Lola’s Secret, by Monica McInerney. Published by Penguin Australia RRP $29.95

From the bestselling author of At Home with the Templetons comes a funny, sad and moving novel about memories and moments and the very meaning of life . Magic can happen in every family. At the Valley View Motel in South Australia’s picturesque Clare Valley, eighty-four-year-old Lola Quinlan is up to her usual mischief. She’s sent her family away for Christmas and invited a number of mystery guests to come and stay. But who are all these people, and why aren’t they spending the festive season with their own loved ones?

As the big day draws closer and Lola’s personal family dramas threaten to unravel her plans, she discovers that at a special time of year, magic can happen in every family – especially your own.

Q&A with Monica McInerney, author of Lola’s Secret.

What is your new book, Lola’s Secret, about?
It’s set in the Clare Valley in South Australia and takes place one sweltering summer in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s a sequel to my fourth novel, The Alphabet Sisters, so it’s about the Quinlan family again, but four years on after the grief they’ve been through. The story is seen through the eyes of 84 year old Lola Quinlan, who was a major character in The Alphabet Sisters.

Did fans request this sequel?
They definitely planted the seed. The Alphabet Sisters has always been a special book to me, as not only is it set in my hometown of Clare, but I wrote it as a way out of my own grief after the death of my father. When I was on a book tour of Australia last year, people kept talking about Lola and askingwould I consider writing a sequel? On the final week of the tour, I found myself unexpectedly spending a night in a hotel in Clare. I woke up at 5.00 am to find the entire plot for Lola’s Secret was in my head.

Why do you think Lola is such a popular character?
I think most women love to have a wise woman in their lives. I know I do. Lola grew out of the fact that I didn’t know my own grandmothers, but as a child I heard many stories about my maternal grandmother in particular, whose name was Maude. She was flamboyant, social, used to hold poker parties and roll her own cigarettes. One of Mum’s strongest memories of Maude is her waving her cigarette around with bits of tobacco falling out. I have a lot of older women in my life now who I treasure for the knowledge and wisdom and life experience that they pass on. Lola is a little bit of all of them.

Lola can be a bit much at times?
Yes, she’s a handful, flamboyant, outspoken, funny, clever and opinionated but I like that about her, it makes her very straightforward. I admire that about older women, you ask a question and you get an answer. You might not like it, but you get it and you know this is what they really believe.

Sisters are central to The Alphabet Sisters and to Lola’s Secret – any idea why this relationship is so complicated?
I think the relationship between sisters is remarkable because it can switch between love and anger so quickly. I have three sisters myself, but of course we never fight and we are not in the least bit competitive. I had to research all that (laughing). I think it’s that you know each other from 360 degrees, the strengths and the weaknesses. That gives you a lot of power over one another and makes you very vulnerable to each other. You can’t get away with anything with your sisters, you can’t fool them. You are completely intertwined.

Why is criticism from your sister so annoying when your girlfriend can say the same thing and get away with it?
In the context of the sisters in Lola’s Secret, I think it’s because both Bett and Carrie are buried deep in motherhood and that’s a nuclear issue at the best of times. Who’s doing it ‘best’? Who’s doing it ‘right’?

Lola has to face up to a lot of big things in this book, one of them her increasing age and vulnerability?
For Lola – and all the characters, in fact – the book’s about reflecting back on what you’ve done with your life and wondering what’s still possible. Lola’s 84, in very good spirits and health – possibly preserved by gin and pancake makeup – but she is realising she’s physically frail. How does she live her final years? Where does she live? What’s left for her to do? I remember my mother said to me when she got a bit older that she really missed being able to run. And that stayed with me. How do you cope and prepare for old age when you’ve been fit and active all your life, when things start to wear away?

It’s a shock to Lola as well because she is a bit vain?
Oh yes, absolutely. She’s used to being the Queen Bee and likes that too. It’s a small, country town, she’s a bit out there, outlandish and she’s also at the centre of a great group of friends. Becoming vulnerable is a big shock to a person with that kind of mental and social power and ego.

You’re still a young woman, does the prospect of ageing worry you?
I’m 46, not that young! But no, I’m not worried, because I can’t do anything about it. I’d rather worry about something I can do something about. And I think there’s a certain freedom that comes with getting older. I wouldn’t go back to being a 20 year old or even a 30 year old. I like growing older.

Through Lola and the Quinlan family you paint a great picture of the topsy-turvy nature of family life – would you agree that’s one of the strengths of your writing?
I hope so. That’s what I love to write about – all the drama and comedy of family life. People often use the term ‘dysfunctional’ but I don’t think there is such a thing as a functional family. Any setup where you bring different people together into a group, be it a committee meeting or a tour party or even parliament, you’re going to have clashes of personality and ideas. In a family, it can be the small emotional depth charges or a feud blowing up like it did in The Alphabet Sisters. Or having the rug pulled out from underneath you with grief or loss.

I think a lot of people read your books and go ‘phew, glad it’s not just my family who are crazy.’
I get a lot of emails from people saying just that. ‘Have you been bugging my house?’ they ask.

Do you believe maintaining a sense of humour is always a good approach, although not always possible, to family ‘storms?’
You have to be careful, you need a mood barometer or you can be seen as insensitive and inflame the situation. I think family life is all about managing misunderstandings.

Pick up Lola’s Secret now in all good bookstores.