Duncan into small, shabby, impoverished Josh – and, against all the odds, it does result in a “unbelievably wonderful” sexual encounter.

Another story, Venus, also takes an unexpected turn. Although Poppy is turned on, at first, by Leon’s erotic expertise, when he actually undresses she’s devastated by the sight of his spindly, withered body. Only then does she realize the full implications of the 60-year age-gap between them – something she’s chosen to ignore on account of his fame and distinction. But no amount of distinction can transform him into a virile young stud, so, appalled, she flees from his bed, while he, for his part, reacts with surprising venom.

As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in unworkable couplings and tempestuous liaisons than in quiet, contented relationships. After all, Cupid carries two different sorts of arrows: sharp ones of pure gold, which fill a person struck by them with uncontrollable desire, and blunt, lead-tipped ones that wound their victims with an overwhelming feeling of aversion. And I’m very much aware that, beneath the showy petals of Valentine’s Day red roses, lie sharp and dangerous thorns, and that even the most luscious of chocolates can sate and glut and stale.

None of the stories in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers actually takes place on Valentine’s Day, but I’ve included it in earlier books. For instance, the two protagonists in my novel, The Stillness The Dancing, find themselves, on 14 February, staying on a remote Scottish Island, where David is researching the life of a seventh-century Celtic Saint. He suggests they mark the occasion by re-enacting the ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on the same date as Valentine’s Day and thus claimed by some authorities to be historically linked with it.

So, after beating the bounds of the island and singing to a tame seal, the couple return to their windswept cottage for a ritual meal symbolizing fertility and fruitfulness. Yet, when they go upstairs for their first attempt at sex, it all goes disastrously wrong, & Morna lies miserable and frustrated, secretly enraged by the Catholic conditioning that has taught them both that sex is sinful and an instant passport to Hell.  Suddenly, though, she explodes in a wild tirade against nuns, priests, Popes and all those prissy celibates whose teachings have restricted her life and David’s so severely.  And the tirade itself finally ignites his passion, thus saving their offbeat Valentine’s Day!

In another novel, Second Skin, newly widowed Catherine has arranged to meet the handsome but troubled poet, Will, for a meal on Valentine’s Day. When she arrives, attired in her best but worryingly late, she finds him shabbily dressed, frozen stiff and distinctly grumpy – hardly a good start to the evening. And further problems and jealousies erupt during what she hoped would be a romantic dinner. In fact, it’s only when she actually takes the initiative and demands a kiss from the unforthcoming poet that, again, all is eventually resolved, since fortunately he obliges with full, red-blooded exuberance.

So what of my own Valentine’s Day this year? At the ripe old age of 74, I can hardly expect a passionate encounter, except perhaps in fantasy – one of the main resources for any writer. But I won’t be alone in my celibacy. According to recent research, 79% of us Brits would rather have a good night’s sleep than have sex with our partners, and more than one in five women would prefer to kiss goodbye to their sex-lives than have to give up chocolate. In fact, 33% of females obsess about chocolate during the day, compared with only 18% who fantasize about sex.

Beetles and gastropods, however, put us humans to shame. Recently, I was researching the sex-lives of lowly creatures (don’t ask why!), and it appears that the sex-crazed ladybird can mate for up to nine hours every day, and garden-snails aren’t far behind. The latter rub and bite each other in untiring sexual marathons, lustfully waving their eye-stalks, and even firing mucous love-darts at each other.

So perhaps I was mistaken in not including a ladybird or a snail or two in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers. Nonetheless, Cupid’s love-darts are certainly present in the book, so I hope it will make an appropriately diverting gift for Valentine’s Day. If nothing else, it will undoubtedly last longer than chocolates or red roses!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam: ‘My new short story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is published today!’

Wendy tells us about her latest collection.

9780709093862‘The title may seem a tad blatant but, in my 35 years as a writer, I’ve been continually fascinated by the key influence parents exert over their children’s future development and life-chances, and also by the power of sex to enrich and exhilarate. Yet I’m equally aware of the darker side of sex, which, if violent or exploitative, can damage and debase. Taught by the Reverend Mother of my convent boarding-school that one single act of incontinence could land me in hellfire for all eternity, I was conscious from a tender age of the dramatic dangers of “the world, the flesh and the devil”.

Bad mothers certainly feature in this collection – negative, critical, or cantankerous – but I wanted to balance them with some positive, upbeat element – hence the lovers, who, although by no means all ‘brilliant’, engage in enough passionate and transformative sex to justify the adjective. However, there are also more troubling liaisons, for instance, an 82-year-old professor’s attempt to seduce a post-graduate student 60 years his junior. The encounter begins promisingly enough, as the Prof runs through his repertoire of erotic expertise but, when it comes to the crunch, he proves just too offputtingly ancient and the girl flees his bed in panic and disgust.

