Year of Indie Debuts – Exquisite by Sarah Stovel

This month’s’ books is ‘Exquisite’ by Sarah Stovell.

Hello Sarah, thank you for agreeing to chat about your book, Exquisite, I really enjoyed reading it.

Your writing is frankly amazing and I am in awe of it, which has actually made it quite hard to come up with questions! But I would like to talk about the process of writing such an intense book with two such strong characters. Did you find that they developed at the same time, or were they fighting for your attention as you went along? I wonder if one of them came to you first, or were they both always there at the start?

They were both there, full formed, at the very beginning. I had been thinking of them for years, though, so it wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sounds.

People often talk about a writer needing a glint of ice in the heart, that we mine personal experience ruthlessly. I think both your characters demonstrate that to the extreme, in different ways. I’m not going to ask if any of this is drawn on your own lived experience, but I am asking if you feel inherently that writers are risky people to get to close to maybe?

No, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t advise anyone to behave so badly to a writer that the writer feels a need to expose them. Because obviously, the writer will go ahead and do that.

The writing retreat in this made me smile, the description of the people there, I think I saw myself among them! I guess I would say this, but they are an amazing opportunity and can have that other world feel as you have time out from the real world to focus on your passion. Have you been on one before?

Yes. I have been on them and taught on them. They can be excellent. Really life-changing.

I like the way you use food in the book, it makes a statement about each of the main characters and the worlds they live in and that they create, especially Bo. How do you feel you the food relates to your story?

The sort of food we eat, like everything, is an indicator of social class (sadly). People at the top of the class-food chain get to munch down on gold. Those at the bottom get a few tins of economy soup from the food bank. This, in turn, will affect a person’s mental health. In ‘Exquisite’, Alice is very vulnerable and often hungry. She can’t cook, or look after herself. Bo, who has more power and wealth, eats well and uses food as a way of nurturing others. This is the first novel where I’ve used food in this way. In my new novel, I take it much further. Food is a big deal.

I think there are parallels between the literary debate over the Wordsworths, the discussion around the William/Dorothy relationship, and your book. Do you feel the two stories relate to each other?

Yes. There is a theme of a love that is so deep and shocking, it transgresses normal boundaries.

I hope that you’’ve written tons of books before this, because if this really is your first book I really will cry – but how have you developed your voice and got to the point of publication with Exquisite?

It’s very hard to pinpoint a smooth line of development in writing, but I would say that my first novel focused mainly on the voices of the characters. As I’ve developed, I have become more interested in landscape (which is something that has become increasingly important to me personally) and psychology. I think this shows in my more recent work.

Are you a baker? (Just thinking of the delicious and yet sinister french bread!)

Yes. I love baking. I’d never get anywhere on the Bake-off because I absolutely can’t be bothered to do a show stopper, but I love making cakes, scones, meringues, desserts, bread…

So, where is your writing heading next?

I’ve almost finished my next book. It’s about a young woman named Annie, whose mother has gone missing. Annie is evicted from her house for not paying the rent and goes to work as a nanny. While there, something happens to a child in her care…

Thank you for coming Sarah and giving us an insight into this novel and your writing process.

In my day job, well, one of them, I teach silversmithing, and one of the things you need to learn about is silver soldering. But soldering, the process of using a metal alloy with a lower melting point to the silver to fuse pieces together, doesn’t work without the use of flux. Flux, most commonly borax, is a glass like mineral which you paint on before you solder, and what it does it prevent the surface of the mental reacting with the silver to form an oxide. If you don’t use flux, the hot metal pulls oxygen from the air and when the solder melts, it fuses to this sooty deposit and the joint will fail.

With a lot of the writing I read, even writing I enjoy, I feel that it’s silver without flux, that there’s a coating on I can’t quite get through and which prevents the book from taking, from fusing completely with my mind. Sarah’s writing is like flux, it’s so good that I didn’t feel like I was reading, but rather that the two main characters were with me or that I was with them, that we were fused. I don’t know how you find the flux your writing needs, I don’t know if I have, but read this book if you want to understand what I mean.

You can get a copy of Exquisite here in print, digital or audio book.

And connect with her @sarahlovescrime on Twitter.





Is porn the portrait in our attics?

I’ve been listening to a series of podcasts by Jon Ronson called The Butterfly Effect. It may not sound like your cup of tea as it looks at the porn industry, but I’ve found it fascinating and it reminded me of a literary echo I wanted to mull over.

