So Virginia, what inspired you to become a writer?
I was read to from a young age and grew up in a family that was forever telling stories – creating my own tales and putting them on paper was the natural next step and when I heard that being a writer was a proper job, well, my fate was sealed.
Where did you get the idea for What Milo Saw?
I’d been wanting to write about the way in which we care (or fail to care) for older people in the UK for a long time but it was only when I created Milo that I knew I had a character who could carry that story with sensitivity, love and humour.
Describe your writing style in 10 words or less?
Funny. Quirky. Warm. Moving. Unexpected. Contemporary.
Do you have any strange writing habits?
I have a few objects on my desk that inspire me: a blank, white photo frame that I look to when I need an idea; a jar of stones which reminds me to prioritise (see my blog post on this); a small candle that I light before I start writing; lots of pictures, for example of the animals in my stories (pigs, dogs, foxes, goats…). I even have a croched Hamlet that an amazing crochet artist made for me! I love to surround myself with things from the world of my novels.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you plot out the whole book before you start or just start writing and see where it leads you?
I know what my opening scene is, that’s very important. I have some idea of the closing scene and then I plan as I go: I do a colourful mindmap for each scene that I’m about to write and more mindmaps of characters, locations etc. So, a bit of both.
What led you to focus on retinitis pigmentosa in What Milo Saw – and how did you research the impact of this condition?
When I created Milo, I knew that, simply by virtue of his character, he would have a very particular view on the world. At the same time, I wanted to explore the issue of how children with disabilities of any kind (physical, emotional, social) have the most amazing capacity to compensate and sometimes achieve incredible things. I’m very short-sighted so I’ve always given a lot of thought to sight and how hard it must be for people who have visual impairments. When I talked to my optician about this she told me about a little boy she cared for who has RP. From that moment, I did all the research I could: I read books, I joined forums, I got in touch with charities like Blind Children UK, the RNIB and RP Fighting Blindness. I was also moved by the news story of six-year-old Molly Bent who created a bucket list of the things she wanted to see before she went blind.
How easy was it to write from the point of view of a child? And has Milo turned out to be even more adorable than you originally planned?
Milo’s voice came very naturally. Writers often say that the child part of them is still very much alive and I think that’s true of me. Being a teacher has also helped as I get to see the world through the eyes of young people. Capturing his voice and so the voice of a child came through the process of writing: the more I wrote in Milo’s voice, the closer I felt to him. Within a few chapters, it felt like he’d jumped off the page and started walking around in the real world. It has given me so much joy to see how readers have fallen in love with Milo in the same way that I have.
Who are your favourite authors?
So, so many (and the list is growing all the time). Here are a few: Anne Tyler, Carol Shield, Jon Mcgregor, Barbara Kingsolver, Jodi Picoult, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Safron-Foer, Richard Ford, Sue Townsend, Michael Ondaatje, Roald Dahl, Nick Hornby.
How has your life changed since becoming a published author?
It has changed hugely. It feels as though I have been given permission to do what matters most to me in the world. There’s no greater gift than that.
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
‘Dancing in the Rain’. I love the rain and I love the idea of being positive and energetic no matter what the weather (literally and metaphorically). Oh, and my husband makes fun of my dancing – apparently I have no rhythm, so the title is ironic too.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write every day.
Write what you love to read.
Never give up.
And lastly, why should people read What Milo Saw?
Milo is a book that touches our lives on so many levels: there is something for every kind of reader. It explores the complex nature of human relationships from the love of a little boy and his Gran to the struggles of a single mum abandoned by her husband; it tackles some of the biggest social issues of our age: immigration, the crisis in nursing homes, children living with disabilities; it is quirky and funny but also very sad at times. Above all, it tells a gripping story of a remarkable little boy who helps us see the world a little differently.
Here's an extract from What Milo Saw, a gorgeous heartwarming book:
Milo sat at the computer on the landing listening to the shush-shushing of the firemen’s hose on the drive. The firemen had only just let them back into the house.
‘I want a list of nursing homes,’ said Mum.
‘Can’t Gran stay till Christmas?’
Gran was Dad’s gran and Milo’s great-gran but everyone just called her Gran.
Milo turned his head to look at the fairy lights he’d wound round the banisters leading up to Gran’s
room. He’d had the idea when he saw her struggling to find the light switch.
Mum guided Milo’s head back to look at her and said ‘No.’
‘But . . . ’
‘Don’t insist,’ said Mum and then pinched shut her mouth.
Don’t insist was Mum’s favourite phrase of all time.
‘But Mum – the fire was my fault, I should have gone down to check.’
And it was true. Every morning when Gran padded down the stairs from her room under the roof all the way to the kitchen and made her cup of sweet, milky tea, it was Milo's job to make sure she was okay. He'd lie in bed and listen for clues:
1. The clink of Gran’s tartan mug as she pulled it off the mug tree.
2. The suck and pop of the jar with the tea bags.
3. The rattle of the cutlery drawer as she took out her favourite teaspoon, the one made of real silver
with a kink in its handle.
4. The kettle filling up (though usually Milo tried to remember to fill it up the night before because
Gran’s wrists were weak and she struggled to hold the weight of so much water).
5. The click of the switch on the kettle.
6. A pause.
7. And then the water heating, steam pushing at the lid, bubbles rolling over each other like a hot sea, and then another click when it was done.
8. Sometimes, after step 3, Gran forgot they had a kettle and she’d open the saucepan drawer and fill a pan up and light the stove. That was the cue for Milo to swing his legs out of bed and come downstairs.
