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Interview: Frances Manwaring talks about Never Succumb to Beige

Updated: Apr 11



Becoming co-owner and managing director of creative agency Moxie in 2010 was a natural extension of a career focused on helping great ideas reach the world. Previously, Frances co-founded several businesses, including a pioneering technology start-up and held senior management and governance roles in four countries across several sectors.


Most recently, she launched a book drawn from her professional practice, Brands with Moxie: Eight Steps to a Winning Brand. Originally from the Scottish Highlands, Frances was London-based for 14 years before moving to New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay in the mid-nineties. She now lives in its wild and windy capital, Wellington. Frances talks to NZ Booklovers.

 

Tell us a little about Never Succumb to Beige.

The concept of Never Succumb to Beige started as a challenge about what I would call my autobiography at a dinner party one night. At the time, I think I went for something a bit lame like Frankie’s Follies (my friends at that time all knew me as Frankie and saw me as a cross between Bridget Jones and Virginia Woolf). Over the years, I’ve come up with a range of options, at least one of which will feature as a future book title, so I won’t do a spoiler alert here. I stuck with Never Succumb to Beige, which I used as the title of my blog because it captures my philosophy of being true to yourself and who you are.

 

I generally see the funny side of things and I love the essay form as a vehicle for a bit of verbal brio, interspersed with opinion, historical and literary references (both loves) mixed in with my personal experiences.

 

The twenty stories in ‘Beige’ are a little bit Bill Bryson meets Caitlin Moran. They’re connected loosely through the idea of staying visible at any age, whatever life throws at us, particularly as we age. I am saddened by how many people I’ve encountered who feel invisible or useless as they age. They tell me it’s inevitable. I fundamentally don’t believe that it has to be. Perhaps that’s easy for me to say. I don’t believe we should allow society’s judgement to push us into the railway siding of invisibility. If we don’t give ourselves a licence to stay on the main line, no one else will. 

 

I used Never Succumb to Beige to capture some of my thinking and coping mechanisms as I age. I hope this will contribute to the discussion and help people believe in their incredible value, which I believe only gets enhanced with age.


What inspired you to write this book?

I have so many ideas and observations rattling around in my head that it’s almost a compulsion to write them down. I’m not in it to smack readers in the face with inconvenient truths. It’s more about offering a perspective—a challenge to look at some things differently by commenting on stuff that interests, challenges or makes me smile.

 

The world feels like a miasma of gloom, doom, pessimism and conflict. People are apprehensive and stressed. Even me, a recidivist Tigger-type. But I believe in the power of positive energy as the most significant thing any individual can bring to make a difference. I wanted to create an entertaining collection that would be as upbeat as possible, even when I’m writing about issues I find sad, horrifying, or just nonsensical, and to imbue it with all the good energy I can muster to bring some cheer and respite from the glums.

 

I get so much joy and inspiration from reading other people’s writing, and I am inspired to bring those qualities to the people who read my stuff. I have always loved entertaining people, and I take great pleasure in crafting stories with surprising twists and turns so that the ultimate destination is not obvious. I hope they are amused, moved, or at least feel some emotional connection with my points of view.

 

I’ve worked hard to fight feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem at times throughout my life. I’ve also faced down that lurking menace known as Imposter Syndrome on more occasions than I can count. I’d be delighted if anyone could benefit, even in the smallest way, from my eclectic observations, conclusions and overall approach to life. I’d love to be a bit of a role model for younger women by leading by example. The last chapter is called It’s Never Too Late to be Who You Might Have Been. By publishing this book and a couple of others, I’m trying to live the dream and show it’s possible. I've also faced down that lurking menace known as Imposter Syndrome on more occasions than I can count.

 

What research was involved?

The book is largely based on my own observations or triggers from things I’ve experienced, seen or read. In each essay, I draw on historical contexts or figures and literary themes and even in these short works, there is a strong requirement to undertake desktop research to ensure any references I make are correct and to capture more detail than I carry in my head.

 

It can be quite an illuminating performance. I can be convinced I know a fact, who to credit a quote to, or the composer of a song and find I’m quite wrong. I’d put serious money on my certainties, in fact. An example was the quote that formed the title of the final story or chapter. I’ve always believed Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been”. It wasn’t until I did the final checks that I realised I was delusional, and it was actually George Elliot. Or was it? You’ll need to read the book to find out. It certainly wasn’t the amazing Eleanor, although it does sound like something she could have said.

 

Memory plays all sorts of tricks on writers and if I didn’t check my premises, I could have a lot of egg on my face.

 

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’m an absolute believer in the page (or more) a day philosophy. To get this book done, I generally started early and wrote or revised or researched for a couple of hours each week day before I started my main job. That allowed me to capture creative ideas and concepts before the demands of my working day kicked in. It also meant I wasn’t just going back and re-reading what I’d already written as it was fresh in my mind.

 

Then, at weekends, I’d allocate as much time as I could fit in to explore a subject in more depth and work on the phrasing and word selection. It’s not a long book, but it’s amazing how much polishing it required to get it to a place I felt had a bit of sparkle about it. I did a lot of rounds of revisions until I felt the flow hung together and the points came across with the meanings I intended.

