Launch of The Followers at Slightly Foxed Books

On Monday night we celebrated the launch of The Followers at one of the most delightful independent bookshops in London: Slightly Foxed Books on Gloucester Road. If you haven’t already been, make sure you pay a visit – they have an impressive selection of secondhand books (some of which are wonderfully esoteric), as well as new releases.

There was wine. There were many people I liked. I was happy.

With my parents, who totally played it cool throughout.

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Places that inspired The Followers

1. The moors

I was taken to Dartmoor a lot as a little kid. Apparently we even used to camp there, which now sounds pretty horrifying. Although The Followers is actually set on the Yorkshire moors, I returned to Dartmoor twice more whilst writing it, because that was the landscape that had made its way into my blood stream. Each time I was shocked afresh by the freezing wind, and how rapidly the moors could change their mood. Also the desolation of it, and the loneliness – the perfect place to base an isolated and controlling cult.

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With my mum on Dartmoor about three years ago, each of us wearing about thirty five layers.

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2. The forest

The forest in The Followers was inspired by a particular forest near Postbridge on Dartmoor. The trees were so close together and the branches so dense that hardly any light could get in: the perfect place to hide. It became Moses’s forest in The Followers.

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3. The medieval village and the river of blood

When I was about fifteen, I went on a cycling holiday with my family round the south of France. We passed through a tiny medieval village called Brousse-le-Château, which is built into the hillside with a river flowing through it. It was stunningly beautiful, but also very atmospheric – especially after the sky darkened and the rain came.

In fact, it rained so hard that the red clay was washed down from the banks and the river turned red. It was Biblical and ominous, especially in the presence of the shrines set up throughout the gloomy, winding streets. I wondered what would happen if the river turning red were interpreted as a sign from God. Around ten years later, I used this idea in The Followers.

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SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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How to start your own cult in 5 simple steps

Using the expertise I gained whilst researching The Followers, I’ve made this handy video guide to help all you aspiring cult leaders out there.

If you’re wondering why the picture’s a little grainy, it’s because I recorded it in my underground bunker.

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What do we mean by ‘cult’?

'On Wednesdays we wear red.'

‘On Wednesdays we wear red.’

Is the word ‘cult’ is a bit dodgy? Whilst writing The Followers, I thought about this a lot. Certainly there are plenty of problems with ‘cult’ as a label.

For starters, it’s often used too loosely, to refer to any group that is seen as eccentric, or as having beliefs outside the norm (and let’s not even get started on how we define the ‘norm’).

‘Cult’ also has sensationalist connotations that can be a bit distracting. For many people, the word immediately conjures up images of horror and violence, ‘Helter Skelter’ daubed in blood[1], hippies in mini-vans, vats of Kool Aid.[2] Academics tend to avoid using the word ‘cult’ these days. Some refer instead to ‘New Religious Movements’, but I haven’t found that phrase particularly helpful: many groups I’ve researched over the past few years, whilst ostensibly claiming religious motivation, don’t really seem to have much to do with religion at all. And what do we call groups with no overt links to religion, like the ‘Maoist cult’ in south London that’s featured in news stories over the past couple of years?

Back to ‘cult’, then. I’ve come to find it a useful label, so long as I remain very clear in my own mind what I mean by it. For me, a cult is a controlling or destructive group, one which seeks to manipulate its members, and which may involve coercive practices, limit members’ interactions outside the group and restrict independent thought. It may even, in rare cases, lead to violence.

Obviously I can see there’s still plenty of room for subjectivity in what we label as ‘controlling’ or ‘destructive’, and even what we classify as a ‘group’, but that’s the definition I think works best all the same. Sometimes I just refer to ‘controlling groups’, but that’s more of a mouthful. (Also, ‘cult’ tends to get people’s attention; apparently I’m not above trading on its sensationalist connotations when it suits me.)

So, my conclusion? Use ‘cult’ by all means, but use it with caution.

