Children of the Eighties: Margaret Stead on What a Way to Go

Margaret Stead, Publishing Director at Atlantic Books and Julia Forster’s editor, talks about our book of the month, What a Way to Go

What a Way to Go is that rare thing: a novel you want to press into the
hands of anyone and everyone from the first sentence. My interest was piqued from the moment it landed in my inbox. Like Harper, the protagonist of this brilliant debut, I am a child of the 80s – that now long ago era which seemed so modern and now seems oh so innocent. It was the height of the cold war, but that frozen stalemate gave the world a curious order. Politics was straightforwardly left versus right, CND were crucial, the nuclear threat was real; music and fashion were uniform to the point of conformity. Punk was dead and the synth drum reigned supreme. Everyone dressed the same, from the age of 13 or so: slogan t-shirts, leg warmers, fluoro anything and everything. Androgyny was key, but more in the sense of men dressing like women than the opposite. Remember the lavish blow waves and eyeshadow of Duran Duran? Above all, big – huge – hair was essential. I briefly sported a perm that had the texture and form of a lamb’s wool mushroom cloud, and was dyed an elegant shade called mahogany. My mother looked at me one morning and shouted ‘Enough!’ and I was shorn down to a mini-Afro that my friend Philippa then customized into a mullet with Cyndi Lauper steps down the sides, after which my mother sank into a sort of horrified resignation.

What struck me and my colleagues at Atlantic when we first read What a Way to Go was the voice. Harper is 13, poised on the threshold of adolescence, and with a hilariously piquant turn of phrase. She is the only child of a divorce, who is painfully aware of her parents’ loneliness and stalwartly determined to keep everyone happy as she navigates her way through the thorny world of co-custody. Like the decade, Harper is a touching mixture of naive and knowing, and what makes this novel really clever is the way in which Harper rings true. Anyone who has been a teenager, whether during the glorious halcyon years of   Wham! Band Aid, Duran Duran and Bananarama, or before or since, will respond to the poignant sense of a young person teetering on the brink of understanding the world around her, and seeing and understanding adults, realising that they are flawed and fragile human beings, for the very first time.

What a Way to Go is a magical evocation of an era, but it is also timeless in its exploration of the perils and travails of the journey from childhood to adolescence. It remains the easiest book I have ever edited in twenty years of wielding a pencil, in that it landed in a seemingly perfect state. Its simplicity is deceptive: it is very hard to be heartfelt, poignant and funny all at the same time; even harder to write a young person without being either saccharine, or arch, or cloying. Harper is completely lovable, and so is this charming, wise and radiantly assured novel, which we are proud to be publishing.

What a Way to Go is available now from Atlantic Books.  Follow Julia on Twitter at @WriterForster.

My Path to Publication by Julia Forster

When I moved to rural mid Wales in 2010 with my husband, a nine month-old baby and a toddler I didn’t give a second thought as to what I would actually do for a living.

So, when I heard about the Literature Wales writers’ bursaries, I applied in a heartbeat. I was awarded just over £1,000 to pay for six months of childcare during which time I said in my application form that I would make significant inroads into writing a novel.

Julia ForsterThe sample I had sent in with my application was from an entirely different book, an autobiography of my childhood which amounted to 80,000 words. I’d written the book aged 25, half of it during a five-day retreat in Paris where I was practically mainlined to espresso. The problem with that book was three-fold: a) nothing happened to me b) nobody knew who I was, and c) it wasn’t very good.

This new novel would take some elements of the autobiography – the theme of divorce, the late 1980s setting – and move it into a fictional world populated with characters born from my imagination. I had no idea how to begin.

I tried plotting the novel in Excel with headings like ‘conflict’, ‘point of view’ and ‘location’. Intuitively I knew that the key to this book would be to tell a story about an ordinary girl in an extraordinary way. However, looking back at the spread sheet now, I’m bamboozled by how I thought I could make such conflicts as ‘Harper looking in the Argos catalogue and realising that she can’t afford to buy a toaster’, or ‘Harper eating some chocolate eggs’ as anything other than snooze-inducing. Over Christmas, I wrote an encouraging mid-term report to my funders, and despaired.

Once the kids were back in nursery in the New Year I opened a Word document, typed ‘Chapter One’ and didn’t move from the kitchen table until I absolutely had to leave to collect the kids. Harper’s voice cut through my confusion and in my caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived brain synapses began to fire again.

Here was a protagonist I believed in, one I could happily champion. She was only twelve years-old, but Harper was an old soul with a big heart and a story to tell in an unforgettable voice. She was also hilarious, which came as a shock. When I tell jokes, I forget punch lines; they are usually met with with tumbleweed expressions. I remained in Harper’s service for two years, trusting that she knew where we were going. It turned out that what I needed most was confidence in myself coupled with a cast iron commitment to apply that to the prose.

When I submitted the novel to Sophie Lambert at Conville & Walsh, she read and replied within hours. I got the email requesting the balance of the manuscript while I was sitting on a train at Bristol Temple Meads station with the kids; we were on our way to see the remains of the Roman baths. I spent the day giddily shepherding them both around the excavations of ancient hypocausts. I could barely believe that this was the self-same day that I was laying the foundations of my own writing career.

Three months later, when I got the email saying that Sophie wanted to take me on as a client, I was on holiday in a Welsh bothy with several other families. Although we were on a woodland explorers weekend, somehow between us we’d also packed a laser, a smoke machine, a saxophone and a keyboard. Once the kids were asleep, we celebrated into the small hours, toasting Sophie with Spar’s best bubbly that I’d bought in Chirk.

Within six months of Sophie taking me on, we worked on two subsequent drafts, one of them addressing more structural issues, the second looking at polishing the prose and the novel was acquired by Atlantic Books three days before my 36th birthday. The gift of a lifetime.

Meeting my editor Margaret Stead and the rest of the staff at the publishers was an unreal experience. Upwards of a dozen staff sat and listened intently as I spoke about the book’s gestation and my background as an author. There was a palpable love for the book in the room. I knew that we had delivered Harper into a safe harbour. I was thrilled that Atlantic Books would be launching her story into the hands of readers and, when I saw the treatment for the cover – its orange, pink and turquoise tones popping off the cassette deck cover – I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I can’t wait to see how Harper’s journey into the world unfolds.

What a Way to Go is available now from Atlantic Books.  Follow Julia on Twitter at@WriterForster.

January Book of the Month: What a Way to Go

We can’t believe it’s been a whole year since we began our book group, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better book to begin Year Two with than What a Way to Go by the brilliant Julia Forster:

1988. Harper Richardson’s mum and dad are divorced. Her mum got custody of her, the Mini, and five hundred tins of baked beans. Her dad got a mouldering cottage in a Midlands backwater village and plenty of free time to indulge his WWII obsession. Harper got questionable dress sense, a zest to understand the world around her and the responsibility of fixing her parents’ broken hearts…

Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music and puberty, divorce and death, What a Way to Go is a warm, wise and witty tale of one girl’s mission to run headfirst into the middle of some of life’s big questions – and to come out the other side with some reasonable answers.

It’s the perfect book to cosy up with on a cold January night and warm your heart – it’s also very funny, poignant and brilliantly observed. Look out for blogs this month from Julia’s agent and editor, and Julia herself.

What a Way to Go is available now from Atlantic Books.  Follow Julia on Twitter at @WriterForster.