What does the title mean?
Obviously I’d like you to read the book to find out! But if you’re intrigued by the title and need enticing in, and you don’t mind a bit of a spoiler: the two birds in the title have a symbolic meaning that goes back to the ancient Greek physiologus and later medieval bestiaries (animal morality stories).
You can find an account of the pelican, for example, here, with a wonderful engraving of the mother piercing her breast to feed her young. The Christian church adopted the image of the pelican to represent mother love – there’s an example in a stained glass window by Burne-Jones here.
Towards the end of the book, Eve describes Olivia as a pelican and herself as a partridge – a bird that is supposed to steal other birds’ eggs to raise them as her own. There’s another wonderful picture here.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
The Partridge and the Pelican started out as a short story, called The Baby in the Phone Box. Quite a lot of the original story is still there in the first chapter – and the reunion of Eve and Olivia at a wedding 25 years later appeared as a sentence or two at the end. It never really worked as a short story, and once I started prodding the characters a bit to find out why, I realised there were secrets and deceptions and complications I hadn’t anticipated, and that it really needed to grow into a novel to give them all space to unfold.
As to how the story started: like most stories it had at least two different sources. I travelled round Britain with my friend Andrea in 1983, when we were 18 and 19, driving a decrepit Fiat 126 and following much the same route as Olivia and Eve. We didn’t visit the same places as them (the car died in Scotland, and we limped home via the Lake District, where my great-aunt and uncle rescued us) and we’ve stayed very good friends ever since, although we live on different sides of the Atlantic, but I’ve always thought that rather bizarre journey would make a good frame for a story. The visit to Aldeburgh, to stay in a friend’s aunt’s house, happened a few years later, but that house exists and formed the basis for Shearwater.
The other ‘seed’ was reading an account of a man who found a baby abandoned in a phone box. I was interested in that because I worked in paediatrics for a while as a junior doctor, and was deeply affected by dealing with babies who were brought to hospital dead or nearly dead, and I started wondering what would happen if a young woman found an abandoned baby and tried to help it – or even two young women, who reacted rather differently to the experience.
Babies seem to be important in the book...
I've been besotted with babies ever since my sister Charlotte was born on my eleventh birthday. Here I am aged 15, holding a friend’s baby and looking very solemn. (Not quite as solemn as the baby, though.)
I have five children of my own now, and motherhood is a theme which recurs often in my fiction. I’ve also worked in paediatrics and child health, and have contributed to several books on public health issues for children.
As do cats...
We don’t have cats now because my husband is allergic to them, but I grew up with cats (and dogs, guinea pigs, horses and even, at various times, stick insects and a slow worm).
Here is Clyde, who is the model both for the fierce hunter-cat of Olivia’s childhood and the white fluffball of her adult life.
I am always intrigued by cats’ and dogs’ names, which often seem to give away a lot about their owners. You can read what you like into the fact that Olivia’s cat has many names and none.
Music has played a big part in my life. I learned the violin and piano when I was younger, and still play the piano a little. I also sang at school and university – in the Chapel Choir at Clare College, Cambridge, which was a great privilege, and in a memorable performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in which the chorus – including me – were all painted gold. When I was a medical student in London, I persuaded Allen and Hanbury’s to sponsor the choir I started there, Bel Canto. We gave the London premiere of John Tavener’s Ikon of Light, which was quite an occasion. I still sing from time to time, and I often listen to music when I’m writing. You can find some of the music that features in the novel here [Insert links]
Cooking and eating are among my favourite diversionary activities. I loved writing about Faith’s flamboyant cookery, and Olivia’s struggle with the day-to-day grind of cheffing up for her sons. In another life I might have been a professional chef – I’m continually fascinated by the combination of art and science in cookery, by the social and cultural significance of food and hospitality, and by the fine balance between necessity and excess in our eating habits.
I find it very hard to write without a clear sense of where my characters are. It doesn’t always have to be a real place, but I usually find that I’m imagining some combination of real places when I think I’ve made the setting up. Much of The Partridge and the Pelican is set in Oxford, where I’ve lived for fourteen years, and I often followed Olivia’s walks along the canal and on Port Meadow while I was writing the book. There are pictures from these walks here. Most of the other places in the book are also familiar to me – Aldeburgh, Torhousekie stone circle, Primrose Hill - although I don't know them as well as Oxford.
The houses in the novel are fictitious, although they're based loosely on real houses. I think of houses more as characters than as settings, so it feels uncomfortable to draw them too closely from life.