Rebecca Ritchie on discovering Letters to the Lost

Following our fascinating online discussion with Iona Grey – touching on everything from the perfect Battenberg to how many tissues people got through at the end – Iona’s agent Becky Ritchie tells us a bit more about how she discovered Letters to the Lost…

My meeting Iona was incredibly serendipitous. By her own admittance too shy to submit to Curtis Brown formally, we were introduced by Susanna Kearsley, a CB client, at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards in February 2013. Amidst pink champagne, pink balloons, and a very female-heavy crowd, I met this extremely charming, humble author who told me about the epic, dual time framed romantic novel she was in the middle of writing, and asked did I want to see it when it was finished? Of course I did. And about nine months later it landed in my inbox and I curled up with my kindle. Within two pages I had that spine-tingling feeling and knew I had something unbelievably special on my hands, and when I finished it, crying buckets, I knew she was someone I wanted to work with. We did some minor edits (when a book still makes you cry on a second, third and fourth read you know it’s good), and then I sent the script to half a dozen editors. Before long I had a five way auction on my hands, of which Clare Hey at Simon & Schuster was the ultimate champion, shortly followed by an auction in the US which was won by Anne Brewer at St Martin’s Press.

That was April 2014, and now, a year on, we’re just weeks away from Letters to the Lost being published in the UK, and I couldn’t be more proud of Iona. While Gone Girl-esque domestic thrillers seem to be going nowhere fast, there’s always room for a perfect love story, and Letters to the Lost is just that: a love story that grabs you with both hands and doesn’t let go. But it’s so much more than that too – it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of overcoming the odds and getting back on one’s feet, and the power of hope, and it’ll transport you immediately and vividly to Blitzed London and a time of tinned peaches, port and lemon and Glen Miller. Dan, Stella, Will and Jess are true, strong people, and very difficult to close the book on once the story ends.  I challenge you to turn the last page without a tear!

Letters to the Lost will be published on April 23rd by Simon & Schuster UK. 

Letters in Literature: Our Top Five

This month we sobbed over Iona Grey’s romantic Letters to the Lost in which we are consumed by stunning letters which prove to be one of the most powerful and emotive ways to deliver a message of love, bringing together not one, but two couples. This got us discussing our favourite letters in literature, both of love and otherwise and after many many suggestions of titles, we managed to condense it down to a small, but prevailing five. If we’ve missed off what you feel is an obvious choice, do let us know…

p.s i love you1. P.S I love you by Cecelia Ahern

Cecelia’s is our representative from the romance genre – a tough call with The Notebook in contention. A heart wrenching book and beautiful film, the letters in P.S I love you are unique in the fact that they are not reciprocal, written in advance of his death by Gerry: the husband who even after death finds a way of being there for his wife. You wouldn’t expect the very person who left you, to be the one to help you through your grief but his letters are full of life, hope and encouragement, timed to perfection. Rather than being letters of adoration, they’re letters of demand, making Holly get up and live her life without him, a selfless example of love. The adorable ‘P.S I love you’ on each letter is Gerry’s way of making his love eternal; though his letters have to end, his love doesn’t. What should be a depressing and miserable read, is warming and uplifting as the letters bring Gerry briefly back to Holly and to us.

2. Atonement by Ian McEwanatonement

Instead of bringing two people together, here we see letters tear two people apart. Briony’s misunderstanding and the raw love and passion between Cecilia and Robbie makes us only hope for something so powerful, though perhaps less of a tragic ending. Joe Wright’s incredible adaptation epitomises the power of Robbie’s letter, with the haunting sound of typing, significant opera sequence as he writes and creative cinematography as the letter is in Briony’s fateful hands. Robbie’s letter, however brief and perhaps arguably not of love, is both the beginning and end of his and Cecilia’s brief but intense love. McEwan is an expert at weaving his words so perfectly, he deceives us all, believing until the final pages that perhaps the two lovers just quite make it. His manipulation of the truth and masterful creation of Briony makes for one of his most interesting and emotive novels.

perks3. Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Perhaps the first book of its kind to really come on the scene and make the impact it did, Chbosky’s coming of age novel reaches out to every young adult struggling with the difficult task of growing up. Charlie, a bright but troubled teen, writes to no one and everyone in this ground breaking book, offering solace to so many readers who can relate to his life. Despite Emma Watson’s questionable American accent, the film was nearly as emotional as the novel but somehow didn’t quite grasp the intimacy that comes with the form of letter writing.

