The second annual Hutchinson Proof Party took place last weekend at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. This year Hutchinson editor Sarah Rigby was joined by Dea Brøvig, Carys Bray and Helen Dunmore for book talk and tea.
The event was captured by literary blogger Naomi Frisby.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon at Cheltenham Literature Festival as we make our way into the Spiegeltent in Montpellier Gardens. Overlooked by mirrored walls and pastel stained windows are round tables set for afternoon tea. But it’s the Windmill Books tote bags on the seats that signal why we’re really here. Inside is either a copy of Helen Dunmore’s thirteenth novel The Lie or Dea Brøvig’s debut The Last Boat Home, alongside one of two titles by Anna Quindlen (Object Lessons or the Richard and Judy choice Every Last One) in anticipation of her forthcoming novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.
Helen Dunmore and Dea Brøvig are here to discuss their books, along with Carys Bray whose debut, provisionally titled Here We Are Together, has recently been acquired by Hutchinson.
The event begins with each of the three writers reading a section from their novel.
Dea Brøvig’s The Last Boat Home is set in a small town on the Norwegian coastline. It is 1974, a few years after the oil discoveries that will make the country its fortune. Else, our protagonist, lives with her religious mother and fisherman father. They are poor, although this doesn’t prevent Else from sneaking around with the son of the richest man in town. Nonetheless, it is something else that will have far deeper consequences for Else: the arrival of a travelling circus. The echoes of those consequences are still being heard in the present-day sections that punctuate the book.
Helen Dunmore’s The Lie takes place in the aftermath of the First World War. Daniel has returned to the small Cornish coastal town in which he grew up. Haunted by the death of his best friend, Frederick, he acquires a smallholding and, besides visits to Frederick’s sister Felicia, isolates himself. But in order to maintain his detachment, Daniel tells a lie that will be his undoing.
Carys Bray’s Here We Are Together is set on the coast of Lancashire and is about a Mormon family dealing with the sudden death of their youngest child, Issy. Ian, the dad and local bishop, believes that they will all be united again in death. Claire, the mum, married into the faith and continues to question some elements of it. She crawls into Issy’s bunk bed and refuses to get out. The youngest son, Jacob, attempts to resurrect dead animals believing this will bring about Issy’s return, while teenagers Alma and Zippy struggle with being teenagers while coming to terms with the loss of their sister.
After the readings, the three writers are asked by the chair of the event, Sarah Rigby, Senior Editor at Hutchinson, to talk further about their writing. Sarah opens by asking about beginnings. This is particularly pertinent as Dea and Carys are debut novelists and Helen has moved to the Hutchinson imprint for publication of her new novel.
Dea tells us that the idea for her novel was born in a taxi taking her and her husband from central Vienna to the airport. They chatted with the driver who, on discovering Dea and her husband were Norwegian, revealed that he had been in the circus in Norway. A Bulgarian who spent his youth in one of the Soviet-era sports academies training to be a weightlifter, when he didn’t make it to the Olympics, he joined the circus instead. He suspected he had a child in Norway but ‘It might not have been mine; the girl really liked the circus’. This left Dea thinking about the pregnant girl left behind. What would people in a small Norwegian coastal town, like the one Dea’s own father grew up in, think of an unmarried girl, pregnant?
Helen talks about spending a long time listening to her characters before she begins writing. They are ‘a buzz against the ear, a rhythm, an intonation and then a voice’. When she starts, she has a certain scene in mind which she writes towards, not knowing how she’s going to get there. A process she describes as ‘unravelling’.
As a writer of short stories before now, Carys reveals that she was ‘nervous about beginning a novel as I hadn’t really thought about it before’. She began by writing a short story about a young boy attempting to resurrect a dead bird, knowing that if it went well it might just be the first step towards something larger. It became a scene in the middle of the novel, leaving her to write what came before it and what came after it.
Sarah then asks about all three novels being set on the coast and how important the landscape and nature are to each book.
Nature is ‘hugely important in the book’, says Dea. The sections of the book set in the past are during a time when people lived off the land. There’s also a contrast between the claustrophobic community that Else lives in and the big, spaced out land that makes up Norway. The sea, therefore, represents escape for Else, becoming representative of constant disappointment when she fails to get away.
Conversely for Carys, the landscape and natural imagery ‘happened incidentally’ despite her living in close proximity to Southport Beach. She goes on to describe how Southport Beach is ideal for the scene that bookends the novel as the tide is usually two miles out and rather than sand, there are mudflats. She describes it as being ‘like standing in a wet desert’ and as a ‘dangerous place’, perfect for the jeopardy that Claire is in at that point in the book.
Helen says that she wanted to explore the contrast between a ‘small intensely known patch of earth’ and the unknown landscape that these young men who’d never left home before were forced to become so intimate with during the war. She’s also interested in how these men felt on their return; how their experiences left them alienated from their place of birth and how they turned to the land, taking on small holdings, in an attempt to reconnect.
Finally, Sarah asks about trauma as the books either begin with or move towards a moment of trauma.