In 2007 a Belgian man realised that he could make money from porn without making porn, by creating a sharing platform similar to you-tube, which allowed people (ok, mostly men) to upload any content they’d previously paid for and share it with millions of users. This meant that where previously you needed a credit card to access adult content – something which helped block children and younger teens – if you had a smart phone without parental controls, you could start downloading pretty much anything.

Added to this, the algorithms designed for the site (porn hub if you’re curious) notice what kind of content you’re watching and streams more of the same, or similar, to your device. Porn is a bit like stamp collecting, in that a) you have entry level material, which is widely available and cheap, and b) once you’ve started, your instinct is to seek out more and more rarified examples. Regular porn is very much a gateway drug, like the way your first coffee is probably milky and sweet but later you move onto the stronger stuff to get the same hit.

People in the industry, the actors and crew, couldn’t make any where near the money they used too, unless they had a ‘thing’ which marked them out as unusual. Apparently, your average sexy twenty year old girl is pretty much unemployed most of the time now because, well, we’ve all seen that before. As a woman over 40, I would be able to charge more for doing MILF porn, so there’s always that to fall back on I guess!

The only people who are making a bit of money from actually shooting content, are the ones offering ‘customs’, films tailor-made for individual clients. These are pretty rarified kinks and fetishes, and tend to be so specific as to almost incomprehensible to others. I’m talking about films where women have condiments poured over them, or ones where a girl holds onto the arms of a man and the camera lingers over her fingers denting his flesh to the exclusion of everything else. There was even one where a guy paid for women to destroy his very valuable stamp collection while laughing at him – see, I said it was like stamp collecting.

What all this has made me think of is The Portrait of Dorian Grey. In this world of custom made films, becoming ever more individual and ever more obscure, is digital technology creating for each user their very own portrait in the attic, growing uglier and uglier, becoming an ever darker reflection of their souls as they download more and more content? And if that’s the case, like Dorian, is one of the greatest thing we fear now the revealing of this portrait, so at odds to our user friendly, carefully edited, Instagram and Facebook personas? Sure, we’ve always had dark sides, but now we have artificial intelligence feeding them, pushing them further down the rabbit hole.

Another side effect of the creation of Porn Hub was that affiliate sites were able to target users with their ads, thanks once again to the algorithms. ‘Ashleigh Madison’ , a kind of hook up app for married people seeking affairs, saw a massive increase in members through these ads. Men seeking out more and more rarified content were signing up in the hope of meeting a sexual partner who might be prepared to do something in the bedroom to match.  But then hackers threatened to reveal the site’s clients addresses for a ransom; they refused to pay, the list was released, and millions of users were exposed.

Thing was though, as there was a vast imbalance between the numbers of men and women on the site, and it catered for the heterosexual community by large, the company’s A.I had created ‘bots’ to engaged male members in conversation as a reward for joining. Because the bots were able to use the same algorithms that channelled their ideal pornography to them, these bots not only appeared real but appeared to be their idea sexual fantasy women as well. Marriages and relationships broke up, men, like the pastor in New Orleans featured in the podcast, killed themselves because of the shame of exposure, all without knowing they’d been talking to a robot all the time. In the Blade Runner sequel, the main character has a holographic girlfriend who’s sole purpose is to serve his every need, and yet in the film he is still driven to find a “real” woman – I do wonder how many people if given the choice, would actually stick to their never complaining sex bots? Consider this – erectile disfunction in men under 30 has gone up by over 1000% percent since 2007, while teenage pregnancy rates have dropped almost as much. The researchers interviewed for the podcast seem pretty certain this is because many young men are unable to respond to actual women who do not conform to their tailored porn ideal anymore, coupled with young women rebelling by staying in their rooms sexting rather than sneaking out of the window. A brave new world?

This interested me because I’m a writer, and I write a lot about the void between who we are and who we’d like to be, and the lengths we go to in insuring that our public faces stay intact. The internet has changed the experience of growing up in so many ways, and as I grew up without it, how young people navigate it now is something I am interested in because I want to write characters who seem real, and because I want to write about where all this might be taking us.

At the end of ‘The Butterfly Effect, ‘ you are left with the impression that our dark portraits, like Dorian Grey’s, are making us increasingly unable to connect with each other, as we become ever more jaded by seeking a thrill that is never satisfied but only reflected back to us. But in the last episode, Ronson leaves us with a kind of weird hope. In a world of people requesting narrower and narrower experiences, the couple who make custom porn were sent a request for a video of a young woman telling the viewer that he was Okay, that things will get better, that life is worth living if he just holds on and keep positive, and that suicide was not the only way forwards. They messaged back to say of course, but didn’t heard back from him, so decided to make and send the video anyway. I hope he saw it, I hope that the algorithms had managed to lead him to a way to reconnect after all, and that his portrait looked brighter because of it.