If nothing else, by applying the term to any old group, even if the organisation is perfectly open and benign, we dilute the word’s impact. Then what do we do when we come up against a group like the Manson Family, and actually need a word that is capable of conveying the full madness and horror?

 

[1] It was written as ‘Healter Skelter’ on the refrigerator of Sharon Tate’s house, because whichever of Charles Manson’s murderous idiots it was, they definitely couldn’t spell.

[2] Actually, Flavor Aid was used at the Jonestown killings, but for some reason Kool Aid gets all the bad press.

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Writing about place

Until recently, location has never interested me much. I was vaguely aware when reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager that the story wouldn’t be quite as effective if it were set, say, in Milton Keynes, but beyond that I rarely bothered to analyse the link between place and character, place and events.

I suppose I could see, at university, that there was something peculiarly Roman about Shakespeare’s Romans. The more closely I read the Roman plays, and particularly Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, the more I felt that the characters’ mindset is a product of Rome itself, which has turned them into cold, self-destructive weirdos willing to sacrifice their humanity for abstract notions of honour. Obviously Shakespeare nailed the connection between place and character. But that’s Shakespeare for you, and I left it at that.

This is what my youth looked like. Mostly fields. The unattractive boy is my friend Mike.

This is what my youth looked like. Mostly fields. The grubby boy is my friend Mike.

So setting is not particularly important in my first novel. Really, the events could be unfolding anywhere. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. I wrote the book between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-three in my childhood bedroom. Aside from university (in a city I already knew well), I had never lived anywhere other than my parents’ house in a small Oxfordshire village. I loved the place where I grew up, but I took it for granted, and didn’t understand until I moved away that I’d internalised those fields and lumpy sheep as part of my identity.

I wrote my second novel in London, where I had moved to teach. For someone who’d spent more time with livestock than with humans, London was a shock. (It’s still a shock, three years on.) The confusion and homesickness, the feeling of having been suddenly transplanted into an alien environment, made its way into the novel I was working on. Finally, I understood the significance of place, and how it gets into our blood and into our bones.

This also means I’ve begun to realise how crucial setting is to many novels I’ve loved in the past. I’ve been teaching Silas Marner to my Y11 class this year and now appreciate for the first time how well George Eliot writes about the importance of place, as poor Silas is forced to leave the only town he’s ever known and to start again in a strange place, amongst strange people. For the exile, Eliot writes, ‘the past becomes dreamy because its symbols have vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.’

I’ve also been influenced by Sarah Butler, whose debut novel came out around the same time as mine, and with whom I share a publisher. Sarah is extremely good on place. Her novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love could not be set anywhere other than London. The interplay between place and people is woven into the fabric of her writing, and I’ve found her fascination with place infectious.

I set my second novel (The Followers) on the Yorkshire moors. It is not so much that the story wouldn’t have worked elsewhere (and actually I did most of my research on Dartmoor, which I’ll come back to another time); it’s more that the characters in this book are far more shaped by where they’re from than the characters in The View on the Way Down. So if I had used a different setting, I think I could still have told the same or a similar story, but the characters themselves would not have been quite the same.

I appreciate I might be spouting truisms that have long been obvious to everyone except for me, but I find this interesting all the same. I want to go back to the countryside eventually, because in my head that’s ‘home’. At the same time, I’m not done yet. London is twisting itself round my trunk like ivy, so God knows what ‘home’ will mean in a few more years.

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How to talk about your novel without sounding like a weirdo

I can always see it coming, and it fills me with horror. The conversation is going well. I am being normal. Then the other person asks me what I do, and I tell them, shyly, that I am a writer. [1] They ask if I’ve had anything published, and I say that my first novel was published last year.

And of course, the next question is always, ‘What’s it about?’ and although I’ve had plenty of time to prepare, I panic and start to flail about like a grounded eel.

I didn't have a suitable picture to go with this post. So instead I've included a photo of my happiest memory. You're welcome.

I didn’t have a suitable picture to go with this post. So instead I’ve included a photo of my happiest memory. You’re welcome.

