Penned during lockdown by mother-daughter writing duo Jacqui Burns and Anna Burns, Love at Café Lompar was recently shortlisted for the Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award. Wales Arts Review caught up with Jacqui and Anna to hear more about the process of co-writing in isolation and why we should reassess the cultural position of the romance novel.
Could you explain a little bit about the premise of the book, and where the idea came from?
We both enjoy writing and had wanted to write a novel or play jointly from a mother and daughter viewpoint. We came up with the idea whilst on holiday and liked the concept of a man having a secret ‘other’ family, which the mother and daughter do not find out about until after he dies. We didn’t know if the idea had ‘legs’ and it took us a while to consider how it would work. How did the wife and mother not know? What would they do when they found out? In the novel, they travel to Montenegro to find the other family but neither the mother, Grace, nor Kat, the daughter, have any idea what they’ll do when they meet them. I find it fascinating that people have these whole inner lives that the people closest to them have no idea about. It completely alters Grace’s view of her husband Dan. She feels her whole life has been a lie. For Kat, though, it’s exciting in a way to discover she has a brother living in this exotic place and it seems to offer an escape from the dreariness of her life in Britain.
How did you approach the process of co-writing during a pandemic? Did you use a particular method, or was it more ad-hoc?
We wrote the first draft in about five weeks in the first lockdown. For me, living alone, it was a lifeline, something to take my mind off what was happening in this strange new world we were all experiencing. I wrote the prologue and emailed it to Anna and she did the next chapter and this was the pattern we established. Every night, we would chat about the chapter we had written and what would happen next. Initially, we had little idea of how the plot would progress but as time went on, we began to plan it more and think about what would happen in the three parts of the novel. We weren’t ‘precious’ about our work either and we were honest with each other if we didn’t think something worked. We were worried that the voices were too similar at first, but I think that there is a clear difference in Grace and Kat’s voices. Kat is more impulsive, straighter than Grace and braver, the bravery of youth!
What inspired you to set the novel in Montenegro in particular, and how did you approach capturing its essence in language?
We went on a cruise in 2019 and Montenegro was the second stop. I always remember opening the curtains one morning and glancing out at the spectacular scenery as we sailed into the Bay of Kotor. Montenegro is breathtaking, like the Norwegian Fjords with sunshine! I don’t think another commercial novel has been set there and everyone who has read the book speaks about Montenegro and wanting to visit there. Our only regret is that we didn’t take more photographs at the time. Anna wrote about the food; we are a very ‘foodie’ family, being avid fans of MasterChef. She was really good at evoking the smells and tastes of Montenegrin cuisine. We had to Google lots of recipes, places and Montenegrin names. It was great fun and I think we both became more captivated by Montenegro the more we read about it. This summer, COVID rules permitting, we want to go back to Montenegro and visit all the places we have written about, as well as take lots of photographs!
Was creating a bit of escapism through the novel important to you while writing during lockdown?
It really was escapism and both of us spent hours gazing at images of Montenegro. It was a tonic especially as during the first lockdown, travelling further than five miles from your own house was forbidden. We really were ‘armchair tourists’.
The mother-daughter dynamic plays an important part in this novel. Did writing as mother and daughter inform the way you shaped Grace and Kat and their relationship?
Inevitably, you draw on your own experiences and relationships when writing. My sister worried that Claire, Grace’s sister in the novel, was based on her and Claire is a bit daring and outspoken. However, I assured my sister it wasn’t based on her – Claire is far funnier! Seriously, though, Grace and Kat are not us. Their relationship is quite difficult at the start. Kat was closer to her father and both mother and daughter struggle with the news of Dan’s secret family. It pulls them apart rather than bringing them together. This changes as time goes on, though.
Many have praised Love At Café Lompar for its uplifting, ‘feel good’ tone – but its premise is one of betrayal and heartbreak. Do you think, in some ways, this is a redemptive story, or a story about forgiveness?
It was difficult really in terms of making Dan a likeable character when he does this awful thing to his family. He is flawed, a weak and selfish man. Kat idolises her father and finding out he’s less than perfect is a hard lesson. I’m not sure Grace or Kat forgive him, but they have to move on. People are complicated. Those closest to us can disappoint, betray, and even shock us. The frustrating thing for the mother and daughter, though, is that he is not there to answer their questions, explain why he did it.
Big congratulations on being shortlisted for the Katie Fforde debut novel award! Do you think there’s a sense, sometimes, that romance novels and ‘chick-lit’ are unfairly underestimated because of the nature of fiction written by women, for women?
Definitely. Yet, it takes as long to craft characters in romance novels as it does any other genre. You think about every word, every sentence and the rhythm of paragraphs. I really don’t believe it is an inferior genre. The bookshelves in supermarkets seem to be filled with thrillers, celebrity biographies and romance novels. People enjoy reading about romance. After all, romance is something we all want in our lives, that someone who makes your heart beat faster. We’re on cloud nine to be shortlisted for the Katie Fforde Debut Novel Award!
And what’s next for you?
Well, the follow-up to Love at Café Lompar is out in June this year. We have some ideas floating around for the next book, but are undecided whether it will be another sequel or something completely different.
Love at Café Lompar by Anna Burns and Jacqui Burns (Honno Welsh Women’s Press) is available now.