A contemporary yet charmingly old-fashioned book that’s been causing quite a stir of late is That Part Was True, from the pen of Devon author Deborah McKinlay.
It has a romantic undercurrent, yet it is far from being a classic heartache-and-flowers romance; nor is it the kind of raunchy read so well disguised on the bus by the employment of an e-reader. The essence of this critically acclaimed second novel, published by Orion, lies in its subtlety, gentleness and intelligence, its suggestion of escape and the potential to find happiness, rather than its dynamic action; a stir it is causing, nonetheless.
You could have knocked Deborah down with a feather when she first heard it had been optioned by BBC Films (responsible for An Education, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, My Week with Marilyn, Philomena, among many others).
“That was definitely a champagne day, but I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even get excited straight away,” confesses Deborah.
The book’s plot goes like this... middle-aged British divorcee Eve Petworth writes to American author Jackson Cooper, praising a scene in one of his books. Through their mutual love of food and cooking, their unlikely friendship blossoms via letters that criss-cross the Atlantic, and the occasional email. At the same time Jackson is struggling with his colourful love life and Eve with her damaged relationship with daughter Izzy, who is about to get married. Gradually the pen pals each start to question whether they should meet, and whether a second chance at happiness in life is possible.
“It’s romantic, but it’s not a romance,” says Deborah, whose bugbear is the notion of “the one” that pre-occupies so many 20- and 30-somethings. “He could be in Bangalore marrying someone else at this very minute. The formulaic idea that what will make you happy is a partner of the opposite sex is very narrow. Happiness comes in so many different forms. You might find that music is your happy.”
That Part Was True is the second novel that Deborah, who is in her early 50s, wrote after decamping to Devon, firstly to Exmoor and now close to Exmouth. She grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, where her mother still lives; her first dream was to be an actor or ballet dancer.
“My parents made the mistake of letting me go to a couple of drama classes and I just wanted to be in that kind of environment,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that painters and potters and writers can have that too.”
She emigrated to England and spent many years living in London, contributing to a wide range of magazines including Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
In her 40s she went back to University, studying for a Masters in Philosophy at Cambridge. Then she moved to the Westcountry in search of air, space and greenery, safe in the knowledge that few places in England are so remote that you can’t reach the rest of the world when you want or need to.
“Devon is heaven for me,” says Deborah, who was prepared to live hand to mouth in the cheapest cottage she could find while establishing herself . Her son, now seven, was born down here and, as a single mother, her days now revolve around “books and boy”.
“If it doesn’t fit in with one of these two things, then I don’t do it,” adds Deborah, who rejects “time-sucking” activities like following Downton Abbey on TV (“I’m sure I would love it,” she confesses) in favour of early morning email correspondence, school-day writing sessions, and evenings of research reading after her son is in bed. She also squeezes in some Tweeting as the fictional @YourAuntLola, and loves to connect directly with her readers.
Food plays a key supporting role in the book and while Deborah says she is not a “foodie” in the modern sense, she appreciates quality and simplicity, like the shallots, runner beans, eggs and pork from her former neighbours on Exmoor.
“If someone serves me a very good omelette, I know it’s a very good omelette,” she adds. In their correspondence, Eve and Jack share recipes casually in the way friends do, including a Scotch broth that had copy editors scratching their heads at its vagaries, and saw her late father (the book is dedicated to him) and his sister having a great debate on the subject.
“Both of them had clear, but different, memories of how their mother had made it,” laughs Deborah.
The editors had to concede and leave that one vague, but at the end of the book there are two bona fide recipes, referenced in the story, that come from the family archive.
“Grandmother’s Christmas Cake is a recipe from my father’s mother, and one that he used to make after she died because he wanted to taste it again; it’s lovely for me that it’s in the book,” she says. “The other recipe is my aunt’s mother-in-law’s peanut cookies, which changed every time they were made, with ginger one time and maybe mixed spice the next if you’d run out of ginger...”
It could be a year or two before we see the book on screen – it is still at the scriptwriting stage and Deborah has no idea who will be cast in the starring roles. In the meantime there always plenty more writing to do.
WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
We have a hardback copy of That Part Was True (Orion, £9.99) by Deborah McKinlay, pictured right, to give away; to enter, tweet the answer to the question below to @WMNCulture by 8pm on Tuesday, April 22 and we’ll pick the winner at random from correct answers received.
What is the name of the two lead characters in
That Part Was True?