For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum issue Sept 2021 #236 I interviewed Sarah Aspinall about her memoir Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother, published by Fourth Estate and inspired by her glamourous, yet eccentric mother, Audrey Miller, later known as Audrey Aspinall.
Sarah knew she had to find a way of writing this book as every time she told the story of her childhood adventures people would gasp and say, ‘you have to write that, it’s such an incredible story.’ The word incredible always worried her a little, as she’d sometimes wonder if it all really happen as she remembered it.
“My memories were vividly of a wild harum-scarum life, travelling the world with my glamorous but eccentric mother, Audrey. We wound up in various strange exotic destinations around the world; sometimes we were in luxury hotels and fantastic mansions, other times we lived in cabins of cruise ships, or a cheap scruffy motel in the Killdevil Hills of North Carolina. We often stayed with people we’d just met. Many of these people were men, as the purpose of these trips seemed to be for my mother ‘to find true love.’”Sarah Aspinall
Sarah revealed when she started writing she had no contacts as she knew most of the people as ‘Auntie Sadie’ or ‘Uncle Les.’ She had no idea how to start her research and all she had to go on was a big chocolate box full of photographs, some had dates and names scribbled on the back. There was also a battered address book held together with rubber bands, in which nothing was in order in its alphabetical pages. It was stuffed with scraps of paper with barely legible names and numbers. Yet, Sarah had spent most her childhood listening to her mother regale people with her amazing stories. These people would have heard them all and may be able to fill in the blanks.
“I think even a simple memoir is a way of passing on something precious as everyone has a story to tell.”Sarah Aspinall
Audrey’s own childhood in Liverpool was easy to write about, as Sarah told me she had already vividly conjured the sights, sounds and smells of the coal-yard belonging to her Uncle Charlie where she and her mother lived after being deserted by her father. Memoirs such as Helen Forrester’s story of her desperately poor childhood in Depression-ridden Liverpool of the 1930 were brilliant for details of daily life.
On Facebook there are pages such as Liverpool Hidden History, which has 42,000 members. Her queries about the lives of a bookie’s runner got many helpful responses from people whose own parents told them stories of illegal back street gambling. She used some of these personal for moments such as Audrey’s description of running back from the pubs with all the bets and hiding under the big tarpaulin in the yard when someone had tipped off the police. Similarly with accounts of the evacuees getting on trains Sarah borrowed from real memories of people:
‘…as the train crowded with children pulled out of Lime Street station, some of the little ones were screaming for their mothers. I saw one mother being sick on the platform, but mine managed to stand tall.’Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother
Sarah explained she was aware of Audrey being very much the family star from the photos of her at the time in dance clothes, or leading the Orange Day parades or as the May Queen. She found accounts of these big celebrations of a working-class Liverpool childhood on social media. Watching archive from Pathe news on YouTube was useful gave a sense of the crowds watching a horse parade and the nodding heads of the horses. Sarah said there are hundreds of wonderful Pathe news clips online which really transport you to the past and spark the imagination.
For her mother’s eventful voyage to America just after the war when she was twenty, Sarah bought James Steele’s book Queen Mary, which is rich in images that show the fabulous décor of the ballrooms and cocktail lounges and gives you a sense of daily life for the different class of passengers. She also signed up to ancestry.co.uk to look for clues to her parents’ family histories and was thrilled to find it has passenger lists for sea voyages.
“Discovering her name handwritten on the list was magical. Revealing she had written in one column she was a ‘journalist’ I’d known she had a social diary in the local paper, Talk of Many Things by Audrey Miller but was disappointed to find no records for those years.”Sarah Aspinall
Sarah told me that travelling back to places in the book was the most powerful way of reaching back to the past. Scents and smells are amazing at unlocking memories. Walking the streets of New York helped her to write about the city Audrey discovered in 1946. Although the air would have been a little different then, many things would not have changed. Sarah knew she would be dreaming of something more thrilling than her godmother’s small flat in the suburb of Jackson Heights. Using this memory, she wrote:
‘Of course, in my fantasies I was in the New York of the Movies.. off sipping Martini at the Copacabana Bar with Cary Grant, not sitting each night in Mike and Sadie’s little apartment with our TV dinners on a tray.’Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother
A lightning bolt of memory came when her childhood friends reminded her of the stuffed snake toy she’d named Sabet Sabescue. Sarah divulged she suddenly remembered this was the name of the man who had taken them on the felucca boat down the Nile. HIs smile remained like the Cheshire Cat, long after the rest of him had vanished, hovering at the edge of my memory, along with the thrill of driving too fast in his open car with the wind in my hair. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about researching a memoir – the finding of these tiny keys that unlock a secret storehouse of forgotten memories.
For writing any book, and particularly a memoir Sarah’s advice is to get a good editor, or friendly reader to find cuts to make in your writing. Every line of a memoir can feel precious to you, because it is so intimately your story. She rarely read drafts of people’s books which wouldn’t benefit enormously by a tough edit. Writers must invite it, or even insist on it, as friends hate to tell the awful truth. You need to insist ‘be brutal, find me whole sections to lose, not just a few lines here and there’.
Trims and tightening can help a lot, but the painful truth is often whole chunks of story just need to go even though they may have taken a lot of time and be beautifully written. Sarah elaborated that she cut three last chapters out completely, although they represented months of work because two trusted friends both said the same thing ‘it is better without them; the story really ends earlier.’ They were right. This is when she found a publisher.
Her research tip is to interrogate friends and family about tiny details of what they remember, as the name of an old toy can bring so much flooding back. Use the sense of smell to unlock the past. Sarah explained that if she smells Youth Dew her mother’s perfume whole scenes come back to her. If you can revisit places close your eyes and breath in, as it may allow you to time travel.
Sarah is happy for anyone wanting writing tips or advice to contact her via Facebook or Instagram. She doesn’t use twitter much.
You can find Sarah Aspinall on Facebook @sarah.aspinall.355 and Instagram @sarahjaspinall
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