If you’d like to listen to the original Podcast, The Butterfly Effect, please use the link below to Jon Ronson’s webpage for further details.

A year of Indie debuts – The Other Twin by Lucy V Hay


In this edition of our Indie debuts series I’m talking to author Lucy Hay about her thriller ‘The Other Twin’ published by Orenda books. It’s set in London on Sea, or Brighton as others may know it, a place which has always been some what subversive and alternative in nature and has attracted delight and dismay in equal measure. Her novel weaves its way through this setting and works itself into the cracks between the outward glitz and underground decadence of the town, and into the lives of two families which are equally enmeshed, one with the other. I opened my interview with her talking about the setting, as for me it came across as a tangible and exciting creation which was central to the book, almost a character in its own right.


Almost like cities such as London and Edinburgh, Brighton has a strong, vivid presence in fiction, which means that many people must come to any new representation of it with a lot of familiarity. How well do you know it as a place and do you feel the weight of all those ‘other’ Brightons behind your writing?

I knew I had to get Brighton right. It’s a vibrant city that has such a significance for so many people, especially the LGBT community. I knew that classics like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock right through to modern icons like Peter James’ Roy Grace would be compared against my version of Brighton – which people have, in reviews – so yes, that was a pressure. But ultimately, I had to let go of that and bring forth MY vision of Brighton, not recycle someone else’s. So rather than pore feverishly over published content, I went to Brighton and sucked up the atmos there, using my eyes, ears and other senses to really get a ‘feel’ for the place. Hopefully I have transmitted that to the page.

Your novel uses the dichotomy between the public and the private of the internet to great effect, the way that we publish the most intimate thoughts to a world of strangers and yet keep them from our nearest and dearest. How do you feel that sense of sharing and yet not sharing has affected how we live now?

I’m always reminded of Shakespeare’s notion of the ‘whole world’s a stage’ quote when it comes to the internet. We all have online personas now, just as we have public and private ones. How we use these online personas can differ, person to person. For some, the online persona is a ‘work thing’ – they may create a brand and strategy, that is very carefully crafted. For other people, online may be the only place they can speak the truth and truly be themselves. For just as many, it is somewhere in-between.  Social media has so many wonderful applications, especially for women and marginalised people to find their tribes and create opportunities (including work and money). But it also has a dark side: too many people abuse social media – such as trolls – and even more use it to fuel the neverending cycle of outrage we currently live in. It’s become a conformity factory, with perceived transgressors piled on and harassed; those people calling out others then kid themselves they’re raging against the machine and/or taking on the system. It’s a real shame.

There are a lot of hidden identities in the book, some hidden willingly, some desperate to be uncovered. Do you think that the struggle for truth in who you are is at the heart of your writing?

Absolutely. I spent a very long time confused about who I truly was; I felt fragmented, even a fraud. It took me many years to accept my own identity and my – sometimes paradoxical – roles and emotions within it. Life is a journey and I daresay there are still lots of things I will find out about myself yet, too. But unlike before, I am not afraid to do this anymore. I think that’s why I wanted to write about identity and truth in The Other Twin – I feel it is all a matter of perspective, rather than a concrete thing.

Reading your book I did reflect on how what might be called ‘Thrillers’ do seem to have a mostly white, female and middle class cast, especially those centred in a domestic setting rather than all spies and guns, if you know what I mean. Did you set out to write a book with a deliberately more diverse cast of characters?

I feel very strongly that stories of any kind need more variety. As a script editor and blogger at, I identified a need for stories to have more characters than ‘the usual’ a long time ago; not just for ‘political correctness’, but because there are swathes of the audience not being served – it’s good business sense! I have written several non-fiction books about writing, including one on so-called ‘diverse characters’, so it was a no-brainer to take my own advice! Lots of writers shy away from diverse characters like those from the LGBT or BAME communities, because they’re afraid of getting it ‘wrong’. I can understand and relate to this worry, because I felt it too. But I picked LGBT and BAME characters because of a genuine interest and feeling of solidarity with both communities; my friends and acquaintances sharing their own stories literally helped me inform the narrative. Their POVs were absolutely invaluable and I feel very grateful they shared their perspectives with me. There would have been no story without them.

Do you start a book with an idea of where the plot is going, or do you pick up a thread and see where it follows?

