Kate Thompson is the author of Secrets of the Singer Girls and the novel's sequel, Secrets of the Sewing Bee, is published by Pan Macmillan today! To celebrate the release I spoke to Kate about the incredible amount of interesting research she's done for her novels, her writing process and what project she's working on next.
Q&A with author Kate ThompsonHi Kate, thanks so much for joining me on Page to Stage Reviews to celebrate the release of your second novel today, Secrets of the Sewing Bee. For those who have not yet read Secrets of the Singer Girls, can you tell us a little bit about the setting of your books and the Trout's clothing factory?
Hi Zarina and thank you so much for featuring me on your blog!
Secrets of the Singer Girls and the prequel, Secrets of the Sewing Bee are both set in the East End of London during the Second World War and focus on the factory rag-trade workers of that era. Named after their brand of sewing machine and the loud and lusty singing in the factories, my first novel was inspired by the real-life Singer Girls, whose gritty experiences on the Home Front, opened my eyes to a side of life that has long since vanished from this country.
Today, the East End is unrecognisable from its former self, but during the war, the streets of Bethnal Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Stepney, Hackney and Whitechapel were teeming with garment factories, all crowded with women working ‘in the rag’. The blistering poverty of those times was brutal. The Welfare State hadn’t been dreamt up and the streets were filled with the poor and hungry. Children walked about with bare feet or in shoes patched up with cardboard. But from great poverty springs ingenuity, and the Cockney rag-trade worker, was nothing if not resourceful.
One has to admire the women who worked out how to fuse their sewing machines by holding the wheel and keeping their foot down on the treadle, craftily earning themselves an extra ten-minute break, or the lady who proudly told me that she didn’t regard herself as a proper machinist until she had accidentally impaled her finger on the sewing machine needle three times!
These women, like every other machinist I spoke with, calmly worked their way through the raids of the Blitz until the bombs got too close for comfort and they were forced to seek shelter. The Luftwaffe weren’t going to stop their sewing machines from humming, if they could help it!
Nearly every machinist I spoke with began work at fourteen. It was commonplace to finish school on a Friday, and find yourself marched to the nearest factory to start work at 8 a.m. sharp on the following Monday. Girls were pleased to be ‘doing their bit’. Tragically, when war broke out, this phrase took on a whole new meaning. Many of the women who worked in the then thriving rag trade were suddenly no longer stitching dresses bound for the smartest stores ‘Up West’, but instead found themselves sewing army battle dress, surgical field bandages and, once the fighting began, repairing uniforms peppered with bullet holes.
Trout’s is a fictional factory, but based on the many firms that operated in the East End, and it’s fictional seamstresses inspired by the larger than life characters I met during the course of research.
What made you decide to write about sewing circles during the Second World War? It's something I wasn't familiar with previously and so I'd love to know where you found this inspiration for your novels.
One of the ladies I interviewed told me that a factory she had worked for had a scheme where it was twinned with a British Naval warship, and the factory workers and sailors encouraged to write to one another to keep up morale on both the Home Front and the Battle Front. I was intrigued by this concept, like a sort of wartime pen pal scheme.
The lady I spoke with couldn't really remember much more about it, so I got in touch with the Women’s Voluntary Services, now the Royal Voluntary Service, and they confirmed that yes, there were such schemes. The archivist also told me that they did a lot more than write, they also knitted and sent a huge number of comfort items to their sailor pen pals including balaclavas, gloves, scarves, socks and so on. He also revealed the prodigious output of these sewing circles and their significance during the war. Women from all classes and backgrounds were Knitting for Victory.
I loved the idea of the nation’s women knitting as one, and so Trout’s very own sewing bee, the Victory Knitters, was born.
You've done an immense amount of research for your books, from interviewing Blitz survivors to Women's Voluntary Services volunteers. How has this shaped your novels?
Immensely. Interviewing Blitz survivors for example helped to open a window onto the past and brought what could have been a fairly distant event in history, up close and personal. Listening to first hand accounts was invaluable in getting under the skin of what it really meant to be a young woman during the Blitz. So many women prefixed their interviews by saying: “I didn't do anything special really, I just got on with things”, and then you find out their story and you realise they were anything but ordinary. 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”.
Another woman proudly told me she finally found freedom from her abusive husband, and got a job painting huge ships down the docks. Her eyes still sparkled at the memory.
Discovering that sense of freedom and the huge evolution it brought about in women's lives was very exciting and I wanted to place that drama firmly at the heart of the book.
I always try to do as much research as possible before I start the writing so I can be sure I’m on the right track, then I filter through to try and understand what research is relevant to my characters and their storylines.
Aside from your novels about sewing circles in the second world war, you're also a ghostwriter. I've always been fascinated by the ghostwriting process, can you tell me a little bit about your own experience and perhaps one interesting thing about ghostwriting that we, as the general public, might not know?
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?
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.
I can only speak from my experiences as a ghostwriter but I think people would be surprised how close the relationship can often be between ghost and interviewee, hardly surprising I suppose when you spend so much time in one another’s company. I became good friends with all the women whose books I’ve ghosted, especially Jenny Smith, the domestic violence pioneer and she was there, cheering me on when I had the launch for Secrets of the Singer Girls.
While there are different aspects to ghostwriting books and writing your novels, are there any particular things you always do as part of your writing process for each project? Do you have such a thing as an 'average writing day'?
I always write a chronological timeline for a book, be that memoir or fiction, to help clearly keep me on track with the date and time order.
When I’m not out researching, my average writing day, comprises: Kids to school, run or circuits’ class, toast, coffee and head to office. The radio goes on while I check through emails and get up to speed. I find I can only really settle down to writing once all that is done. I tend not to break for lunch, but just push on through, especially if I’ve hit my stride (fuelled by Maltesers and industrial strength quantities of tea)
Even though Secrets of the Sewing Bee is only published today, can you already tell us whether there is another novel you're currently working on? Either a third installment in this series or something else entirely?
I’m waving goodbye to Trout’s garment factory and starting something new entirely. I’m currently working on a book set in 1936 in 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 wedding 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 black shirts 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.
I hope you enjoyed reading Secrets of the Sewing Bee. Please do get in touch if you have any questions, or simply to say hello on https://www.facebook.com/KateThompsonAuthor and @katethompson380.
Thanks so much Kate for these insightful and in-depth answers!
Secrets of the Sewing Bee is published today by Pan Macmillan and you can purchase your copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.