Secrets of the Sewing Bee tells the story of the defiant and courageous women on the home front, from the author of Secrets of the Singer Girls.
Orphan Flossy Brown arrives at Trout’s garment factory in Bethnal Green amidst the uncertainty of the Second World War. In 1940s London, each cobbled street is strewn with ghosts of soldiers past, all struggling to make ends meet. For the women of the East End, their battles are on the home front.
Flossy is quickly embraced by the colourful mix of characters working at Trout’s, who have turned their sewing expertise to vital war work. They fast become the family that Flossy has always longed for. Dolly Doolaney, darling of the East End, and the infamous tea lady, gives her a particularly warm welcome and helps Flossy settle into wartime life.
Things aren’t so easy for Peggy Piper, another new recruit to the factory. She’s used to the high life working as a nippie in the West End, and is not best pleased to find herself bent over a sewing machine. But war has the ability to break down all sorts of class barriers and soon Peggy finds the generosity and spirit of her follow workers difficult to resist.
Dolly sets up a sewing circle and the ladies at Trout’s play their part in defending the frontline as they arm themselves with their needles and set about stitching their way to victory. But as the full force of the Blitz hits London, the sewing bee are forced to shelter in the underground tube stations on a nightly basis.
In such close quarters, can Dolly manage to contain the secret that binds them all? And how will Peggy and Flossy cope as their lives are shaped and moved by forces outside of their control?
This is another one of those days when I wish my reading list was just a little shorter. Kate Thompson’s first book, Secrets of the Singer Girls, went straight onto my kindle on release – it sounded simply wonderful. And now there’s a second book – Secrets of the Sewing Bee, published tomorrow (10th March) by Macmillan as an ebook and paperback – which sounds equally wonderful, and I so want to read it!
I’m really delighted to welcome author Kate Thompson to Being Anne to tell us more.
Welcome to Being Anne, Kate. A quick introduction to start with?
Hello Anne and thank you so much for inviting me onto your fabulous blog. My name is Kate and I’m an author, ghostwriter and journalist. I live in Twickenham with my two sons and a hyperactive Jack Russell called Twinkle. My debut novel, Secrets of the Singer Girls was published last year by Pan Macmillan and the prequel, Secrets of the Sewing Bee, is out March 10th.
I know so many people who loved Secrets Of The Singer Girls, and who’ve been so looking forward to Secrets Of The Sewing Bee. What was it that drew you to writing about the women of this time and their stories?
That’s so lovely to hear, Anne! I am endlessly fascinated by women of that era. Not least because of their stoicism, ferocious loyalty to family and friends, ability to graft, but also because of their often wicked sense of humour!
I find it fascinating how the war changed these women’s lives in deeply profound ways. There is a perception that women were the gentler sex back then, tending to home and hearth, but on digging deeper I discovered a very different woman to the one presented to us though nostalgic dramas, stoically waiting for her husband to return home from the battlefields.
My characters, in keeping with the women of Britain, behaved in extraordinary and uncharacteristic ways. Shocked out of their rhythms by fear, necessity and freedom, they indulged in affairs, took part in protests, lynch mobs, stormed from stifling jobs and took on exciting and dangerous new ones. As one woman told me whilst I was researching the book, “Women found their soul. It was the very best time to be alive”.
This was confirmed by another lady who confessed: “I ought not to say this, but I found it exciting”. Another woman proudly told me she finally found freedom from her abusive husband, and got a job painting huge ships down the docks. Her eyes still sparkled at the memory. I’m not trying to diminish the fear and heartache experienced by so many, but highlight the ways in which women discovered what they were truly capable of.
Discovering that sense of freedom and the huge evolution it brought about in women’s lives was very exciting and I wanted to place that drama firmly at the heart of the book.
Tell me more about your research – lots of conversations or hours in the library?
Both really. I do visit libraries, museums and archives, but the really fun bit is when you meet a woman who has first hand experience of a time or event you are writing about. I have gatecrashed bingo groups, coffee mornings, tea dances, quizzes and community centres and met some amazing women in the process. One time I went to meet a 90-year-old lady in her flat in Bethnal Green to find it crammed with all her mates. It was wonderful, once one started, it jogged the memories of the others and soon the stories and laughter were flowing as fast as the tea!
