A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Susie Nott-Bower is a writer and painter. Her novel “The Making of Her” charts the story of two 50 year old women – Clara and Jo. Best friends – one confident externally and career-focussed but dealing with an industry (television) where younger is always better and she is in danger of being replaced at any moment by ambitious rivals. The other down-trodden and unconfident, but with a rich inner life. When Clara is told to produce a plastic surgery transformation reality show “The Making of Her” – she is plunged into a moral dilemma – was this what woman like her had strived for? Yet Jo is drawn to this idea of fairytale transformation…
RosyB: Tell us about The Making of Her.
Susie: Someone described The Making of Her as ‘a meditation on the superficial and the deep’. On the surface, it’s about three middle-aged people – an ambitious TV producer, an abandoned wife and a reclusive rock-star – whose lives change irrevocably during the production of an extreme makeover programme. Underneath, it’s asking whether change – and beauty – comes from the inside out, or from the outside in.
RosyB: The Making of Her is about two different women – one married to her career one married the horrible Ian. One is confident but trapped making Reality TV she doesn’t believe in. One is trapped in a body she hates and a lack of confidence. Who is your favourite character – Jo or Clara – and who do you secretly relate to the most?
Susie: Clara and Jo are two sides of myself – in basic terms, the ambitious but vulnerable side and the creative, introverted side. In its earlier incarnation, I wrote both characters in third person, but it wasn’t working. It was only when I changed Jo to first person that it seemed to come together. I guess that answers the question – though I’m fond of both of them.
RosyB: The Making of Her is unusual in terms of the age of the two heroines. Do you think there is a dearth of romance for the menopausal/post-menopausal generations? (Awful phrase!! Sorry!)
Susie: I think people are gradually realising that there’s a vast market out here for fiction aimed at older women. Unfortunately, we 50-pluses tend to be corralled into very narrow, and opposed roles in fiction – the cougar and the mother hen, for instance. Even Bridget Jones is returning as a 51 year old widow with a toy boy! I’d like to think that older women today would welcome fiction which explores the inner life, maturity’s gifts and thefts. Along with some good old-fashioned hope!
RosyB: I first met you on a forum and saw The Making of Her in its early incarnation – as you know, I was very impressed with your writing at the time and also your general creativity – which we’ll talk about later. I think I’m right in saying it took a while for you to find a publisher before you found a home for your writing at Linen Press. Do you have any thoughts on the resilience you need to have as a writer and any advice for others?
Susie: I started The Making of Her in 2006 and it was published by Linen Press in 2012. It began as a rather dismal, menopausally-fixated novel (probably rather as I was at that time). A lot happened to it (and me) along the way and it was a great, if painful, exercise in persistence. In fact, I only got published after a particularly brutal agent rejection of the full manuscript left me ready to throw in the towel. I emailed my friend Derek, who replied (as all really good supporters know how) understandingly and optimistically, reminding me that things could ‘turn on a sixpence’. So I sent off a submission to a publisher that Derek had told me about ages before, which turned out to be Linen Press. They replied immediately and positively, and a letter also arrived from Derek, containing a sixpence! All I can say to others is that I know now – without any doubt, and from many other people’s experiences as well as my own – that persistence, together with an ability to change direction when necessary, is the key to getting published.
RosyB: How much has your background in TV fed into the book?
Susie: On the technical side, a lot, since the story is set against the background of the making of a television programme. And I’ve also seen first-hand the way many women working in television remain single because they have devoted their lives to their careers and how easy it is to ‘burn out’ because of the stress of this one-pointed approach.
RosyB: I was listening a radio discussion about how we are moving away from Reality TV into the more old-fashioned slow-burn drama -on the back of the success of the Scandinavian dramas, Broadchurch and some of the HBO offerings. Meanwhile warm-hearted reality shows like The Great British Bake-Off has proved a surprise hit and made superstars of…err…an eighty year old cake-maker and a guy who talks about “soggy bottoms”. Is the extreme “freak show” type reality show on the way out?
Susie: Your question puts me in mind of T.S.Eliot’s ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’! But of course, Reality TV bears very little resemblance to anything real. Look at Big Brother, which began as a ‘social experiment’ and has ended up as a manipulated freak show. I think Reality TV will, like a particularly resistant virus, continue to change form and proliferate, since so many of us are fascinated by our fellow human beings in their ‘natural’ state.
RosyB: Ah “Resistant virus” – love it. We can’t talk about “The Making of Her” without talking about that old elephant in the room: plastic surgery. What’s your attitude to it?
Susie: Complex. I get furious at the way surgery (and the less invasive stuff like Botox) takes away the visual uniqueness of an individual. There’s a particular ‘look’ about a woman who has had work done, and I can see a kind of Stepford Wives thing beginning. Brings to mind that old song about houses – ‘there’s a green one, and a blue one, a pink one and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.’ Yet at the same time I am fascinated, because plastic surgery is about transformation. I think we all long for this at some level. It’s been said that alcoholics drink spirits because they long for more spirit in their lives. Perhaps we long for more beauty. Unfortunately our society materialises the symbolic, so the alcoholic turns to drink and the imperfect-feeling woman turns to plastic surgery.