 

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austenpride and prejudice

The letter in Jane Austen’s masterpiece is arguably the turning point of the novel: Darcy’s letter reveals not only his true feelings for Elizabeth but also the true nature of Wickham. His letter of love is one that all men wish they could write and all women are desperate to receive, it is a quintessential love letter: full of devotion and the moment you cross that line from hate to love, proving the letter to be the most romantic forms of expression. Both Elizabeth and the reader can’t help but fall head over heels for Darcy, who seems to be the man that everyone is compared to, and we rather like the way Colin Firth brings the iconic scene to life.

 

all the bright places5. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

A young adult, contemporary twist on the epistolary novel. Finch and Violet’s exchanges aren’t through letters, but texts and messages on social media. In the last days of Finch’s life, he leaves her messages and post-its, clues of his whereabouts, his final ‘letters’ to her. Instead of leaving letters after death, he leaves her a map and at each stop, he leaves her signs and presents, immortalising them together as he takes her through his last moments. At the last stop on his map, he leaves her a letter with the lyrics to the song he used to sing for her. Simply one of the most beautiful, tragic books this year, their connection is on a level only the two of them can understand, their own form of love letters that saves Violet and brings Finch the only moments of joy he experienced.

Iona Grey’s Letters to the Lost is one of our March books of the month, published by Simon & Schuster on 23rd April.

Book of the Month: A Love of Letters by Clare Hey

Clare Hey, editor at Simon & Schuster

Letters to the Lost Cover Image“I have a confession to make: I am a sucker for a letter. A proper letter. Not an email, or a text; Whatsapp is a mystery to me. My granny used to write the best letters, full of details of her day, stories from the past – mainly adventures she’d got up to with her sister when they were young teachers during the war – recommendations of books she’d read and loved. And all accompanied by drawings of stick men and women to illustrate her words. None of this would have worked so well by email: it was all about the waiting for the letter, the reading and then the sending of the reply that made the ritual special. The time taken. The time that passed. The recording of that time.

That love of letters runs deep in me, thanks to my granny. So when I first received the manuscript of Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey in my inbox I was immediately intrigued. It’s the story of a doomed love affair between an unhappily married woman, Stella, and an American bomber pilot, Dan, during WWII. And it starts with a letter than Dan sends many years later – he’s old and dying and has lost Stella and now is desperately trying to find her again before it is too late.

Darling girl, he begins, it’s been over seventy years and I still think of you like that. My darling. My girl. So much has changed in that time and the world is a different place to the one where we met, but every time I think of you I’m twenty-two years old again. I promised to love you forever, in a time when I didn’t know if I’d live to see the start of another week. Now it looks like forever is finally running out. I never stopped loving you. I tried, for the sake of my own sanity, but I never even got close, and I never stopped hoping either. The docs say I don’t have much time left, but I still have that hope, and the feeling that I’m not done here. Not until I know what happened to you. Not until I’ve told you that what we started back then in those crazy days when the world was all upside-down has never really finished for me, and that those days – tough and terrifying though they were – were also the best of my life.

This letter does not reach Stella but a young girl, Jess, who has found refuge in Stella’s old home, having run from troubles of her own. And she is so moved by Dan’s words that she promises to help him find his lost love. And so begins a heart-wrenchingly beautiful novel which moves between 1943 and the present day.

Letters to the Lost is a novel that hangs around letters, it is a story that would not have happened had letters fallen out of favour. So, while I know the world moves on, and I am writing this blog piece for a website which I will then tweet a link to, I harbour a nostalgia for a time when I would return home to find a letter on my doormat. If you too suffer from a similar nostalgia, then you may want to indulge it in reading Letters to the Lost, and later perhaps you might be inspired to sit down to write a letter to someone close to your heart.”

Letters to the Lost will be published in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 23rd April 2015 and in the US by Thomas Dunne Books on 26th May 2015.  Follow Clare on Twitter at @Clareaux.

Book of the Month: A Novel with Many Strands and Depths by Karolina Sutton

On Friday we’ll be having our book group discussion about Tim Glencross’ Barbarians. In advance of what will surely be a fascinating chat, Tim’s agent Karolina Sutton tells us a bit more about how she came to work with Tim…

Karolina Sutton, agent at Curtis Brown

Barbarians arrived on my Kindle on a Friday evening and by Saturday afternoon I was desperate to meet its talented author. Blown away by the quality of the writing and the razor-sharp social observation, I did what I do very rarely – I offered to represent Tim on a partial manuscript. As I was one of a number of agents keen to work with Tim, we went through what the industry crudely calls ‘a beauty contest’ in which the author meets a few agents and chooses one they’d like to work with. I was the lucky one.

