Today, I’m pleased to be able to bring you an interview with Suellen Dainty as part of her blog tour for her latest novel The Housekeeper, which was published in early March. When I read the blurb for the book, I was immediately intrigued by the concept and curious about the inspirations behind it. Suellen was kind enough to answer my questions in detail. This is just the third stop of the tour, so be sure to check out the other stops as well, you can find the schedule at the bottom of the post.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Suellen Dainty?
Most importantly, I’m the mother of two children, both adults now but still children to me.
I used to be a television producer and journalist, but as the years rolled on, I became less interested in writing about what other people did and more interested in writing something for myself.
I was also getting older, and realised that my days in media were numbered. It’s very much a young people’s industry. But bills need to be paid, so I moved from London to live in a 17th century farmhouse in Somerset and, after a while, began doing B&B. I quite liked it, as it gave me more time to try to write and to garden – I’m a passionate gardener.
Then my children moved away – my son to Sydney and my daughter to Nepal – and I was rattling around in a house that was far too big for me. So I sold it and came back to London. At some stage, I’ll probably return to Australia, where I grew up, but not just yet.
How would you introduce people to Anne Morgan, the main character of The Housekeeper?
Of course I’m a great fan because she’s my girl. Her past is littered with sadness and terrible secrets, some so deeply buried that she’s hardly aware of them. Although all that is about to change when she goes to work for the well-known couple, Rob and Emma and their two children, Jake and Lily.
Anne is a loyal friend and a brilliant cook. She wants her food to make people feel happier, bolder and braver, perhaps because she so rarely feels that way herself.
Anne’s new job in the Helmsley household lets her discover the darkness behind their glossy façade. Was there a particular inspiration for this situation?
I’m interested in the effects of social media and how Instagram and Facebook create glamorous digital superstars with almost virtual lives that have nothing to do with the way most people live day to day. And that creates envy and a sense of isolation – why isn’t my life so fabulous? Also, it seems to me that if you’re spending all your time looking at other people’s lives, false or otherwise, it means that you’re not paying enough attention to your own.
Another large story arc has to do with a cult Rob Helmsley is researching. Did you have to do a ton of research on cults yourself?
I did a lot of research, even though most of what I studied didn’t end up in the final draft of the novel. I was more interested in the types of people who joined a cult as followers rather than the actual cult leaders themselves, and in order to discover more about the followers, I had to look at a fair number of leaders. I followed the case in London of Aravindan Balakrishna, who imprisoned his own daughter for more than 30 years and whose followers idolised him and excused his actions. I read several books about Charles Manson, perhaps the most famous American cult leader, and several more about David Koresh, who convinced his followers that he was the final prophet for a weird religion called the Branch Davidians. One of the most mesmeric and evil cult leaders was Marshall Herff Applewhite, who orchestrated the mass suicide of 39 people in California in 1997.
There are many kinds of cults out there: doomsday cults, religious cults, political cults, philosophical cults and cults centred on a specific leader. How did you decide on what sort of cult to focus on for The Housekeeper?
I wanted to create a cult led by a famous psychiatrist who would use his power over his patients to form a community of vulnerable and often mentally ill men and women who would treat him like a god and cater to his every whim. He in turn would manipulate them to his own evil ends.
Your novels are psychological thrillers. Do you ever creep yourself out when writing?
No, not at all. I actually didn’t set out to write a psychological thriller. I wanted to write a novel about a young woman who had been abandoned as a child and the effects of her early childhood on her adult life. I was interested in all sorts of things – memories, food and cooking and adult isolation. I guess it just got more psychological as it progressed.
What’s next for you? Any appearances planned?
I have no appearances planned, but if I’m invited anywhere, I will certainly say yes. I’m actually working quite hard on a new novel, set in India and Nepal. Next week, I’m flying to Rajasthan for ten days of research and interviews. I can’t wait to get on the plane.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I absolutely love gardening. I’m never happier than when surrounded by plants and heaps of compost. Gardening also allows me to get in touch with my inner Rambo. When I lived in the country, I had loads of axes and saws and knives, plus a good collection of garden machinery, all necessary to keep my smallholding under control.
Now that I’m in London, I don’t have a garden. But friends who live in the country are kind enough to invite me for the weekend and let me weed their gardens and chop their wood. Bliss!
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
So many good books are published all the time – but here are a few that I’d like to read. First, Paul Auster’s 4321, then Colm Toibin’s House of Names and the Pulitzer Prize winner, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. For non-fiction, I’m looking forward to reading At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. She wrote a wonderful biography of Montaigne.
But the one we’re all waiting for is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. Who could ever forget The God of Small Things?
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: do you shelve your books alphabetically or do you have an ingenious system?
I wish I could tell you every single book I own is listed alphabetically, but that would be an outright lie. Every now and then, I set to and restore order, but most of the time, I must confess that they are all piled in together. Oddly enough, I can always find the book I’m looking for.
Bio: Suellen Dainty grew up in Sydney, where she worked as a journalist and television reporter before moving to England more than two decades ago. She has worked for Sky News as a producer and director for the original series of The Book Show. Her experience running a B&B in Somerset and shadowing Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche, for his biography, have heavily inspired her writing of The Housekeeper. The Housekeeper is her second novel, her debut, After Everything was chosen as one of Target’s Emerging Authors in the US (the American equivalent of the Richard and Judy Book Club). She lives in west London.