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.

The Terrible Burden of Guilt: Karren Perry on Only We Know

Karen Perry is the pseudonym used by Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, authors of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Boy That Never Was. Their latest novel, Only
We Know, is published by Michael Joseph.


Karen Gillece:

The seed of an idea for a novel is often planted long before the novel is ever written. This is true of our second book Only We Know.

In 2006, my then boyfriend (now husband) journeyed from Dublin to Cape Town on his motorbike, and for parts of the journey, he had me as a passenger on the back of the bike. Along the way, we spent a very happy few weeks staying at a campsite called Jungle Junction on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. It was run by a Bavarian guy called Chris, and his Kenyan wife, and the clientele seemed to consist mainly of overlanders and backpackers – people in their twenties and thirties looking for adventure. There were some, however, who seemed older and more aimless – rather than being driven by wanderlust, they appeared to be drifting, perhaps a little lost. I remarked upon it one night to Chris, and his reply was that ‘Africa is a good continent for people who are running away.’ Running away from bad marriages, bad debts, failed careers, family troubles, various disappointments. People who were running away from life or from themselves. It was a notion that stayed with me long after my African adventure had ended.

Some years later, I was meeting my old friend, Paul Perry, for a drink and a chat, when Paul suggested we write a novel together. At the time, I don’t think either one of us had any idea that his suggestion would develop into a fruitful collaboration that saw the publication of our first novel The Boy That Never Was in 2014. That novel asked the question: What would you do if something terrible happened to your child? When it came time to discuss ideas for our second novel, Paul had the thought that we should start from the premise of: What if you had done something terrible as a child? Something so awful you could never tell a living soul? Something no one else knew about except the others who were with you that day – accomplices of sorts. As we discussed it, I remembered Chris’s words to me about Africa being a good continent for people running away, and the two ideas began to converge.

Only We Know is the story of Katie, Nick and Luke – childhood friends, bound to each other by a game they played on the banks of a river in the Masai Mara, a game that went horribly wrong. They have never told another soul about what they did that day, an uneasy alliance existing between them as they grew into adults with their own individual ways of coping. But now it is thirty years later, and Luke has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Threatening messages start to appear. Katie and Nick begin to realize that someone else knows what they did that day and is bent on seeking revenge.

The crime in this novel happened a long time ago, but the consequences are only just beginning to play out for the characters now. It was fascinating, exploring the notion of what it must be like to live with the past breathing over your shoulder, dogged by the fear that you might one day be discovered. We were interested in writing about guilt and the different ways that people deal with it. The following passage from the book sums up how the three main characters have lived with the burden of what they did as children:


I always knew it would come to this. Deep down, I knew that we couldn’t get away with it. You find ways of coping, ways of forgetting. You bury yourself in work, striving to be successful, wealthy and powerful. You engage in philanthropy, in charitable works, as if that might alleviate the guilt. Or you run away, explore the four corners of the world in an endless quest for meaning. You look for temporary solutions to deaden the memory – alcohol, drugs and a string of ill-advised romances. Or you let that memory become a black hole, a vacuum within your soul. But you know – deep down, you can’t escape it – that one day there will come a time of reckoning.


Only We Know is a story about shattered childhoods, about the bonds of secrecy and the terrible burden of guilt.  Threading its way through Ireland and Kenya, it tells the story of three people who have spent a lifetime running from the past only to find that it is waiting to crash into them around the next corner.

Karen Perry’s ‘Only We Know’ by Eve Hall, Editorial Assistant at Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House.

Eve photograph.jpg

“Everyone has moments of their past that they would like to forget. We all have hidden mistakes, misjudged cruelties, careless blunders somewhere in our murky histories. Sometimes these episodes are common knowledge, fodder to be trotted out at family parties. Sometimes, thank god, we are the only ones who know about (or care to remember) them at all. And sometimes there are just a few of you who are bound together by the shamefaced recollection, raising your eyebrows and grimacing at the memory.

But what happens when your youthful mistake wasn’t getting too drunk at that wedding, or a shameful playground taunt, but something that has the power to ruin you? An incident that overshadows your life and that binds together those of you that know for the rest of your days?

After the success of the Sunday Times bestselling The Boy That Never Was we at Penguin couldn’t wait to see what Karen Perry had in store for us next. And when we heard the premise of Only We Know we knew it was going to be good. This story sucks you into the world of Luke, Nick and Katie and what they did on that hot summer’s day back in 1982, their summer in Kenya that was never spoken of again. Something that you slowly come to realise was more than just an unlucky error or an embarrassing slip-up. And which, despite a lifetime spent with cards close to their chests as they drifted out of each other’s lives, they are not, as always supposed, the only ones who know.

