Elizabeth (Liz), is an Islington mum and an author. I first met Liz when she started coming to my Warrior Mums group fitness classes. She’s one of those women who seems to be superhuman; alongside work and being pregnant and having a baby, she also seems to have found time to write a book or two (or three…).
Her first book, IN STRANGERS’ HOUSES, was published in 2018 and my second novel, A CLEAN CANVAS, is coming out in January 2019. Both are murder mysteries and feature a Hungarian cleaner working in Islington who turns detective: Lena Szarka. Her first son Teddy is seventeen months old and she’s just had her second child, at the same time her latest book came out. Her day job is as a marketing director for an investment firm but she’s on maternity leave at the moment.
Liz! Tell me more about A CLEAN CANVAS, published by Constable, January 2019
Lena Szarka, a Hungarian cleaner, dusts off her detective skills for a second time when a masterpiece is stolen from a gallery she cleans with her cousin Sarika. When Sarika goes missing too, accusations start to fly.
Convinced her cousin is innocent, Lena sweeps her way through the secrets of the London art scene. But with the evidence against Sarika mounting and the police on her trail, Lena needs to track down the missing painting if she is to clear her cousin.
Embroiling herself in the sketchy world of thwarted talents, unpaid debts and elegant fraudsters, Lena finds that there’s more to this gallery than meets the eye.
What gave you the idea for the first book?
Inspiration struck years and years ago, the first time I visited the flat of my, until then, rather promising new boyfriend. He seemed lovely: funny, successful and very sweet. Then I saw his flat.
There were half-eaten, mouldy pieces of toast under his bed and cold cups of tea used as ashtrays littering the living room. I don’t think he’d ever done a load of laundry. Dirty boxers and filthy socks were piled high on the bathroom floor – I had to clamber over them to use the toilet.
He was embarrassed at my horror and hired a cleaner the next day. It struck me that this employee, who he’d hardly ever meet, would know more about his private life than any of his colleagues. The cleaner would be the one to uncover his dirty secrets. That’s when I decided a cleaner would be a great, if unconventional, detective.
In the end, it worked out very well. The cleaner not only inspired my novels, she also made that relationship feasible. I ended up marrying that boyfriend and now we’re expecting our second child.
How long have you lived in Islington?
Thirteen years. I grew up in South East London and moved to Newington Green when I moved in with the messy boyfriend! Now we live near Highbury Fields.
My books are set in and around Islington and I’ve had great fun poking around Regent Canal looking for places a murder could be committed for IN STRANGERS’ HOUSES, my first novel. Setting my second novel, A CLEAN CANVAS, in a fictitious gallery on Upper Street led to more civilised research.
What’s your favourite thing about living in Islington?
Definitely all the things you can do with a baby! Before I had my son, I had a romanticised vision of writing all day while the baby napped and occasionally woke up for a feed, a cuddle or a nappy change.
But when reality hit I found I really wanted to get out together, get some fresh air and meet other mums. And there’s just so much to do: Eliza’s brilliant Warriors and Buggy Burn sessions, a host of other mother and baby activities, plus great classes for the baby like Monkey Music, Hart Beeps and Gymboree. I found I could walk to pretty much any activity I wanted (and that would often send the baby to sleep).
How on Earth did you manage to fit in writing a book, a baby AND work?
I haven’t often had to do all three at once, thankfully! I wrote my first two books while working full time, and I treated it like another task: an hour went into my Outlook calendar and I’d write every night when I got home from work.
I wrote my third book, A MESSY AFFAIR, while on maternity leave. That was the hardest – writing sleep deprived with a baby is much more difficult that fitting in writing with a full time job! At first it wasn’t too bad: I’d have the baby snuggled on my chest feeding and my laptop fit neatly onto a cushion in front of me. But then the baby wanted to ‘contribute’ and that means of operating became impossible!
I had a few tricky months when I was editing A MESSY AFFAIR: I was back at work full time, had a one year old and was pregnant. That was pretty tiring, but I’m on maternity leave again now.
The one thing which got you through it?
My husband may be messy, but he’s supportive. He’ll take my son out to soft play or swimming for a few hours at the weekend so I can catch up on my writing. He’s rather proud of having inspired my books and likes to refer to himself as my muse.
Your advice for a mum who’s been inspired to write their own book?
Don’t wait for the right time or the perfect inspiration, just grab a few moments to yourself and get started. You’re not carving the words out of stone – if you don’t like what you’ve written you can always change it later. That’s much easier than staring at a blank page.
I started writing properly after going on a yoga and creative writing holiday in Turkey before I had a baby. The writing was taught by Philippa Pride, AKA The Book Doctor, who is Stephen King’s UK editor. She still runs those holidays and also teaches closer to home on Guardian Masterclasses in London. I’d thoroughly recommend one of her courses: she encouraged me at the very beginning and has been my mentor ever since.
Your favourite place to go to in London with young children?
I love the Oasis Café in Highbury Fields: it’s great for the little ones to rampage around in while you have a sit and a coffee. I find travelling with a buggy too much of a slog so stay local when I can.
Your motto for surviving particularly tough days
You vote with your time: don’t waste it doing something that’s not important to you. Ironically, for me that means leaving the cleaning. People sometimes assume that because my heroine is a cleaner I’m super tidy, but if I have a spare moment to myself I’d much rather do some writing (or have a nap).
Your child’s favourite book?
He loves the ‘That’s not my…’ series of touch and feel books, and has gotten very good at pointing out when the mouse is on every page. He also loves anything that he can rip the flaps from: sellotape is vital in our house.
Have you ever thought about writing a kids book?
I am drawn by how short they can be – novels are so long and take ages to write! But I enjoy writing adult books: it’s nice to have something to focus on that doesn’t resolve around little people.
What’s been tougher so far? Getting your second book ready for launch or being pregnant with your second child?
Definitely being pregnant with my second child. It felt tough first time round, but that was when I had plenty of time for pregnancy yoga, swimming and relaxing on the sofa. This time I’m running round after my toddler and any free time I do have I spend writing.
What are you looking forward to once both your ‘babies’ are out?
I’m looking forward to doing all the things with a newborn again that you can’t do when they’re running around: Eliza’s Warrior classes, mother and baby yoga at Yogabase and the Life Centre, mother and baby cinema at Screen on the Green, long lunches with friends and wine while the baby (hopefully) sleeps. And just cuddling on the sofa while the baby feeds, and maybe even getting some writing done before she learns to type!
For the book baby, I can’t wait to see it out in the wild: it’s great navigating a buggy into the Waterstones on Islington Green and seeing your novel on the shelves.
IN STRANGERS’ HOUSES is available now.
A CLEAN CANVAS was published 3rd January 2019 and is available to order here