It depends. With The Other Twin, I saw the ending and ‘big reveal’ in my head, clear as day – as if it was a memory, like it really happened. I could see and feel it so clearly, right down to the location and the sense of urgency. From there, I asked myself: WHO are these characters? WHAT is happening? WHY? HOW did they get here? Though the ways of getting there changed through the many drafts, that ending never did.

Assuming this is your first published book, or even if it’s not, I imagine like most of us it’s one in a long and worthy line of nearly theres and also rans, so what do you think you’ve learned about your writing by being published?

Every book teaches you something in my experience. The Other Twin is my first crime novel and what I have learned from this one is how much difference an editor who really ‘gets’ the book makes. Both Karen Sullivan and West Camel at Orenda Books challenged me every step of the way to bring my best game to drafting process, they went through every line with the classic fine toothcomb! I was allowed to get away with NOTHING. The fiends!

Where is your next book set, will you stay in Brighton or are you moving to a new location?

Book 2 for Orenda is set in Epsom, Surrey. So very middle-class, white and straight … in both senses of the word. Probably the antithesis to Brighton, in fact!

Cats or dogs?

Cats, obviously. I have five of my own, I’m a crazy cat lady in training. When my kids have left home I plan to rant and rave and throw cats at everyone like the woman from THE SIMPSONS. It’s going to be awesome.

BIO: @LucyVHayAuthor is a novelist, script editor and blogger who helps writers. Lucy is the producer of two Brit Thrillers, DEVIATION (2012) and ASSASSIN (2015). Her debut crime novel, THE OTHER TWIN, is due out with Orenda Books in 2017. Check out  here website HERE and all her books, HERE.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Other Twin’ as I am a sucker for a deep dark secret and the machinations people go through to keep it a secret. I found the main character appealing enough to want to go with her for the ride, and the world through which she traveled felt authentic and enticing. It also had a touch of glamour which one doesn’t often see in British set thrillers, which was a nice contrast to the darker side of the writing – I kept getting flashes of sequins and marble floors, bright lights and designer labels, like a brittle shell over murky waters. It also tackles some uncomfortable issues head on, in a way which wasn’t overly preachy, and it did give pause to reflect not only on what was happening in the plot, but what the book was subtly saying about the genre. So, if you fancy some nitty-gritty-glittery thriller action, this is definitely worth buying, and if you like Lucy’s work, it’s really good to see she’s got plans for many more with her supportive and high quality publishers, Orenda, who are certainly ones to keep tabs on.  And right now the Kindle edition of THE OTHER TWIN is on a 99p promotion, so there’s no excuse not to grab a copy!

Year of Indie Debuts: The May Queen

For the next in our series looking at Indie debuts, we’re speaking with Helen Irene Young about her novel The May Queen. It’s a light yet poignant coming of age novel, opening just before the start of world war two, following May as she struggles against the expectations of society and the privations of war to find herself and her love.

Hello Helen and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your novel. We (us authors I mean) are  always being asked to class our writing as one genre or another, and I suppose I’d class The May Queen both as women’s fiction and historical fiction, have you decided which it is? Will you write more in that genre, or is the May Queen a one off?

Yes, it’s tricky. I never set out to write ‘historical fiction’ as such because it gives more importance to the notion of genre rather than content. When you say it’s historic and it doesn’t have enough period detail, people get upset. I’d probably tell them to go visit a museum. I don’t even know what ‘women’s fiction’ is. It’s a label I really struggle with. When writing The May Queen I got really obsessed with the idea of telling a modern story set in a past time because inherently there isn’t anything different in the way people acted then to how people act now. They’re just clothed differently. You could call The May Queen historic fiction but you could also call it motorbike fiction, if you wanted, because there’s a motorbike in it. Actually ‘women’s motorbike fiction’ has a nice ring to it.

Oh yes, I really like women’s motorbike fiction, that should definitely be a genre all of it’s own!  Your main character May, the motorbike rider,  feels like a very real person, with a deep sense of her place in time – her story would have been very different if only set ten years earlier or later. Was the idea behind the book sparked by real life stories?

That is great to hear, thank you. I certainly lived and breathed her from start to finish. She was initially based on my grandmother who grew up in the mill cottages in Fairford, Gloucestershire, which is where May lives in the book. She quickly became something other though, perhaps retaining something of what I thought my grandmother might have been as a girl, something of my mother too and lots of me. In terms of her sense of place, you’re right, her positioning at this time, at this age in wartime Britain could not have happened at any other time. It would have been a different book.

I felt that there was a lot of symbolism around vehicles of different kinds, the car in the big house, May’s bike, her later war work – do you feel that they represent more than just a means of getting about, that they’re a metaphor also?

