Dorothy Koomson interview: On 'The Ice Cream Girls' and being one of Britain's biggest black authors

Danuta Kean meets Dorothy Koomson, our biggest selling black author of adult fiction

Danuta Kean
Sunday 10 November 2013 01:00
Prophet of loss: ‘When we read novels about people who are bereaved, we see the immediate aftermath and then are told that they go on to a better life,’ says Koomson. ‘But it’s not that simple.’
Prophet of loss: ‘When we read novels about people who are bereaved, we see the immediate aftermath and then are told that they go on to a better life,’ says Koomson. ‘But it’s not that simple.’

Dorothy Koomson should have met Iain Banks. The late author would have saved her a lot of pain. Because though the bestselling writer and I have met to discuss The Flavours of Love, her psychodrama about the widow of a murdered man, she is feeling bruised by the ITV adaptation of her 2010 novel The Ice Cream Girls, which pulled in almost five million viewers earlier this year.

“I have to be diplomatic,” she says more to herself than me. A tremor in her voice betrays her anger. “When I wrote The Ice Cream Girls I wanted to tell the story of two ordinary girls and how anyone can become embroiled in an abusive relationship.” She explains through gritted teeth. “I wanted people to understand the nature of abuse and that it wasn’t all about violence, a lot involves emotional manipulation.”

It’s a cleverly crafted novel with no obvious villain, unless you count Marcus, the victim. Not so the adaptation. Instead reflecting how abusers subtly groom victims, the story was flattened into bog-standard Friday night fodder with characters straight out of central casting.

But Koomson’s not having an artistic hissy fit. Her anger reflects a sense that not only were her characters betrayed, so were her readers. “I had had so many emails from readers around the world who said The Ice Cream Girls had changed their lives by making them admit that they were in abusive relationships.” One, a woman in her 60s, wrote that, though it was “too late” for her, the book had made her realise that what she had suffered was abuse and not of her deserving.

As the London-born ex-journalist speaks, her voice cracks as a softer emotion displaces the anger. “I always get really emotional talking about this,” she adds and shuffles her glass as if to tidy away the emotion. Koomson had hoped that by showing how abuse can be subtle, the TV series would empower victims to escape. “TV is such a powerful medium,” she says. She folds her cardigan around herself to protect against a non-existent chill. “I hear people say, ‘Other people have worse experiences than me’. Then they tell me what they are going through and I think, ‘Wow, that is not right’.” The changes to the storyline destroyed a potential lifeline, Koomson believes.

Stereotypes bother Koomson for other reasons. Britain’s biggest selling black author of adult fiction had to overcome a few when she first tried to get published. Eleven years on, it is hard to credit the disdain she met from so-called liberal publishing, which had problems with her writing about middle-class black people. “When I was trying to get published it was quite funny,” she explains, though her face betrays the thinness of the joke. “I was getting rejection letters from people saying, ‘It’s about a black woman, but it’s not about the Black Experience.’ Whatever that is. I certainly don’t know.”

Since then she has become inured at the racism revealed in crass comments. More than once she has seen shock register on a reader’s face on meeting her. They won’t say “I didn’t know you were black”, but it’s clear the thought is there. In 2006 when promoting her breakthrough novel, My Best Friend’s Girl, she did a reading. “One of the women in the audience harangued me because she got quite a way into the book before she realised the main character was black. She said she had to go back to the beginning and read it again. Basically, she implied I was trying to trick her.”

Koomson does not want to be the poster girl for black writers – she thinks it’s time we got over it. She adds with heavy sarcasm: “Black people are just people like everyone else.”

What she does want, however, is to empower readers. All nine of her novels have featured the kind of gritty theme usually found on the problem pages of women’s magazines. Not surprising really, as that is her background. To abuse can be added themes of alcoholism (Marshmallows for Breakfast), mental illness (Goodnight, Beautiful) and, in her latest, bereavement.

In The Flavours of Love the murder of Saffron Macleroy’s husband Joel is a McGuffin that powers the plot. Though Koomson constructs a workmanlike whodunit, it is really a novel about grief. The dislocation of loss suffered by the protagonist Saffron as she struggles to preserve normality for her two children reminds one that, when a body is discovered, there is more than one victim.

“When we read novels about people who are bereaved, we see the immediate aftermath and then are told that they go on to a better life.” As she speaks, she moves her hands as if placing each component of her plot. “But it’s not that simple.” Saffron’s grief is prolonged by a secret she feels compelled to keep. It is only when the truth is revealed that she is able to dwell on Joel’s life rather than the manner of his death.

Koomson’s research into the treatment of victims’ families threw up some shocking facts, which contradict the mythology created by TV police procedurals. For one, the grieving relatives are not allowed to touch the body for fear of contaminating the “crime scene”. When breadwinners are killed, their families can be left unable to pay for food and housing, because insurance companies will not pay out until a death certificate has been received, and that cannot be issued until the police release the body.

These nuggets of reality were drawn from interviews sourced through Victim Support. “I love to hear people’s stories,” Koomson admits. It is easy to see why people confess to her: she is warm, witty, and one of the most down-to-earth best-selling writers I have met. “Mobile phones are just the best invention for writers.” She adds laughing. The sound is loud, rich and slightly guilty. As if to cover her tracks, she adds with a knowing stare: “It helps with the rhythms of speech.”

I start to imagine us spilling secrets over a glass of wine, but they would be my secrets not hers – when asked about her family background she is reticent. Though Koomson is happy to listen, she is less happy to tell. “I am the one in the public eye, I don’t feel I should give too much away about them.” All she will say is that her mother was a nurse, her father a postman, and she is married, though her husband remains a mysterious character off whom she bounces plot ideas at ungodly hours.

What next I ask, and she is equally reticent. “I am taking a year off.” Any more television adaptations in the pipe? “No, no, definitely not.” She is still smarting from this summer, so I tell her the advice Iain Banks gave me for authors courted by film and television producers: enjoy the flattery, eat the slap-up lunch and expect nothing but disappointment. “Oh yes, I can agree with that,” she laughs.

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia

Extract: the flavours of love, by Dorothy Koomson

“These are the things she doesn’t know about me: I have done some unmistakable things to protect my daughter; I’d do virtually anything to protect my daughter and son; if it came to a choice between hurting Imogen and allowing my children to be damaged, there’d be no choice at all.”

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