Barbarians delves into a social circle of London’s bright young things. Some of them are born into privilege, others will stop at nothing to join the establishment. Ruthless ambition in a character is a gift for a novelist – these people are always up to something and never stand still! – but in Afua Tim has truly created a modern Becky Sharp. She is formidable at outmanoeuvring her competitors and utterly devoid of scruples. A perfectly drawn comedic character. Many forms of aspiration run through the novel. There is Buzzy who would rather forget about her suburban background and there are parents whose ambitions for their children lead to family frictions. Tim taps into these aspirations with great skill. He examines his characters’ snobbery and exposes their hypocrisy. The results are deliciously funny, but not superficially so. This is a novel with many strands and many depths. If I mentioned Thackeray I should also mention George Eliot.

Personally, I was particularly drawn to the beautifully observed love stories and relationships which unfolded in very unexpected ways – just as they do in real life. This is a novel that will make you laugh, think and feel.

Barbarians will be published in paperback by John Murray on March 26th.

Book Group Discussion: The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

Promised to deliver secrets, plot twists, haunting characters and a surprising ending that no one has yet guessed, The Insect Farm was the ideal book to get an interesting discussion started. Stuart Prebble came in to answer all of those stunned readers’ questions, reveal his inspiration for the novel and tell us how he came up with the unique topic of insects…

On plot… (Leanne Leveaux) (Van Demal)insect farm

I started with an idea about the basic plot, and then the novel just seemed to tell itself as I kept going back to it; it got more elaborate as I told the story. The Insect Farm itself is an idea I’ve had for a while, I love the idea of this sophisticated community of creatures which believes it is independent, but which is in fact manipulated by an unseen “god”, as maybe we are ourselves. It’s about 45 years since I read “Of Mice and Men” so if it was an influence, it was an unconscious one.

The whole business of misremembering is fascinating to me. As I get older I am constantly astonished by how people I have known for a long time remember things completely differently from the way I remember them.

On perspective… (Fran Roberts)

I did consider adding another perspective to the narrative. I thought about Roger, but then thought I would not be able to keep up the “surprise” if we were also in his head. I also thought about Harriet, but did not want her voice to vanish halfway through. I even thought about one of the policemen, but in the end decided that the challenge of keeping Jonathan as sympathetic as he needed to be was probably enough of a challenge.

I find the whole idea of societies which are sophisticated in themselves, but which believe themselves to be independent, a fascinating metaphor for our lives

On Brendan… (Emma Herdman)

I did hope that the character of Brendan would interest people. We are supposed to dislike him because he won’t take “no” for an answer, and keeps on sneaking up on Harriet. On the other hand, all he is guilty of in the end is falling hopelessly in love with her – and we can hardly blame him for that. I did at one time consider whether to have Brendan arrested, tried, convicted and jailed for Harriet’s murder, but then I thought we would dislike Jonathan even more than some people do, so that idea went away. Anyway, he seems to have lived happily ever after, so maybe he can re-emerge in another book sometime and we can get to know him better.

On Jonathan… (Janet Brown) (Katie Bond)

The challenge of keeping Jonathan as a sympathetic character when he has murdered his wife in a drunken rage was always going to be a tricky one! I think I hoped that by making his main motive for staying out of jail that he wanted to take care of his brother might tilt the balance in his favour. I suppose he does get his just punishment in the end. I also hoped that by letting the reader so far into his head, we might stay with him. Anyway the important thing is always that there is someone to like and Roger is loyal, simple, and very very effective, so maybe he is the real hero.

I think I probably got part of the inspiration for Jonathan’s voice from Enduring Love – where you start by being sympathetic to the narrator, and then gradually realize that he is a bit strange. It was a tricky balance. I tried hard to bring the reader into his mind, and I hope I managed it to a certain extent.

On Roger…stuart prebble (Charlotte Dibley) (Fran Roberts)

I had to find a balance for Roger where he is someone who needs constant care, but is also able to function in surprising ways. He is “on the spectrum” – at a point somewhere mid-way between two people I know. I think I would have found it too challenging to be inside Roger’s head for the whole time – but I did grow to love his simplicity, his loyalty, and his cunning.

