Norfolk-born Helen Paris is the author of The Invisible Women’s Club, published this Thursday. Here, she explains how her latest book is about female friendships and relationships in older women, as well as the power of speaking up and finding your voice
I am co-artistic director of London-based theatre company, Curious, with a 25-year career writing and performing shows that have toured nationally and internationally. Curious make performances for theatres, festivals and site-specific locations such as the Sydney Opera House, the Taiwan Women’s Theatre Festival and the redwood forests of California. I was a theatre professor at Brunel University, London and at Stanford University, California. I recently started writing fiction and am loving the newfound relationship with the reader on the page.
Are you Norfolk born and raised? If so, whereabouts?
I was born in the upstairs bedroom of a house on St Faiths Street in Old Catton to parents who loved the Norfolk Broads!
Has your Norfolk background shaped you and your career in any way?
Over the years it has been my deep pleasure to tour several theatre performances to Norfolk as part of the Norfolk & Norwich festival. One piece, Out of Water, made with Suffolk based artist Caroline Wright and commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad, was specially created for Holkham beach. The site-specific performance took place at dawn each day on that beautiful stretch of beach with a cast of about 30 local singers and swimmers. Out of Water went on to tour to the Edinburgh festival and internationally but that Norfolk premier, the setting and the incredible cast have a place in my heart. Such a committed group of performers! And not one bit bothered by getting in bloody cold water at 6am! I love returning to Norfolk whenever I can and am a big fan of Deepdale Campsite!
Where has your career taken you in the world?
I have worked with scientists in India on the sense of smell and how it connects to memory and emotion, driven across the USA from Chicago to L.A. for a performance called I never go anywhere I can’t drive myself, and collaborated with gastroenterologists in London to explore gut feelings. I have had the incredible pleasure of touring performances internationally to many places including Brazil, Australia and Taiwan. I have lived in the UK (London, Hastings, Norfolk and Kent), USA (Phoenix, Arizona and San Francisco, California) and for shorter periods in Paris, Shanghai and Madison, Wisconsin.
When and why did you return to the UK?
I returned from the USA in 2018 for a variety of reasons that included job opportunities, family and the US president at the time.
How was your first novel, Lost Property, received?
Well, it ‘came out’ in lockdown so there was that! But I have so loved reader responses to it! Writing is in many ways such a lone act and then suddenly this story that you have held close and written and rewritten so many times is out in the world and in the hands of others…exciting and nerve wracking in equal parts! I love the close attention readers pay and how passionate bloggers and readers are about the books they love. It is a joy to be part of that world and that conversation. Lost Property is set in the Lost Property Department in Baker Street and is about loss in all its forms, from the everyday loss of a single glove to the devastating loss of a parent. Dementia is one of the storylines and reader responses to this have been incredibly moving. At the time I didn’t have direct experience of dealing with a parent’s dementia but researched the area deeply, including reading the work of the amazing Wendy Mitchell who was diagnosed with young onset dementia. It was crucial to me to ‘get it right’ and from the amazing reception to this story line by readers I feel I achieved this and am so grateful to readers for their feedback and sharing their experiences with me.
What is The Invisible Women’s Club about?
With The Invisible Women’s Club, I wanted to write a book that celebrated female friendship, community spirit, and that shows that it is never too late to fall in love, or to make a new friend. I also wanted to write about the loneliness that often comes with retirement and ageing, and specifically how society renders women invisible as they age.
The protagonists of The Invisible Women’s Club are 72-year-old Janet Pimm, who loves to garden, but longs for companionship, and Bev Bytheway, a Scottish midwife (inspired by my mum) who is struggling with the perimenopause and fighting for women’s health care.
They make an odd couple but join forces to save Janet’s allotment which is being taken over due to dodgy Hastings’ councillors and corporate greed.
The book celebrates intergenerational relationships, women’s friendships, late life lesbian romance, community activism, plants, and menopausal vigilantes fighting for visibility and green rights. It celebrates the relationships women have with gardening and plants and with each other.
Janet is in her 70s, but do you think that feeling invisible, as a woman, starts decades earlier?
A lot of women talk about starting to feel invisible in middle age, particularly around the forties and perimenopause, as if women’s visibility is somehow connected to their fertility!
What is the main message to come from the book, when it comes to female friendships and older women? Is there a Janet in all of us, waiting to get out?
Great question! Well, the main message is that the book celebrates brave, bold, tenacious women who fight for each other and for what they believe in. It celebrates finding joy and meaning later in life. It is about the power of women, their friendships, and their voices and what I call the revolutionary power of their laughter, how female humour is a powerful life changing force.
I don’t know if there is a Janet in all of us but I do think we should keep open to the possibilities of friendship, of late life love or for the right cause even a spot of menopausal vigilante activism!
And membership to the Invisible Women’s club is always open…
What is next for you?
I am currently writing a novel set in London’s National Gallery which is a great excuse to spend hours wandering those grand galleries, people and painting watching.
And hopefully returning to Norfolk soon!
The Invisible Women’s Club by Helen Paris is published by Doubleday on Thursday August 3, 2023.
Featured image of Helen Paris, by Leslie Hill