Another, much younger lover – a data analyst obsessed with numbers, algorithms and mathematical formulae – seems incapable of sexual spontaneity, adhering to a rigid sexual system, as if his every timetabled move is dictated by a dispassionate cyber-brain.

But many of my characters lack any kind of lover: essentially lonely souls, such as 93-year-old widow Primrose, divorcee Sarah, or single, childless Ellen. Yet, each of the three achieves redemption and reprieve – another recurring theme in my work. The basic notion of redemption was instilled in me, very early on, as a Roman Catholic child and I found it appealingly compassionate in that every person on earth can be saved, so long as they seek forgiveness. Of course, redemption for my fictional characters is rarely a religious matter; indeed, is sometimes achieved through bizarrely secular means – in businesswoman Helen’s case, a self-indulgent glut of marshmallows, or, for shy loner Ken, a home-made Christmas pudding – but the basic concept holds good, in that it remains a regenerative and liberating force.

As always, many of the stories sprang from personal experience: the fake gold ring I was offered in a scam; my encounter with a colony of mice at Clapham Common tube station; the bridal couple I saw posing for photos in the Lost Property Office, of all places; my horror as a pious child when I fainted during Holy Mass and believed I was plunging into Hell.

And that terrifying incident brings me back to mothers and lovers. Reverend Mother, who deplored my habitual fainting and refused to call me Wendy on the grounds it wasn’t a Saint’s name, was undoubtedly a ‘bad mother’. Yet I sought solace in God the Father, whom I regarded as a lover, in the sense of a powerful, life-enhancing Presence, demanding worship and surrender.

Oppressive mothers and unobtainable fathers have characterized much of my work since my first novel in 1980, along with Catholicism, of course, which has left indelible traces in the fibre of my being, like letters lingering in a stick of rock until the very last lick. And, in many of my books, I explore the struggle between rebellion and submission, and the drive for self-fulfilment in conflict with the pernicious lure of self-destruction. All these themes recur in Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, yet, in the interests of fairness, I’ve also included a few good mothers in the stories, as well as some downright crappy lovers. Take your pick!’

Order your copy of Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers here

Wendy Perriam tells us what Christmas means to her and her characters

Dear Father Christmas, what I’d really like for Christmas is some joy …..

9780709093862No, not the anguished plea of an unhappy child, but a letter from 55-year-old Ken, posted in the big red mail-box in Santa’s Grotto at his local shopping centre. Ken, the protagonist of the second story in my new short-story collection, Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is struck by the rarity of joy in his life, almost non-existent since his childhood. Yet the story ends on Christmas Day with him in euphoric mood, relishing the best Christmas dinner he’s ever experienced to date.

The short-story form itself could be described as joyous, in that it is so much less laborious than novel-writing. All these 15 new stories came easily and effortlessly, prompted by some small incident or even an offhand remark – the dismissive “Just yourself?”, for instance, with which I was greeted by the snooty manager when entering a restaurant on my own. Before I’d even glanced at the menu, a story took shape in my mind: unmarried, childless Ellen, receiving the same grudging welcome – and on her 40th birthday, of all days – feels unloved, unwanted and an all-too-obvious failure. Yet, by the end of the story, she, too, is considerably more upbeat and even has a ring on her finger!

Yet Christmas can be a challenging and lonely time for those without families or loved ones. The widowed, childless Primrose in my story, Lost, dreads what she sees as the “long, benighted days of the so-called Festive Season” and has to draw up a plan to make Christmas Day more endurable: a nice boiled egg for breakfast, a short walk to the Common, then back for the Queen’s Speech, a couple of mince pies, and an evening watching television – hardly very exciting, but at least it fills the empty hours.

And in Magical Numbers, young bride-to-be Lynne lands up in hospital in mid-December, with a badly broken leg, and faces the prospect of a pain-ridden, immobile Christmas in a ward full of elderly invalids. However, in her case, her spirits are high, because something magical has just occurred in that very hospital bed: “serendipitously, and in the nick of time, she has managed to “escape an onerous life-sentence”.

I personally detest Christmas, with its fake good cheer, the increasingly crowded shops and increasingly irritable shoppers, and the obligation to spend, spend, spend, cook, cook, cook, and tirelessly celebrate this season of hype and hysteria. I may sound like a Scrooge, but when Christmas catalogues begin arriving as early as July, one gets heartily sick of glitter, baubles, reindeer, robins, recorded carols in the supermarkets, and all the razzle-dazzle rest of it, by the time Christmas Day actually arrives.

However, on 14 January, when Bad Mothers Brilliant Lovers, is officially published, I’ll be truly celebrating – not just the new book, but the fact that the days are getting longer, the mornings lighter, the first snowdrops are in bloom, and Christmas is over for another 345 days!

Bad Mothers Brilliant lovers will be published on 14 January. Pre-order your copy here.