 

If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include

I’m a singer and instrumentalist, and music has always been a big part of my life. From classics to pop, through jazz and folk, I love most musical genres and musical references are important anchors to the chronology of my life. I refer to several songs in the book:

 

Þ     Sorry Doesn’t Always Make it Right, sung so poignantly by Diana Ross.

Þ     I’m in with the In-Crowd, covered most famously by the coolest cool cat of them all, Bryan Ferry.

Þ     Music (was My First Love), recorded by John Miles (coming back to research, I was 100% convinced Barry Manilow had written and sung this — I was very glad I checked).

Þ     If I Could Turn Back Time, recorded by Cher, is the reference point for another story.

Þ   But the theme, I think, would have to be Sting's brilliant 1987 song An Englishman in New York from his album Nothing Like the Sun, which I referenced in Chapter 1. I found this tribute to the highly idiosyncratic Quentin Crisp quite moving. I've always been a strong advocate of being true to yourself, and he was undoubtedly a perfect example.


What did you enjoy the most about writing Never Succumb to Beige?

I had so much fun trying to come up with the chapter titles. Mostly, they landed quite quickly, but I figured, like the book title itself, they had to be smirk-worth and pretty compelling but also consistent as a collection. Each had to do a lot of work in representing the sometimes rambling narrative of their story.

 

I really struggled with one chapter, in particular—Chapter 4: A Laugh a Day Keeps the Darkness at Bay. I got very bogged down trying to find a title that included “schadenfreude,” which I figured was the chapter theme, but it just didn’t work in any title option I tried. Ultimately, I was pretty happy with the end results. I don’t feel any of them let the collection down.

 

The other thing I really loved was working with my editor — Juliet Dreaver — who really got what I was trying to do. We had some good laughs going through the copy as she challenged some of my assumptions and word choices. Between us we swallowed a few dictionaries and challenged each other big time. The end result (I think) reflects this happy symbiosis.

 

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Started the next one, LOL. Actually, I’m only half joking. I had at least two other books forming in my mind and I couldn’t wait to get started creating again after all the detailed finishing on Beige was done.

 

Seriously though, I decided to organise a launch party. I love getting different people together, and the book has given me an excuse to re-connect with a lot of people I enjoy but haven’t seen for a while. I’m quite a gregarious person, and this feels like a great way to celebrate. It’s not happened yet, but as John Green said in Paper Towns, “The pleasure isn’t in doing the thing; the pleasure is in planning it.” Thinking about it, my take would be the pleasure would be divided fairly equally between doing and planning.

 

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Grieg. I have a degree in Medieval History from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. It was a privilege studying history in this ancient seat of learning – the university celebrated its 700th anniversary a few years ago—and the town has played a central role in key moments in Scottish history.

 

I was delighted to find a book that featured Saint Andrews as one of its primary locations and included some of the university traditions which persist in the current times. It centred around ‘Embra’ (Edinburgh, which I also know well) during the winter of 1574 when Mary Queen of Scots had fled from Scotland to France try and drum up an army to subdue her rebellious subjects. Her young heir Jamie (who became James VI of Scotland and I of England combining the crowns after Elizabeth I died heirless) is being held ‘for his own protection’ in Stirling Castle. Although John Knox is no longer living, his influence continues to cast a long shadow.  

 

It’s the story of a young student, Will Fowler, of lowly birth but vaunting ambition, who gets caught up in the machinations of the great houses vying for power in the Maelstrom of civil war. It’s a wonderful depiction of a country at odds with itself, where having the wrong faith can lead to the prye, where ancient feuds abound, and even honest people who mind their own business are not safe.

 

Will becomes friends with the son of a Saint Andrews fishing family, Tom Nicolson, and sees life through the eyes of the fishing community. Wil becomes beguiled by his beautiful sister Rose. Rose is uneducated, but has a brilliant, free-thinking mind that puts her and the people in her orbit at risk from the religious extremists.

 

He also gets caught up in the intrigues of the rich and famous—the unsettled times offer up opportunity to make a name—including Walter Scott and finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy that ultimately determines who takes the crown. Wil as narrator provides a sweeping perspective of the times, the battles between faith and reason, love and friendship, self-interest and loyalty. It’s exquisitely written and the scope, for a relatively short book, is incredible. George RR would have enjoyed it! I certainly did.

 

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m already some way into the follow up to Beige, which looks at life through the ‘when you’ve got to the bottom of the hole you’re in stop digging’ lens. I’ve mapped out the journey I want to take people on and written about three chapters so far. I’m pretty happy with how it’s going.

 

I also have a strong desire as an ex-pat Scot to write about my life and times growing up and my reflections from this distance. It would encompass song and poetry—my father was a singer who entertained guests at our big old Victorian mausoleum of a hotel in the Highlands. His knowledge of song, including the Gaelic lyrics of many, was astounding. I grew up listening to the songs and verse of our land, was steeped in its myths and legends and they still call to me after many years away.

 

Honestly, I have so much I want to write, but my pesky day job keeps getting in the way 😊




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