Odeline is quite an unusual character, what was your inspiration for her?
I am intrigued by prickly, antisocial characters, especially cantankerous young people. I saw a very bad children’s magician once at a Christmas party. She was moody, looked bored, and moved through her repertoire without enthusiasm. By the end the children were heckling her, and she was snapping back at them and threatening to leave. Furious and ridiculous in her Father Christmas suit, she appeared to think this kind of work was far beneath her. I wondered where she thought she belonged instead. The whole scene stuck in the back of my mind and eventually Odeline grew from that.
What kind of audience do you think would most enjoy this book?
Hopefully a reader who likes character driven stories or who might like to look at London from a different, unusual angle.
Why did you choose to set the novel within the city canal system?
I like neglected, derelict places. Most of London is so developed but there are sections of the waterways which aren’t seen, lying along the backs of buildings or a few metres below street level and out of sight. I used to live next to the Grand Union Canal where it curves underneath the A40 and alongside the Paddington train line. Life on the canal seemed completely unperturbed by the noise and commotion going on around it. Boats chug along, ducks paddle about; its an alternative way of living that still moves at the same pace as it did a century ago.
What drew you to the mime profession as a key theme for this novel?
My sister introduced me to Charlie Chaplin’s films about ten years ago and told me he was a genius. I think he and Buster Keaton are mime at its best – funny, moving, and graceful to watch, even ninety years after they made those films. But mime artists aren’t considered cool these days: they are retro, outdated, perhaps a bit annoying. Street performers or bad clowns. As a vocation, it seemed perfect for Odeline. All she knows of the world is from books, mostly second-hand ones or cast-offs from her local library. She is high-minded and solipsistic, and has inherited a theatrical gene from a father she doesn’t know. She is disappointed by her mundane existence and yearns for a more romantic life. I thought mime was exactly the kind of thing she’d pin her dreams on.
What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
Hopefully some affection for the characters by the end, and some enjoyment at having spent time with them. I like reading stories which are a long way from my own life, and I think this is the best thing about reading (and writing) – the process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think it’s why fiction is so important at all ages. If it works, it enlarges our imagination for other people’s experience.
Any plans for another book in the future?
I’ve almost finished a first draft of another novel. It’s a murder mystery, so has been a very different writing experience. With Chaplin and Co I just wrote one thing after the next, and felt my way along. But with a ‘Whodunnit’ the timing of each piece of information is crucial so I’ve spent a long time planning and structuring. Tweaking one scene has repercussions through the rest of the story, and you have to keep the whole plot in your head at all times. We are all so familiar with the shape of Whodunnits from film and TV, I thought it would be a straightforward exercise but it has been extremely challenging!
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes, Vintage, 2013