Interview · Tea with Mrs B

Tea with Mrs B: Joanna Nell

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Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about her brand new book, The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, is Joanna Nell.

Joanna Nell -- credit, Kate Williams Photography.jpg

Joanna Nell was born in the UK and studied medicine at Cambridge and Oxford universities. Her short fiction has won multiple awards and has been published in various journals and literary anthologies. A former ship’s doctor and now a GP with a passion for women’s health and care of the elderly, Joanna is drawn to writing character-driven stories for women in their prime, creating young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society’s expectations of ageing. Her first novel, THE SINGLE LADIES OF JACARANDA RETIREMENT VILLAGE, was a national bestseller. Joanna lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband and two teenage children.

Hello Joanna. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. Thank you for joining me for Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series.  To set the mood for our tea infused interview, what is your preferred beverage, tea, coffee or other? And side accompaniment, scone, cake or other?

Coffee (skinny flat white) in the morning and tea (English Breakfast) in the afternoon. As for a side accompaniment, either a gooey chocolate brownie or a slice of Delia Smith’s Madeira cake (the only cake I can actually bake!)

Can you tell us what genres you write for and how many books you have had published?

I write general/women’s fiction (tending towards ‘uplit’). The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village was my debut, published in 2018 by Hachette in Australia and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. My second book The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is out 24th September 2019.

The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is your latest release, can you describe it in just a sentence?

Evelyn Parker is living out her twilight years aboard a luxurious cruise ship with her husband Henry, a retired ship’s doctor, but when Henry goes missing, she sets out on a new journey, searching every corner of the ship and her failing memory, to find him.

I really love your catchy book titles. Why did you choose the title, The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker for your second novel?

I submitted my first manuscript to Hachette under the working title The Unmentionables and when my publisher changed it to The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village I realised that this was a much more catchy and marketable title. With The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker I think I’d finally got the hang of it! The title alludes to the archaic practice of a woman being addressed by their husband’s name, a practice from the Middle Ages called ‘coverage’. It also hints that her life is going to change and that Evelyn is about to rediscover her own identity once more.

How long did it take you to write The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker?

It took a year to get the manuscript up to submission standard, followed by another six months working with the publisher on structural and copy edits, and a final proof read.

How different was the experience of writing The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, compared to your debut novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village

Writing to a deadline and under contract was in many ways more stressful experience than the free rein I enjoyed with my first novel. I even threw out an entire 80,000 word first draft because the original book I had sold on the basis of the synopsis (told from four separate points of view) didn’t actually work when I came to write it. Luckily I was early in my year’s mentorship with Valerie Parv at the time and she gave me the courage to start all over again and tell the story from the heart.

Why did you choose to base your second novel on a cruise ship and did you need to undertake a research trip to formulate your narrative?

As a literary setting, the cruise ship is perfect for Evelyn to wander around as her memory ebbs and flows like the ocean currents. By triggering memories, the ship enables her to revisit the past and a somewhat more glamorous age. She is safe in this environment but has the kind of freedom to roam and the independence she wouldn’t have if she were living in an aged care facility. I also wanted to play devil’s advocate by highlighting that the cost of living aboard a luxury ship with its gourmet meals, waiter service, live entertainment and 24 hour medical care can ironically be cheaper than the less desirable alternative of a nursing home.

On a personal level, having worked as a doctor aboard a cruise ship early in my career, I’d always wanted to write about my adventures. This book allowed me to relive those experiences whilst creating an interesting setting and premise for a novel.

With your passion for women’s health and care of the elderly, you have incorporated some powerful themes on memories, ageing and dementia in The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker.  Can you tell us a bit more about the main ideas presented in your latest novel?