I’ve been thinking recently about why this question poses such a problem for me. The book was published over a year ago in hardback, and was in the works for a long time before that. I’ve probably been asked to explain what it’s about literally thousands of times over the past two years – longer if you count my initial, wildly inarticulate pitch to my agent – but I have never come up with a satisfactory response. Instead I grow bashful, mumble words like ‘family’ and ‘death’ and shoot my interlocutor a pleading, helpless look before sloping away, heavy with sorrow.

Why the awkwardness? It’s partly that, as a debut novelist, I’m not used to any of this stuff: the idea of ‘selling’ either the book or myself is pretty foreign to me. (‘Who would want to buy you, anyway?’ my friend says. ‘They’d get a nasty shock when they opened the box.’) I’m also fairly young, and sometimes feel younger; all too often the whole thing reminds me of being hauled up on stage at a school concert and told to recite a poem about a cat. [2] Besides this, I’m mildly awkward most of the time anyway, so put me in a situation where I have to discuss something as personal as the novel I’ve written – particularly given the subject matter of The View on the Way Down, which often shuts the conversation down with a polite, frozen, ‘Oh, right,’ from the listener – and I come close to spontaneously combusting with discomfort.

Which brings me onto what I think is my main difficulty. It’s not a book that suits being reduced to catchy taglines. Not that many books do, but some possibly resist it more than others. For instance, I am becoming positively enthusiastic about launching into a description of my second novel (A religious cult! The moors! Brainwashing and killing!). But The View on the Way Down explores more sensitive terrain for me, focusing on the creeping horror of depression, suicide, and the myriad ways in which an ordinary family can implode with rage and pain. It doesn’t make for easy dinner party chat, not least because it’s based partly on my own experience and I have to be pretty psyched up to be ready to discuss that with other people. There’s also a ‘twist’ (though that word seems inappropriate in the context) and I have to be careful not to give it away, even though it’s sort of the point of the book and perhaps the bit I’d be most interested in discussing.

I have a suspicion that since the hardback publication, my fumbling attempts to either half-answer or sidestep questions about its subject matter have put off more readers than they’ve lured in.

But having said all this, the reason I started writing this post is that I think I’ve finally nailed it. I know what I should have been saying this whole time. So prepare yourself. Here’s how the conversation will go next time I’m asked what The View on the Way Down is about:

Person: ‘You’ve written a book? Cool. What’s it about?’

Me: ‘Person, I’m glad you asked. It’s a novel about a family coping with the loss of their son, and the secrets surrounding his death.’

Person: ‘That’s a pithy description! Did it come to you in a dream?’

Me: ‘Yes.’ [3]

So, I think what I have learned over the past couple of years is that a) I find it difficult to talk about mental illness with strangers, and b) when trying to promote a book, ALWAYS MENTION SECRETS. People love secrets. There’s a big, sad one at the heart of The View on the Way Down.

Finally, you may have noticed that, weirdly, this whole post about me being unable to talk to people about what the novel is about has also been me talking to you about what the novel is about.

That was for you, David Foster Wallace.

 

[1] If I’m feeling cowardly, I just say ‘teacher’, which is also true. And people don’t seem to have as many questions about being a teacher, beyond a dutiful, ‘Do you hate Michael Gove?’ I will say it once and for all: I am indifferent to Michael Gove.

[2] I still have dreams about Macavity, the little bastard.

[3] It didn’t come to me in a dream.

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The joys of bookselling

I stopped by Wallingford Bookshop the other day, a superb independent bookshop which I recommend you visit if you’re ever in the area. I had a cup of tea and a chat with Alison, the delightful owner, and thought how bloody great bookshops are. shopfront

This, in turn, made me feel nostalgic for my days as a bookseller, where I got to spend all day in a bookshop. As my job. Not that there weren’t stresses and drawbacks, of course (and I was only an employee, of course, not the owner; I had very little responsibility). But I can say now, having done several jobs over the past few years – waitress (complete with medieval wench outfit), office temp (awful), teacher (brilliant) – my years working at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford remain my happiest employment memory. When it came to writing The View on the Way Down, it seemed only natural that the main character should work in a bookshop.