I always wanted Roger to be an enigma, for us always to suspect that there might be more to him than met the eye. I tried to drop clues as we went through the narrative but it was always a balance between making him too “knowing” or too naive. I feel gratified that the “surprise” seems to have worked for most readers so far.

On the idea of insects… (Frances Teehan) (Sara Donaldson)

I didn’t ever create an Insect farm – but have been fascinated for a long time by the analogy of an insect farm and the world we all live in. The idea of an unseen creator, outside of our own ability to detect him/her, has long been of interest. I always envisage a conversation going on in an anthill somewhere in the rain-forest – where the creatures are saying “isn’t it great to be masters of our universe? Isn’t it great that we understand everything?” Just like us.

I was always aware that the theme of insects might be a bit repellent for some readers, so I knew I was taking a risk by adopting it as a microcosm of the wider world. It’s just that it offered so many opportunities – for example when Roger confesses to a murder when he is at the day-school, and it turns out that he is referring to the cockroaches. It was also always going to be a handy way of disposing of a body and I enjoyed the idea of the detectives wandering around, and coming so close to finding Harriet. Then there is the opportunity it provided for the ending, and taking us full circle back to the beginning.

I didn’t research insects first – though I’d have to do some work to find a species which ate bones as well as flesh! As I’ve mentioned, I find the whole idea of societies which are sophisticated in themselves, but which believe themselves to be independent, a fascinating metaphor for our lives. When Roger does his version of “the sermon on the mount” at David Frost’s party, I hoped the reader would go with me on the extended creator metaphor. I am delighted that so many people seem to have done so.

On the ending…  (Caroline Ambrose) (Zarina de Ruiter)

When I got to the end of the first draft, I went back and seeded some further clues such as when the two detectives visit Jonathan’s flat to ask about Harriet, and Roger has received an air-mail package. Yes, if Roger hadn’t returned unexpectedly, Harriet would probably still be alive – but would Jonathan have been able to live with the “jazz versus blues” sharing? I doubt it!

It’s fun to think about what happens after Jonathan’s final words – I have my own thoughts but it’s more fun for everyone to work out what they think for themselves. Roger obviously has capabilities far beyond the obvious. I always knew how I wanted it to end but since then my very clever agent has pointed out that maybe it’s not a good idea to massacre all of your main characters at the end of a book! Too late I fear.

The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble was published on 15th March by Alma Books.

 

Book Group Discussion: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Described by his editor, Jane Lawson, as having one of ‘the most heart-wrenching endings’ she has ever read, we just had to choose The A-Z of You and Me as one of our next books. One of our own, a CB Creative graduate, James Hannah came in to chat with his readers and answer their burning questions. Luckily James brought tiffin, so when the questions kept coming, he was fuelled to stay with us even longer! Here’s some of the discussion.

a-z

On its difficult subject matter… (Helen Redfearn) (Kathryn Eastman) (Jacquie Bloese)

The book was certainly written from an emotional place, and served over the years to help process a series of situations my friends and family were going through. So rather than being emotional in a bad way, to write, it provided comfort. However, not everyone processes emotions in the same way, and one person’s ability to see the humour or pathos in a situation might be upsetting to another, and I think you’ve got to trust own your instincts.

I don’t know if I looked upon it as a challenge, I was more interested in accessing those feelings or examples that were universal. Everyone has a body, and there will be certain common experiences we’ve all been through (exchanging a glance with an attractive person, say, or having a memory flood back after smelling a certain scent) so my task, was to see what kind of story emerged from threading those kinds of experience together.

I have to say, my concern was not about Ivo’s bleak state of mind, but about making the bleak subject light enough to read. From the very beginning I knew I was going to have to work hard to keep it from being overwhelmingly miserable. There is on the whole not a great deal of reflection from Ivo on his death, and on how he feels about death: for him it is a process of engaging more with the world around him – a whole lot of life-affirming things rather than being bleak. Ivo is able (with help) to free himself and free the people around him.

…the hospice story is one that we’ve all been through, or we will all go through; it really could be anyone.

