I am so excited to welcome Caroline onto the blog for an interview and to be able to discuss her latest book The Unwrapping Of Theodora Quirke. Which I recently reviewed here.
About the book…
‘When 19-year old Theodora Quirke heads to work on Christmas Eve the last person she expects to find outside of her flat is St Nicholas of Myra – the Saint people think is Santa Claus (much to Saint Nick’s disgust). Given he is in full Santa suit and professing to be nearly 2000 years old Theo is wary, but St Nick insists he is here to save her – although he isn’t sure how or why. St Nick does know that Theo is grieving however, so he shows her four scenes from her life that give her hope, but he’s also had cryptic messages from the Christmas Higher Powers that lead him to begin Theo’s training as the first ever female Christmas Angel – a role Theo is not sure she is cut out for. The training is soon derailed by St Nick’s evil brother Krampus, filled with jealousy and spite over his brother’s popularity and, with confidence dented, and saddened by society’s spiraling levels of expectation and greed, St Nick begins to falter. Theo does everything she can to defeat Krampus and to lift St Nick’s spirits but as the deadline for Christmas miracles draws close, she realises she must complete them herself – but is she up to the job? A Christmas Carol meets Stranger Things in this funny, sweary and moving festive story‘
I LOVED Theodora Quirke, as you know. What compelled you to tell her story, where
did she come from?
I recently realised that I can plot the last fifteen years of my life through my novels. I quite like that each reflects a specific time and state of mind. This story was written as I worked through grief and loss, and I think that’ll now be obvious to anyone reading the novel. It was written as I began to emerge from pain; the unexpected and sudden loss of someone I loved deeply (in a November) and then, a few weeks later, a major personal trauma. Originally the novel was a good 50k words longer, with Gabe, Bess (who is Houdini’s wife!) and their world playing a huge part. But the novel was too much of an exploration of death and grief; it was too much of me seeking answers and it tipped into a too-long essay on heartache Yet what later compelled me to rewrite the novel was how I celebrated Christmas differently that year. I had a choice to either taint former happy memories with sadness or to seek out joy. That year tradition had more weight, gifts meant more, with impermanence making me pull my loved ones even closer. And that temporariness could mean that the story’s roots are in darkness, but, really, the novel’s about hope, about St Nick and about celebrating connections made (no matter how fleeting).
One of my favourite parts was when St Nick took Theo into her past and showed her the truth with her mum. It really got to me, I think for a few reasons. As a mum it BROKE me because I wouldn’t give my child up for anyone or anything, but also as a mum and a good person… she was completely stuck and didn’t see any other way to keep her child safe, so I also understood it. But this was the moment that Theo realised she was SO loved by her mum and a victim of circumstance. What was your favourite part?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about my favourite part of one of my novels – so, thank you! I really needed Theo to see that she was loved. I think, when you’re drowning in trauma, every single thing is painted in that trauma’s colour. We rewrite our past to fit with a current narrative, but that rewriting doesn’t make it factual. There are a few scenes within the novel that are basically me giving Theo what I wish I’d had. There’s a dinosaur, there’s the rewriting of a death scene and there’s a section that defines unconditional love for me (I still can’t read it without crying). Writing about hope though – that’s what both breaks and mends, and writing this novel saved me from my grief.
How much fun did you have researching St Nick?
I don’t usually enjoy research but this time it was a pleasure. This has been my all-time favourite novel to both research and to write. I wrote this one for me and never expected anyone to read it. My issue was that I had too much research to include and had to be careful that it didn’t just end up being an overexcited squeal about Christmas traditions, and without any plot. If I’m being entirely honest, I’d quite like to write a festive non-fiction book one day.
When researching did you find out any traditions that you would now like to adopt?
Since my research, I always make a wish when eating the first mince pie of the season and will never cut one with a knife. I wish I’d known about St Nick when my kids were younger. Leaving one boot/shoe for St Nicholas on the eve of his feast (so on Dec 5) is definitely something I’d have embraced. By the morning the shoe/boot would (magically) have small toys, coins, or sweets inside and I love the idea that the included items can be shared and consumed. That removal of festive commercialism and instead a celebration of a tiny moment of joy, magic and excitement.
St Nick was not only an angel with a big heart, he was also pretty gross. What made you decide to make him like that? (Also I want to add that Brian Blessed should play him in a movie).
You know, I hate that we exist in a world where there’s an expectation of perfection in looks. Where people are cast aside if they don’t quite ‘fit’ in terms of body shape, size or perceived beauty. We judge and reject on appearance alone. And, sometimes, I wonder about the connections we fail to make as a result. St Nick is a reflection of that perceived ‘ugliness’ within our society. The idea being that our greed and our inability to see true beauty made him that way, so that he could remain invisible amongst us.