For me, it was meant to be a temporary arrangement, a Sunday job whilst I was in sixth form, but then I stayed after I left school and worked there on and off for the next four years. I loved wearing my special Blackwell’s badge. I loved being surrounded by books all day, and talking to customers who loved books themselves. I found completing stock-checks strangely soothing (I may be rose-tinting here). I even grew to look upon Booksolve, the temperamental database system, as a dear, eccentric, blue-screened friend.

I started out, feeling pretty important, in General, the big front desk by the main entrance. (‘We’re on the FRONT LINE!’ I told my parents after my first day. ‘We deal with enquiries! And we handle Modern Fiction! NOT TO MENTION SCI-FI!’) I also spent several months in the Children’s Department, which was full of pretty colours and made me feel nurtured, then History and Classics, a more rarefied environment. I spent a brief but memorable period, too, in Customer Services, cultivating a chirpy and efficient persona, and only occasionally panicking. (‘You want to send how many books to Australia? CODE RED, EVERYONE.’)

Just chilling out in the Norrington Room. My badge is just out of sight, which is a tragedy.

Just chilling out in the Norrington Room, back in the day. My beloved badge is hanging just out of sight, which is a tragedy.

But it was the day I was moved to the Business and Economics Department that I felt my Blackwell’s career was really taking off. Business and Economics may sound an unpromising department for an aspiring fiction writer, but I couldn’t have been happier. You see, I’d finally made it into the Norrington Room. This is where the serious stuff happens. For those of you who haven’t visited the shop, the Norrington Room is the vast basement area, holding over three miles of shelving. It’s a stunning, if occasionally daunting, prospect. I recall a customer approaching me during my first week down there with a look of scarcely suppressed panic in her eyes. ‘Where are the stairs?’ she said. ‘Where are the stairs?’ I think she was afraid she would die down there.

Business and Economics was in some ways a challenge, as the titles were far beyond my realm of experience. Still, I remember the moment I realised I’d made it: in answer to a mild customer enquiry, I leapt from my chair with an ecstatic cry of, ‘Yes, I know exactly where The Handbook of Humorous Training Games is!’ My colleague, I remember, smiled gently at me behind the customer’s back and then made the ‘loser’ signal with his hand.

Business and Economics covers some fairly arid territory, but you work with what you’ve got. My colleague and I developed exuberant dance moves for publishers’ hold music when ringing up to place orders. We became obsessed with the duo Atrill & McLaney (esteemed authors of seminal text Accounting and Finance for Non-Specialists, in case you’re not in the know), and created an elaborate illustrated saga in which they were a dynamic crime-fighting team. (When I finally left for good, I found that my leaving card was mysteriously signed by Atrill; ‘but McLaney sends his apologies’.) We enjoyed a particular camaraderie with the customers, including one man who used to come in every week to recommend new Game Theory titles for us. I thought for ages he was a publisher’s rep, but he turned out to be acting purely out of love of Game Theory. It was the year Joseph Stiglitz’s book Making Globalisation Work came out (what do you mean, you don’t remember?). We were swamped with copies, and competed for how many each of us could sell. That book began to haunt my dreams. We made some beautiful displays, which we rearranged daily (‘Are we selling the book?’ we would ask each other with faux-anxiety).

Elijah Wood and John Hurt popped in one day to film part of The Oxford Murders in the shop. I was paralysed with awkwardness when Elijah Wood came up to our desk to ask about photography books, and practically bellowed at him, ‘DO YOU LIKE OUR SHOP?’ (He said he did, by the way. Not that he had much choice.)

I wonder if there will be a time in the future when I find myself working in a bookshop again. I hope so. But it’s not the best time to be a bookseller. As we all know, bookshops are under threat; some brilliant ones have already closed, and will be hugely missed. It’s up to all of us to remember why it’s so wonderful to wander into a bookshop – why it feels so good to be in there – and make sure we keep visiting.

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