This month featuring an interview with Alison Ripley Cubitt, author of Castles in the Air.
In this honest account of digging into your mother’s past, were you able to move forward beyond the secrets you unearthed, or did they merely complicate things for you on an emotional level?
In my late twenties and early thirties I had this misguided notion that I could fix my mother. But it is only now, twenty years later, through the course of writing this book that it dawned on me that I couldn’t. I didn’t set out to write it as therapy in any way, and although the writing of it was very painful, it has had a cathartic effect.
Your father seems to have given center stage to Molly’s dramas and tempestuous nature. I wasn’t able to grasp his character and personality, which I think is because Molly ruled things with her moods, while he withdrew inside himself. Would you say that’s an accurate assessment of the emotional atmosphere of their relationship?
I think that is a very perceptive impression. Writing twenty five years after Dad’s death, I couldn’t fully examine his character and personality on the page because once his depression set in it changed him. Being made redundant from a job he loved and losing his best friend as a result, was the turning point in his life. He never got over that. And it was at that point that he began to withdraw into himself.
What is the significance of your story’s title?
Castles in the Air is a phrase Molly used to describe her dreams and schemes. In Chapter 7, she writes to Steve, wishing he were there with them in East Africa, and what a marvelous time they would have together. This extract from Chapter 9 is an example of one of her many ‘castles in the air.’:
“One of my latest ambitions if we go back to Hong Kong after the war is to go home via the Trans-Siberian railway. I mean to travel all over Europe and then retire in my little cottage in the country. When I relate all these things to Daddy, he looks at me enquiringly and politely asks where all the money for these ventures is coming from, which completely spoils things. Why do people have to be practical and spoil all your nice castles in the air?”
Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What aspects of your family’s specific dysfunctions contributed to you becoming a writer?
It’s only as an adult being able to look back can I even begin to answer such a question. But I think that not being able to live together (because of where my father worked and the lack of schools nearby) like a normal family was a dysfunction forced upon us by circumstance. And that displacement at age seven being sent to boarding school was the key to my becoming a writer. As a way of escaping the reality of my situation, I let rip with my imagination. And like my mother, I too had built my own ‘castles in the air,’ imagining what I’d do if I wasn’t stuck in an institution.
I also think that moving around the world (which I’ve done in my adult life too) has helped shape me as a writer. Wherever I go I always feel like an outsider, and I use that displacement to write longingly now about places I no longer live in.
I was struck with the depth of Molly’s attachment to Steve, a man I fully expected her to end up marrying, rather than Ian who–for all his good traits– simply didn’t seem capable of bringing out the best in her. There is some mystery there, one I would have liked to see explored. Were you ever able to uncover the heart of this mystery?
I believe though that these two went their separate ways when Molly returned to England aged eighteen, grasping life with both hands and Steve was at this point wanting to take things a little easier. If they’d been reunited during the remaining war years, perhaps the outcome would have been different. Steve felt the age gap more than she did, and I think he let her go because he knew he couldn’t give her what she wanted and that was a family. And I think that there was an element of noble self-sacrifice on his part. You only have to think about films and books such as Brief Encounter or Remains of the Day set in that era in the mid 20th century, where people didn’t put their own needs first. But no, I wasn’t ever able to get to the heart of this mystery and this is speculation on my part.
What is the best piece of advice you can give someone just beginning a writing career?
Take pride in and craft everything you write, whether that’s a blog post, a short story or a book.