You used to be a fashion journalist; how would you compare writing shorter pieces about fashion to writing a book?
Writing for magazines and newspapers is obviously quicker. You get a pat on the back (or not) after a thousand words or so. You get paid (hopefully), and then you’re onto the next thing. It’s a fast turnaround, so you get used to being speedy, which is very useful. I found the process of writing a book much harder because you have to go without any kind of approval for thousands and thousands of words. You don’t know if you are completely wasting your own time. I gave up often. I couldn’t get the structure right at all. It wasn’t until I found the dual narrative structure that I really got down to it and felt confident enough to carry on. But that wasn’t the hardest bit. As a journalist, you tend not to express your own views – I mostly do interviews – so it’s my job to try to get my subjects to reveal something of themselves. It’s not about ME. Writing fiction is so much more personal. And making up a story comes from a different part of your brain. I’d say writing a book lays you wide open. All that aside – it’s great fun playing with characters and trying to create a compelling story.
Do you think that your career thus far has influenced the way you write?
I think I’ve gained confidence in my ability to write by being a journalist and also by editing other writers’ copy – you get a sense of what makes you want to go on reading. I think over the years, I’ve learned that no one has to read your writing, so you’d better make it interesting. My tutor at Central St Martins always said, if you’re bored writing it, it will be boring to read, and if you ever find yourself writing about pleats – you’re doomed. I also think that working with other creatives, from other writers to illustrators and art directors, helps you have an open mind. Ideas can come from anywhere.
Could you sum up what The Last Thing I Remember is about for our readers?
The Last Thing I Remember starts with a woman being admitted to hospital. She’s in a coma, and as the story unfolds, we discover that Sarah has Locked In Syndrome – so she can hear what is being said by the medical team and her family, but she can’t see or move. She appears to be brain dead. She also has no memory of her life at all, but she understands that she has been mugged, and later, that her husband has been murdered. She talks to the reader from inside her head. Meanwhile, on the outside, Kelly, her 14-year-old next-door neighbour, is waiting for Sarah to come around. They have formed an unlikely friendship. Kelly is a typical North London teenager – a bit angry, full of attitude, and getting bullied at school. Sarah is a posh. They have learned to rely on each other. The police are investigating the murder, and Sarah is petrified, firstly because she thinks the killer might come back to finish her off, and secondly because she fears that if she can’t communicate with the doctors, they might give up on her altogether.
Could you tell us a bit about the characters and their personalities and backgrounds?
Sarah is not normal for South Tottenham – she’s a bit too posh. Kelly is struggling to be accepted in her school environment, and thinks that if she behaves like her counterparts, she will avoid being bullied. They are united by a lack of confidence and an inability to stick up for themselves. They are surrounded by people who have found a way to beat the system – including the bullies in the neighbourhood who think nothing of breaking the law.
What gave you the idea for the story? Is it personal in any way?
It’s fiction, but I have drawn on other people’s experiences. I think I’ve read every book there is on comas – autobiographies about Locked In Syndrome. I’ve watched Emergency Room TV documentaries where you see the raw side of hospital life. I didn’t set out to write crime fiction however – I was more interested in how people behave in extraordinary circumstances, and how they interact with each other. I think it’s fascinating how we handle our emotions in difficult circumstances, and the lengths that we will go to in order to survive.
Have any of the characters in the book been inspired by people in your own life?
Yes. I borrowed personalities from my friends and acquaintances – but only so that I could more accurately create a three-dimensional character. For example, the nurse is based on a girl I work with – she’s very practical and straight-talking. By imagining her as the character, I could imagine more easily what her reaction would be to any situation. In reality, she’s squeamish as hell, so she wouldn’t really make a good nurse. The school bully is based on a girl from my primary school. She used to pull my hair when I was six. I got so fed up of her, I pulled her hair back – and got suspended.
What was the process like when adapting your tone of writing to that of a young schoolgirl?
I really enjoyed being Kelly. I went on holiday with a girl who was a friend of my sons, and she said ‘I’m not even lying’ ALL THE TIME. So I borrowed that from her. She is also very funny, so I hope that came across too.
The relationship between Sarah and Kelly is rather unique. How did this idea of a child-adult friendship come to you, and how did you develop it?
I have four sons. I started a family young, so we’re more similar in our outlooks than say, I am with my parents. I have the best conversations with them – and as they were growing up with their friends, I was surrounded by all these kids with attitude. Not as extreme as Kelly, but on a par. I had to make Kelly extreme because, doing a dual narrative, I needed the voices to feel very different so that you could open the book anywhere and know who was speaking. At the end, I took all the swearing out of Sarah’s narrative, and added more into Kelly’s. Some people might find Kelly a bit OTT, but she’s full of bravado – underneath, she’s just a kid who’s a bit lost and who thinks a bit of swagger will solve her problems.
We hear the story has been snapped up by Alan Moloney’s Parallel Films. Will you be involved in the process and casting? Do you have anything in mind for how you would like the story and characters to be portrayed?
It’s brilliant how Alan Moloney was most interested in Kelly – as you have highlighted. I think they also like the unusual relationship. He has really focused on the 14-year-old voice. He believes the story centres on Kelly, whereas the publisher has focused on Sarah. For me, it’s a bit of both.
I’m new to all this so wouldn’t presume to be involved too much in anything – there are better people than me to bring it to TV. The only caveat I suggested is that it’s a North London story – I love North London – it’s such a melting pot of cultures. I lived there for a while, and the camaraderie is a fascinating contrast to what you might expect. The little boy next door was a refugee from Africa. He could do hand springs and regularly demonstrated that when we walked to school. He spoke no English to start with, but translated for his parents within a year. We trimmed the hedge between our houses just before we moved out, thinking we were doing them a favour. His dad was furious because he was a cocaine dealer and did all his deals behind the hedge. I didn’t know.
What books do you enjoy reading personally?
I read anything that’s a good story. I don’t mind what genre. I draw the line at bad writing. If something is shite, I put it in the recycling, but I always give it a chance. I get horribly disappointed by ‘best-sellers’ that purport to be stories but are really just an excuse for bit of slap and tickle, or gratuitous violence. I don’t think you should just read novels – some of the best stories have only appeared as plays or film scripts. My favourites? Betrayal by Harold Pinter – great, great story. Dangerous Liaisons – brilliant structure. Heartburn by Nora Ephron for humour in the face of emotional turmoil. I’m a publisher’s dream – I read everything on kindle, but if I love it, I’ll buy the book – and if I really love it, I’ll get the Folio Society version with a fancy cover. I’m a real fan of debut authors – who so often don’t get the opportunity to get published because unknowns are a hard sell to retailers. I guess a year ago, I would have had little faith in a new author – having read all the Twenty7 books to come out so far, I think there’s so much untapped talent out there that’s finally getting heard.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write their first book?
Read. Don’t show anything to anyone, unless you really believe they will help – otherwise you’ll get put off. Read. Switch off your phone. Read. Social media is the devil’s work. Read. Now write – and don’t write about pleats.
Interview conducted by Ashiana Pradhan