 The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker continues my crusade against ageism in society and I hope it opens up the awkward conversation about old age that nobody wants to have. In this novel I have chosen to explore the world through the eyes of a woman with dementia, a devastating and incurable disease that is often dismissed as part and parcel of getting old, and one that I see every day in my work as a GP.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Evelyn is an unreliable narrator. The reader understands more about her situation than she does and witnesses the humour and poignancy in her misinterpretation of what is going on around her. This was deliberate on my part – I wanted to give the reader the experience of living with dementia and in particular, to follow her train of thought, the logic of which often makes perfect sense.

Evelyn’s ability to recall every detail of the voyage from England to Australia seventy years ago when she met the young assistant surgeon Dr Henry Parker aboard Orcades, is at odds with her increasing confusion about the present day and why Henry has apparently disappeared into thin air, reflecting the nature of dementia in which short term memory is lost while long term memory is often perfectly preserved. This means that although people with dementia may at first glance appear muddled and disorientated, they are simply trying to make sense of the world using a brain that has switched to the past.

Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?

Evelyn Parker was inspired by a painting I saw in the 2017 Archibald Prize called The Inner Stillness of Eileen Kramer by Andrew Lloyd Greensmith. This beautiful portrait shows a white haired older lady with her head in her hands, eyes closed and a slight smile on her face. To me she looks as though she’s drawing comfort from her memories whilst shutting out the reality of the world around her.

In creating Dr Henry Parker, I wanted an unlikely love interest. He isn’t conventionally handsome, suffers from anxiety and is rather socially awkward. I wanted theirs to be an irresistible intellectual attraction, and I’m afraid a square-jawed alpha male simply wouldn’t have worked for the young Evelyn!

What ingredients do you feel are necessary to compose a successful contemporary fiction narrative?

A successful contemporary fiction narrative needs an original premise; a great hook at the beginning; relatable characters (they don’t have to always be likeable but the reader needs to care about them); plenty of conflict and an emotionally satisfying (though not necessarily happy all round) ending.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker?

Most importantly, I hope the book encourages compassion, empathy and understanding for people living with dementia, and in particular reminds everyone that deep down, behind the fear and confusion, there is still a person with thoughts and feelings.

How did you make the transition from a GP to a published author?

When I started writing seriously back in 2012, I wrote purely for my own enjoyment with no expectation – even in my wildest dreams – of being a published author. I was working full time as a GP and found it a therapeutic pastime. When the writing took off and I signed a two-book deal with Hachette, I was faced with the dilemma of how to fit in all the promotional work as well as writing the second book and so decided to take a year’s leave from practice. I soon discovered that having all this extra time on my hands turned me into the world’s biggest procrastinator! Those months away did give me a chance to do some soul searching however, and I realised I wasn’t ready to give up my career in medicine. Luckily, I’ve now found a good balance, working part time as a GP and writing on the other days.

I have noted that you are a great ambassador for mature women’s fiction. What sparked this writing direction?

I stumbled into this vacuum purely by chance. Whether consciously or subconsciously, writers tend to write about what is familiar or sometimes in response to an injustice they have witnessed. I spent a large part of my working week as a GP visiting retirement villages and aged care facilities hearing about the issues that affect older women. This invisibility of older women in society is mirrored by the lack of stories featuring mature women as protagonists rather than the more traditional supporting roles assigned by literature such as the village busybody, interfering mother or apron-wearing grandmother. Reading wonderful books like A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, I thought it was time to redress the gender balance and let the old ladies have some fun!

Can you tell us about your creative working space, where do you write and is there anything vital you need to get started?

My ‘office’ is actually a desk and a set of bookshelves in one corner of our rumpus room. It looks out over the trees towards Pittwater but unfortunately is also a main household thoroughfare, which can be challenging at times. My poor family now recognise my ‘Do not disturb’ scowl and give me a wide berth when I’m working.

A writing day always starts with a brisk walk with the dog (my black Labrador and faithful muse, Margot) followed by a coffee at my favourite café where I do my admin stuff like emails and social media. I work best in the morning so try to get as many words down as possible before lunch. I tend to work scene by scene and my daily word count can vary between zero and 2000, depending on distractions (and deadlines). Work and family commitments allowing, I like to go away for a few days, booking the cheapest rental cottage I can find, preferably without phone or internet, and get really stuck in, writing up to 5000 words a day.

