I'm delighted to welcome Kate Beaufoy today to share with us...
The Stories within The Gingerbread House.
Once upon a time …
For people like you and me, dedicated readers from the moment we mastered our ABCs, those four words are among the most magical in the world. From Grimm’s fairytales to Tales of the City, from Neverland to Necropolis, we crave stories as a sugar addict craves Krispy Kremes. We lurk in libraries and haunt second-hand bookshops and follow threads on online book forums until we find our fix. Sometimes these once-upon-a-times end happily ever after, sometimes they end in tears. But the biggest concern of all is the way the story’s told.
For many years I worked as an actress in a television soap opera. It was a hugely successful once-weekly drama that brought in massive ratings. And then the powers-that-be in the production office decided that they no longer wanted the series to be story driven. They wanted it to be issue driven. Suddenly, characters whom the viewing public had invited into their sitting rooms every Sunday evening, and whom they had grown to know and love, became alcoholics or stalkers or adulterers overnight. There was no preamble - no story behind what made them do what they were doing - they just underwent an arbitrary personality transplant according to whatever psychological foible happened to be the issue-du-jour. Ratings, unsurprisingly, slumped.
An eminent writer proclaimed recently that story is unimportant in his novels. For him, style is more important than content. Reader, I gasped! Story? Unimportant?!! The power of storytelling should never be underestimated. For me, story is everything. It’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s what makes us binge-watchers, it’s what kept poor Scheherazade alive, for heaven’s sake!
The Gingerbread House, my new novel, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old called Katia. Stories are the crux of her being; she tells them over and over - classics like The Little Mermaid and Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte’s Web - all the stories she remembers from her childhood. She curls up with them the way people curl up with Netflix, to escape from the harshness of the real world.
Being so young, Katia has not had the rich life experiences of her mother, Tess or her grandmother, Eleanor (doyenne of the Gingerbread House), both of whom have a deep well of life-stories to draw on. Eleanor is suffering from dementia - an issue that has been much-discussed in the media lately. As Eleanor’s carer Tess has - in addition to the stresses of the job - her own problems. She has been made redundant, she is depressed, she is reaching for the wine bottle at inappropriate hours of the day …
So far, so issue-driven, you might say. But the first draft of this novel was written ten years ago, before complications arising from the ageing demographic had become headline news, before ‘wine o’clock’ had become synonymous with alcohol abuse, before the plight of carers nationwide had been highlighted by mainstream programmes such as Woman’s Hour.
The original rough was written in the form of a memoir, with no intention to publish. But then Katia came into my head, and told me that she would take over the narrative because she knew it needed a more cohesive structure. And so the story became one woven of three threads with three protagonists: Tess, Eleanor and Katia.
I knew Tess’s story because I had lived it; I knew Eleanor’s because I had witnessed it. But I didn’t know Katia’s until the very end of the book, when it took me so wholly by surprise that it made me weep.
The Gingerbread House is not an ‘issue-driven’ book. It was written in a spirit of tenderness at a troubled time. It was fuelled by a sense of bewilderment at how unfair life can be, and how comedic, and how very, very bizarre. As Alice says in Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic, half laughing through her tears because it all seems so ridiculous: ‘If I wasn’t real, I shouldn’t be able to cry.’
The Gingerbread House by Kate Beaufoy is published by Black & White.