In Conversation with Virginia Macgregor
On a cold Thursday night, I find myself squirrelled away in the small office of Waterstones nervously preparing myself for an interview with the delightful Virginia Macgregor. Virginia is with us to celebrate the launch of her latest book, 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells', nearly a year on from when her first novel 'What Milo Saw' was released to unanimous praise from critics and readers alike. Macgregor captures the real essence of what living in contemporary Britain is like at the moment, mixing contemporary issues with heart-warming prose. Before the event begins in which she will give a talk about her new novel, we take a few minutes aside so I can begin asking my questions.
The first thing I note from Macgregor is that she effortlessly radiates kindness and affection, her trademark smile never fades from view; she speaks with such passion and enthusiasm about both her readers and her work. She thinks highly of her readers, "I think I'm just completely bowled over that even one person spends hours of their life reading my books. It still feels like such a privilege and slightly surreal." The humble nature of Macgregor is so refreshing, and it is something she is always bears in mind when I ask how she feels about people all over the country praising her novels, "I just feel overwhelmed by the thought of someone squirrelled away reading words that have come out of my imagination, it really is the best bit of the job!"
"fiction is the best place to explore the many issues of our age because it’s a way of resensitising people in a way that newspapers and the media and non-fiction sometimes don’t touch on."
Macgregor's first novel, 'What Milo Saw', took readers and critics by storm, telling the heart breaking story of a nine year old boy who is set out to save his Gran from a nursing home run by the cruel Nurse Thornhill. What makes this story exceptional in its delivery is Milo himself, he suffers from a rare eye condition that causes his vision to fail and will one day render him blind. In that retrospect, Milo has an eye for observational detail and picks up on the things others may miss. I ask Virginia more about where the idea for Milo came from, whether it had been a story planned out for a consecutive amount of time or had it just come to fruition one day. "I had wanted to write about the nursing home crisis, which might sound bizarre!" she laughs softly. "Not that I want to bang some moral-based drum but fiction is the best place to explore the many issues of our age."
She then explains her love of the very young and the very old, which inspired the tender and unique relationship between Milo and his Gran. "They just have a very different spirit from the rest of us who are caught up in the murky middle of life; they are more authentically themselves, somehow more in tune with the natural world, there's an openness there, an affection." Her phone begins to ring, catching us off guard and in the blink of an eye, she apologises and silences it. Her excitement and passion is infectious, such as a child is when they are telling a story and I too share this excitement in our conversation. Virginia continues on, explaining how she wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a child, particularly being inspired by Emma Donoghue's 'Room'. "She wrote about, in a horrific context, a child incarcerated with their mother for years locked in a basement, and she told it through the eyes of a child, [she] transformed it into something humorous, quirky and touching." The character of Gran and the relationship she has with Milo came from a close relationship Macgregor formed with a lady in Switzerland, who she visits every year since she was a child, "There's a bond there that's remarkable" she smiles.
I ask more about Milo's condition, retinitis pigmentosa, as it is a metaphor for a unique perspective certainly, but wonder if there is any more reasoning behind it. "I wanted to give him something else, something that would explore how children who have some kind of disability often compensate in some way, like how a weakness can become a superpower! Milo's retintis pigmentosa seemed like the most interesting idea to explore but also a wonderful metaphor: the notion of looking through a pinhole, looking at things so precisely but missing the wider periphery.
"If you're a contemporary novelist then you're researching all the time, every conversation you ever had, every time you look out the window, you're constantly thinking of ideas."
What makes Macgregor stand out from her peers is her determination to reward her readers and give them something in return, by creating online workshops that help any aspiring creative writers. When asked why she set these workshops up, she engages me in the passion she has for her students an English teacher for the last ten years. "There's a real hunger for people to understand the writing process, whether it be for publication or pleasure, some people just love to write stories. It nourishes them, unjumbles their thoughts and helps them see the world better." We then move on to the topic of social media in which she feels everything is "a constant showing off parade, though I do it myself but I have to tweet out the good reviews, my upcoming events because it's part of the job. By giving [the workshops] that doesn't require anything in return, I hope that for people who want to find some inspiration the occasional workshop may help them." Her next aim is to create a workshop specifically dedicated to children, after the birth of little girl Tennessee provided this major inspiration. "Telling stories and writing stories should be a part of every child's childhood, it's about finding your voice, your outlook on life and the world, it's a good way of parents to communicate with their children, so they get to know what they are really feeling." I ask more about her daughter Tennessee, and Virginia delightfully informs me that her first word was page, uttered whilst Virginia read her a story. Without a doubt, Tennesee will inherit her Mother's love for literature and the written word.
Before Virginia is whisked away to start her talk, we briefly discuss her new novel 'The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells', the title character inspired after the character of Norah in Henrik Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' who walks out on her family. Though the world may seem familiar to readers of 'Milo', Virginia assures me that the issues are very different. "We're in contemporary Britain telling the story of the mother that left and the mother that stayed, but each chapter is told from a different perspective, such as the family dog or Norah's daughter." We close on a interesting story Virginia tells me about a real life incident where a woman walked out on her family and returned after eleven years to pick up where she left off. Politely thanking me for my time, I wish her the best of luck for the talk and off she goes, still beaming her radiant smile that has wormed it's way onto my face.
It's rare to find an author so humble and so indebted to her readers, yet is so passionate about conveying contemporary issues in the most fascinating ways. I urge all of you to pick up a copy of both of Virginia's books, you'll laugh, you'll cry and they will stay with you long after you have finished reading. You'll never want to leave the world of Milo or Norah again!