An interview with Ajay Close
Ajay Close Daughter of Lady Macbeth Q & A
What’s the novel about?
The Daughter of Lady Macbeth follows Freya, her husband Frankie and her mother Lilias over a turbulent few months. Frankie’s hold on his job as a TV sports presenter is under threat from an ambitious younger colleague. He and Freya have one last chance to conceive the child they long for. Lilias is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. And, after forty years of being kept in the dark about her father’s identity, Freya makes an astonishing discovery – or so she thinks.
Over the course of the novel the relationships between husband and wife and mother and daughter, and Freya’s fantasy relationship with her unknown father, go through radical changes – which is all I’m prepared to reveal of the plot at this stage!
In essence, The Daughter of Lady Macbeth is about love, families, the surprising power of our instinctual drives, and the mysteries that persist in the people we think we know inside out.
Tell us a bit about the characters.
At first glance, Lilias and her mother are chalk and cheese. Lilias is an actress to her fingertips: flamboyant, flirty, casual with the facts, always putting on some sort of act. This infuriates her daughter. Freya is a stickler for the truth, and heads a civil service department to make government more transparent. She’s quite a tough cookie; she had to be, to survive her childhood. Even now, she can’t forgive Lilias for choosing acting over motherhood, leaving her in the care of an “uncle” during term time. Lilias is unrepentant about this, but there is something she feels guilty about: a secret she has spent forty years hiding from Freya.
They’re not obviously close like some mothers and daughters. Each wishes they got on better, but almost every time they meet they end up rubbing each other the wrong way. Each knows just where the other’s bruises are, and can’t seem to help pressing them at every opportunity.
Frankie’s a thoroughly nice guy, a bit of a workaholic, never happier than when he’s watching football. But there’s more going on behind that charming exterior than even Freya sees. They met at school. Neither can remember a time when he wasn’t in love with her. She makes the mistake of assuming that will never change.
The other two main characters are Mr Smith, a man in his sixties who applies for a job in Freya’s department, and Kit, a farm manager in his early twenties, who’s as desperate for a baby as she is.
What gave you the idea?
I don’t have children, but I’ve watched my friends and relatives start families and seen the enormous changes that followed. Not just changes in lifestyle, but a fundamental shift in their understanding of themselves and how they fit into the world.
I wanted to write about two turning points for all of us: the moment when we start thinking seriously about bringing a new life into the world (whether we go ahead and do it, or not), and the moment when we realise our parents won’t live forever. Both bring major mental readjustments. Freya has always defined herself as a feminist career woman, completely in control. This hard-wired drive to be a mother comes as a shock to her. She has to acknowledge that she’s an animal, a part of the natural world.
At the same time, there are these extraordinary technological advances in assisted conception offering hope to people like Freya and Frankie, couples who would have had to reconcile themselves to childlessness not so long ago. I’m interested in what happens when the possibility of making life in a laboratory clashes with the newly-awakened sense of being at one with nature.
I also wanted to explore another natural instinct, playfulness, and how fundamental it is. (Even mice will laugh when they’re tickled.) Frankie’s job is all about playing – what else is sport? The same is true of Lilias’s career. After her difficult childhood, playfulness doesn’t come naturally to Freya. In time she learns to lighten up, but at the cost of doing something with far-reaching consequences.
Is the story based on personal experience?
Mostly not. I did have a challenging relationship with my (full-time, stay-at-home) mother for a long while, but she was nothing like Lilias, who is very driven about her career and much more gung-ho about grasping the chances life throws her way. And I’m a novelist: I tell lies for a living. Freya would never do that.
I have friends – and friends of friends – who went through IVF. Fortunately, the clinics they used were more reliable than the one in the novel. My partner and I looked at the possibility of assisted conception, but decided against it. I suppose you could see The Daughter of Lady Macbeth as a “what if?” story, in which I explore the path not taken.