In new book, teen tries to save mom

  • Virginia Macgregor's first young adult novel, "Wishbones."

  • Virginia Macgregor Courtesy

  • Virginia Macgregor's latest adult novel, "Before I Was Yours." —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

This spring, Virginia Macgregor release her fourth book and first young adult novel, Wishbones. She also recently moved to the United States from the United Kingdom with her husband and family.

In Wishbones, Feather, a teenage girl, is thrown into a situation where she feels she must save her mother. Along the way, she discovers her mother is not just the woman she knows and that her tiny village has been hiding a big secret her whole life. There’s also a complicated relationship with her best friend, Jake, and new boy from America who has moved to town.

Here’s what Macgregor had to say about her new book and life in New Hampshire.

In “Wishbones,” the story begins with the teen protagonist, Feather, finding her mother, Josephine, who is morbidly obese, in a diabetic coma. Feather is put in a position where she feels like she needs to take care of her mom, and she is also trying to halt the enabling behaviors of her father. Why did you open the book by putting Feather in a position where she has to parent her parents?

I’m fascinated by unconventional family relationships and also by how the power dynamic between parents and children shifts in teenagehood. This is even more pronounced in families where there is some kind of trauma or where a parent, as in Wishbones, is so sick that they can barely look after themselves, let alone their child.

By starting with this kind of role-reversal, I wanted my readers to develop an immediate sympathy for Feather as she takes on the huge responsibility of trying to save her mother’s life – and as she faces the challenge of having to question her father’s behavior. Whether readers agree with or are critical of Feather’s actions, they will, I hope, care about her and so feel invested in how things pan out for her and for her family.

Though your other books have featured children’s voices before, this is your first young adult novel. Why did you make this switch?

I’ve always wanted to write for young adults. I’ve lived and taught in boarding schools my whole adult life and have always found the point of view of teenagers fascinating. I’ve also come to understand what preoccupies teenagers and how tough – but also interesting – that transition from childhood and adulthood can be. I actually sparked the interest of my agent, Bryony Woods, by sending her a YA novel. That novel never got published but I always held out the hope of writing for both adults and young people – and now that dream has come true!

Feather, her best friend Jake and the new boy Clay have a sort of love triangle. Why was it important for you to add that storyline to the novel?

Young adults never have just one thing going on in their lives. One of the challenging things about growing up is that young people are contenting with all kinds of different situations and people – and problems – often simultaneously. They are constantly shifting between their home, school and social life; between their real, flesh and blood interactions and their online relationships; between their family on the one side and their friends and love interests on the other.

A good novel should reflect the whole spectrum of a young person’s experience and so, of course, I had to throw friendship and falling in love into the mix of Feather’s rocky road to adulthood. As a teenager, I also suffered, quite regularly, from unrequited love, so I can identify with poor Feather.

Through the book, Feather discovers that most of her tiny village has been keeping a pretty big secret from her for her entire life, which eventually comes out in a very public way. Do you think that villagers were protecting her or that their deception causes her more harm than good?

As with all secrets, the secret that the villagers of Willingdon Green were keeping from Feather spun out of control. It is normal to protect young children from a tragedy that they are not ready to comprehend, especially when this is the wish of their parents and when their parents are also severely affected by what happened.

The problem is that situations and people never remain static. It may be possible to keep a big secret from a baby or even a small child but to keep it from a teenager is a whole other ball game, especially one like Feather who is determined to understand what is going on in the life of her family. The moral of the story is that no secret can be kept forever.

How did your struggle with anorexia and experience working with students help influence the way you’ve told this story?

As with many conditions, we are coming to a more nuanced understanding of eating disorders – that they affect more people than we realize (including boys), and that they take on many different forms. As an older teen, I went through a particularly bad stage in my relationship to food, to eating and to my body. I felt lonely and misunderstood and I think that’s true of many young people who battle with eating disorders and, indeed, any mental health issues. It’s certainly something I came across time and again as a teacher. I believe that fiction can play a powerful role in helping young people feel represented, heard, understood and so less lonely. I hope that Wishbones does this for my young readers.

The U.S. is ranked as one of the most obese industrialized nations, where about 35 percent of people have a BMI that’s too high. The U.K. is about 30 percent. Have you noticed a difference in response from people in those countries or readers from elsewhere?

My novels have been published in many languages so it has been interesting to observe how international markets have responded to my latest YA offering. One of the bits of feedback I received from countries who decided not to publish Wishbones is that, quite simply, obesity and eating disorders are not really relevant to them as a society and so the story isn’t as of much interest.

I am so glad that these places still exist: the U.S., the U.K. and other highly Westernized countries have a huge problem in their relationship to food, their bodies and their sense of themselves – both as regards over- and under-eating. However, in an ever shrinking, internet-driven world, much of which is Anglo-centric, these issues are going to become international. And so, the more all cultures engage with the problems of excessive eating and conscious starvation, the better equipped we will be to intervene when people – especially young people – need our help.

You published “What Milo Saw” in July 2014, “The Return of Norah Wells” in January 2016, “Before I Was Yours” in January 2017 and “Wishbones” in May 2017, which is pretty fast. What is your writing process like?

I know that when I fall in love with a writer, I’m itching to get my hands on their next book – which is why I feel committed to giving readers the latest “Macgregor” story without too long a wait!

I have also dreamt of being a full-time writer my whole life so now I get to do it, I’m making the most of every moment and that means writing all those stories that I’ve been longing to share with the world.

I’m also a chronically impatient person and so when I come up with an idea for a novel, I want to write it and share it right away.

Finally, I’m not sure that spending decades on a novel necessarily makes it better: the energy and discipline that comes from writing in a concentrated way can, I believe, create stronger novels. In other words, the reading experience mirrors the writing experience: both are focused, fast-paced and intense.

You recently moved to Concord from England. What prompted your move from old England to New England?

I’ve had a love affair with New England since I was a teenager: give me a white clapboard house with a porch swing over a medieval castle any day! I love the distinct seasons, especially the fall. I love the openness and kindness and generosity of the people. I love that you can’t turn a street corner in New England without bumping into a writer, artist, dancer or musician.

And then I married a man who fell in love with the school system here, especially the intellectual freedom offered by independent boarding schools. We had our honeymoon in the fall in New England – a tour of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. You wouldn’t believe it but the one and only time I ever consulted a psychic, he said I would end up moving to America with my husband! I hadn’t even met Hugh then. And now my husband, Hugh, is director of theatre at St. Paul’s School and I get to be a full-time novelist in my beloved New England. Our firstborn daughter is rapidly developing an American accent and our second daughter was born in Concord Hospital last April – and has an American passport. So, it was obviously meant to be!

You were born in Germany and lived in France before moving to the U.K. Do you still use or write in those languages?

I speak French and German fluently and still have friends and family in France, Germany and Switzerland. I don’t write in those languages, though, or not creatively anyway. It is a great joy, however, to know that my works are translated in both German and French. My mother, who speaks five languages, always reports back on whether the translator has done a good job!

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

I love to walk, to swim in your beautiful lakes, to meet strangers – and to ask them nosey questions, which is one of my greatest inspirations for stories. I also love to cycle: if you see a crazy, English looking girl with a child’s purple seat on the back cycling up Pleasant Street, that will be me! I love to read, of course. And I love to spend time with my wonderful husband, Hugh, and my two gorgeously bonkers and endlessly entertaining daughters, Tennessee Skye and Somerset Wilder.


(Macgregor will be a presenter at the New Hampshire Library Association’s READS fall conference on Oct. 10 at the N.H. Audubon McLane Center in Concord.)