If St Nick was to visit you and could take you back to relive a Christmas day, which would you chose?
Decades ago, for my birthday, a friend bought me a ‘journal for wishes’. I’d always had difficultly wanting or wishing for things (I still do), but her idea was that on each New Year’s Eve, I’d write down my wishes for the year. Inevitably, for years those ‘wishes’ tended to be practical or even ‘safe’ things. Things that I was likely to be able to achieve. Wishes that never left me feeling vulnerable or ‘exposed’ in any way. Fact is, I was too scared to wish for anything. But on two separate occasions, I allowed myself to wish; actual, heartfelt, exposing wishes (both still make me cry when I read them), and they both came true. So, if I had to select just one Christmas, it’d be 2003, six months after my first actual wish came true.
St Nick teaches Theo that no matter how much grief you carry with you, you cannot let it control your life. You have to learn to live with it and most importantly, that it is perfectly okay to be happy and live a happy life. Was that an important lesson to get across to the reader for you?
Yes, absolutely that. There’s a moment when you’re learning to dance with grief, when profound joy catches you off-guard. The book’s message was always about hope. About finding and embracing those reasons to live alongside loss. There’s the old cliché of how ‘life goes on’ but there’s also that moment when the decision to participate in life has to be made. And I guess that the book’s message is that it’s okay to be happy, that it’s okay to laugh, to feel joy, to be festive and that experiencing those emotions doesn’t mean that you didn’t love the person enough. The measure of your grief should never be in how long you pause your life to mourn.
What is a Christmas tradition you have at home that you look forward to each year?
Can I have two? My first would be eating homemade Christmas cake (no icing, just marzipan) with cheese. It’s the taste of Christmas. The other is that every Christmas, from their first, my kids have selected a decoration for the (main) Christmas tree. The decoration tends to reflect their year; their personality, current hobbies, humour (there was that year of ‘the biggest decoration they could find’). The trip to buy the decoration always marks the start of the festivities and the annual ‘photo outside of the shop’ is somehow accepted as part of the ritual. Combined, there are about sixty decorations now. The idea was always that when they moved to their own home, they’d take their little box of Christmas memories with them. Clearly, I’d not considered the fact that that’d mean that one day (soon) my main tree would have no decorations on it and quite how devastating that now feels. But my eldest has suggested a different tradition moving forward, one where they buy me a new decoration each year, and that somehow feels perfect too.
What is the best Christmas gift you have ever received?
Roller skates, with stoppers. Christmas 2007.
What are your top 3 Christmas movies? An almost impossible question really!
I don’t think I can answer this question without a flowchart, a line graph showing how films selected vary with distance from their source (Christmas), and possibly a 5 tier ranking of Christmas movies. I can’t begin to express how much I love Christmas films. I collect them, watch them all year and I keep a record of every film I see from September to December (every year). If I was forced to choose only one to watch, then it would be It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the ultimate festive film, the only one I always watch on my own (as close to Christmas Day as possible) and it never fails to make me cry. I’d also have Elf, The Holiday, The Family Man, Nativity, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Home Alone (1-3, not 4), Serendipity, 8 Women, Deck the Halls, White Christmas, The Family Stone, Miracle on 34th Street (the original) and Gremlins in my top 3 (at some point during the year).
Do you have plans to write another Christmas book in the future?
I have the outline for a sequel, about Krampus and one of the original SNUC members. It’d have little cameos from Theo and St Nick too. But I’ve no plans to write it just yet.
What can we expect next from you?
I’ve just about finished a new novel, but it might not be a ‘Caroline Smailes’ one. There’s the feature film of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton which will be released soon, and there might be another finished novel sitting in a folder…
The Unwrapping Of Theodora Quirke is now out and I think it is a book that definitely needs to be your Christmas list.
Caroline is supporting Mission Christmas this year, with this book, and all the details on how she is doing that can be found by clicking right here!
About the Author…
Caroline Smailes’ acclaimed debut novel, IN SEARCH OF ADAM, was published in 2007 (The Friday Project/HarperCollins). The Big Issue North declared the book ‘an engrossing and touching read from a new talent’. Since then Caroline has written four additional novels. These include BLACK BOXES, international bestseller LIKE BEES TO HONEY, an experimental digital novel with eleven endings 99 REASONS WHY and modern day fairy tale THE DROWNING OF ARTHUR BRAXTON (all HarperCollins). The film of THE DROWNING OF ARTHUR BRAXTON is in post-production, with an expected 2020 release.
Caroline lives in the North West of England. She is also known as Caroline Wallace (THE FINDING OF MARTHA LOST).
You can find Caroline on Twitter as @Caroline_S and on Instagram as @Caroline_Smailes