I can only imagine what it’s like being a single parent. Trying to work full-time while coordinating the children’s school and extra-curricular activities would be a Herculean task to say the least. Unfortunately, many women find themselves in this role due to the unexpected death of a spouse. No matter what the circumstances, it is a role no woman (or man) ever wants to play.
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Gil McNeil tackles that very question in her latest release, NEEDLES AND PEARLS. The sequel to her highly popular book, THE BEACH STREET KNITTING SOCIETY AND YARN CLUB, she picks up a year after the death of Jo Mackenzie’s husband as Jo struggles to adjust to her new life raising two sons all alone. With Gil’s British wit and sensational storyline, she welcomes the reader into the zany lives of a hilarious cast of unforgettable characters. As a side note, you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy the sequel. Although, it is a great read!
As part of this interview, Hyperion Books has generously donated 5 copies for you, my lucky readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: As a British author, your audience across the pond in the U.S. may not be as familiar with your work as your fellow countrymen. So that we may have a better understanding of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Gil: After University, where I studied History, I worked in an art gallery, film production and a literary agency before moving into publishing. After building up a range of publishing clients, I expanded my freelance work and moved into working with charities I’m currently Director of the children’s charity PiggyBankKids.
Jen: At what juncture in your life did you decide to take the plunge and pursue a career in writing? And, what was the most challenging part of the process?
Gil: I’ve always written, or been involved with writing, so I was in the lucky position of having good friends in the publishing business who encouraged me to write my first novel, in 2001. The Only Boy for Me was such a joy to write I was keen to carry on, and happily so were my publishers Bloomsbury, so I wrote my second novel Stand by your Man, and then In the Wee Small Hours (which continues on from The Only Boy for Me) before I wrote my fourth and fifth novels DIVAS DON’T KNIT (published in the US as THE BEACH STREET KNITTING SOCIETY) and NEEDLES AND PEARLS.
I’ve also edited seven fundraising anthologies for the charity PiggyBankKids, which have been a real treat to work on since I’ve been able to include some of my favourite authors, who have all generously written stories for us to raise funds to support our work to improve children’s lives, and support our groundbreaking research into pregnancy difficulties and help save newborn lives (www.piggybankkids.org/)
The most challenging part of the process of the writing for me is finding the time – I carry around cards and notebooks and jot down snatches of conversation, ideas, and sometimes scribbles that I can’t actually read when I get home…
Jen: Your latest endeavor is the sequel to THE BEACH STREET KNITTING SOCIETY AND YARN CLUB which received starred reviews. For my readers who are unfamiliar with this novel, please give us a brief overview of the premise.
Gil: Jo Mackenzie needs a new start. Newly widowed with two young sons and a perilous bank balance she has leave London to take over her grandmother’s wool shop in a small seaside town. They arrive in the pouring rain, but with a shop full of dusty wool in horrible colours, two lively sons, an A list actress moving into the local mansion, Trevor the loony Wonder Dog, and a knitting group addicted to cake it’s not going to be easy.
Jen: In NEEDLES AND PEARLS, the story picks up one year after the tragic death of Jo’s husband. Having relocated to a quiet, small-town, Jo is now a single parent, manager of a yarn shop, and a young widow trying to make peace with the circumstances surrounding her husband’s demise. Which one of the three is the most difficult for her to fulfill and why?
Gil: Like most of us, Jo struggles with combining everything – doing her best by her boys and her business, and still trying to find time for herself somewhere in the middle of all the chaos. But I think she’d say the most important thing for her, by a million miles, are her children.
Jen: The story centers around Jo’s grandmother’s yarn shop. A question I just have to ask, is knitting a passion of yours? If so, what is your favorite type of project and yarn?
Gil: Yes, all the women in my family knit. My grandmother was a champion knitter, and knew a whole range of patterns off by heart. She had a tough life, with six children and very little money, so she’d unpick a sweater belonging to one of her older kids, wash the wool and reknit it for one of the little ones. By the time she was knitting for her grandchildren things were easier, and she’d spend ages with my knitting for my dolls. We’d all sit knitting by the fire, with my mum and my aunts swapping patterns and working out complicated stitches and I’d sit cross legged on the floor and they’d forget I was there, so I got to hear all sorts of family gossip usually reserved for child-free moments. It was fabulous.
