In conversation: Helen Walsh

June 22, 2014

Bookseller Leilah Skelton spoke to Helen Walsh about her novel, THE LEMON GROVE, for the Waterstones blog. Find out what inspired Helen to write in their Q&A.

Leilah Skelton: We booksellers often try to sum up a book recommendation on a credit card sized space in store. How would you sell The Lemon Grove to us in just a couple of short sentences – your bookshop browser pitch?

Helen Walsh: A heated tale of betrayal and age-inappropriate lust set on the rugged North West coast of Mallorca.

LS: Where did the initial idea for The Lemon Grove come from? Hopefully not real life experience!

HW: I’m not aware of having met any 17 man-boys in blue swimming trunks – thankfully; but I do recall a shockingly pretty, young waiter at the beach bar in Deia flirting with a much older woman while her unwitting – and very drunk – husband, fielded a business call on his mobile. As the husband became more and more drunk, and increasingly frustrated at the patchy phone reception, the looks between his wife and the young waiter became bold and suggestive. There was at least a twenty year age gap between the woman and the boy, but any sense of impropriety was neutralised in the heat of her desire. I’ve no idea what became of their flirtations, but at least on a subconscious level, the seeds of The Lemon Grove were firmly sewn.

LS: Mallorca seems like another character within the story. I loved that feeling of heady salt air and wine-soaked dining that carries though the pages. How important was the setting to the novel?

HW: Characters, just like real people, are products of their landscape, and had I set this novel some place else – on the South of France or in Cornwall for example, then it might have inspired an entirely different story. Setting The Lemon Grove on the dramatic, North West coast of Mallorca with its dangerous hair pin bends, crumbling cliff paths and impromptu storms, lent a natural sense of tension to the story. It was also important that this story took place within a holiday setting. The holiday represents escape of some sort; postponement; a temporary suspension of reality. Away from her familiar, ever day habitats of home and work, Jenn’s moral boundaries begin to crumble. If I had set this tale back in England, I doubt that Jenn would have given in to her desires. Jenn’s feelings are amplified by the heat and the claustrophobia of the villa.

LS: The Lemon Grove centres on a woman seemingly losing all sense of reason and logic; a woman not averting the inevitable and irrevocable damage she’s causing to everyone around her. I didn’t want to believe it possible that a woman could lose control of her senses so suddenly and completely. In this sense, are you reflecting women’s deepest fears as well as their deepest desires?

HW: Absolutely. I think while Jenn is by and large in control of her sexual destiny – she resists her feelings up to a point; but when she gives into it, it is entirely of her own volition – she is taken back by her loss of control. I found that aspect of the story incredibly sad when I was writing it; that here you have a woman, relatively grounded and content in her marriage, and from out of nowhere, she is knocked sideways by feelings and sensations she thought she’d left buried in her youth.

LS: Her stepdaughter, at 15, is emerging into herself sexually. Jenn, at 45, is quite unusual within fiction, and the wider media, as a character portrayed with sexual desires. How important is Jenn’s age in relation to the story?

HW: Age, ageing and youth are prominent themes in the novel. While Jenn’s body ‘withers’ before her own eyes, Emma’s, in stark counterpoint, ‘blossoms.’ For Jenn, her fling with Nathan allows her to feel youthful and desired again.
We live in a culture that over-glorifies youth, that sees it as synonymous with desirability and beauty. To many, the idea of a 17 year old boy desiring a 45 year old woman is repugnant – and improbable. Culturally, we are not comfortable with the idea that a woman’s sexuality can be as urgent and driven as a man’s. My fiction tends to flip those received notions about gender and sexuality on their head. I wanted to test the reader’s moral conscience. On the one hand, you’re aware of the seeming inappropriateness of the age difference, but on the other hand, you find yourself willing Jenn to do it.

LS: The mother/daughter relationship is a complex one, and all sorts of tensions are alluded to prior to this fateful holiday. Do you think the distance of the ‘step’ relationship affects the limit-pushing behaviours of both women?

HW: The mother step-daughter dynamic brought an extra layer of complexity to Jenn’s situation; it lent more tension to the story and it made it easier for readers to understood Jenn’s envy at her step-daughter’s burgeoning beauty. Would Jenn behave the same if it were her own biological daughter? Probably not. It’s not that the ‘step’ dynamic makes what she does, any less appalling in her head, but she is less fearful of the consequences – of losing her step-daughter.

LS: I found myself desperate to know whether Jenn would escape the chaos she’d created, or be consumed by it. The ending is teasingly open. Do you find that people interpret the book differently?

HW: Yes, one reader wondered if Greg, rather than feel cuckolded, might became aroused by his wife’s transgression! Although there is no dramatic denouement, it’s not entirely open ended. In the last few scenes of the novel, you have Jenn feeling rather pleased with herself that she’s gotten away with it.. But rather than driving off into the sunset, we leave her driving deeper into the Mallorcan darkness, with the knowledge that her solid, slightly irksome husband is not as docile as she thought.

LS: You’ve written a book that’ll be by every poolside this summer. What’s next?

HW: A holiday would be nice. I may well stay clear of Deia for a few years, though.

This blog originally appeared on the Waterstones blog for paperback publication of Helen Walsh’s THE LEMON GROVE. Read the original here.

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