Book Group Discussion: A Better Man by Leah McLaren

August’s book of the month was A Better Man and it had our readers full of questions for the author – Leah McLaren. Leah’s second novel is a gritty family drama about a couple who seem to have it all but whose lives are slowly unravelling.A Better Man Jacket Read on for a selection of the questions our readers asked Leah when she joined us online…

On the inspiration for Nick and Maya… (Sara Donaldson)

The characters of Nick and Maya were not based on specific people but composites of many people I’ve known over the years. In the case of Nick, particularly in the opening chapters, he was based on a rather blank and cynical (but very good looking and successful) guy I briefly dated in my 20s. Maya was more of compilation of many of the women friends I’ve seen become mothers and struggle with work-life balance. There is, of course, some of me in her too.

On unlikeable protagonists… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I guess the main thing is, beyond being likeable or unlikeable, I wanted Nick and Maya to feel real and for their emotional journey to be an authentic one. In real life people do deceitful and vain and annoying things all the time but we still find ways to like them and that, I hope, is true for Maya and Nick as well. I wanted them to start off as people we might shake our heads at a bit and then slowly become people we admired and could even learn a little bit from. By the end of writing the book, I really felt close to both characters and in part that’s because of the way they transcended and faced down many of their flaws from the beginning of the book.

On Nick’s psyche… (Kate Chisman)

As to Nick specifically, I wanted to get inside the head of a deceitful cynical husband and father so in a way the exercise was fun. I’m a bit of hopeless liar and sort of wear my heart on my sleeve so I actually found it quite fun (if challenging) to put myself inside the brain of someone as self-contained as Nick.

On genre and intended audience… (Fran Slater)

I really don’t think about genre or audience at all during the writing process. I just write and hope people respond to it. The book has certainly been marketed as commercial women’s fiction, which I’m fine with but unlike most so-called “chick lit” books it’s narrated in part by a male protagonist and it’s actually quite dark in parts. I wouldn’t describe it as a romantic comedy because, although it’s sometimes romantic and sometimes comic, there is also a level of emotional and psychological realism that pushes beyond the typical beach read. Having said that, I think people should read any sort of book they want on the beach!

On balancing light and dark… (Anne Goodwin)

I’m so glad you felt the combination of emotional depth and lightness, even joy, because that is exactly what I was going for. And I cannot tell you how lovely it is for a writer to hear from a reader who actually experienced the book as it was intended. Essentially I wanted there to be a great sense of relief and recognition for everyone involved at the end of the book.

On marriage… (Van Demal)

I think in some ways the whole novel is about the difficulties of marriage and divorce culture gone mad. I don’t say that in a judgemental sense (I’ve been married twice myself!) but there are so many thematic angles to subject of marriage and divorce and these were very much on my mind as I wrote the novel.

On isolation… (Nicki Pettitt)

Maya deserves a best friend, but I suppose I was trying to show the extent to which women can sometimes get isolated at that stage of their lives in which children are young and all-consuming. Her relationship with Velma has become like a best friendship but that’s not entirely healthy. I think in the new phase of her life (after that novel’s end) she has a lot more girly nights out.

On alternative endings… (Caroline Ambrose)

It reminds me of a funny tweet I read recently: “The plot to every novel ever: character is searching for something. Commercial version: They find it. Literary version: They don’t.” The truth is, although I can see the appeal of a bittersweet ending, I always planned for Nick and Maya to end up together in the end. I always thought of the book as a kind of story of remarriage, in which two people who are already together lose each other and have to find their way back again. I feel like so many books about relationships are about the start of things when in truth, what happens after the wedding (or shacking up) is what’s really interesting and dramatic. I wanted to write about that.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren was published in the UK by Corvus on 6th August 2015.

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