Charlotte Mendelson delves into what it is to belong in Almost English
Thursday 15 Aug 2013 by Anita Sethi
Orange Prize nominated writer Charlotte Mendelson (Picture: Rebecca Read)
The seed of the book was that I missed my grandparents.
I wanted them closer to me by writing about them. I wanted to ask them questions I couldn’t when they were alive as it would have upset them. They were from a cultural generation where pain, death, financial worries and terrible things were taboo. In my grandparents’ case it was the Holocaust. The family in the book is nothing like mine but the Hungarian accents, food and clothes are incredibly familiar, from them. I wanted to describe their foreignness yet also the way they were proud to be British. I pass for English but I don’t feel English – I feel a mix.
I wanted to talk about ‘the ugly years’: that stage in life when you’re certain that everyone has the key to happiness, family, sex, alcohol – apart from you. The main character, Marina, is suffering but decides to take matters in hand and save herself by going to this posh English boarding school, because she thinks it will turn her into the person she wants to be. As a teenager, you have less perspective.
It’s also about class. We’re riven by class in Britain. Marina doesn’t just want to be English, she wants to be posh. If you’re foreign, then class is more complicated.
I like writing about complicated relationships in which there’s so much drama, passion, hatred and despair, and looking at what’s behind it. Families are fascinating; I don’t know why anyone would write about anything else.
As in previous books, I wanted to write about powerful emotions and things that must be kept secret – how do you keep them secret? That’s why my characters are often escaping to the bathroom. My books are all about people in impossible situations where they’re feeling things they shouldn’t. Then I ask what would happen next? We have powerful emotions that we pretend aren’t there. We’re great whirlpools of emotion and it’s just a question of what we do with it.
I always desperately wanted to be a writer.
If you read as much as I did when I was little, you’re not really fit for anything else, but it never occurred to me that I could. I thought you had to be a male genius to be a writer. I wrote my first book in my lunch breaks. Now I’m writing book five but I can’t talk about that as I’m at the screaming terror stage.
I probably inherited a silly sense of humour from my father. I write things that make me laugh. Also, if you’re writing about things as dark as despair and self-hatred, you need to have jokes in there as you don’t want to make your readers feel depressed.
I have a low embarrassment threshold. I put my characters in embarrassing situations I’m relieved not to be in.
Almost English (Picture: Supplied)
Almost English is out now, published by Mantle, priced £16.99.