On Ivo… (Kelly Rufus) (Anne Cater)

Ivo is not directly based on anyone I know or on me. It was more a matter of finding a character who was in a certain situation, and obliging him to react to it. I actually had Ivo diagnosed by a doctor friend, right at the beginning. I needed him to be clear-headed all the way up to the end of his life so that he could articulate his thoughts. The idea of diabetes and a kidney condition came up, and this sparked off the interesting central issue of his having a condition that is not his fault as such, but which impinges on his everyday life and his relationship with his friends. In a sense his friends are just doing normal stuff that many people do, the problem is, it’s killing him. By the time Mia comes along, the friends are so influential, Ivo is unable to make the leap of aspiration to her way of living. So, you see how the kidney diagnosis informs the rest of the book. Different diagnosis, different book. People’s reactions to Ivo’s poor choices are really interesting. He certainly makes some poor choices and is very soundly punished for them, however, is Ivo really so unlike a lot of people?

On Ivo’s friends… (Catherine Higgins-Moore)IMG_3053

I think this is a toxic little group of friends, but not in an unusual way. A big question for me is: how much right do you have to tell your friends not to do something? Ivo’s friends should be telling him to take his insulin and live a duller (by their judgement) life. Or should they? Do they have that right? So the ‘toxicity’ between them has I think built up, I don’t think any of them chose it to be like that.

On Sheila… (Emma Macey)

Sheila is an absolutely pure character to me: I didn’t author her as such, she simply came along and tended to the plot in the way that she tends to Ivo. I’ve this sense that she comes along and refusing to allow me to go the obvious way with a scene. She’s attentive, but she’s not fawning, she’s caring, but she doesn’t take any nonsense. She never allowed me an easy time, and I love her for that.

On balancing humour and sorrow… (Jo Lenaghan)

The balance of humour versus sorrow was surprisingly easy to achieve, because the subject is all sorrow, so my task was to make it as funny and light as I possibly could. It’s my choice currently to write prose that flows and so it was a question of being as easy on the reader as possible. My working title for the book was ‘The Body Comedy’, which reminded me that it needed to be as funny as I can make it. As for the intimate topics, anything (auto)-biographical is refracted or distanced to the point where it could have been anyone. And that’s the saving grace really, the hospice story is one that we’ve all been through, or we will all go through; it really could be anyone.

On hIMG_3052is inspiration and edits… (Emma Crowley) (Heidi Bartlett) (Kathryn Eastman) (Verity Wilde)

I’ve been working on predetermined structures for a while, so the idea of working with the alphabet structure was a natural progression. The problem with reading an alphabet is you get to ‘c’ and then it seems like a very long alphabet. The first thing I had to do was break outside the structure without really seeming to, and then have it intervene in a more helpful way. So getting the present-day storyline to take over was important.

It wasn’t exactly hard to write, but it was extraordinarily hard to edit. I would change one bit, and half the book would suddenly wink out of existence. So it took a very long time. It was an endurance test. It’s the ‘illness’ aspect that took the most research — what would Ivo be able to do? How would be treated? What would he be feeling?

On choosing the body parts for each letter… (Kathryn Eastman)

G was a huge problem for some reason. By this section of the book, you really want to start getting to the nuts and bolts of the central relationship in the book. And for that I had G. Gut. Groin. Gonads. Not a promising area. So I had to work around that, somehow. I’d known what I wanted to do with X, Y, Z from the very beginning. ‘Eyes’ was tricky, because more or less all of literature has been given over to lyrical descriptions of eyes, so anything you write sounds awful.

On the ending… (Vicky Torzsok) (Amy Fulwood)IMG_3048

I had the end from a very early point, although it was interesting to see how it changed as the context around it changed. My sense was that I would always seek to reunite ‘I’ with ‘You’, but it became more about Ivo’s understanding of himself, and freeing up his friends who ultimately care about him enough to potentially feel permanently bad if he dies without freeing them. I initially thought that everyone was dumping their needs onto Ivo before he died, but when it happened, I realised he needed to accept responsibility for himself & his (non) action & felt a sense of shocked relief just as Ivo did. It was very powerful and surprising.

The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah was published on 12th March by Doubleday.

 

Clare Conville on The Kindness by Polly Samson

It was with huge pleasure that I started representing Polly Samson just over a year ago and it was with great excitement that I took possession of her second novel The Kindness, published today by Bloomsbury UK. Polly is a very old and dear friend, I had followed her extremely distinguished writing career over many years and had absolutely loved her recent collection of short stories Perfect Lives, but I did not know quite what to expect of  The Kindness.

