Friday, 26 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

Quakers, bonnets, war. Delete the bonnet, add a female scientist holding a diamond, and this could be the cover of my new novel. Source: IMDB.com


Earlier this year, I met the writer and blogger Sion Dayson at an event in Paris and we got chatting about her novel-in-progress, When Things Were Green. She kindly sent me the manuscript, and what a treat it was! A powerful love story, and a portrait of a small, segregated Southern town where secret lovers meet by the river and rumours of an immaculate conception hide a darker truth. It's beautiful, lyrical and edgy all at once -

Finishing school didn’t prepare Susan for the possibility that her husband might set his sights on the Negress maid.

You can read all about it here because Sion is the latest contributor to a Q&A that's been travelling from blog to blog. Each writer answers questions about her/his novel-in-progress and then tags other writers. Guess who she tagged? Ta-daaa! Me. Thank you, Sion. So I'm going to talk about my new novel, the one I handed in last week. I swore to myself I wouldn't think about it at all this week, but a Q&A is actually a great post-deadline task. It's kind of therapeutic. I've passed the phases of denial and anger and am now ready to come to terms with the fact that yes, I have written another novel, and it's called...

(What is your working title of your book?)

...Of Love and Other Wars. What do you think? Is that a good title? I'm in two minds about it but apparently it's already up on Amazon, so I guess that makes it definite.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago I went to the funeral of a family friend. He was a German refugee who arrived in the UK as a boy in the 1930s and became more English than any Englishman. From his perfect English accent to his tea addiction to his career as a civil servant, he really did Her Majesty proud. He was also one of the most inspiring people I've ever known: committed to social justice, passionate about music, fine art and literature. Yet this model citizen had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War, while his best friend had chosen to go and fight.
The best friend held a eulogy at the funeral, and I came away thinking about their different choices. What would it be like to refuse to fight a war considered right and necessary by everyone else? What would it be like to live with that decision in Britain, which really treats the wartime experience and "doing one's bit" in the fight against Fascism as a sort of unifying founding myth? My search for an answer brought me to the Quakers with their radical pacifism. At the same time I was living with my future in-laws, who are Jewish. Gradually, I began to see the story of Paul, a Quaker boy in London torn between his family's beliefs and his love for Miriam, a Jewish girl who wants nothing more than to be allowed to fight like a man.

Conchies at Dartmoor Prison during the Great War (source: Dartmoor Prison Museum)
What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction, apparently. The whole idea of fitting a genre is very silly, isn't it?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

See what I did there? I struck out "one-sentence"! That's the sort of maverick I am. The book is about Paul, his brother Charlie, and Miriam, and their choices during the Second World War. It's also about two families: Paul's Quaker clan, and Miriam's family of diamond-cutters. Each of the characters makes a decision that feels genuinely right at the time, and yet takes them down a path that's ever so slightly (or even completely, dramatically) wrong. I find this happens quite often in life. Tragedy isn't a high and lofty thing, it tends to be an accumulation of small decisions with major consequences.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I randomly met a young actor in New York - Xalvador Tin-Bradbury - who went to a Quaker school in northern England and loathed it. He would be perfect for Paul, or indeed Charlie. Nathalie Portman for Miriam, maybe? She'd need to put on some weight though. Miriam is supposed to be zaftig.
Slowly does it (no snails were harmed in this project*).

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It's going to be published by Simon&Schuster UK next year (unless I have to tackle another major re-write, in which case we're talking 2014...). My agent is Stan at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A year, because I rushed it. It was awful so I pretty much ditched the entire thing and started again. Hard-won insight: don't rush it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There's a film called "Friendly Persuasion" about a U.S. Quaker family during the civil war. Not the same genre; not even the same medium. But it does feature some lovely scenes that encapsulate this sense of doing what is so clearly right in the eyes of some, and so clearly wrong in the eyes of others.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The family friend I mentioned earlier. My partner's grandmother, and her brave choices during the war, also inspired me in a wider sense. Her courage and resilience were very much on my mind when I wrote this book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It's a love story! In fact, it's four love stories. Four very different couples, but I've grown enormously fond of all of them.
Here's one I made earlier.
And now...drumroll....let me introduce you to three fabulous writers who've agreed to be tagged for The Next Big Thing:
Melinda Joe is a sake, wine and food writer in Tokyo who is working on a delicious novel that makes me miss Japan (and Melinda) every time I read a new chapter. Check out her blog, too. Fermented fish guts, the perfect choice for an elegant aperitif. I did have fish sperm once, but it didn't taste quite as yummy as it sounds.
Karin Spirn is a martial artist, community college teacher and writer whose brilliant campus novel about post-structural analysis and hard-working wonderbras has brightened up my week. It also features academia porn. Yes, that's right! Academia porn.
Ceri Radford is a journalist and the author of the wonderfully funny and clever "A Surrey State of Affairs". We were trainees at Reuters together, and all those mock press conferences in the fictional country of Manchukistan clearly did something to our imagination. She is about to finish her new novel, and I'm so excited about it!

* In case you worry about the snail used as a fridge magnet in the photo: it now lives happily in the hedge outside our house, having been evacuated from my flowerpots.