What is the best part of being a published author?

Reading the lovely messages and reviews from readers. Ask any author.

If you could slip back in time, what era would you travel to and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by how the First World War reshaped society and saw women begin to take on new roles. My grandfather was a batman (meaning a personal servant to a commissioned officer) to an army surgeon on the Western Front in 1915. Gruesome and harrowing as it would have been, I would like to have met him as a young man and talked to him about his experiences.

What is next on the horizon for Joanna Nell? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?

Earlier this year I signed another two-book deal with Hachette. I’m currently working on a novel about a group of residents trying to escape from a nursing home, due for release in 2020. As for book number four, there are plenty of ideas percolating.

What 2019 book releases are you most excited to read?

Cross My Heart by Pamela Cook and The Wife and the Widow by Christian White. Pamela and I are in the same writers group and this fantastic book is an exciting move away from rural romance into women’s fiction and her first foray into self-publishing. Readers, both old and new, are going to love it!

Christian White and I shared the same publication date in 2018 for our debut novels and on 24th September 2019 for our second books! I loved The Nowhere Child, and after a very entertaining car journey with Christian, Natasha Lester (The French Photographer) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) back from Milton to Sydney after Storyfest, I can’t wait to read his new book.

Finally, wrapping up our tea themed interview, whom would you most like to share a pot of tea with?

My mum. She lives 17000 km away and I’d give anything to be able to pop in for a cuppa. Outside my family, it would be Joanna Lumley.

Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B Joanna.  Congratulations on the publication of The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker!

Thank you so much for having me!

Joanna Nell’s follow-up to the bestselling THE SINGLE LADIES OF JACARANDA the last voyage of mrs henry parker smallRETIREMENT VILLAGE is a poignant ode to love and the memories that make a well-lived life

As the wife of retired ship’s doctor Dr Henry Parker, Evelyn is living out her twilight years aboard the Golden Sunset. Every night she dresses for dinner – gown, tiara, runners – and regales her fellow passengers with stories of a glamorous life travelling the world in luxury as well as showing off her superior knowledge of everything from ships’ customs to biographical details of her heroine, Florence Nightingale. The crew treat her with deference. And forbearance.

But when Henry goes missing, Evelyn sets off to search every part of the grand ocean liner to find him, casino, nightclub and off-limits areas included. Misadventures are had, new friends are made, scandalous behaviour noted – all news to Evelyn. If only she could remember the events of the night before as clearly as she can recall the first time she met Henry on a passage from England to Australia in 1953 and fell in love, abandoning her dreams to become a midwife to be a wife instead – and the long-ago painful events that left Evelyn all at sea.

Why is it so hard to remember some things and so hard to forget others? And where is Henry? The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker is a love letter to the memories we make over the course of a lifetime, and how the heart remembers what matters, even when the mind has long forgotten.

The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker by Joanna Nell is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $32.99

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9 thoughts on “Tea with Mrs B: Joanna Nell

  1. Fantastic interview – really, most enjoyable! I have been on two cruises so this book I’m looking forward to reading. I don’t think I’ve read one that is set on a ship so this should be fun apart from the tough subject matter. I must borrow Joanna’s first book from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very pleased to hear you enjoyed this interview, Joanna gave us so many great responses! I didn’t know you had been on two cruises – you will definitely have plenty to relate to. I still haven;t read her first too, it’s on Mt Everest! I hope you can score a copy from the library.


      1. Hahaha, you’ve probably just forgotten, Amanda. A cruise around the Caribbean on the Oasis of the Seas 4 years ago was included in our East Coast America Evergreen Tour and three years ago we cruised the inside Alaskan passage after touring Canada with Evergreen. I’m sure you saw the photos which at the time I posted to our group page called Travel with Sue and Steven.

        Liked by 1 person

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