Daisy Goodwin on Inventing Her Mother

Daisy Goodwin on Inventing Her Mother

Daisy Goodwin
Book Reporter
Tuesday, April 20, 2012
12:00 PM

My mother is the reason I turned to fiction. She wasn’t there much when I was young, so I had to invent her. She ran away from home when I was five and my brother three. It was the 1960s and she had fallen in love with another man. She thought she could come back and get us, but my dad thought otherwise.

I saw her in the holidays, but as she lived in another city, she never came to school events or met my friends. All the more room for invention. Over the years my mother became a Chinese girl who was cast off by her family because she didn’t have bound feet (she had been born in China but is of Caucasian origin); Che Guevara’s girlfriend (total fabrication), and an Olympic diver (again with poetic license). I don’t know whether my audience of eleven-year-old girls really believed my stories about my mother, but they were certainly willing to listen.
My made-up mother was, like the original, beautiful and brave; but unlike my real mother, she was always available and completely under my control. I could make her jilt Che Guevara because his moustache tickled her when they kissed, and I loved it when she won the Gold for her swallow dive.

When I saw my mother in the flesh, I would watch her carefully, looking for details from which I could spin another story. Her mother had been born in Argentina, so I made my mother — who is in real life rather alarmed by horses — a gaucho by adoption, riding bareback across the pampas chasing the horizon.

When I was thirteen, my mother moved back to London. When she asked me if I would like to bring my friends round, I was in agony — wanting more than anything in the world to show her off and yet dreading the moment when they asked about the foot binding, or Che’s mustache. My only way out was, of course, more fabrication. I told my friends that my mother had had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t bear any reference to her colourful past.

The meeting went off better than I could have hoped: My mother looked like Ali MacGraw in Love Story, and once they had made that connection, she was officially glamorous. Any stories that I had told about her were accepted because she bore a passing resemblance to a bona fide movie star.

My mother never knew what liberties I took with her biography. As she is by nature one of life’s swashbucklers, I don’t think she would mind too much about being the heroine of my imaginings. She is just as interesting and exciting as the woman who kissed Che Guevara.

Of course there have been times when I have wondered why I had to make her up, and there have been times when I have felt resentful because I didn’t have a regular mother who hugged you when you came out of school. But my mother, in fact and in fiction, has never been boring. Other mothers do unconditional love; mine is unpredictable, but you can’t look away. She has been and will always be my inspiration, the reason I started to write and the reader whose attention I want to capture forever.