RosyB: Women’s often-difficult relationship with their bodies, particularly as they age, inevitably comes to the fore in the book. How did you set about tackling this theme and getting the balance right in what can be a sensitive topic?
Susie: There are lots of books in which ‘nipping and tucking’ is tackled in a humorous way, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the surgery to be performed on a woman who is introverted and who sees it as a means to turn her life around symbolically more than physically. As she says, it was the best thing she’d ever experienced – and the worst. I was more interested in the transformations going on inside her than the outer changes to her body.
RosyB: I had hoped that by the age of 50 most of us would not be as obsessed with body-image as in our youth and that we’d be allowed to settle into our old holey jumpers, our lives with many felines and enjoy a less conformist and conventional relationship with the world. It’s rather depressing to find out from your book that this isn’t the case. Do you think the availability of plastic surgery is putting pressure on the older age-group in a way they didn’t have to suffer in the past?
Susie: Absolutely. I think our culture is focusing so much on youth and beauty and appearance that ageing – particularly for women – is seen as terrifying. I imagine that my generation will be the last one where the majority of women will age naturally. There was a fascinating programme recently about older woman, including a model in her eighties who looked absolutely beautiful. And she looked her age. What a delicious combination!
RosyB: You have had a lot of different directions over your life – you have working in numerous areas including television (for which you won a BAFTA I hear!). And you don’t just write but paint – and very well too . Do you find you move from one form to the other in a separate way or do both feed into each other?
Susie: I’m very eclectic creatively which has been difficult for me – there’s always that imagined voice murmuring ‘Jill of all trades…’ But recently I am learning to see this as a blessing rather than a problem. Writing keeps my imagination active and engaged and painting is a more physical, sensual experience of colour and form. I guess they relate in that both are a form of narration, of story-telling. That’s why programme-making appealed to me – it involved both words and pictures. Sometimes I wish I were able to specialise and become expert at one particular thing, but I do believe that we humans have many facets and a full – and fulfilling – life is about using all the gifts we are given to the best of our ability.
RosyB: Writing, painting and all things artistic are pretty hard ways to make a living. What advice do you have to people on how to stay creative and not be discouraged by the hard knocks of trying to turn that creativity into a career? Do you think it ever destroys creativity to try and turn it into a career?
Susie: Yes, I think it can. Although usually creativity tends to pop up in another form rather than be destroyed. Creativity is a process and the society we live in values product more than process. So I think that the only thing to do is to stay committed to the process and let the product look after itself. But this is far more easily said than done, and is something I’ve struggled with for most of my adult life. All I know is, when I return to process, to ‘just doing it’, magic happens.
RosyB: I struggle with this too and imagine an awful lot of writers and artist reading this will relate to what you say. I was inspired by something I read recently where a painter I rate said simply that when drawing it felt like what he was supposed to be doing…Paula Rego also talks a lot of returning to “playing” and drawing like she did as a child. Keeping hold of that feeling and that unpressured creativity can be hard when having to “sell” your work, or – increasingly – yourself, as some kind of product.
Which kind of returns us to what we were talking about earlier. I wonder if being a painter gives a different sort of relationship with beauty and aging? Artistically, I don’t find the kind of “beauty” you find in magazines interesting in the artistic sense. It is the humanity, the inner, the sense of character, the flaws even that can be more “beautiful” in a drawing or painting maybe because they reveal the human condition. Thinking of Van Gogh’s drawings, Rembrandt’s sketches, Holbein’s sketches, Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures that follow her across a couple of decades as she goes into middle-age, the works of Chaim Soutine, Freud, Sutherland etc (just listing some of the stuff I’m drawn to). Paula Rego’s wonderful Dog Women…
Susie: I absolutely agree with all you say about beauty being in the flaws and inconsistencies. It comes back to the old fight between perfection/product and process. Our consumerist society insists on a level of perfection in terms of beauty which has very narrow confines: you must be young, slim, voluptuous and flawless. Hawking this product to women leaves us feeling continually lacking – continually comparing ourselves to an airbrushed product which bears little resemblance to a human being. And because we feel ‘lacking’/’imperfect’/’not-enough’ we need to fill ourselves – literally, with fillers and implants. Real beauty, in my eyes, lies in a life well-lived, in expressions etched into the face, in the sparkling eyes of those who are curious and interested in life, in each woman’s uniqueness.
RosyB: Hear hear to that! So, what’s next for Susie?
Susie: More learning. I’m working my way through The Artist’s Way again (I never completed it before) and it’s proving very exciting and is reminding me of so many creative pathways. I have the luxury of a studio in the same building as my flat, which is brilliant, and I’m revisiting an unfinished non-fiction book about creating a life which suits each reader as an individual. Oh, and publicising The Making of Her and wondering what the next novel will be…
RosyB: Oh yes and we always ask for 5 fav books and a wee reason why.