The international best-selling author Mary Lawson lives in Kingston. Miranda Jessop pays her a visit to find out why she has adopted Surrey as her home
When I arrive at Mary Lawson's pretty Victorian home in a quiet Kingston street leading down to the river, I wonder if the neighbours know that there is an author living amongst them who spends her days writing about life in an isolated farming community in Ontario.
Following the success of her first two novels set in Canada – Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge – Mary has just finished her third, Road Ends, and is currently enjoying a well-deserved break.
Immaculately dressed, she looks much younger than her 68 years. Warm and friendly, she ushers me into her open-plan living room where we sit beside the desk where she writes, surrounded by shelves stuffed with books.
Mary has lived in the UK for 46 years now, and the only surviving clues to her background are her noticeable Canadian accent and the sight of a canoe for two in the back garden. She and her husband, Richard, chose the house for its proximity to the Thames so that they could take to the water whenever they liked.
Born in 1946, Mary grew up with her parents, two older brothers and a younger sister in a rural farming area in Southern Ontario, the southernmost region of Canada.
"Where we lived was very remote,” she says. “My father worked as a research chemist and took the car into the nearest town every day, but there was no public transport and we had very little to do with the town. We always spent our family holidays in a simple summer house on a beautiful lake in Northern Ontario."
She shows me some old black and white photographs of the holiday home and surrounds, including a shot of her two brothers as young boys paddling across the lake in a canoe just like the one in her back garden.
"The summer house has been in the family for six generations and hasn’t changed at all. We still spend holidays there,” she says. “It is just four walls and a roof – no electricity, no plumbing. There are no roads in; you can only get there by water.”
As a child, Mary (who is a distant relative of LM Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables) immersed herself in books.
"I read obsessively as a child. There was not much else to do in the harsh Canadian winters," she explains.
Yet despite excelling at English at school, she decided to study psychology at McGill University in Montreal. After graduation, she came to England for a six-month holiday, as one of her brothers was living in London at the time. She soon ran out of money and took a job as a research psychologist. She never returned to live in Canada. The reason?
"I met a guy at work…he's in the front room," she giggles mischievously.
After Mary and Richard, a fellow psychologist, married and had their two sons, they settled in New Malden before moving to Sutton. When the children started school, Mary began writing short stories for women's magazines. These proved so popular that she decided to write a novel.
"It took me five years, but it didn't get published," she says, ruefully.
Feeling rejected, she went back to her short stories. And it was then that she decided to set a story in a farming community, like the one in which she had grown up. The story was the beginning of her novel Crow Lake.
“I just adored writing it,” she recalls. “I knew how people would speak, what their concerns were, the rules they lived their lives by – it was all so familiar. I decided to move the setting to Northern Ontario because I didn't think people would believe how isolated the South really was 50 years ago."
It took her five years to finish the book and then, over the following four years, it was rejected by numerous agents. Undaunted, Mary started another, The Other Side of the Bridge. Halfway through, her luck changed.
"Quite suddenly three agents wanted Crow Lake and, before I knew it, there was a bidding war between publishers."
She was 55 by the time it actually appeared in print, back in 2002. Translated into 23 languages and published in 25 countries, Crow Lake became a New York Times best-seller, toppling Ian McEwan's Atonement from the number one slot in Mary’s native Canada, where it remained in the best-seller lists for 75 weeks.
The Other Side of the Bridge, also set in Northern Ontario, garnered the author further acclaim: it was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club.
After the success of these first two novels, however, Mary didn't think that she would write another.
"I thought I was finished. It takes me five years to write a book, and it’s such hard work and so completely time-consuming," she explains.
However, after six months, she found that she wanted to start writing again – although it took her another two years to come up with the idea for Road Ends. Published next month, the new novel is an enthralling and tender read, which moves from the silver rush in Northern Ontario in the early 1900s to London in the 1960s.
Mary's family are all involved in the development process of her work, with her husband and sister her first readers.
"I absolutely value their opinion: if they think something is not working, I take it very seriously. I do not send it to the publisher until they are both happy with it. My two brothers in Canada proofread all the books for geographical and historical errors.”
The novels are character-led, rather than plot-driven.
"I write by trial and error. When I start out I don't actually know what is going to happen; the characters evolve in the course of the book."
Mary's eyes light up when she starts discussing two of the central characters in The Other Side of the Bridge. She talks about Arthur and Jake as if they were friends or relatives. Having just read the book myself, I’m fascinated to hear how she first thought of the characters, and then gradually created the intricacies of their personalities and the complexities of the relationship between them.
"All my work is fiction: only a few characters in the three books are based on real people. One is little Bo in Crow Lake. I needed a horrendous baby to give everyone a hard time, so I rang my sister, who was a difficult child, and asked if I could use her! She didn't hesitate because, of course, neither of us expected it to be published!” laughs Mary.
Now, as a best-selling author, Mary is in demand throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.
"Recently, I was asked to go to Berlin to read to an association of book groups, and also to Siena to talk to a group of university students who were studying Crow Lake.”
In Canada, the community in Northern Ontario has always been very supportive of her books and Mary made sure of going back there on her most recent tour of her native land.
"This little book store was absolutely rammed with farmers who had been dragged there by their wives," she laughs.
Mary also had the chance to meet Margaret Atwood, probably the most illustrious female Canadian novelist.
“I did a charity fundraising event with her. That was wonderful – how was I ever going to meet Margaret Atwood otherwise? So much fun!”
Reflecting on her career trajectory, Mary says that the biggest change is in how she feels.
"Year after year, friends would ask how the book was going and, after so much initial rejection, I would feel silly. Now I no longer feel silly."
Mary and her husband moved from Sutton to Kingston when Richard retired eight years ago.
"Kingston is the perfect place to live,” says Mary. “It’s an amazing, historic town and I love being near the Rose Theatre.”
The couple also enjoy walking in Richmond Park, and they like the close proximity to London for the art galleries and theatres. One of their grown-up sons lives nearby, while the other lives in Nottingham, and they now have two small grandchildren who love to come and stay.
So is Mary planning to write any more books? Or will the publication of her third novel signal that it’s time for her to put away her pen?
"If I get an idea, I don't think I will be able to stop," she smiles.
So, if you happen to spot an elegant lady of a certain age paddling a canoe along the river near Kingston, lost in thought, it could be Mary Lawson, imagining herself on the lakes of Ontario, dreaming up the characters for her next best-selling book.
Road Ends (Chatto & Windus) Mar 6 £16.99