Author Menna van Praag tells Jenny Shelton about her incredible journey from Cambridge waitress to successful author
Somehow the idea of a magical house full of secrets, ghosts and living portraits of literary figures doesn’t seem too far-fetched for Cambridge. For Menna van Praag, local-born author of The House at the End of Hope Street, dreaming up stories about our ancient city is all in a day’s work. In her latest novel, which came out in April this year, the lost, heartbroken Alba – adrift having abandoned her MPhil at King’s – stumbles upon an enchanted house. She’s invited to stay for 99 nights and told that, here, she’ll discover what she needs – though not necessarily what she wants. There’s just one rule: stay out of the tower at the very top.
The house, which seems to have a life of its own, is vividly drawn: from the ghost in the kitchen sink to the corridors lined with chatty portraits of literature’s most celebrated women. And while there is an 11 Hope Street in Cambridge, the house in the book is based on another property close by, as Menna explains.
“I visited a house with friend in Cambridge, which was a sort of refuge for women who were down on their luck and wanted somewhere to stay for a while. And – I’ve never had this experience before – it was like walking into a big hug.
“Some spaces are just incredible; it felt like the house was alive. I’d already had this idea that, if I became a millionaire from selling lots of books, I’d set up a house for artists and writers. How wonderful would it be to have this place where people could come and work on their craft?”
She continues: “So this experience and my earlier idea married together and I went home and started writing.”
The novel, praised for its ‘rich characters combined with an enchanting blend of the real and the mystical’, whisks readers away on a magical voyage of discovery as Alba unpicks the secrets of the house and of herself. During her stay she meets glamorous singer, Carmen, who seems haunted by something sinister lurking in a plant pot, and a flame-haired actress torn between pursuing her career and having a family. But most wonderful of all is Peggy, the elderly landlady with more than a twinkle of mischief in her eye.
“There’s always a wise old woman in my books,” Menna reflects. “I think we often disregard older people in our society and glamorize youth, but there’s so much young people don’t have a clue about, because they’ve just not lived.”
Hope Street follows Men, Money and Chocolate, which launched Menna’s longed-for career as an author. At 21, working in Cambridge as a waitress and worried her dream might never come true, Menna set herself an ultimatum: to get ￼published by 30. Two months before her ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼30th birthday, having received hundreds of rejections and finding herself no closer to becoming a published author, she took matters into her own hands.
“I took two weeks off work and wrote for eight hours a day; I didn’t get up until I’d finished a chapter,” she says. “Men, Money and Chocolate is all about having courage. It’s very autobiographical, about a scared waitress who wants to be a writer… And it’s funny how sometimes life mirrors art, because in the story, the character gets the courage to self-publish her book. When my mum read it, she said, ‘Right, that’s what you’ve got to do!’ So I did. I put all my money into it, published my book, then went all around England begging bookshops to sell it.”
Menna’s persistence paid off and soon she was signed by Hay House to write the sequel, Happier Than She’s Ever Been – art mirroring life, this time, I suspect.
Her story also inspired other women, says Menna: “One woman told me she was in a job she hated, and after reading Men, Money and Chocolate she took a month off work, recorded some songs and sent them to a producer – and now she’s a singer! That was amazing, to think my little book had done that.”
Menna has two more novels coming up: The Dress Shop of Dreams and The Witches of Cambridge, both also set in Cambridge.
“I grew up here and I’ve always loved Cambridge. I studied at Oxford, but after my degree I came straight back,” she smiles. “There’s a nice pace of life here. I love sitting under the willow trees in the Botanic Gardens, and in winter going to cafes like Afternoon Tease and Hot Numbers.”
Asked how it feels to be a fully-fledged author, Menna replies: “It’s funny… I remember when Men, Money and Chocolate came out, and we had the book launch in Borders and I was on a total high. But then afterwards, I was just back to being me. I love to write, but for the most part I have no idea what people think of the books! Which is why I love getting emails from people who have been moved by them. My ultimate fantasy,” she admits, “is to be on the tube and see someone reading my book. That would be wonderful.”
The House at the End of Hope Street is out now in paperback, published by Allison & Busby, priced £7.99.