Jen: Jo’s relationship with her grandmother is one of true admiration and respect. However, the one with her mother is not. What has caused the rift between mother and daughter? Who, if anyone, is to blame?
Gil: I think mothers and daughters can be tricky, and in the past I’ve written about mothers who are wonderful (a bit like my mum) so I wanted to have some fun writing a mum who is selfish and hopeless. Jo’s mother is searching for an artistic life where she feels central, and finds her children’s lack of enthusiasm for taking part in her Me Me Me dramas annoying. And after years being dragged round art galleries with their mother in unusual floaty outfits they just find her exasperating. I think there is a definite stage where however you much you want to wear kaftans and beads, or very short skirts and high heels, your children just want you to blend into the background, keep quiet, and make lovely suppers… One of the nicest things about being a mum is perfecting the art of hovering in the background. I’m rather partial to a bit of hovering, I find it can be quite relaxing, as long as you mix in the occasional shocking moment, just to remind small people you have not actually morphed into a household appliance …
Jen: Every woman needs loyal girlfriends to help her get through the good as well as the bad times. Jo is no exception. Let’s start with her best friend, Ellen. As a famous Newscaster, the world is her oyster yet she is quite envious of Jo’s simplistic lifestyle. In what ways do these two women compliment each other?
Gil: Like all good girlfriends they trust each other implicitly. They can be honest, know each others strengths and weaknesses, and will stick up for each other when times get tough. They also share the same sense of humour – a vital ingredient in any good friendship.
Jen: Unbeknownst to Jo, her movie star friend, Grace, plays a significant role in her life. In what ways does Grace’s exuberant wealth serve as a subtle reminder for Jo of the importance of accepting people for who they truly are rather than judging them on appearances only? Why does Grace include Jo within her inner circle?
Gil: Jo is dazzled by Grace, and also touched by how vulnerable she is, despite all her wealth and power, especially when she is pregnant and feeling nervous. She also understands, from her background working in television news, how important it is not be grabbing at people, not to ask questions and turn yourself into yet another person who wants something, a snippet of gossip to trade at a dinner party, or even sell to a newspaper… And Grace recognises this. And with Jo as her knitting coach she can find some calm and relaxation, and feel like a proper mum, knitting for her baby, instead of a movie star always in performance mode. When I was doing some of the research for the novel I was interested to see how many actresses are knitting on set – from Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Cameron Diaz to Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna – and having spent a fair amount of time on film sets, which sound exciting but actually involve huge amounts of time hanging around while nothing much happens, I could see how something calm and repetitive like knitting would be a great antidote to nerves and drama.
Jen: Elsie, Jo’s co-worker at the shop, is a peculiar lady who just can’t seem to make up her mind about Jo. On one hand, she disapproves of Jo’s choices in life; however, she has a special fondness for her as well. Why does Jo choose to accept her gruffness rather than confronting her?
Gil: Elsie has a heart of gold, but she keep sit well hidden, and Jo knows that a few packets of biscuits and a cheery manner are the best way to get her on side in the shop.
Jen: A question I just have to ask, will there be a sequel? (I hope so!) And if yes, what can you share with us?
Gil: I’ll have to talk to my publishers about that – I’m not working on anything at the moment, but I do have lots of ideas on what might happen next, so maybe…
Jen: Do you have a website? Do you have any patterns or knitting materials available for readers?
Gil: I’ve put some patterns on the McKnits website – www.mcknits.co.uk – so that readers can see examples of the things Jo talks about in the book.
Jen: Thank you so much for taking time of your busy schedule to stop by and chat with my readers. I truly enjoyed NEEDLES AND PEARLS. Best of luck with your book tour!
Gil: Thank you for asking such great questions. It has been such a treat getting so many letters from readers in the US telling me how much they loved the first book; one woman told me she laughed so much people started giving her odd looks on the train. So if you see anyone giggling on a train, it might just be my fault…
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Gil McNeil. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of NEEDLES AND PEARLS today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Answers the following triva quetion and you could be one of five winners.
Until next time…