I knew that it was partly influenced by Paradise Lost so I sensed that betrayal might be at the heart of the story, and I knew it would be extremely good, as Polly is an extraordinary writer, her prose vivid and glittering, her insights darkly funny, her moral compass so finely tuned, framing her work with such great subtlety that it’s almost a sleight of hand.

What I did not know, but was to discover, was that two compelling family stories, that of Polly’s Uncle Heino and his lost child and subsequent suicide, and Polly’s own story as the child of two fathers, travelling between England and Berlin while her mother tried to make her mind up about which partner she would choose and which life she wanted to lead, had been woven into the plot to profound and heart-breaking effect.

I read The Kindness in one sitting and was blown away by it. Fiendishly structured it moves forwards, backwards and sideways in time and tells the story of a passionate love-affair between Julian a student and Julia, an older, already married, woman. Against all advice from friends and family Julian drops his university career and the couple elope; several years later their longed for child Mira is born. It looks as if their happiness is complete when Firdaws, Julian’s much loved and much missed family home, comes up for sale and they move to the country. Julian is ecstatic, Julia a little less so, but she continues to put her heart and soul into her gardening business in London while Julian oversees the re-creation of his childhood idyll.

However when Mira becomes extremely, possibly mortally, ill the fissures in their relationship begin to show, stresses and strains rise to the surface, misunderstandings are left unresolved, hurt feelings left to fester. Julian and Julia battle to save their child but in doing so their relationship begins to unravel. The first half of this un-putdownable book culminates in a devastating scene when Julian finally discovers the nature of the kindness that has been shown to him. A kindness that come to destroy everything he thought he understood and every security he thought he had. There has been a serpent in the Garden of Eden all along.

All that’s left to say is that I urge you to read this book. Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written it combines the moral grandeur of a great nineteenth century novel such as Great Expectations or Therese Raquin with the immediacy and dark impact of writers such as Daphne Du Maurier, Beryl Bainbridge and Tessa Hadleigh.

Simply stunning!

 

The Kindness is published today by Bloomsbury in hardback and ebook. Clare Conville is Polly Samson‘s agent.

 

Book of the Month: Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Iona Grey“As the publication date for Letters to the Lost draws closer (you have to imagine me pausing to do a little excited dance here) I’ve been thinking, and writing, a lot about the things that inspired the book. On one level the story behind the story starts quite suddenly with the moment when I saw a handwritten letter lying open on my daughter’s desk and heard – spookily – the phrase letters to the lost echo through my head. But although that lightning strike of inspiration makes a pleasing anecdote I guess that, realistically, the book had been quietly piecing itself together for a lot longer than that.

On the day when I noticed the letter I was working on a novel set in the Edwardian period. I’d been writing it (or trying to) for about eighteen months by that time, and thinking about it – researching and plotting and researching some more – for a lot longer, but in spite of all that meticulous reading about clothes and hairstyles and food and motorcars and music, it was stubbornly refusing to come to life on the page. As I began to imagine the possibilities of this new story about letters there was a voice in my head speaking much more clearly than any of my cardboard cut-out Edwardians ever had, leading me forward into the world of the book. It became the voice of a character called Ada, and as she described Stella and Charles’s wedding (the first scene I wrote) it sounded utterly familiar and vivid to me. I think this is because I recognised it as the voice of all the women I’d grown up with who had lived through the Second World War and shared their experiences with me.

My godmother was one of these women. She’d been a teenager during the war (born in the same year as the Queen; a child when war broke out and a young woman by the time it finished) and she spoke often of that extraordinary (to me) ordinary (to her) time. She told me about the weary misery of rationing (no sweets!), the dread of an air-raid siren in the night and an orange glow on the horizon. She described how her cousin had made her a dress for a dance from an old tablecloth, and how once – in frustration and desperation – she’d bought a trench coat from a black market salesman who’d come knocking on the doors down their street. She’d thought it would make her look like the film stars they saw on the cinema screen, but when she got it inside and tried it on (feeling horribly guilty because buying on the black market was not only illegal but unpatriotic) she realised it was hideously cut and made from a nasty, stiff rubberised fabric that reeked of fish. She laughed as she told the story, but the teenage me felt the bitterness of her disappointment and regret.