I hadn’t thought of that. I was focusing too much on water being a metaphor! Vehicles do this too though, you’re right, however, their main function is to get May from A to B. I suppose that I made her a dispatch rider because it was the most exciting of the WRNS professions for me. She could have worked in an office, she could have been an engineer or she could have been a boater as her friend, Rene, is. I thought if she had her own wheels she could go anywhere, quite literally.

I think one of the strongest ideas which comes across is how although the war was so utterly devastating, it also offered a way ‘out’ of traditional roles and life paths for women, do you think that’s the case too?

Yes, there were so many chances for different love affairs for one! I think this period saw more free love than the 1960s. Women really took charge of their sex lives and they were everyday women, not society women either. That was a new thing. In The May Queen, May is free to marry but she doesn’t have to either and that is the big difference. It changes the way she thinks about everything.

I’ve heard that the book was serialised in a women’s magazine, which must have felt like a huge vote of confidence! Which magazine was it, how did you find that experience and did you have to re-edit it for that publication?

This is the point at which I pretend this happened and name an obscure literary magazine.

Oh blimey, I better fire the office underlings – goodness knows how I decided that was a thing! Well, I think it would sit very well as a serial in a magazine, if that helps! Let me recover my blushes with my next question: What sort of writer are you, what’s your process? I tend to write loads and try not to stop, then think about it afterwards, how do you approach creating a novel?

Good question! (phew!) I try to let an idea grow into something all-encompassing in my head first. This helps me to mull over character, plot and circumstance and also the big WHY. As in, why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Does it matter? If it matters, why does it matter? How do I want my reader to feel afterwards? I really like that last question. As a writer I try to drive everything (no matter how small) towards that. Once there is too much going on in my head I let it explode into plot, which I usually map out using post-its on my kitchen wall. Then begins the task of getting that first draft down. I work industriously day-after-day letting each plot point carry me through to completion. If I don’t do this it just won’t happen. Usually, with a good wind, I get a first draft done that way. Then the real work begins.

And of course we always ask, what are you working on now and what will fans be able to read from you next?

I don’t know if I have any fans but I am currently consoling myself with a tale of lost love and redemption set in pre-civil war Colombia.

I think if women’s motorbike fiction is your thing, or more properly fiction with a twentieth century setting and a well rounded female lead is your thing, then I think you’ll soon become a fan of Helen’s writing. 

You can find a link to Helen’s blog here….

If you’d like a quick bite of her writing, she was a runner-up in the Retreat West Quarterly Themed Flash Fiction Competition this year, which you can read here.

You can buy The May Queen from Amazon here….


Adapt and survive, or adapt and die?

I don’t quite remember who – it might have been Damon Alban but don’t quote me on that – but a musician anyway once said that having someone re-mix your song was a bit like someone offering to take your dog for a walk, only for them to bring back a different dog. I guess the same might be said of page to screen adaptations.

Of course, there’s been a controversial adaption in the media this week with the announcement that Scott McGehee and David Siegel are working on an all female version of Lord of the Flies. This has produced the comment from the author William Golding himself that, ‘(Lord of the flies) would only work with little boys, because little boys are more representative of society than little girls,’ and has divided social media into two (or maybe three) camps split a long the lines of either a) it’s political correctness gone mad, what next, a female James Bond? or b) it’s being written by two men, so it’s going to be nothing but palm leaf bikinis, with every cast member a size zero, apart “miss” Piggy, who will be a size two and wear glasses, and of course the third camp, who were forced to study it at school and couldn’t care less, as most books studied at school have all the joy beaten out of them by exam questions no matter what they are.

I imagine the truth will end up somewhere in between. Yes, you can argue that the original book was a satire on a white, upperclass colonial elite as typified by the public school system, and what it was trying to say was not that all children are like this, but that children institutionalised by a pretty brutal and toxic education system are, and so it won’t ever translate to an all female cast. You could equally argue that white, upperclass women were just a much part of that colonial system, and in general are just as nasty and tribal as men, and we do both men and women a disservice by trying to pretend that one is inherently nicer than the other, so there’s no reason why they can’t directly swap in for their male counterparts. Perhaps the real argument is that it’s time we stopped endlessly adapting things which have already been adapted, filmed, rebooted and homaged, and write some original stuff perhaps, maybe?

