Mavis Cheek: Author Interview

Mavis Cheek, 58, talks to Fanny Blake about single life, motherhood and how Anne of Cleves was the inspiration for her new novel

I didn’t have a particularly happy childhood. My father was a bigamist, a wife-beater, an alcoholic, an embezzler, a gambler. I was born into a house where the bailiffs had been so there was only the bed and not much else apart from my older sister and grandmother. Mum had to work in a factory – she didn’t have much time to be loving but she kept the thing going, she paid the rent every week, fed us, clothed us and got us to school. Okay, we didn’t get the hugs, but…

My childhood probably gave me a detachment from any real deep feeling – pain, loss, love, hate. Or maybe that’s partly my nature anyway but there’s a definite sort of shield between me and anything too emotionally painful.

All I wanted was marriage and children. I left school at 16 with long hair, big blue eyes, short skirts and a totally vacant winning smile. I got a job working for a posh art gallery. I met Chris Cheek when I was 15 and we got married when I was 21. The marriage probably didn’t work because we met too young but also because I didn’t get pregnant.

I’m quite an optimist. If one door closes, I don’t sit there and sulk but I look for another one to open. When I was told I wasn’t going to have children, I decided to study History of Art, English Literature, Western Civilisation and Political Ideas at Hillcroft College.

I was pregnant during my finals without knowing it. By then I was living with Basil Beattie, the artist.

Instead of doing an MA at Goldsmiths, I had my longed-for and unexpected baby, Bella. She’s the reason I started writing. I went to a writers’ circle when she was about one!

An agent rejected my first novel but said if I was passing her door, she’d give me five minutes of her time. I was on her doorstep the next morning at 7.30am – “just passing”! We spent an hour falling about laughing, then she said, “Why on earth don’t you write like you speak? You’re funny.”

Basil and I went our separate ways when Bella was about ten. I had a four-year affair that began about a year later but it was difficult because Basil and I went on living in the same house. At the end I rejected my lover out of a need for sanity and to maintain my daughter. Suddenly I understood how people can be fools for love in life and literature. It was such an eye-opener.

Emotional loneliness is a big minus in living alone. You have to be quite strong emotionally because you have to celebrate all the good things that happen alone. There’s no one saying you’re special, you’re number one. But then, when people behave badly, you can just walk away – which is nice.

My greatest hope is that Bella will be happy. Then I’d be very happy. Being a mum was a really fulfilling role for me. We went through some difficult times together so it’s nice to have reached this point with her. That’s much more important than writing.

I’ve always admired Anne of Cleves since I was a kid. Even at 12 I realised that she’d survived her marriage to Henry VIII well and I felt so sorry for her as she was called some unpleasant things, yet she survived. I thought it was time to write about her, hence my new novel, Amenable Women.

Mavis Cheek’s new novel, Amenable Women, is published on 3 April (Faber & Faber, £14.99). To order a copy for just £9.99 inc p&p, call 01206-255777 with your credit card details; quote ISBN number 9780571238941. Allow 14 days for delivery; offer ends 1 June.

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