She and her husband had lived next door to our parents when my brother and I were born, and since they had no children of their own they became stand-in grandparents. Their house, with its 1950s furniture and china figurines, became part of the landscape of our childhood, and when she died it fell to us to sort through its contents and oversee their disposal. We didn’t expect to find anything we hadn’t seen a hundred times before. The rooms were empty and the clearance van had left by the time we tackled the garage, assuming that the contents of the rotting cardboard boxes lined up on the shelves would all be destined for the skip in the drive. It was getting dark by this time, that melancholy autumn dusk, and after two days we’d schooled ourselves to be realistic and ruthless when it came to keeping versus throwing away, so we only gave each one the most cursory of glances. We could very easily have missed the rusty old biscuit tin that turned out to be stuffed full of photographs, diaries, telegrams, birthday cards, receipts, ration books, medals and letters. Lots of letters.

The trouble with letters is that they only tell half the story. The great thing about them is they allow you to make up the other half for yourself. The letters I discovered in those tins in the garage were more of the ‘we had a nice weekend in Wales’ variety rather than the ‘I promised to love you forever in a time when I didn’t know if I’d live to see the start of another week’ kind, but they gave me a glimpse into that half-known past, and a time when our round, comfortable, always-the-same auntie was a young woman with a tiny waist and a love of dancing. A bride, whose groom had worn the rose and fern buttonhole (crumbling into bleached fragments in the bottom of the tin) on their wedding day. A daughter-in-law with the sun in her hair and a mischievous gleam in her eye as she stood between her stern-faced Victorian in-laws on the seafront at Blackpool. They gave an insight into a different part of a familiar story, when the ending (the bit where I came in) was still unwritten and the future had yet to be captured and pressed into history.

I wrote Letters to the Lost with that tin of papers on my desk, my godmother’s voice in my head and all of the real life stories I had loved throughout my childhood coming back to life in my memory. Part of me wishes she was still alive to read the book, but the other part knows that if she was still here – if the tin of letters was still in that box in the garage – there’s every chance it would never have been written.”

Letters to the Lost Cover ImageFollow Iona on Twitter at @Iona_Grey and check out Iona’s Letters to the Lost themed board on PinterestLetters to the Lost will be published in the UK by Simon & Schuster on 23rd April 2015 and in the US by Thomas Dunne Books on 26th May 2015.

Five North London Books

One of our books of the month – Barbarians, by Tim Glencross – is crucially set on Canonbury Lane, in Islington, London, where Henry and his adopted sister Afua are brought up, and their mother (renowned feminist Daphne) and father (Sherard, founder of the Liberal Review magazine and art collector) live. Inspired by this, we thought we’d put together our top five North London books. As ever, we welcome additions…

 

1. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

Admittedly a slight cheat, as this was actually written while Orwell lived in and around Hampstead, rather than specifically set in North London. But we love it, so we’re going  with it anyway. Partially inspired by Orwell’s own experience of working in a second hand book shop, it has parallels with our own Barbarians, concerned as it is with class and  the inevitability – or otherwise – of your life’s path. Gordon Comstock rejects his comfortable job in advertising in favour of the life of a poet and artiste. But will he be  inexorably drawn back to the life of middle class aspidistra-owning respectability? Orwell’s third novel and perhaps his least well read.

2. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Hampstead Heath is the site of some steamy trysts for character Sheba’s liaisons with a 15 year old pupil at her North London school which, we felt, was  the first and most important thing to say about this novel (in our defence this solidly places it in the North London bracket). Two strands of  story weave together to create a narrative both sinister and compelling, as while Sheba conducts her illicit affair, she befriends the lonely and obsessive  Barbara, veteran teacher at the school she’s teaching at. As the affair intensifies, and Barbara discovers Sheba’s secrets, the story comes to a deftly crafted  climax. A chilling novel.

3. About a Boy by Nick Hornby

One of Hornby’s best known books – Marcus and Will being immortalised by Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation – this is a cracking read to devour in a  weekend. Will’s japes (and yes, they should most certainly be referred to as ‘japes’) are a result of his boredom, as the 38 year old decides that single mothers are ripe pickings for  a bachelor his age. Enter the odd, singing 12 year old Marcus and his ill mother, and you have one of literature’s oddest friendships.

4. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey NiffeneggerHerfearfulsymmetry.jpg

American twins Julia and Valentina inherit their aunt’s flat right next to Highgate Cemetery, where Niffenegger worked as a tour guide whilst researching the book – the man in the flat below the twins is also working at the cemetery whilst researching his PhD. The plot is rich (Robert, living below them, was their aunt’s lover; Martin, living above them, suffers from OCD and is befriended by Julia), and, as one would expect of a Niffenegger novel, peppered with the supernatural. But we love it most for its descriptions of gorgeous Highgate and Hampstead.

