Blog Tour – Mary : Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow by Kate Cunningham

I am delighted to welcome you to the next stop of the Mary : Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow Blog Tour, the fantastic new book published by Reading Riddle and written by Kate Cunningham.

Kat Cunningham

Mary is kept in a locked white room – alone apart from the testers who take samples from her. Vander was recently given the job as a tester and feels sorry for her. He has lived through the Red Plague and seen the choices families had to make to survive. When he releases Mary his actions trigger events that spiral out of control and change countless lives. Mary must decide what price to put on freedom.

Mary : Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow by Kate Cunningham

Thank you Kate for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog today as part of your Mary : Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow blog tour. Your book is a real eye-opener into human nature and quite poignant in the aftermath of the corona pandemic. I am fascinated to find out more about your writing process for this novel.

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So tell us a little about yourself and the inspiration for your book Mary: Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow.

I always wanted to be a writer but it never seemed to be something an ordinary person could do, so I’ve had a few different jobs over the years, including working for a development charity and ten years teaching in large primary schools in London. In hindsight those jobs gave me the skills and knowledge I use now, and I carried on writing throughout that time, joining writing groups in the evening and at weekends. I’m married to historian Sean Cunningham, so at home a lot of our conversations revolve around research and documents, what they tell us and what they might mean for interpreting events.

Mary is inspired by a real person, Mary Mallon, more commonly known as Typhoid Mary. Many years ago I read about her and wondered what would happen if she was around now. The real Mary lived at the start of the 20th century in New York. She was employed as a cook by wealthy families, and after a number of outbreaks of typhoid, it was concluded that she was the common factor and the source of the infections, some of which resulted in deaths. She was confined to North Brother Island, in New York’s East River for many years, but refused to believe that she was responsible for spreading the disease. She was eventually released, but disappeared again. Once more she started working as a cook, and once more infections followed her. She ended up back on the quarantine island but never accepted responsibility for the outbreaks or the deaths. My Mary is also infectious, and in denial.

What comes first for you the plot or the characters and why?

Mary is unusual for me, as I normally write within the framework of a real historical moment, which in turn means I build the plot to fit around that. This is the first time my story has sprung from a person rather than event, and is set in the future rather than the past. This time it was very much character-driven and I really enjoyed having the freedom to go in any direction I (or my characters) chose.

What is a significant way your book has changed since the first draft? 

The first draft focussed on Mary telling the story in the first person, with the idea that she was an unreliable narrator. However, I needed other perspectives and more characters to drive the plot and give a wider view. Mary starts from a very limited place, physically, mentally and emotionally, so her narration would have had a lot of gaps that I felt would become frustrating. The final version is told in the third person, but I am writing a few short side stories that will be shared through my newsletter and I am tempted to explore some first person reports of the events that unfold.

If your book were made into a movie, which actors/actresses do you imagine playing your characters? 

Anya Taylor-Joy would be wonderfully mesmerising while taking Mary on her journey, and Head of the Facility was the easiest choice for me, with Tilda Swinton as Marinda. Dafne Keen would be a suitably spiky Barb and I think Idris Elba would definitely be broody and do what needed to be done as Frank, with the more gentle Amir Wilson as his son, Max. Finally, Alex Lawther would be Vander and Timothee Chalamet (with an English accent) as Shaw.

Do you have any writing rituals?

My week has a pattern with visits to schools at the start of the week and writing at the end, as I’ve found that I’m more productive with solid chunks of time to work on a manuscript. On writing days, I hustle the rest of the family out of the house to work or school, and then brew a huge mug of tea and set up my computer. If it’s been a particularly chaotic morning (or week), I play one game of patience, a version called Gaps or Montana, but it has to be with real physical cards, and just one game to clear my head.

This game involves laying out all the cards in a grid and the act of shuffling and dealing the pack sort of clears my brain of lost bus passes and arguing with my teenage son over whether he will need a coat that day. I did wonder if I was just making excuses for doing this, but there are articles about games being relaxing and releasing endorphins, so I’m feeling less guilty about it now. Computer patience absolutely does not work – that only leads to prevarication and kills productivity!

Is there a particular place you like to write?

I write at the kitchen table. It is six feet long, so has lots of space to spread papers, books, mugs of tea and all the other debris that gathers as the day goes on. It is by a glass door that looks out at our garden – which is a small bricked yard full of lots of pots and planters. We have a growing number of regular bird visitors, including the magpie who tries to get into the bathroom and has succeeded in flying off with a few things left on the windowsill.

What writing advice would you give to people aspiring to be a children’s book writer?

The core advice is to read a broad range of current children’s books, but linked to that is to support your local library and build a relationship with them. It gives you access to books and people who love books, plus libraries are essential to supporting and nurturing our future readers.

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That has been fascinating. It has been brilliant being able to get a peek into the way the book developed and find out more about your vision whilst writing it. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed as part of your book tour on my blog.

You can find out more about Kate Cunningham and her books on her website: www.readingriddle.co.uk, on Twitter @reading_riddle, on Instagram @reading_riddle, on Facebook: www.facebook.com/readingriddle and on TikTok: @readingriddle.

Mary : Adrift in the Sea of Sorrow by Kate Cunningham is available to buy through all bookshops, large or small, and all the usual outlets online. Kate also has a free short story, linked to Mary, which is available through the newsletter on her website www.readingriddle.co.uk.

You can check out the rest of the blog tour here:

I would like to thank Anne Cater from Random Things Through My Letterbox for organising this blog tour and inviting me to take part.

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