We all get very attached to the books we love, we live in their world and we become friends or enemies with their characters, and part of the power of reading is that we each adapt the book ourselves inside our heads. It is a uniquely intimate experience which can only be equaled by listening to music, and so of course when we hear someone else is going to make those internal pictures external, we all know that it won’t be the way way we see them, because it just can’t be, and that’s a loss. Once you see an actor portray the character you’ve spent hours alone with, one who’s spoken to you, held you, frightened you and consoled you, then the image you have in your head sort of fades to be replaced by that actor, even if you could never have actually described how you saw the character in the first place. Indeed, the brilliance of great writing is that an author rarely if ever gives you more than a few lines of description of their characters, so it’s your unconscious mind that joins the dots and paints a picture from your life experience, and it can be mildly shocking sometimes to think about what this says about your secret desires and wishes. Compared to that, any adaption is going to feel a bit like a trespass, so you can understand why people get so defensive about it.

That being the case, then what is the point of an adaption in trying to be faithful to the original, when we’re always on to lost cause? The Colin Firth version of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ is often sited as a pretty good adaption, but there are still plenty of people ready to go on at length about how such and such isn’t right, and so and so detail is wrong. I wonder if there was more, less inhibited enjoyment to be had from the exuberant ‘Bride and Prejudice’, which updated the story to a Bollywood setting and was able to make witty comments on contemporary Asian culture while staying true to the essence of the story? You could say the same about West Side Story which re-worked Romeo and Juliet in a then contemporary setting, and in doing so created a piece which will stand the test of time alongside the original, without taking anything away from it? (Though I confess it would be pretty hard to over shadow that particular original!)

Maybe great adaptions work best when the source material is less well known, because we have less cultural investment in them, and so there’s less people to offend. ‘Blade Runner’ took it’s initial idea for ‘Do Androids dream of electric sheep,’ by Philip K Dick, which is an excellent short story but was not widely read outside fans and genre enthusiasts at the time. Indeed, because it was a short story and not a novel, that meant there was room for the movie to expand into something bigger, while if you’re trying to adapt larger, more complex works there really is no where to go but smaller, to reduce what you have to fit the time and money restraints, and so the end result will always be something lesser than the original?

Maybe that’s the secret to successful adaptions, that they should use their source material not as a template but as a launch pad? They work best when the foundation and safety net means that writers can take risks, can push their craft and might, with a huge amount of luck, hit on something which is if not better than the original, just as interesting?

I’ve no idea if an all female Lord of the Flies will be any “good’, I can imagine it has potential to be problematic rubbish, though I also know that the headline names on the script will have surprisingly little to do with what ends up on the screen, so it’s not automatically the case the women won’t get to write some decent characters in it (inset pinch of salt here). It might be amazing; it could take an idea and re-work it for a society which thankfully has changed a lot since the 1950’s, but which still has a long way to go to be truly egalitarian, so could do with some punchy satire. I think they should give it a go, it’s just that I fear what comes to the screen may be a more damning satire on society in how it’s made, than what’s shown on the screen.

Year of Indie Debuts: The Favourite by S.V Berlin

This week on the Retreat West Blog, I have the pleasure in talking to SV Berlin about her novel ‘The Favourite’,  published by Myriad books. My review of the book comes after my interview with Sarah:

Thank you  for giving me the chance to read your book; could you give us a quick intro and tell us who are you and how you crafted your way to publication?

I was born in London, in the spot where Dick Whittington ‘turned’. Years later I moved to Manhattan because I saw it in a movie and thought I’d be happy there. At this point I have lived there for most of my life and have had more careers than George Osbourne – wilderness SAR professional, textile designer, corporate facilitator…the list goes on. I’m far too inquisitive and have all kinds of obscure interests. These days I’m a freelance marketing and branding copywriter, and an occasional speechwriter for the self-styled titans of Wall Street. As to getting published, it was graft and craft in equal measure. I had a hazy idea for a book and promised myself that I would not only write it – but finish it. After about three years, I began the yucky bit: submitting the manuscript to agents. A depressing number of rejections later I happened to hear about Myriad Publications, who accept submissions directly from authors. I not-very-hopefully sent in my first three chapters and was almost bemused when they wrote back and said they’d like to chat…

There are a lot of triangular relationships in The Favourite, echoed in the way the chapters move between the three main characters, going over events from their perspectives – the mother and two children, mother, son and girlfriend, even the girlfriend’s sister’s marital problems are triangular – was that a conscious decision to explore the potential unbalanced nature of that sort of relationship?