"The Day of the Triffids" is probably the most well known of John Wyndham's works, exploring humanity's hubris and downfall in the face of more advanced evolution.  5. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I can’t write anything about John Wyndham without giving him his full name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you have to  do something great if you have that name. And do something great he did. Whilst Day of the Triffids isn’t my all time favourite Wyndham novel, it is very London-centric in the  first part. After the vast majority of the population are blinded, and a subsequent attack from the sentient plants, Triffids, we follow sighted Bill from Russell Square’s Senate  House where a band of those who still have their sight have joined together, to Swiss Cottage where he looks after a group of blind people, and all over London thereafter. A  creepy must read.

6. Wildcard entry from Tim Glencross: Evelyn Waugh

Since I mentioned Evelyn Waugh in my previous piece, Emma and Richard have very kindly let me add a little addendum here to note that Waugh briefly lived at 17a Canonbury Square, only a few seconds’ walk from where the Howe family of Barbarians reside on Canonbury Lane. I like to imagine Sherard Howe and Evelyn Waugh would have quite enjoyed being neighbours. Certainly, if anyone was likely to take in his stride Waugh’s approach to fatherhood (7-year-old son Bron is described in his diaries as ‘clumsy and dishevelled, sly, without intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual interest’) it would be Sherard, who considers his own son Henry something of a moron, and that ‘the problem with other people’s children is they’ve rarely had dinner with Chomsky’.

Tim Glencross’ Barbarians is one of our March books of the month, published by John Murray in paperback on 26th March.

 

Book of the Month: Barbarians by Tim Glencross

‘Only in fiction,’ writes American novelist and critic Edmund White, ‘where gentility and the wretched class system are actually viable subjects, did the English excel.’

This sentence is taken from White’s memoir of his years in Paris, Inside a Pearl, and he is making a general point about Anglo philistinism and lack of achievement across the arts (‘In the 1980s the Tate had its first ever show of Cubists – in the 1980s!’). What provokes this stinging verdict, it’s only fair to note, is the author’s indignation on behalf of a female French friend whose flamboyant dress sense has been discreetly mocked by some English ladies.

No doubt there is some truth here amid the pique. But perhaps English authors don’t (or don’t always) write about class out of intrinsic fascination with the subject. Rather, they include it in their fiction because it’s awkward and embarrassing, and therefore a subject often relegated to our private, unspoken lives.

When it came to writing Barbarians – a novel in which the suburban protagonist, Elizabeth ‘Buzzy’ Price, finds herself among the well-connected Islington intelligentsia – my aim was to try to create a set of characters who each had private thoughts which the reader would recognise as being true to life. This is what seems to me uniquely pleasurable about fiction, and what film and television, restricted as they are to showing the surfaces of people and events, can never hope to replicate.

Exploring the gap between our private and public selves creates scope for irony – a character’s self-delusion can, when successfully handled, be funny for the reader. It can also be a great consolation. After all, if as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed part of the beauty of literature is discovering that your longing are universal longings, it’s a relief to discover your failings are universal too.

One English writer who was certainly interested in class was Evelyn Waugh. He would also, I suspect, have been deeply dismissive of sentimental reflections on the comfort of literature, and the very notion of ‘life-like’ literary characters.

In a Paris Review interview Waugh said that when it came to fiction-writing he had ‘no technical psychological interest’, seeing it instead as ‘an exercise in the use of language’. I find these statements fascinating. I’m also not sure I believe them, or believe Waugh believed them. It’s possible that someone with no psychological interest might have written the stylish but slightly empty Vile Bodies. But would this person also have been capable of creating the subtly monstrous Lady Marchmain?

In the preface to the reissued edition of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh writes nonchalantly about his novel’s ‘glaring defects’. Surely such an unusually clear-eyed self-critic was well aware that a successful sentence (or an accomplished ‘use of language’, as he put it) is one that is truthful – and truthful sentences create psychological depth.

Perhaps the lesson here is that those grand Gallic campus slogans – The author is dead! There is nothing outside the text! – were right after all, and one should never trust writers discussing their own work. Of course, Edmund White might say the lesson, if there is one, is more that you can always rely on an Englishman to sign off with a weak parting shot at the French.

Barbarians by Tim Glencross is published by John Murray and will be out in paperback on March 26th.