THE first novel by Brighton writer Charlene Allcott is titled The Reinvention of Martha Ross with the tagline ‘Who said starting over was easy?’
Its title could just as easily apply to the author herself. Look at the facts: in her book, which is published this month, Martha Ross is separating from her husband, the father of her 18-month-old son, and needs to find herself. Two years ago, Charlene Allcott was separating from her husband, the father of her two-year-old son, and needed to find herself.
Autobiographical? In some ways, she says. “The book starts at the moment Martha’s marriage ends and charts a path to where she starts to find herself again. I did similar things to Martha, such as moving out when the marriage ended. Martha and I grew together as I wrote the book.”
While her marriage was falling apart, Charlene began writing a blog called The Moderate Mum subtitled “You’re already good enough”, where she describes how she has “spent a lifetime listening and a little less than a lifetime telling people what I think”.
“I started the blog because I was at home with my son and because I was a bit bored, to be frank,” says Charlene, a youth worker who has spent more than a decade mentoring children and families. “I started writing regularly to find company because being a mum can be quite lonely. I was enjoying writing it and then my marriage ended. The split meant we could not afford to live apart and so I was in the spare room on my own in the evenings, and it was lonely. I found that if I was angry, I could write it away on the page. That was the start of the book.”
Above and below: Charlene Allcott/pictures: Chris Schulenberg
Above: The Reinvention of Martha Ross by Charlene Allcott, which is published on August 9
By chance, Charlene saw a tweet for by the publisher Penguin Random House for its WriteNow course, which aims to broaden its range of authors to reflect increasing diversity and includes potential authors from ethnic and other minorities or those with disabilities. The programme began last year, ultimately selecting 12 people from 2,000. Charlene sent the first chapter of her book and was accepted.
“It was quite a practical decision because I had no contacts in the publishing industry and thought it would give me a kind of a push,” she says. “I was gobsmacked to be selected and to make the final 12. Receiving that email was the best moment in this whole experience. I felt like someone said: you are a writer. It was like a certificate of authenticity.”
After being assigned a mentor to help her, Charlene completed the book, becoming the first writer on the course to win a publishing deal. “Mentoring was great – it teaches you so much about delving into what your characters are doing and saying and why,” she explains. “I really got to know my central characters, as if they were my best friends. I knew their childhood friends, their relationship history, who they went on holiday with. Not all of this went in the book – but it made me ask myself: what would this character do in this situation?
“Writing the book was absolutely therapeutic for me. When I went back to do the edits, it felt so different to when I wrote it. When I wrote some of it, it made me cry.”
In her novel, Martha Ross dreams of being a singer, but she’s been working in a call centre for far too long. She’s separating from her husband, the father of her 18-month-old son. And she’s moving back home to her parents, toddler in tow. But now it’s time to become the woman she’s always wanted to be. And at least her mum’s on hand to provide free childcare – along with ample motherly judgement, of course.
But Martha’s attempts at reinvention – from writing a definitive, non-negotiable list of everything she’s looking for in a new man to half-marathons, business plans and meditation retreats – tend to go awry in the most surprising of ways. And soon she comes to realise that in order to find lasting love, happiness and fulfilment, she needs to find herself first.
Now Charlene and her ex-husband live close to each other and co-parent their four-year-old son Rosco, who is autistic and starts school in September.
“I joke that my divorce is that best thing that ever happened to me,” Charlene says. “It was awful at first but it has led me to this book. It has shaken things up and I’m making more of my own chances.
“Writing the book made me less of a scaredy cat. The process of writing is a big scary thing because you are putting yourself into a big public space. But having another side to my life has given me a really good boost and I plan to be a bit braver.”
Charlene, who studied psychology at Birmingham University and works in Eastbourne, has revisited the subject of motherhood for her second book, as yet untitled and due out in late 2019. “It’s about the challenge of motherhood, about thriving when you have a career around kids and about rivalry between women and still being yourself,” says Charlene. “Being a mum, those sorts of questions led me down a path where I was thinking about what it means to reclaim your sexuality and your career. From one question, you can spark a whole series of questions.”
The Reinvention of Martha Ross by Charlene Allcott is published in hardback by Corgi, priced £12.99, on August 9. It’s out now on Kindle.