Sunday 26 February 2023

November 2022 - Jo Browning Wroe, author of A Terrible Kindness

Jo Browning Wroe, author of A Terrible Kindness, in conversation with Helen Snelling for the Cambridge Library Group, November 30th 2022, at Lucy Cavendish College.

When I first heard about this book, my initial response was to say it didn’t sound like my sort of book, a story about a young embalmer and the Aberfan disaster in 1966 which killed 144 people, mostly children. But I thought I should try and read it before the meeting, and my expectations were totally overturned. I literally couldn’t put it down, and read it in one sitting, it is the best book by a debut novelist I’ve ever read, and I loved her spare prose style. So the opportunity to hear the author speak about how she wrote it was very welcome. The book covers a 17 year period, beginning in 1966, then going back to William’s childhood as a chorister in a Cambridge chapel choir, and then moving on to the early 1970s to show how his experience at Aberfan had left him with PTSD, and how returning to Cambridge and facing up to issues from the past helped heal him.

Jo Browning Wroe (author of A Terrible Kindness, left) with Helen Snelling (Membership Secretary, right)

Jo’s unusual childhood, growing up in a crematorium, was the springboard for the story, as she was looking up some conference papers at the UL that her father had given, when she found references to volunteers from the undertaking profession coming from all over the country to help after the disaster. Although only part of the book actually takes place in Aberfan, obviously the storyline would have to be handled very sensitively as there are many still alive who were affected by it. She interviewed some of the embalmers who volunteered at the time, and also showed what she wrote to survivors and Aberfan natives to gauge their reaction.

She began writing the book in the UL tea room, until lockdown forced her to work at home, and later in cafes. Asked about her working methods, she said she generally tried to write about 1,000 words a day, with half her time editing the previous day’s writing. She wrote the book in sections, taking time in between to mull over them before starting the next. Editing was a lengthy process, and she and her agent spent six months working on it before sending it out to publishers. It was immediately accepted by Faber, who she couldn’t praise highly enough for how they have promoted the book, and it has been one of their best-selling books this year. She was given training in all the marketing and publicity events which are now part of an author’s life, although her teaching career was a help for that. She attended 9 literary festivals in 2022, involving lots of traveling, as well as appearing on Front Row, and doing social media. She also was involved in cover design, had a say in the choice of reader for the audio version, and will have editorial control and a degree of input over casting in the forthcoming tv adaptation. The book has already been translated into a number of languages, and she had some amusing anecdotes of issues the translators struggled with. Asked about her next book, she only revealed that it is set in a 6 week period in 1973, so won’t need a timeline to keep track of things with the flashback format of A Terrible Kindness.

Post contributed by Sarah Preston, Treasurer, Cambridge Library Group