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.

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