Yes – and no. The dynamics of power change dramatically as the novel progresses, and in some quite shocking ways. Even the cat is caught up (somewhat obliviously, it must be said) in its own power triangle. However, aside from the more obvious tensions between the three primary characters, I did not set out to create a sophisticated set of inter-connecting triangular relationships. So I’d say that some of it evolved organically – clever me! More seriously, I am discovering one of the great pleasures of being a published writer, which is that you get to have readers. And readers spot all kinds of interesting themes and associations that a writer may have completely missed.

There are moments when the characters are both intentionally and unintentionally funny in quite sad situations, all of which come across as being very well observed and authentically derived from both their character and the plot – is that something you work to include or does it just develop as part of your character writing?

Who hasn’t experienced an uncharitable thought at a funeral? Or giggled when a newsreader describes a devastating flood as a ‘very fluid situation’? Despite all my years in America, I find it impossible to maintain an entirely po-faced approach to misery. In writing, as in life, my English self feels compelled to inject humour into overly sober situations. Whether that’s through a character’s wry observations, or that same character behaving in a manner that’s ridiculous or unintentionally amusing, I just can’t help myself.

The self-improvement book “Pathways to Possible” is a wonderful…shall we say homage…to a number of books I’ve come across. What are your thoughts about self- improvement books like this?

Yes, if we’re being diplomatic, ‘homage’ is certainly is the word, isn’t it? I had great fun with ‘Pathways to Possible’. There is a rather pernicious strand of dopey self-improvement dogma that’s been around, in various guises, for many, many years – mainly in the US. The general idea is that anything you desire can be acquired or ‘achieved’ through ‘positive thinking’ and by ‘manifesting’ your thoughts on the ‘physical plane’. The corollary is that if you don’t single-handedly cure yourself of cancer or ‘manifest’ your way out of poverty, it’s your own fault because you didn’t think hard enough. As a ‘philosophy’ it’s morally and intellectually vacant, and blatantly materialistic and acquisitive – but also very funny. In my novel, Edward’s shy and devoted girlfriend Julie stumbles across Pathways to Possible and is hugely taken by it. For potentially self-regarding souls (most of us know at least one) belief in magical thinking justifies a good deal of extended navel-gazing. Like a lot of people who feel anxious or powerless, the pseudo-scientific logic of self-improvement is a tool that helps Julie make sense of the world and reach for a life that she has – until now – felt deprived of. The book gives her a sense of control. Edward thinks it’s absolute bollocks. And he’s right. And yet…Julie’s commitment to Pathways to Possible has far-reaching consequences and changes both their lives in ways that are unimaginable.

This quote from the book really resonated for me and brought me up short – “Each cupboard, each shelf or drawer, was set with its own booby trap, a snare of precious objects. Whenever she got up her courage and managed to make an actual decision – to tackle a shelf of ornaments, say, or the postcards stuck into the sides of the dining room mirror – she would make her approach only to find the object suddenly caught in the glare of some imaginary spotlight – Exhibit A – and feel instantly guilty. It was like being asked to go round with a Sharpie and perform triage in some mass-casualty disaster. Who would get loaded into the ambulance? And who would get the ‘X’ on their forehead? In the interim, as some sort of unreliable insurance, she had gone through the process of imprinting each object, each ornament and every piece of furniture, on her memory.” – I have to ask, and having cleared out my own parents house after they died younger than everyone expected, this is so redolent of the feelings you go through at this time – have you had to do this yourself, or been close to someone going through it?

It’s a sad and surreal experience, isn’t it? When my mother died, I found myself sorting through her house and all her belongings. Some years earlier, a friend had told me that it’s often the smallest, fairly mundane-seeming objects (e.g. a pair of spectacles) that are the hardest to dispose of. In the event, I found this to be true. The real challenge lies in the everyday things we use the most – yet think the least about. Perhaps something of the lost person’s essence seems to us embedded in these objects, so that discarding them feels like discarding the person (and losing them all over again).

The book is a very elegant and real discourse on the nature of grief and the subtle, insidious way it sneaks into life long after the dramas and ritual of a funeral is over, however it’s organised. Do you feel that as society, we’ve got a handle on how to cope with death, or is that a stupid idea anyway, the idea that we can ever really cope with it?

‘Time heals’ and all that, but there are some deaths that will undo a person utterly. They may never be able to fully accept or get past it – and if you think about it, it’s astonishing that this isn’t the case for all of us. Some of us might be lucky and skate along for some years on mere nodding terms with death – elderly neighbours, friends of friends, tiresome cousins, etc., gradually popping their clogs. But when it happens to you it’s like a bomb going off. The experience puts you on the other side of something. For Isobel, in the immediate aftermath, that ‘Stop All the Clocks’ feeling is extremely vivid. She is struck by the realisation that, though her mother has died, people are going on with their lives as if nothing has happened. While intellectually this makes total sense, in the midst of grief it can seem absolutely unbelievable.

