I’m bowled over that my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, but I’ve also been feeling reflective about the reasons why I started to write my book back in December 2010.
I was living in Singapore where more than 230,000 women work as domestic helpers. Many of them sleep in windowless cupboards and back then, they had no legal right to a day off.
As a freelance journalist, I began to research a feature about the women’s lives, but as I listened to their stories, another idea took hold. It was a story about all the different ways women can be mothers, even if they can’t give birth, even if they are separated from their children for years on end.
I went to the library, borrowed two beginners’ guides to writing novels and got to work. At that point, I don’t think I even knew what a literary agent did, and I certainly had no plans to get published.
It was only after I returned to the UK that the urge to get published arrived. I’d finished the book, so I might as well try, right?
And, oh, how I tried. I received piles of rejection letters (I really am going to count them one day); several requests from literary agents for the full manuscript that met with eventual no’s; I scrapped the book entirely then wrote it again from scratch. (And that’s not even mentioning the other novel that I wrote in between.)
Eventually, I employed a fantastic editor and ten days after reading my novel, literary agent Rowan Lawton agreed to represent me.
Together, we fine-tuned the book, and in October last year, Rowan began submitting it to publishers in the UK and overseas.
Days later, the book was pre-empted in Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain. I whooped a lot, laughed; I cracked open a bottle of pink champagne.
I tried to keep my hopes low, yet I willed a UK publisher to take on The Maid’s Room too. I closed my eyes at random times and whispered, ‘Please.’
Then Rowan told me that two UK publishers wanted to meet me. One of them was Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton. It was surreal drinking tea and talking about my book with her at the Hachette offices on Victoria Embankment. To my relief, days later, both publishing houses made me an offer, and I decided to sign with Hodder.
The excitement still hasn’t worn off. Nor has my reflective state of mind. I’ve been thinking hard about the defining moment that motivated me to write the book. And it was this:
I met a 48-year-old woman in Singapore who had been working as a maid for almost twenty years. She told me how she’d left her sons, then ten and eight, back in the Philippines to get a job as a domestic helper initially in Hong Kong. She cried as she confided the pain of being separated from her boys – she wasn’t to see them again for another three years. Then almost in passing, the woman mentioned how her first employer had made her sleep under the dining room table at night.
Sure, I needed a hefty dose of luck to get my book published, but it was this woman’s story that set The Maid’s Room in motion and made me persevere.