News and Interviews

"Mad Hatter is a Quest Novel, as Well as a Mystery" Amanda Hale on Her New Novel, Family Secrets, & Mining the Past

Amanda Hale author photo

In 1939, the United Kingdom passed Defence Regulation 18B - a sweeping rule that allowed the indefinite internment of anyone suspected of Nazi sympathies, without charge or trial. A desperate step in a desperate time, around 1000 men and women were imprisoned under 18B during wartime.

It's this fraught moment in history that Amanda Hale mines in her intense and absorbing new novel Mad Hatter (Guernica Editions). Christopher Brooke is arrested and imprisoned under Regulation 18B for his membership in a fascist party, leaving his wife and three children alone as war breaks out. Farm girl Mary Byrne is hired to help out and watches as the family slowly unravels.

But when Christopher finally returns home, things somehow become even more complex, with Mary suddenly dismissed without cause. A story of war, politics, a marriage, and more, Mad Hatter is taut and insightful, a moving story from a time that feels both far removed and hauntingly relevant. 

We're excited to welcome Amanda to Open Book today to take part in our Long Story novel interview. She tells us about (very appropriately) starting the manuscript that would become Mad Hatter in a London pub, her long-buried family connection that inspired the story, and the book's stunning dedication.

Open Book:

Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?

Amanda Hale:

I started Mad Hatter in 2000, in a pub in London UK, writing with a fountain pen in my notebook, with a glass of red wine at my side. It was an appropriate place to begin because the story of Mad Hatter takes place in England, centred around World War II, spanning the 1930s to the 1950s. I continued to add to those notes over many years of research and plumbing of memory until, in 2012, I finally came to a decision to write the story as a fiction, based on the facts of my research, and upon the life of my family in WW2 England. So, what we have is a novel, or perhaps a fictionalized memoir. This form gives me way more freedom than a biography or a straight memoir, for which I would need more reliable facts than I have.


Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?


Mary Byrne is undoubtedly my favourite character, and the heart of the novel for me. She is purely fictional and came to me as that rare gift-to-a-writer of a ready-made character with a strong voice and opinions of her own. Mary is never lost for words. She has a big heart and a deal of common sense though she is an uneducated girl fresh from Ireland when she arrives in the house of Cynthia Brooke, shortly after Cynthia’s husband has been interned under Regulation Rule 18B due to his membership in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Mary is the perfect narrator during the first section of this three-part book. She is able to observe and comment on the situation in the Brooke household with a fresh eye, as the much sought after objective and reliable narrator. Mary also has the Sight – the gift of vision into the future – which allows her to hint at revelations that are to come.


Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.


My research began in the summer of 1983 with an extended trip to England to conduct a series of family interviews. My mother was reluctant to talk about my father. “Why are you always harping on the past?” she asked. My sisters, my brother, aunts, and cousins all had different versions of who my father was. I was left with a strange pastiche of material that didn’t add up to anything definitive. I visited the Hat Factory where my father had worked, and which is now a museum. I researched in various Archives where records had become available to the public with the declassification of war information, and in the Imperial War Museum where I pored over books and documents. The Birmingham Archives had lots of stuff on the British Union of Fascists and Oswald Mosley; at the National Archives near Kew Gardens I found correspondence specifically about my father, from the internment camp commandant on the Isle of Man. As any researcher knows, this process is largely one of sifting through papers looking for the occasional gem – something new, something specific, a eureka moment!

My research took me twice to Ireland, where I learned that we have Irish heritage on my father’s side. Incredibly, we had never known that.


What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?


A big moment was finding a newspaper clipping saying that my father had been taken to court in 1953 for child support of an infant girl. This confirmed what my mother had sometimes hinted at. Five years after posting information on about this supposed half-sister I received an e-mail confirming that Anne was indeed my half-sister and lived in New Zealand. She travelled to England to meet me and my two sisters. It was an extraordinary reunion and led to the discovery of yet another half-sister, and two deceased half-siblings. We had known nothing of our father’s other families, though our mother had obviously suffered in silence.


Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?


I dedicate Mad Hatter to "all those loving women who cooked, cleaned, kept house, cared for us children and taught us to read," and then I name them. These were the usually nameless and faceless females who kept the house running and who I remember as caring people in a time of family discord. Mary Byrne is perhaps a catchall representative of them all. The British class system is designed to separate people. I refuse to allow this.


Did you include an epigraph in your book? If so, how did you choose it and how does it relate to the narrative?


I took my epigraph from Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Warlight. It says:

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.

Ondaatje’s words so perfectly describe my own process with Mad Hatter.


What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?


Mad Hatter is a quest novel, as well as a mystery. I set out to write it in an attempt to find out who my father was. For me, he had always been characterized by absence, and I thought that by delving into the history of our family, the war, and the politics of the day, I might discover the man I had missed all my life. I was wrong. My father remains an enigma. However, what I did discover was the depth of my mother’s suffering. Walking in her shoes, as one must do with each fictional character, I felt what she must have felt, and I gained a deep compassion for her and came out of the experience able to understand and love her better.


Amanda Hale has published three novels, two collections of linked fictions set in the Cuban town of Baracoa, and two poetry chapbooks. She won the Prism International prize for creative non-fiction for The Death of Pedro Iván, and has twice been a finalist for the Relit Fiction award. Her novels and Cuban stories have been translated into Spanish; Sondeando la sangre was presented at the 2017 Havana International Book Fair. Hale is the librettist for Pomegranate, an opera set in ancient Pompeii, premiered in Toronto in 2019.

Buy the Book

Mad Hatter

When Christopher Brooke is arrested under Regulation 18B in June 1940, a slow process of personal disintegration begins, affecting his family irreversibly. Irish farm girl Mary Byrne is hired as housekeeper for the Brooke household and proves an acute observer of the daily lives of Cynthia Brooke and her three children. But when Mary is shockingly expelled from the house upon Christopher's release from internment, 15-month-old Katie -- conceived on a prison leave and now speaking from adulthood -- takes over as narrator. Moving from the pre-war political era of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Mad Hatter delves into the wartime lives of Britons, and tracks them into the aftermath in a disturbing but ultimately transcendent story of a daughter's search for family history. Mad Hatter charts the gradual unravelling of a marriage and the tightening of its children in the devastation of post-war England as the story of the Brooke family moves inexorably to a tragic conclusion in which Mary Byrne is once again embraced by the family, but in a most surprising manner.