Then, after weeks or even days, the tasks to be done are done with and you’re faced with this sort of…blank bleakness. (In the novel, Isobel likens it to being the last one left at a party.) We cope with death very badly in our society. It’s the club no one wants to join, taboo in the way that sex or cancer used to be. There is this feeling, too, of death as somehow ‘catching’, like a disease. No one wants to talk about it, and no one knows what to say – least of all to the bereaved!

While some friends will rush forward, others may go quiet or take a step back, and this provides yet another small devastation in what can seem like an absolute sea of them. You understand that your task is now the work of mourning, thence to ‘move on’ in the New Age way of things and spare yourself and others any further embarrassment. But how? It’s a question no one has the answer to.

What I loved about the book is the ability of the writing to draw the characters and to give their stories such power, without resorting to big weirdness and spectacle to make them interesting. I always think that takes real skill and is much harder than creating unreal monsters, how are you able to capture people in such detail?

Thank you! In the novel, Edward misses a lot of stuff that is sitting right under his nose, but like him I take great pleasure in observing people. I note all the details and little things that make them who they are – their mannerisms, their habits, their tics and speech patterns, how they dress and the way they carry themselves. As a child I loved drawing; I was also a passable mimic. As an adult I trained as an actor and learned how to achieve this in a more technical way. Each of my characters is constructed from a whole collage of experiences, encounters and observations. (That said, I made a decision never to physically describe Isobel, Edward or Julie. One character might think the other ‘mousey’, but that’s about as far as it goes. Otherwise I pretty much leave it to the reader.) I can see each of my characters in my mind and they feel absolutely real and alive to me. So, to answer your very good question, I suppose there’s a sense that creating characters comes naturally to me, but it’s thrilling to hear that it all comes together for my readers.

What are you working on at the moment?
A literary thriller set in New York City.

Thanks for taking the time to answer, and best of luck with this and all your other books.

Thank you for reading. And thanks for having me. Your questions were so perceptive and really made me think!





The Favourite – My review

Everyone has their type of book, guilty pleasures which they sneak in between the more worthy tomes you want random strangers on the tube to be impressed by. My guilty pleasure would probably be thrillers, with lots of action and grim reveals, the sort of thing which get turns into unbelievable films with stupidly high body counts, so The Favourite would not necessarily be my usual go-to relaxtion read.

However, and you knew there was going to be one, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find myself turning pages to see what happened next; it’s just that the scale of the writing is wholly opposite to a boom and bang head-line grabbing thrillers.

I remember an artist who spent years photographing the Great Lakes and then set himself the challenge of photographing puddles with the same sense of awe and majesty. The Favourite reminds me of this because it looks at huge topics on a tiny scale, picking apart the intimate details of three ordinary lives and the micro-aggressions, unspoken thoughts and festering, unfinished arguments that slowly and inevitably grow from puddles into vast, un-navigable lakes.

The book works on the power of three, the relationships it describes always three sided as such ungainly and unequal, the narrative never quite joining up as it moves between each of them, seeing only what they see.

It opens with the death of Mary, sudden and unexpected, and the impact this has on her two children, Isobel in New York and Edward, the dutiful son at home and his girlfriend. the mousy, apparently brow beaten Jules.

If you’ve ever been involved in the clearing of a house after a death, or during the upheaval of divorce or a move, you’ll find the passages detailing the wasp-nests of emotions and practicalities this throws up really hits home. It’s the sort of reading which catches you out, and jerks you out of the story with a memory, pulls you up short with an image from your own life.

I found myself wanting to shake each character in turn, to demand they stop behaving like an idiot and say something, but this is the truth at the heart of the book and at so many lives – people just don’t say something, do they? As the book moved along, I found myself first hating Edward and feeling sorry for Jules with her terrible self help books – to feeling desperately sorry for him trapped with Jules and her monstrous family – and in this way the book never lets you be wholly sure of the empirical truth in a way which is both unsettling and all to real. This is not a book of extremes, there are no dragons or psychopaths, but if you want a book which knits you into the lives of ordinary people, full of their quiet desperation, passion and tragedy which you could imagine all too easily happening in the house down the road, then you’ll love getting wound up in it’s world. Find a quiet corner, a packet of custard creams to go with your tea, and enjoy.


Buy your copy of ‘The Favourite’ here!