Book group discussion: The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell was our first pick for our book group, so one grey January day she came along to our offices – armed with cakes! – to chat with our members online. The discussions were fascinating – so much so, that we thought we’d share them here (with thanks to our members who asked such interesting questions!).

On the question of whether this is a crossover novel, or a YA novel… (asked by almost everyone!)

It didn’t even occur to me as I was writing that The Ship might be seen as a YA novel. But of course I can see it now – a teenage narrator, a dystopian setting. All I can say is that The Ship wasn’t written as a YA novel, but that if any young adult readers find resonance and relevance in it, then I’m thrilled, as I am about anybody at all reading it. I’m suspicious of overt categorisation, to be honest. 1984 is a YA novel, so is The Catcher in the Rye, and so is Jane Eyre. And nobody’s telling me that everyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games was under 24! And when I was a YA myself (before YA existed as a genre) I read voraciously and questioned absolutely everything I read. So although I have no idea what the answer is, I take the debate as to whether or not The Ship is a YA novel as a great compliment.

On the decision to write the book in first person perspective and whether Antonia ever played with different points of view … (Emma Crowley) (Sara Donaldson)

The trouble is that there is no ‘accurate’ or ‘correct’ perspective on anything. Everyone’s experience of anything is informed by their background, their education, their assumptions… so a third person narrative would have required a ‘true’ version of events (such as Orwell provides in 1984, or Forster in The Machine Stops). And in this particular novel, there’s no such thing.

In one draft, each character told their own story in successive chapters – I enjoyed writing those, and of course they all informed the final draft – but as I worked, it became clearer and clearer that this had to be Lalla’s story, and Lalla’s alone.

IMG_2842On choice… (Alice Popplewell)

The idea of choice was a huge drive behind this novel. Michael goes on and on about choice – he even claims that Anna chose what happened to her. Lalla doesn’t agree – she thinks that things happen to her. But they’re both right, and that tension is part of what it means to grow up. I feel very strongly that we have more choice in our lives than we think, and that the choices we make have an impact and influence far beyond our knowledge. For me, at the end, Lalla has reached a point where she has no choice but to take the action she does. But Michael, Tom and the people on the ship think that she has an alternative, and so they are hurt and broken by her decision.

But it comes down to this – when a parent imposes a world view on a child, that child must either rebel, or become someone other than they might have been. And it’s for each individual reader to decide on that in relation to their own life.

For me, the moment I left my metaphorical ship was the moment I decided I was going to carry on writing, even if I never, ever got published.

On the Ship as a cult… (Fran Roberts) (Alice Popplewell)

I always had the idea that Lalla’s father would be elevated to a cult figure by the people on the ship. I very much wanted his elevation to be led by them, rather than overtly by him. In earlier drafts, the people started calling him Father quite early on, but that was a little too much – I didn’t want to infantilise the people who’d taken this route to survival. I think the idolisation comes from the people – the depths of their gratitude, the horrors they’ve been spared – but I certainly don’t feel that Michael does anything to resist it. He rather enjoys it, and by the end he can’t cope with anything or anyone that doesn’t subscribe to the general view of him as a saviour.

I do think that as a species we’re inclined to elevate people to an inappropriate status. By idolising Michael, the people on the ship are absolving themselves of responsibility for their own decisions. They have to do that, because if they actually looked at how they were living, they would have to go along with Lalla and try to turn the ship around.

On the inclusion of chapter headings… (Jacquie Bloese)

The chapter headings were quite organic. At one point, each chapter began with a direct quotation from a recent news article. Those were replaced with quotations about human nature from various periods of history. In the end, though, the simple summaries won out. I wanted them to be timeless, but with a sense of a story that’s already been told. IMG_2847


On food… (Helen Redfern)

You’ve picked up on such an important strand. Food becomes massively important in times of scarcity – and it becomes a way of communicating emotion too, even more than it is in normal situations.


On Lalla being annoying… (Amy Fulwood)

Lalla’s incredibly annoying. She’s questioning the accepted world view, with no one to help her. And her questions can only be based on her own experience – she has nothing else. With Anna dead, there is no one who can help her channel her thoughts, feelings and impressions. Her irritating qualities are indicative of the extent to which she’s alone (I hope).

On blind faith… (Zarina de Ruiter)

By developing blind faith in Michael, the people on the ship are giving themselves permission to detach from the responsibility of being alive. When I was writing, I saw this as a conscious decision on their part. But as I began to redraft and edit, I began to see examples of this kind of blindness all over the place. How many times have you seen someone take a particular course of action and wanted to shout, ‘Can’t you see what you’re doing?’ And of course, we’re not always capable of seeing what we’re doing ourselves. We need each other – and a group of people who all make the same assumptions is a dangerous thing.

On Antonia’s writing journey and lessons she’s learnt… (Van Demal)

The biggest damascene moment was the one about four years ago, when after six years of concerted effort and no success, I decided to give up trying. It was just too much, writing and writing and getting wonderful rejection after wonderful rejection (and I’m not being sarcastic there, they were lovely letters, they just said no), that I couldn’t take it anymore.

And I realised that I would rather have written those novels and failed to get published than never have written those novels. That there was a validity to writing beyond publication. And I’d offer that to anyone who is in the same position. The only part you can control is when you decide to give up. And I realised then that I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. And here we are.


The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published today (19th February) by W&N.

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