CB Book Group’s January Pick: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

We are thrilled to announce our January pick, and the first title in the Curtis Brown Book Group: The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell. Here, she tells us a bit about the story… In a few short weeks, my novel is going out into the world, and I have no idea what is going to happen to it. It’s the most exhilarating feeling in the world, and yet it’s unbearable. If you read The Ship (and even though the prospect of your reading The Ship is terrifying, I fervently hope you will) please, when you’ve read the last page, will you come back and read the first sentence of this post again? Because it’s relevant, and I can’t explain without writing about the ending, and I mustn’t write about the ending. Because spoilers. To be honest, I don’t really want to write about the ending. Endings belong to readers, not to writers. But only the writer can write about the process, and mine with The Ship had three strands. The first was easy; I didn’t even have to make it up. It was there every time I opened a newspaper. Try it. Twelve journalists at Charlie Hebdo were killed for offending people. We’re approaching elections in which a man who blames immigration for heavy traffic (as well as for the Charlie Hedbo massacre) is a serious contender. A convicted rapist is offered a job in which he’ll be a role model for young people. And that’s just this morning. Natural resources are coming to an end, industrial farming is compromising the natural fertility of the soil, and our financial systems are precarious to say the least. When the financial crash happened in 2008, I wasn’t alone in asking myself, What did we think was going to happen? So the first strand came about like this: I took the world we’re in and pushed it, just a little. I used up a bit more oil and gas, thereby depleting energy supplies and raising the global temperature. I subjected it to another financial collapse and let worldwide industrial farming continue pretty much unchecked. After a brief world tour, I homed in on Britain, failed to invest in flood defences, and let it rain. Then I went to London and sat back to look at what all that might mean in an overcrowded city in an overpopulated world, and I saw a city even more unequal and unjust than it is now. In the London of The Ship, the financial crash means that no one knows what belongs to whom. Overpopulation and the collapse of farming mean that there’s simply not enough of anything to go round. It’s too dangerous to keep schools open. A military government is in place and there’s no hope that things will get better. So far so good for the world of the novel. But that was all I had. I couldn’t weave a story from it until I found another strand. The second strand was my protagonist, Lalla. I found her on a visit to the British Museum. She was a bored teenager, staring into the display cases, asking what on earth was the point. But, I thought, what if she lived in the London I’d dreamed up? What if there were no schools, only this public repository of the world’s great civilizations? Would she learn more willingly then? I put Lalla and her mother in the London I’d created and saw that they were in a tiny minority. For the majority, made homeless by the financial crash and the floods, the vast public building of the museum would represent a shelter rather than an educational resource. Lalla and her mother needed to be rich. But where does money come from in times of crisis? I got rid of fixed addresses and introduced identity cards and biometric registrations. I issued all registered citizens with a computer they could use to find out where to get food, to look up opportunities for work, to read the news bulletins. I had the soldiers shoot anyone who didn’t have a valid card. Such a system required a powerful government firewall – The Dove – and I gave Lalla a father in the man who developed it.  The Dove makes Michael Paul rich. Mindlessly rich. Bill Gates rich. Rich enough to think about his daughter’s future. His ambitions for her, however, are modest – he wants his Lalla to be free to read books, watch films, make music, make friends. He believes such things are still possible. He believes, in the midst of this desperate society, in humanity. And so does his wife, at least at first. And so he buys a vast, luxurious cruise ship. He stocks it with endless food, with clothes and medicine and art materials and screens in which he’s digitally stored the collections of every museum, art gallery and library in the world. He seeks out five hundred good, kind, deserving people, throws the ship open to them, and brings his daughter on board. She’s meant to be pleased. She’s meant to revel in the wonderful opportunity she’s been given. She’s meant to eat and sing and dance and read and learn her way to a fulfilling life, just like everyone else on board. But Lalla wasn’t chosen. Her inclusion was automatic. And her life has been one of privilege, even though she doesn’t think so. She’s the only person on the ship who hasn’t been deprived enough, or suffered enough, or lost enough to have her conscience smothered by gratitude. She has questions. Lots of questions. And suddenly, my novel had a backbone. But a backbone isn’t enough for a novel. A reader can’t identify with a bone; a novel needs flesh. A third strand was required, and I didn’t have one. The Ship was born from a deep interest in current affairs, so I assumed that it was a political novel. (At one point, every chapter was headed with a quotation from a current news report.) But politics isn’t enough. Politics takes us to a place where a man who demands credit for paying the lion’s share of his taxes is a candidate for Prime Minister, a place littered with the corpses generated by enforced political solutions. Politics is a fleshless bone, and even with Lalla on board, all this was far too nebulous, far too dry, to be a story. I was lamenting the fate of my novel over dinner with my husband one evening, our small children safe in bed, and he asked me what I actually wanted, most of all, in the whole entire world. ‘I want to be a writer,’ I said, but that wish didn’t come off, because I already was, although I didn’t know it at the time (and if you’re someone who writes, you are a writer, even if the publication deal hasn’t yet come. If you take nothing else from this post, take that.) ‘No,’ he said, ‘something that’s not in your control.’ And I realized that what I wanted most was for the six of us to be always as safe and sound as we were at that moment; for the love that brought James and I together and from which the children came to be eternally whole, and for our hard-won family unit to thrive, unthreatened by ambition, ill health, meaningless hang-ups, global warming, political upheaval, other people’s demands, intolerance, injustice or indeed anything else. I wanted to dig a moat around our house and put a dragon on guard. The third strand had been with me all along. The Ship is not a speculative dystopia. It was never a speculative dystopia. It’s a novel about being human. The beginning was in the newspapers, the characters were in the British Museum, but the third thread, the universal thread, the flesh, was in the futile, all–consuming longing to keep our loved ones safe. As for the ending – oh, my dear reader (and words cannot express how full my heart feels, writing those words and thinking they might be true) – the ending belongs, only and absolutely, to you. Thank you for reading. Really, thank you. I’m longing to hear your thoughts. Antonia Honeywell The Ship will be published in hardback and ebook on February 19th, by W&N. To find out more about Antonia, visit her website, www.antoniahoneywell.com or follow her on Twitter at @antonia_writes.


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