I’d like to welcome back B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Alison Ripley Cubitt today to talk with me about her book, Castles in the Air. Alison worked in film and TV production for 15 years for companies including Walt Disney and the BBC but always wanted to give up the day job to be a writer. She had a column on screenwriting for Writing Magazine, has had two lifestyle and travel titles published and wrote the screenplay for Waves, a short film drama and winner, Special Jury Prize, Worldfest, Houston. Serial expats, Sean and Alison have lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and are now based in leafy Hampshire.
Alison, please tell me about your story, Castles in the Air
Castles in the Air: A Family Memoir of Love and Loss is a memoir, the story of my mother Molly’s expat life from her teenage years living in the Far East in wartime to her challenging middle age.
What brought you to write this book?
I’d written about mothers and daughters in film and short fiction, as a way of exploring the notion that every family has secrets. Molly died in the early 1990s, and I waited twenty years to pluck up the courage to read her letters and diaries. When I did, I realised that Castles in the Air was the book I had to write.
And I knew that this time that I could no longer hide behind fiction and that I needed to tell the story as narrative non-fiction.
How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?
If I hadn’t grown up as a third culture kid, I doubt I’d even be a writer. When I went to boarding school as a young child (which wasn’t a lifestyle choice, there were no schools near where we lived), I escaped into my imagination. I wrote my first fiction as a child. As an adult I find I write about the place I’ve most recently left, rather than the one I happen to be living in at the time.
What were Molly’s strengths and weaknesses?
Molly was fearless, and I say this with envy. I wish I had half her courage. She didn’t care about what people thought of her either, and I admired that in her too. In a crisis she was brilliant.
But she had a father who doted on her and she would always get her own way, which exasperated Ciss, her mother, who had grown up in a poor family. Although she was charming and could be the life and soul of the party, she was self-absorbed. I think she also had an addictive personality.
What are the emotional triggers in the book for you and how did you act upon them?
It’s quite hard to be objective about the emotional triggers in this book because it’s a memoir and I’m a character! In a nutshell, the main emotional trigger was my curiosity at the relationship my mother had with Steve, the man she’d first met back in 1939 in Singapore. This was the catalyst for my writing the book in the first place.
Were there any challenges writing this story? What was your process?
This is, without doubt, the most difficult book I have ever written. I had to relive some painful memories, not just once, but again and again as I did my rewrites and proofs. I had a duty to the characters who are still alive, to stress that I was telling my version of events, which might not necessarily square with their experiences. I believe that a memoirist, unlike a historian or a biographer, is an unreliable narrator.
As far as the process was concerned, it was essential to come up with a watertight structure first. I had so much material, but it was a question of where I started. In a sense, it’s like being an architect. Once I had my blueprint, I could build the book around that.
Will you please give an example of Molly’s life in colonial Hong Kong and Malaya?
Molly had been a bit of a wild child, as a carefree adolescent in pre-war Hong Kong. She and her friends would go round to each other’s houses when the parents were out, rifle through the wardrobes and try on all the evening clothes! They nearly got caught out when one mother came home early. But in 1939, with war imminent, the family was evacuated in a military convoy to Singapore.
‘We heard on the wireless that England [Britain] had declared war against Germany. It was an eerie feeling, and although I was only thirteen years old at the time, I was a little bit scared, although excited. We were advised to carry our life-jackets around with us at all times as there were submarines on our tail.’ Extract from Castles in the Air.
How did you decide on your title?
Molly used the phrase, building castles in the air, in her letters as a teenager to her friend Steve. Her dreams and schemes kept her going during the time she and her mother were stuck in South Africa on their own with no money for six months, waiting for a ship to take them to East Africa.
Is there a message in this story you would like readers to grasp?
As I write in this book about mothers and daughters and the secrets within families, it’s more of a question than a message I want to pose, and that is, can we ever know the ones we love?
Where can readers buy your book?
From 22 August the ebook will be available through other digital retailers, including iBooks and Kobo. It’s currently available on Amazon
The print version can be ordered from bookshops or through CreateSpace expanded distribution, which now includes Walmart.
***Please be sure to check out my other interview with Alison under her pen name, Lambert Nagle here.
A message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Alison Ripley Cubitt who is the author of, Castles in the Air, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Castles in the Air, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.