One of the stages of growing up is discovering that your family are weird.
This happened to me fairly early, for reasons that will become obvious as soon as I start telling you about them: my father had me at an age when most people are having their first grandchild, my brother is a nurse, my sister is an airplane mechanic specialising in corporate jets (technically, since they’re my father’s children from his first marriage and adopted, we don’t share any genes, though in every way that matters they’re my full siblings), my grandfather was an academic whose books are used as set texts on pretty much every university English course around and I am related to what feels like every Mormon person in Utah.
I felt very different to the nuclear British families of many of my friends, and for a while I was jealous of their apparently better lives. Seeing the way other families spoke to each other, behaved around each other, made jokes, dressed and even ate dinner always absolutely fascinated me when I went to my friends’ houses as a child. I wanted to understand them, so I could be like them – but then I realised two things. First, every family is weird in their own unique way. And second, all those weirdnesses don’t really matter. Underneath them all, we’re basically the same. Every family, no matter what they look and act like, is just a group of people who annoy the heck out of each other and adore each other at the same time, a number of humans indelibly mixed up in each other’s lives.
One of the constants in my writing is crime – that’s obvious enough. But the other is family. I’m still unendingly curious about families – what makes them tick, what draws them together, all of the bizarre, fingerprint-unique things about them that they hardly even notice until someone else points them out. In Murder Most Unladylike, the girls of Hazel and Daisy’s dorm support each other (and undermine each other) in the way a family would. That’s part of what makes Hazel and Daisy’s relationship so strong: just like me and my friends from boarding school, they’re not just friends, they’re really much more like sisters.
But of course, before they got to school they were shaped in very different households, and in my second Wells & Wong book, Arsenic for Tea, I had a huge amount of fun going into detail about the people and the place that made Daisy. Her family, the Wellses, are brilliantly nuts – there’s her jolly, childish father Lord Hastings, her sticky-fingered great-aunt Saskia, her dashing uncle Felix, her angry, ukulele-playing brother Bertie . . .
I had to explain when Murder Most Unladylike came out that the mistresses in it were absolutely not based on any of the real teachers at my school – I took a real setting and invented everything else. Is it the same for Arsenic for Tea? Well, sort of. Daisy’s family aren’t mine. They couldn’t be. Fact is too odd and incomplete to make good fiction. And, at a very basic level, the relationships between Daisy’s family are much spikier than my own. My own parents, unlike hers, adore each other. I’m absolutely certain that none of my nearest and dearest would murder anyone. But inevitably, because Daisy’s family came from my brain, there are certain similarities.
My boyfriend likes to loudly play the ukulele at inopportune moments. My mother is much younger than my father (and probably more glamorous). Daisy’s father, a sweet, posh, round old Lord, looks and speaks in a way that isn’t unlike mine – and in fact, there’s a particular piece of Lord Hastings’s dialogue, his greeting to Daisy and Hazel as they arrive at Fallingford House at the beginning of the holidays, that is especially dear to me. ‘Daughter!’ he cries. ‘Daughter’s friend!’ In the first draft of Arsenic for Tea, my agent flagged these sentences. No one speaks like this! she wrote. I had a moment’s doubt. Then I called my father. ‘DAUGHTER!’ he shouted down the phone. ‘HELLO!’
The dialogue stayed.
Arsenic for Tea is a personal book for Daisy, and it’s also a personal book for me. It’s not real – the relationships in it aren’t the relationships I have with my own family (very obviously, my family are not nor ever have been suspects in a murder case, and I also like them a lot) – but I’ve tried to make the feelings behind it true. I hope Daisy’s family are both clearly themselves and very recognisibly a family. That’s my favourite thing about fiction: even when it doesn’t match real life, it can still be real.