If a wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life, then the story starts with the dress.
It’s 1936 and the streets of London’s East End are grimy and brutal, but in one corner of Bethnal Green it is forever Hollywood . . .
Herbie Taylor’s photography studio is nestled in the heart of bustling Green Street. Tomboy Stella and troubled Winnie work in Herbie’s studio; their best friend and hopeless romantic Kitty works next door as an apprentice dressmaker. All life passes through the studio, wishing to capture that perfect moment in time.
Kitty works tirelessly to create magical bridal gowns, but with each stitch, she wonders if she’ll ever get a chance to wear a white dress. Stella and Winnie sprinkle a dusting of Hollywood glamour over happy newly-weds, but secretly dream of escaping the East End . . .
The community is strong on Green Street, but can it stand the ultimate test? As clouds of war brew on the horizon, danger looms over the East End. Will the Wedding Girls find their happy ever afters, before it’s too late?
Q&A with Kate Thompson
Kate Thompson is a journalist, novelist and ghostwriter who lives in Sunbury-Upon-Thames with her husband Ben, two sons Ronnie and Stanley, and an elderly Jack Russell called Twinkle. The Wedding Girls is her third novel for Pan Macmillan.
Three words to describe you.
Ha ha, great question. Loyal. Determined. Inpatient.
What inspired you to write your first novel?
I visited Bethnal Green in East London and I met up with two great ladies, both in their 90s who told me all about the East End during the Second World War. In their words, ‘just like Call the Midwife, but dirtier and more dangerous’. They opened my eyes to the sacrifices, courage and humour of the cockney matriarchs who ruled the cobbles. They also took me to see a memorial to the 173 people killed at Bethnal Green Underground in 1943. It was a dark, wet night, when an anti-aircraft rocket went off during an air-raid, causing a panic which leads to all those people getting suffocated to death on the stairwell. It was one of the biggest civilian tragedies of the war, and yet so few people seem to know about it. When I read down the list of victims, I was shocked to see one of the women who died was called Kate Thompson, this leant such a personal connection to that tragedy and I knew I had to include it in my book. This is what I found out when I researched the other Kate Thompson, https://blog.whsmith.co.uk/kate-thompson-the-chilling-moment-i-discovered-i-was-a-victim-of-a-wartime-tragedy/ Her character and life sparked a love affair with the East End.
What time of day do you like to write?
Ideally in the afternoon, that’s when I seem to hit my flow, unfortunately, that also coincides with the time I need to collect my two sons, Ronnie, 9 and Stanley, 5, from school, so mostly I end up tapping away into the small hours after they’ve gone to sleep.
What is your favourite book and why?
Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky is a beautifully written novel about the love affair between a French woman and a German officer, during the Nazi occupation of France. It’s made all the more poignant and heartbreaking by the fact that Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that Suite Française, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece. When I read of her death at the end of the book it absolutely floored me. Apparently, she wrote the entire novel in a notebook, which was discovered many years later. It’s a stunning book.
How did you pick the title of your book?
All my book titles are the result of collaboration between my publishers, Pan Macmillan and myself. The Wedding Girls conveys the sense of friendship and camaraderie that existed between girls working in the rag trade.
Are the characters in your book based on real people?
The girls combine many traits of East End women I have interviewed, largely their determination, ambition and desire for escapism, but the character of Herbie, the photography portrait artist, is based on a real-life East End photographer. William Whiffin was an iconic street and studio photographer who was prolific between the wars, taking thousands of wedding portraits from his studio on the East India Dock Road. Whiffin also captured many memorable moments, including the dock strike from his studio windows. But it was the love and affection he had for the community he served which struck me the most. In the thirties and forties, Poplar was one of the most impoverished East End districts, so Whiffin set up wedding clubs, enabling brides to spread the cost of a portrait. He passionately believed that every bride had the right to a beautiful wedding portrait. Unfortunately his belief that ‘a little praise is of more value’ meant that by the time his studio was destroyed by a rocket during the Second World War, he was penniless. This big-hearted character is one of the East End’s forgotten heroes.
What’s your favourite word?
My favourite word is nuance. I also listened to someone give a talk the other day about how to display confidence in public speaking and one of his tips was not to dash off after the end of the talk. ‘Stay and bathe in the approbation,’ he said. Isn’t approbation a wonderful word! In case you’re interested, I can tell you my worst word too. Moist! Urgh!
If you were a colour what would it be?
That entirely depends on when you catch me. If it’s a warm summer’s day and I’ve clocked up a good chunk of writing, then I’m definitely a yellow kind of person, if it’s a rain-swept Monday morning and I’m trying to get the boys out the door to school, I’m black!
Do you plan your story beforehand or go with the flow?
Being a control freak, I have to go into it with a plan. You would never embark on a long car journey without a map or any idea of where you’re going, so why do it with a book? That said, when you’re well into the manuscript, the most organic and magical things can happen that you never planned. I love that moment where you feel you know your characters so well, they are almost dictating the plot. I always allow for changes and to deviate from the script.
Who is your favourite author?
So many, I love Joanne Harris for the sensuous quality of her writing. When she describes food and wine for example it’s so evocative and rich. I also love Sarah Waters. I just finished her dark, ingenious novel, Fingersmith, which is superb. When she writes about the crooked alleys and passages of Victorian London, peopled by fingersmiths and fraudsters, I’m right there. It’s intensely atmospheric. She writes with such confidence and authenticity.
If you could give any literary villain a happy ending who would you chose?
I always feel a little sorry for the Wicked Queen in Snow White. I know this is a moral tale, warning of the dangers of narcissism, but it can’t be easy seeing your looks fade while your stepdaughter skips around looking fresh-faced. Apparently, in the Brothers Grimm version, Snow White and the Prince reveal the Queen’s true nature and invite her to their wedding, where she is forced to put on red-hot iron shoes and ‘dance’ until she drops dead, which is a little harsh.
Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I’m writing a novel set in the East End match factory, Bryant & May, in wartime. My characters, all match girls, set up a Dig for Victory allotment in the grounds of a bombsite. The strap line will be ‘They dug for victory, but buried their secrets deeper’, so you can see the allotment is not all that is seems.
Do you have any upcoming events our members can attend?
Yes, I shall be discussing my book and interviewing a panel of experts about vintage weddings at the Museum of London on Friday 31st March 6pm. Come along. I’d love to meet you.
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