|Welcome, Caroline and thank you for joining us to chat about Maggie’s Kitchen.
AusRom Today: Describe Maggie’s Kitchen:
Caroline: Maggie’s Kitchen is a novel that follows the fortunes of Maggie Johnson as she sets up and runs a British Restaurant in London during the Second World War. The story focuses on the relationships that she develops with the community and in particular with Robbie, a twelve-year-old runaway, and Janek, a Polish refugee. Together they struggle through government red-tape to open the restaurant and then battle food shortages and community crisis to keep their doors open. The novel is inspired by real events and includes excerpts from the Ministry of Food’s War Cookery Leaflets together with recipes that have been updated to suit contemporary tastes. The story combines nostalgia for the era and life on the home front, with a story of the courage that was found in these most unlikely of places.
Maggie’s Kitchen tells the story of Maggie Johnson, a woman who has applied to the British Ministry of Food’s call for the opening of ‘British Restaurants’ to feed Londoners during WWII. What sparked this concept for you?
I was researching restaurants in the hope of finding the first ever restaurant that I could write about when I came across these ‘British Restaurants’ and found them intriguing; I hadn’t heard of or read about them before and felt the need to investigate. The archive material I found was so detailed, and the language they communicated with created such a vivid picture, that I imagined the characters and was drawn to write about them. At first I thought it would be a documentary as it would be too difficult to write about restaurants during war time; how would you approach writing about people living on rations and not getting enough to eat and make it appealing? It was my experience working in my family’s restaurant while I was growing up that gave me the answer; you become like a family, working as a team and becoming part of a community and I knew that through this microcosm in difficult times, something strong could grow.
Maggie is certainly a tenacious character and through her story we are able to see just how difficult and diverse wartime stressors were for women during WWII. What one character trait will most endear her to your readers?
I would like to think that it will be her determination. Although she is resolute, courageous and selfless, and we see her weaken in periods of self doubt, its her strength and determination that really see her through. It was such an interesting time for women in terms of the shifts in society that saw females taking on roles that were previously only in the male domain. I explore this a little in her relationship with Mr Boyle, but what she achieves in her own right is quite significant.
You paint a vivid picture of life in London during WWII, from life in the underground bunkers during raids, to the dangers and solidarity faced throughout, and of course the rationing of supplies and food. How important was location to your novel and was there a particular reason for choosing England?
I chose England because it was where the British Restaurants were established but I chose Islington in London because there really was a strong community and a number of dairies operating there at that time. I was also able to find the location of specific events as well as bomb damage so that many of the incidents I describe in the book are real and therefore help provide an authentic canvas for the story.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Maggie’s Kitchen?
One of the biggest challenges was trying to imagine what it would have been like to live during the time. It was difficult trying to imagine how the conditions would have informed everything about life, starting on a practical level in thinking about what it would be like to not be able to do what you want, buy what you need or get enough to eat. And then quite apart from the difficult and dangerous physical conditions, there are the emotional demands of living with the constant fear and threat. I felt the only way to imagine how this would feel would be to immerse myself in life at the time through research and write my way into the characters.
What kind of research was involved in the planning of the novel? Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research process?
Researching the book involved reading a number of fiction and non-fiction books, visiting Islington and London and taking lots of photographs, carrying out research at the library of NSW as well as through the National Archives in the UK. I visited the Imperial War Mudeum in London and also referred to a number of cookery books, and google anwered many of unanswered questions that I still had. It was surprising but understandable to learn that the livestock had to be killed because farms were more productive if turned over to farming crops rather than livestock. It was a little distressing to also learn that pets were killed at the outset of war, partly because of the distress war would cause them but also (really) because of food scarcity.
What’s next for you?
My next novel is about a war artist and is also set during the Second World War, but it has a contemporary storyline woven through that helps solve a wartime mystery. The role of Second World War artists in recording events and lives during the war really interests me, especially when you compare them with how the media depicts conflict now. There is a loose connection to Maggie’s Kitchen but also plenty of drama, romance and intrigue!
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