Good morning Natalie and welcome. Can I start, as always, by asking you a little about yourself?
Hello, and thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog.
I’m Natalie, and I live near Edinburgh in a very ordinary house with extraordinary views across the Forth Valley; on a clear day we can see for about 40 miles. I have deliberately put my desk against a wall to stop myself spending all day looking out of the window and soaking up the landscape.
I have cycled from Edinburgh to London, ice climbed on Ben Nevis, built drystone walls, worked in a pub and a supermarket (and very briefly, in a call centre – I was terrible at it). I was a nurse for 26 years, and then set up a textiles business making hand-dyed yarn.
My favourite food is cheese – any sort of cheese. If the world had to ban cheese or chocolate I would have no hesitation at all in binning the chocolate. I make a mean French onion soup.
Despite being the holder of a full motorbike licence, I am completely uncoordinated, and have given up trying to go to fitness classes because I always end up in a fit of giggles at the back.
How did your writing journey begin?
The short answer to that is “in fits and starts”.
At school, I had pen-pals. There was an organisation called International Pen Pals, and if you paid for five names you got two, absolutely free! So as a teenager, I wrote letters; lots and lots of letters.
I turned down an offer to go to university to study English when I left school, and decided to go and do all the drystone walling and rock climbing instead, which was much more fun.
And then, as an adult, with small children at home, I joined another Pen Pal organisation and wrote more letters to women in the USA and Ukraine and other places. Eventually that fizzled out, but in the days before Facebook and email, when ringing someone in America cost £2 a minute, spending time at the kitchen table with a pen and a stack of airmail paper taught me a lot about story-telling, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I started a blog in 2006 and wrote about knitting and the hens in the back garden, and how to change the filters on your Dyson (most popular blogpost, ever).
And then in 2015 I did a short writing course called Write Like a Grrrl, designed to help women get words from their heads onto the page, and met a group of amazing women in Edinburgh who I am proud to know.
Your debut novel The Sewing Machine is about to be published. What was the inspiration behind it?
Anyone who does dressmaking knows that you start sewing a garment together by filling a sewing machine bobbin with thread. How much you will need for the dress or skirt you are making is a total guesstimate. When you finish the project there is always a bit left on the bobbin, but we rarely remove it, we simply add the cotton for the next project on top of it.
I have a bit of a vintage sewing machine habit. When I brought home a 1923 Singer 99k, I wanted to use it, not look at it. I began to unwind the bobbins to refill them with fresh thread, and all of a sudden I realised that the colours in front of me were events in the lives of the former owners; school uniform, a dress for a dance, a pair of curtains.
That was the start of the idea for the book.
What research did you do for the book and where did you find the information you needed?
The internet is a wonderful thing, but it can’t replace actually visiting locations and looking at real documents.
I went to the site of the Singer factory (now demolished), and stood on the platform of the Singer train station. I visited Clydebank Library (the staff were great) and looked at archive material, receipts, newspaper articles and other ephemera, and I went to see the Singer Sewing Machine Collection at the same time.
In Edinburgh, I spent time in various locations, timed how long it took to walk from A to B, (and C and D) and consulted early 20th century street and business directories.
I learned very quickly that, without exception, people are kind and generous with their expertise if you ask. The acknowledgements list in the back of the novel will give you some idea of the range of questions I asked – everything from botany to chess!
Have you another book in the pipeline? If so, can you tell us something about it?
There is a theme to my writing, but I’m not writing a connected series.
In many ways, the main character of The Sewing Machine is not Jean or Fred, it’s the machine itself, and how people’s lives are influenced by it. The next novel is similar, but about a different object.
I’m a bit superstitious about saying more than that!
Who are your favourite authors?
I tend to have favourite books rather than authors, but I’ll do my best.
Long time favourites I have read several times:
Happenstance, by Carol Shields, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. This is one of my favourite books of all time.
The Diaries of Jane Somers, by Doris Lessing, published originally under a pseudonym.
The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick
The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Pretty much anything by Denise Mina. I love the way she leads you into a plot.
And lastly, if you were planning a sabbatical on a desert island and could take four ‘must haves’, what would they be and why?
1. My Filofax and an endless supply of paper and pencils. It’s my tool of choice for note taking and plotting.
2. Teabags. Nothing fancy. Just as everyday cheddar is known as ‘mousetrap’ in our house, ordinary ‘mousetrap’ cheapie teabags would be perfect. Posh tea is wasted on me, I’m afraid.
3. Marmite. Being the first person to open a new jar and disrupt the glossy dark brown surface is an event which is fought over in our house!
4. A solar powered radio so I can listen to Radio 4, and be entertained by Rev. Richard Coles on Saturday mornings. If I get desperate I might be tempted back to The Archers, but it’s not been the same since the Nigel incident so I may stick with Gardeners’ Question Time instead.
The Sewing Machine
It is 1911, and Jean is about to join the mass strike at the Singer factory. For her, nothing will be the same again.
Decades later, in Edinburgh, Connie sews coded moments of her life into a notebook, as her mother did before her.
More than 100 years after his grandmother’s sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is laid out before him in a patchwork of unfamiliar handwriting and colourful seams.
He starts to unpick the secrets of four generations, one stitch at a time.
E-book currently available for pre- order on Amazon –
Paperback to follow.