Over the course of one sweltering summer in the UK, Singaporean 17-year old Lily, fresh out of high school, is trapped in a confined whirlwind of familial drama with her abusive mother May at the center. Lily is doting and kind, bringing May her favorite drink, spoiled juice, to appease her and prevent another torment of rage that the family fears. When Lily starts having visions of her mother’s past, though, she begins to unravel and decipher May’s backstory and why she acts this way.
Julia, Lily’s sister, does anything to antagonize May, picking fights at the dinner table and provoking intense reactions, while Lewis, a helpful family friend, tries to get to the bottom of Lily’s visions. As the summer wears on and May grows more jealous and vengeful, Lily tries her best to stay out of her mother’s orbit, all the while figuring out what’s really behind her facade.
Our Culture sat down with Ella King to talk about her debut novel, her anti-trafficking work that inspired it, and the psychology behind generational trauma.
Congratulations on having your debut novel published! How do you feel with the immediate success it’s seen in the UK as well as the US?
Really, really good! It’s always a strange experience seeing your work out there and actually being read. Seeing people’s comments on it, I find it really really interesting, because some people ignore the racial aspect, but for others, it’s really important. I feel like it lands in different places with different people, and I think it’s interesting what people pick up on. It’s difficult to articulate it, to see it externalized.
The novel takes place over one claustrophobic summer, and I think the heat and confinement of time enhance the story. Usually summer is associated with freedom, but here it has a dampening effect on Lily.
Yeah, I think it contributes to this really strange liminal space which Lily wouldn’t usually have, this space right before she’s about to go to college where she has to focus on what her position is like within the family and how that’s likely to change. The catalyst of her change is this searing, hot summer — which we actually just had in the UK — but this melting pot of new family drama which propels all the characters into the most extreme versions of themselves. I think the weather, to that extent, reflects the extremities of the characters when they’re put into this strained family situation.
I liked that you used the phrase ‘liminal space’ — I thought that the premise is almost fairytale-like. Apart from the daughter having visions after giving her mother juice, she’s in these eccentric places, like the Royal Observatory Garden and a place called The Polar Explorer House. Was this intentional or just how the story took shape?
It’s so interesting that you picked up on that, because when I originally wrote a couple of these chapters, the reaction from early readers in the Faber Academy was that this was pure young adult magical realism, and I had to say, ‘No, it’s not, that wasn’t its intention.’ I had to pull back from some of those elements to make it really clear.
But those places you mentioned are actually real! I wrote a lot of it when I just had my first daughter, and I would be pushing the pram because she wouldn’t sleep, and everyday I would walk through my own surroundings and I’d see things like The Polar Explorer House, which is real! It’s beautiful and I’d walk past it all the time. I’d also go to Greenwich Park and there were all the different museums, including the Royal Observatory Garden. So they’re real, and actually all close to each other. I think I was more literal than people think I was. I wasn’t intending to be that clever about it!
I didn’t think it was too YA-oriented, but it did have this magical sheen over it that made it a bit outside of this world.
Yeah, that’s what I meant when I was saying before — I love when readers read into it. I just find that interpretation really interesting, because it isn’t what I thought when I was writing it. I love that when you write something, it takes shape beyond itself and it’s kind of fun to lose control, and for it to seep into other people’s thoughts.
Your other work as a lawyer and worker for domestic violence charities seemed to play a big role in this story, where we have this intense family story that’s oftentimes hard to hear about. Did your inspiration for the book follow the saying, “Write what you know?”
Yeah, it did. It really did. Lots of people ask me about the inspiration of the book, and I would probably say that the theme of intergenerational trauma is the key theme to the book. I was thinking about when I started really considering that theme, and it was quite a while back when I first started doing work for this and anti-human trafficking.
I was in Cambodia, in this small village supposed to be the epicenter of child sex trafficking. The charity had basically set up a school in the village and various establishments to try and end child sex trafficking. We were looking in a window of one of the schools they had set up, and one of the workers said, ‘50% of children are being trafficked.’ I was asking them why this was happening in this particular place, in this particular country, and the charity said this really strange line, which was that a mother had said, ‘If you love your daughter, sell her close, and if you don’t love your daughter, sell her far.’ They explained that this was a community and country that was under extreme post-traumatic stress. They had just gone through the Cambodian genocide, and they had witnessed these atrocities. These children who have witnessed these atrocities have become parents, and so they have normalized trauma. So selling their children was just not a big deal for them; they’ve seen so much.
When I came back to the UK and did some work with domestic violence survivors as well, I was seeing the same pattern. Even though it seemed extreme on the anti-trafficking side, it was really brought home on the domestic violence side as well. I really wanted to explore this slide from victim to perpetrator. I just don’t think that’s really understood or conveyed in media portrayals of abuse or domestic violence. I find the fact that we don’t talk about it enough interesting. Like, what are we doing in Western society that we think that this slide doesn’t happen? And we have this concept of what a ‘good victim’ is. In reality, this stuff happens all the time. I wanted to explore those things because I felt, particularly in fiction, there wasn’t this portrayal of abuse.