Both books have wonderful covers that give any reader a real taste of what lies inside the pages. When you were writing, did you have a reader in your mind? A certain background, or age group maybe? Were they exclusively female?
That’s an interesting question and the honest answer is not really. I have readers of all ages and backgrounds and that’s really wonderful. I hope the book appeals to anyone who enjoys reading about strong women, long lost communities and the enduring power of friendship. One lady got in touch to say she, her daughter and granddaughter all read and enjoyed the book. I just love that three generations can share a book and find something in there that speaks to them.
I know you’ve previously been a ghostwriter, telling other people’s stories – was that a good way of honing your novel writing skills?
Absolutely and in fact I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try my hand at writing fiction, had I not had the experience of ghostwriting. Writing long form narrative can feel like a daunting experience, especially coming from a journalism background, but writing five memoirs first, and getting a feel of how to craft and structure a book, gave me that confidence to get stuck in.
Was writing fiction something you’d always wanted to do? And when the moment came, did you just sit at your keyboard and write?
Always. It would be fair to say I didn’t excel academically, but writing was something I felt I could do, and so I did. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. Creative stories for school, turned to hormonal angst in a teenage diary, which graduated to newspaper and magazine articles when I became a journalist, and now here I am, writing fiction for Pan Macmillan. In a way you could say I’ve come full circle!
Working as a true-life journalist for twenty years for titles like the Mail, the Express, the Sun, Take a Break and Marie Claire helped to bolster my confidence and ability, but like I said before, it wasn’t until I became a ghostwriter that I got to grips with long form narrative.
Once I’d done a pile of research I sat down and started to write. I shudder when I think back to those first shaky attempts. Luckily, I have a fantastic agent who patiently read through many rewrites and drafts. I realise now that author’s have to combine tenacity with the dogged perseverance of a long distance runner; the end can feel like a very far off land when you’re only on chapter one. Then comes the moment where everything clicks into place and you start to get to know your characters and have fun!
And how do you write – are you now writing full time? Or are you fitting it round a busy life?
Yes, I write pretty much full time and combine that with writing magazine and newspaper articles. It makes for a busy but interesting life all right!
What writers do you admire? When someone says “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
In the same genre, I really admire writers like Annie Murray and Margaret Dickinson, whose list of novels are mind-boggling in their sheer volume. They have written so many books set during the war and yet somehow they manage to unearth some fresh element to their writing and their characters are so exquisitely drawn. I also absolutely love Sarah Waters, and have just finished reading The Night Watch. She is a masterful storyteller and everything she writes feel so authentic.
And what’s next? Please tell me we haven’t seen the last of the ladies at Trout’s…
Never say never, but I am temporarily waving goodbye to Trout’s for something new. I’m currently working on a book set in 1936 in Whitechapel about women working in the wedding industry. Two of my characters work in a photographic portrait studio and the third makes wedding dresses.
The East End was grindingly poor back then in the Depression, but despite that, or many even because of it, every bride wanted to look like a Hollywood movie star. Having a beautiful wedding portrait was a badge of honour, as was having the very best wedding day your family could afford. It was a time of stark contrasts and the illusion of glamour. The streets were full of danger, with fascist blackshirts marching and the threat of war looming on the horizon, so young women lived for glamour and romance.
1936 was a helter skelter of a year with the Depression, hunger marches, the abdication of the King and the Battle of Cable Street, providing a suitably dramatic backdrop to my character’s lives.
I’ll look forward to that one Kate – and thank you so much for joining me today. And I hope it won’t be too long until I’m able to catch up with both your lovely books. My thanks to Lauren Welch at Pan Macmillan for putting us in touch.
Meet the author
Kate Thompson is a journalist with twenty years’ experience as a writer for the broadsheets and women’s weekly magazines. She is now freelance and, as well as writing for newspapers, she’s a seasoned ghostwriter. Secrets of the Sewing Bee is her second novel, following the Sunday Times bestseller Secrets of the Singer Girls.
Kate hopes you’ll enjoy reading Secrets of the Sewing Bee, and would love you to get in touch if you have any questions, or simply to say hello on Facebook or Twitter.