They had a gas hob and Gran wasn’t allowed to use it.
Milo didn’t know why he missed the sound of the saucepan drawer that day. He must have been
sleepy or maybe Gran was extra quiet, but by the time he felt the flutter in his chest which told him
that Gran needed him, and by the time Hamlet was squealing his head off in the garage because he’d
swallowed too much smoke, it was too late, the kitchen was on fire.
‘It’s not your responsibility to check on your gran,’ said Mum.
She leant in and kissed Milo’s hair. She was always doing that: telling him off and then kissing him.
She smelt of burnt things and sticky perfume and sleep.
‘When all this is over, I’ll let Hamlet stay in the house,’ she said.
Milo leant under the desk and gave Hamlet a rub between his ears. The only reason he was allowed up here now was because the fire had scared him. Milo hated the fact that Hamlet had to live in the garage all by himself: the garage was cold and damp and didn’t have any windows. No one should live like that. But if Milo had to choose between Hamlet coming out of the garage or Gran getting to stay with them, he’d have to pick Gran. Hamlet would understand.
Mum looked over Milo’s shoulder at the computer screen.
‘We don’t want anywhere fancy, Milo, Gran wouldn’t like that.’
So Milo tried typing not fancy nursing homes into Google but Google didn’t get it and wrote back: did you mean fancy nursing homes?
Once Milo had stationed Gran safely on the drive and once he’d yanked open the main door to the
garage and got Hamlet out of his cage and given him to Gran to look after, he’d come back inside and screamed: Fire! Fire! Mum! There’s a fire!
Mum had come tearing down the stairs and out of the house, her non-make-up face all pale and puffy. When she saw Gran she didn’t ask how she was and she didn’t say she was relieved that Hamlet was safely out of the garage and she didn’t tell Milo well done for having saved everyone. She just yelled the same words over and over:
This is the last straw. This is the last bloody straw.
Milo and Gran both knew what the last bloody straw meant: it meant that Gran was going to a nursing home.
Mum jabbed a chipped pink nail at the computer screen.
‘Those rooms are far too big,’ she said. ‘Gran will feel lost.’
So Milo did a search for nursing homes with small rooms. But then he thought about all the stuff
Gran had upstairs, like Great-Gramps’s bagpipes and his uniform and the boxes of letters he’d written her and her map of Inverary and the picture of her fishing boat and her small radio and how she’d want to take it all with her.
‘It’s not coming up with anything.’ If Milo made Mum feel it was a hassle, maybe she’d back down.
‘Oh, for goodness sake, Milo.’ Mum looked up the stairs to Gran’s room and scratched a red bit on
her throat. Then she leant in and whispered, ‘Just find somewhere cheap.’
Mum wrote the word CHEAP on the back of an envelope and placed it right in front of Milo so it
wasn’t lost in the fuzzy bit of his vision. He ran his fingers over the word; she’d pressed so hard on
the pencil that the letters felt bumpy.
‘I’ve got to make the firemen some tea.’
Still in her nightie (the frilly one that looked like the kitchen curtains, or how they looked before they
caught fire and turned into black moths on the linoleum floor), Mum rushed back downstairs. Milo
heard the cupboard door open and the rustle of the Hobnobs packet. The plastic kettle had melted, so Milo didn't know how Mum was going to boil water for the tea.
Milo wasn’t going to let Mum stick Gran in a nursing home. He’d pretend to go along with it and
then Mum would calm down and realise that Gran belonged right here in the small room Dad had
converted for her under the roof, and that Milo was the best person to look after her. Then they’d have a proper Christmas, the four of them: Milo, Gran, Hamlet and Mum.
Milo scanned down the list of homes on the screen. They all had garden centre names like Acorn Cottage and Birdgrove and Beechcroft Hill and Bird Poo View. He made up the last one.
Milo typed: not cheap nursing homes into Google and waited for a new page to load.
‘Found anything yet?’ Mum called up the stairs.
The burnt smell had crept into the carpet and curtains and walls and was making the back of Milo’s throat tickle.
He coughed and called back: ‘Nearly!’
‘Well, when you have, give me the phone numbers and I’ll organise some visits.’
Milo didn’t answer.
Above him, the floorboards creaked and then water juddered through the pipes. He hoped Gran would remember to turn off the tap. As soon as he’d finished making this stupid list, he’d go up and tell Gran that there was no way he was going to let Mum kick her out. He’d work out a plan that guaranteed she could stay, and not just for Christmas.
About Virginia MacgregorFind Virgina Macgregor on Facebook here and find Virginia on Twitter - @virginiawrites
Virginia Macgregor had a nomadic early childhood, moving between Germany, America, Corsica and Oxford, where she finally settled at the age of four. It was here that she wrote her first words and fell in love with the English language. After graduating with First Class honours from Oxford, she did a PGCE and went on to teach English and to work as a housemistress. Virginia now writes full time and lives in Berkshire with her husband and baby daughter.
What Milo Saw
By Virginia Macgregor
Published by Little Brown (13 August 2015)
Nine-year-old Milo Moon has retinitis pigmentosa: his eyes are slowly failing and he will eventually go blind. But for now he sees the world through the pin hole and notices things other people don't. When Milo's beloved gran succumbs to dementia and moves into a nursing home, Milo soon realises there's something very wrong at the home. The grown-ups won't listen to him so with just Tripi, the nursing home's cook, and Hamlet, his pet pig, to help, Milo sets out on a mission to expose the nursing home and the sinister Nurse Thornhill.
Click here to read my review.
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