Introducing Ali Mercer & her new book, Lost Daughter
I meet author Ali Mercer in soft leather chairs between age-old wooden roof beams in The Barns Café on Northcourt Road – the café is a typical example of Abingdon’s many secret spaces that abound with history and character. It’s three hundred years old and there’s another yet older barn tucked behind it, all part of a story that began with the monks of Abingdon Abbey.
But it’s a different story that I have come to hear about as Ali Mercer has a new book out this May, Lost Daughter, and although it is set in a fictional town of Kettlebridge, for those who know Abingdon, the parallels are clear.
‘I’ve lived in Abingdon for fifteen years,’ Ali tells me. ‘We moved from London where I was a journalist when our first child was tiny, and it seemed the perfect place to bring up a family. We arrived from Oxford on the bus – neither of us could drive at the time – with a baby in arms and there was gentle snow drifting down from the sky. There were Morris dancers in the Market Place and it seemed beautiful, magical even and certainly a little bit different. We were totally charmed. I’ve loved it ever since.’
‘I’d always wanted to be a writer from the moment I figured out that being a writer was a thing that some people did for a living. I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and I desperately wanted to go to Malory Towers, where she set a series of school-based stories. Then when I was towards the end of primary school I picked up a copy of Jane Eyre at my grandmother’s house and was captivated. I started filling exercise books with mock Victorian sagas before moving onto romances and other genres! I think I took it all very seriously at that stage.’
‘It wasn’t until we settled here in Abingdon though that I approached writing in a more focused way, writing every day around a part-time position in publishing. My first book, Stop the Clock, was published in 2012: it was very much about motherhood and three friends who met up ten years after leaving university and the direction their lives have taken them. I then wrote After I Left You which was set in Oxford where revisiting the place and boyfriend of her past, the heroine slowly discloses a secret trauma she suffered.
Over the last few years I have quite a few ideas bubbling below the surface and I signed a two-book deal with a dynamic publisher Bookouture so I have two new novels out this year! Because Bookouture have a strong digital approach for the global market, their pace is much faster than traditional publishers and I’m still working frantically on the second!
‘The first is Lost Daughter [publishing May 2019] and much of the story is set in the fictional town of Kettlebridge, which is loosely based on Abingdon although parts of it are pure invention or inspired by other places. You’ll recognise the lock and the river; there’s a park in the book just like Albert Park, and one of the key characters lives in a flat in a street not unlike East St Helen’s Street.’
Lost Daughter is an emotional family drama, about a woman, Rachel, whose life has unravelled since her husband has custody of their young daughter Becca after a messy break-up. While Rachel struggles to rebuild her relationship with Becca in the limited time they’re allowed to spend together, she accidentally uncovers some dark truths around what really happened years before that could change everything.
‘My parents split up when I was small and I lived with my mum, seeing my dad only sporadically. It made me wonder how it would be to be a parent who doesn’t see their child on a day-to-day basis, and how hard that could be. And if a marriage break up is difficult, as it has been for the heroine of Lost Daughter, then the choices you made during the marriage such as who is the primary carer of children and who perhaps works away might have consequences you’d never have envisaged. I’m incredibly lucky to be part of a very close-knit family and I have a wonderful husband who is very supportive and totally involved with every aspect of our children but I’m fascinated by the different paths people can take and what happens if they go awry. How then do people restore an equilibrium as life goes on? Families and individuals are amazingly flexible and resilient and I’m interested in the recovery process and the rebuilding that takes place.’
‘At its heart, the book is really about women, their strength and their resilience, their rivalries and the support they provide for one another, friendships that aren’t always straightforward and the mother-daughter relationship. I grew up in an all-female household, with my mum and one sister, and went to an all-girls school and I never questioned the importance of the bonds between women. The book reflects that: there are lots of different dynamics between women across the generations as well as the relationship between Rachel and Becca.’
‘I hope people will be touched by the story and respond to the characters. You can never predict how people will react as each reader brings their own life experiences to the book. As an author you have to write the text and them let it go and watch it make its own way in the world, like a child!’
Ali works wherever she can depending on the time of day and where there’s calm in the house. ‘I often get up very early before the rest of the house stirs and I love the peace of the dawn when the rest of the family are asleep,’ she smiles. ‘That said, I can write anywhere. I always carry a notebook to jot down ideas and my first drafts are often written in long-hand wherever I am. I am very good at cutting out background noise – when you have children living in a slightly chaotic state is the norm and it’s exactly that reality, most people’s everyday, that I try to capture in my books.’
Lost Daughter publishes in May. You can download the e-book or pick up a printed copy at either of the town’s good independent book stores.
First published in Abingdon Town magazine April 2019