That’s so interesting — the book is obviously intense, but to hear it was based on a real-life sociological issue is something totally else. Let’s talk about May, the mother who embarasses her children in public, can turn on a person on the drop of a dime, and is prone to intense jealousy and rage. What inspired her? How did you write about a person so obviously flawed, but part of which is not their own doing?
I think because I’ve seen so many women that are like her. I was thinking recently about May when I was being interviewed by someone else — if you actually sat her down, and said to her, ‘What you’ve done is really really bad. Do you understand that?’ I don’t think she would at all. Because what had been done to her, she felt was just so much worse. She probably thinks she was a pretty good mother, because she hadn’t done those things. It’s about the normalization of trauma and violence, and how, to certain people, it can seem so normal that they don’t register they’re on this different scale of morality. May is obviously the antagonist, but she’s like the protagonist as well. The entire story is centered around her and discovering her trauma and how she confronts or doesn’t confront that in her own motherhood.
Several of the scenes literally had me with my jaw open, and I think it was smart to have the chapters stay fairly small in order to make each one a bit more palatable.
Oh, which ones?
Well, I just graduated from college, so the one scene where May insists on coming to Oxford with Lily, living in the same house, and then talking to people on the tour — my head was in my hands. If that happened to me, I’d be mortified. And, obviously, where she throws Lily out of the car. But were particular scenes ever too intense for you to write?
I don’t think the scenes themselves were that hard, because in the stuff that I heard, this kind of stuff happens all the time. What I found harder, actually, was the psychology behind it and the research I did with that. I had to take a lot of breathers, then, because actually seeing statistically how often this kind of thing happens and the effect that trauma has on the brain — it’s really interesting, but devastating. I don’t think we often connect psychology with the impact on the body and the physical impact it can have on someone. I was aware anecdotally of all these scenes, and how abuse can play out, but understanding how it had an impact on the brain was really hard.
One of the reasons why I introduced the character of Lewis is that I had read one of the main predictors of children coming out and breaking free of generational trauma is having a non-exploitative adult walking beside them and discussing what’s happening with them. I suddenly realized how important people like him are in breaking these cycles. It could be teachers, social workers, but having this adult that journeys with them is so important but also rare. That was one of the things that made me step back and go, ‘Wow. There’s so much that needs to be done.’
At first, we see May’s rage as this uncontrollable phenomenon, but it turns out to be somewhat explained due to how she grew up and the traumatic experience she had within her own household. Do you think she’s capable of change? Could Lily’s actions wake her up, so to speak?
Honestly, I think someone like May is unlikely to change. I don’t know. I sometimes think, ‘Is there too much damage?’ With someone like May, who was brought up in a time where therapists and counselors aren’t common, not familiar with inward introspection — I just think it’s very hard for people in that particular generation to feel the need or motivation to change. One of the questions I got asked in a different interview is ‘What happens to all these characters after the book ends?’ And I think May will just carry on. She’ll feel devastated that Lily isn’t there, because she’s a massive crutch for her, but she’ll probably repress everything that’s happened, just like she repressed her own childhood. It’s really weird talking about a character that doesn’t exist.
For sure. I think the familial dynamics were so intense, and it was heightened by this racial element that no three of the siblings are alike — Lily is more white, from her father, Julia takes after her mother and appears more Singaporean, and the brother is a mix of the two. May essentially covers up who Lily is with makeup in order to feel more connected to her, painting her to appear more Singaporean. How does this all interplay with Lily’s sense of identity?
That’s such an interesting observation — I think you’re right in how you’ve identified how the siblings match up to the parents. Lily is more like her dad, she is like a blank page that May can just project on. May likes that, obviously, and she uses that, but because she has such a difficult relationship with Charlie, the father, she also resents that. And that results in her trying to redefine who Lily is with her makeup, and saying things like ‘You’re the same as me.’ But the character closest to May is Julia, but May can’t stand her because they’re too alike and volatile. It’s interesting how the dynamics and the conflicts between the parents overspill into the children and how May reacts to the children. She hates Julia, and loves Lily, but hates that she loves her, so she paints her to be something new.
And finally, what’s next? Are you looking to explore similar themes in your writing or something totally different?
I think I’ll always be a bit of a trauma writer. I think it’s just because it’s so important and something I’m familiar with. My next novel is kind of a feminist Lolita. In the original, Humbert Humbert says that Lolita dies when she’s 17 in a car crash, but I always thought that to be Humbert trying to preserve her in this teenage form just before she turns into an adult. In my version, that’s all just fantasy in his head, and he comes out of jail and she’s in her 30s. She has children, and she meets him for reasons he doesn’t understand, for a journey of confrontation and revenge.
Bad Fruit is available now.