The Last Boat Home begins with Else about to give birth in the kitchen of the family home. Dea says she wanted the trauma to highlight the theme of judgment – what God’s judgment would be seen to be and how the judgment cast via religion legitimises the locals’ judgments of each other.
While the trauma in Dea’s book is birth, in Carys’ it is death, a death that leads to further trauma for Claire, the mother. As the prologue introduces us to Claire some months after Issy’s death, we are aware of something dreadful in motion which Carys leaves hanging until the epilogue, by which point you’ll find yourself holding your breath awaiting the outcome. Carys describes the book as a ‘constant balancing of tragedy and funny stuff’.
Helen explains that the trauma in The Lie is borne out of decisions made or not made (something that is echoed in Dea’s and Carys’ books). Throughout the novel, Daniel berates himself for a decision he made that had fatal consequences, and the stature of this decision increases as the book goes on. She states, ‘I didn’t want to write a stereotypical war book’; instead, she wanted to explore the consequences of young people who haven’t been anywhere going into a highly industrialised world.
During the final discussion, finger sandwiches and cakes arrive on the tables. While we try a selection, Sarah invites questions from the audience for the three writers.
What made Helen write The Greatcoat?
The publisher Hammer approached her to write a literary novella, she says. Initially her response was no, but then she began thinking about the greatcoat which belonged to her father and which she and her sister used to sleep beneath. She describes the novella as ‘quite hard to write’, involving lots of planning and a huge synopsis.
Do the panel have any tips for first-time writers?
‘Just do it!’ says Carys (apologies to Nike). She tells us not to do all the research before we start – it’s too easy to continue researching and not writing – although she does tell us she’s just starting book number two and she’s being much more methodical about it.
Dea says that the beginning of her novel was the most difficult part to write, and then Sarah asked her to rewrite it! She also tells us that she lost almost half the novel after her decision to change the narrator after 30,000 words. Ouch! Like Carys, she talks about the advantages of planning well and admits that she has to be very disciplined. She writes in a shed in the garden with complete silence and no internet connection.
Can the writers tell us something about the research they conduct for their books?
Helen says that her historical novels usually come out of a long interest in the subject, and that when she writes them she feels a responsibility to be accurate. She points to The Siege in particular. Following Dea’s comment about the internet, Helen warns that it ‘can be a terrible trap’ – it can be too easy to revel in the discovery of a new website rather than getting down to the writing. She goes on to point to other issues writers are confronted with, such as having to get over your own doubts about whether you’re allowed to write a particular novel, and knowing when to discard scenes that don’t contribute to the book as a whole. Cary’s grimaces at this, exclaiming, ‘It’s hard!’. Helen replies, ‘If your novel’s a dynamic thing you cannot simply decorate it!’
Why did Carys choose to write a book about Mormons in Yorkshire?
There’s a collective intake of breath and no one mentions the Wars of the Roses, before Carys quietly points out that the book is set in Lancashire. She goes on to reveal that she was brought up in a Mormon family, although she’s since left the church, and never intended to write about it. In fact, the people on her Creative Writing MA and subsequent PhD were quite surprised to discover the subject of the book. ‘It’s a bit of a gift for a writer if you’ve grown up in a community that’s closed,’ she says.
What happens if an author disagrees with a change Sarah, as editor, wishes to make to their work?
This is asked in light of Dea telling us that Sarah changed the opening of The Last Boat Home. Sarah talks about it being a dialogue and how she often makes a suggestion and the writer comes back with an even better idea. The change was made in Dea’s book so the reader would be aware the novel was moving towards the point when Else gives birth and that drives us to discover how she becomes pregnant. Sarah points out the similarity between this and Carys’ book where we are moving towards understanding why Claire is on the beach running.
How mean is Sarah to the three of you?
Dea’s the only writer on stage actually edited by Sarah, and she discloses that Sarah is ‘gentle but thorough’. Helen tells us, ‘There’s something about a really good editor coming in to the book and asking the same question you are – which is, “What if?”’. Both Helen and Sarah discuss the collaboration that takes place between writer and editor and how they spark off each other to mould a better book.
Sarah tells us it’s a ‘privilege’ to work with a writer at that stage of the book’s creation and that with it comes ‘great responsibility’. ‘You publish a book five times,’ she says. Firstly to your colleagues in the publishing house who have to believe in it the same way you do; secondly to retailers, hoping they’ll choose to stock and promote the book; thirdly to key influencers, the press/literary editors and bloggers, aiming for coverage in print and online; then, fourthly, the book comes out in hardback and ebook for readers, before, for the fifth and final time, being published in paperback.
‘And then it returns to the beginning,’ says Helen. That ‘little secret world’ the writer created is recreated by the reader.
And there, after kindly signing our proofs, the writers leave us clutching their secret worlds to take home and make our own.
Naomi Frisby reviews books written by women – old and new, literary and commercial, fiction and non-fiction. She’s a reader, teacher, amateur writer, walker, dancer and lover of cake. You can find her on Twitter @Frizbot and visit her online at http://thewritesofwoman.wordpress.com/
For more on Windmill authors at Cheltenham, read our Festival Guide.