Not only was the mystery compelling enough to keep me up for a large portion of the night saying ‘just one more chapter’, but in true Karen Perry style every line felt weighted and crafted with care. The relationships are so real and flawed that you forget that you are not, in fact, part of this mess and you are free to walk away at any time. It raises questions about friendship, youth, mistakes and you look back at your own past with relief. The small secrets in your lives which bind you to others will seem like nothing. Because anyone could be involved in a childhood game gone wrong. Anyone can be one that knows. This is a book that will haunt you, one that you won’t forget after you have put it down and, hopefully, one that you will press into the hands of all of your friends. And while you do, you will, of course, be wondering what secrets they have of their own to hide…”

Eve Hall, Editorial Assistant at Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House.

Only We Know will be published in paperback by Penguin Books on December 3rd 2015.


Book of the Month: Only We Know by Karen Perry

9781405913133We’re excited to announce our November book of the month, the thrilling second novel from Karen Parry, Only We Know.  We loved Karen’s bestselling debut, The Boy That Never Was, and the dark twists and atmospheric writing of Only We Know make it the perfect crime novel for a dark winter evening.

In 1982, on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday beneath the stifling heat of the midday sun, three children start a game that ends in tragedy.

Now, thirty years later, Nick, Luke and Katie are estranged, yet still bound together by the dark truth of what happened at the river that day.

Except some secrets won’t stay buried.

And when Luke suddenly vanishes and the threatening messages begin, it seems that the strings of the past are tightening around them all. Because someone else knows what they did and is intent on seeking justice, at any cost . . .

Only We Know will be published in paperback by Penguin Books on December 3rd 2015.  For more about our book of the month and the author, follow Karen Perry on Twitter (@KarenPerryBooks) and on Facebook.

Discovery Day Online

On the 26th November (just a few weeks away, now), we’re running our very first Discovery Day Online – a unique event we’re very excited about.

On the day, authors, readers, and anyone with an interest in the publishing world, will be able to pitch book ideas to us, get writing tips from Curtis Brown Creative, ask the agents at Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh questions about the route to publication, and (our favourite, of course) join in with a live Twitter book group session with author Rachel Hore.

The whole day will take place on Twitter, and each event throughout the day will have its own hashtag, which you can add to your tweet to join the conversation. Feeling confused? Here’s our handy guide…


9am – 1pm

Your monthly chance to pitch directly to agents is back – just use the hashtag to get your pitch read by our agents.


1pm – 2pm

We’ll be reading The Silent Tide, a book set in the world of publishing, and have copies to give away if you’d like to join in on the day. All you have to do is let us know what your favourite book group book is on Twitter, using #DiscoveryDay, to win one of 10 copies we have to give away.


2pm – 3.30pm

Anna Davis, director of Curtis Brown Creative, along with published alumni Antonia Honeywell and Kate Hamer, will be tweeting writing tips and taking your questions about character, plot, genre, title, structure, style…well, anything you want to ask about your writing.


3.30pm – 5pm

Your chance to ask our agents questions about anything from pitching and submitting to self publishing and their favourite book this year. We’re all ears.

We hope you’ll be able to join us on the day. If you have any questions in advance, do email us on

‘On the Trail of Mary Renault’ by Gordon Wise

IMG_5521“Ten years ago I became Mary Renault’s literary agent and, by a quirk of her will, one of her literary executors.  Mary had died in 1983, but somehow I felt I had to try to get to know her.  It was a journey that began in Oxford and ended in South Africa – a bit like Mary’s own life.  She was both strong willed and a private person, and when she died instructed that all her papers be burned.  But she had passed over some documents to her biographers David Sweetman and Caroline Zilboorg, and these notes, together with taped interviews, are now housed in the archives of her old college, St Hugh’s in Oxford – together with some wonderful correspondence with one or two of her contemporaries over the course of five decades (St Hugh’s now own Mary’s copyrights.)  From a publishing perspective, Penguin’s archives at the University of Reading provided fascinating reading: it seems there was rarely a jacket design that there wasn’t a bit of a tussle over, not to mention cover copy. And looking at the annual correspondence written on aerogrammes and sent from London to Cape Town and vice versa, it becomes clear that at one time she was crossed over editorial matters: the hurt and fallout that followed from this meant that such a thing could never happen again.

I wrote about the work Curtis Brown and her new publishers, Virago and Open Road, have undertaken to enable the rediscovery of Mary’s work in a blog piece that was published for the tenth anniversary of her death, and reading that will join some more of the dots for you.  And it tells of how I ended my journey on a trip to Cape Town, where Mary moved to escape the restrictions of postwar Britain.  I felt that a very special voyage of rediscovery had come full circle after I drove past where her house had been, in a commanding position on a cliff overlooking the majestic sweep of Camp’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, to meet her former lawyer, who had been the son of her doctor.  He mixed me a very strong gin and tonic, and sat me down on a very particular chair under a striking picture.  That painting, he said, belonged to Mary.  And that was her chair.  I hope you enjoy discovering her work as much as I enjoyed that moment, and discovering her.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

A Haunting Tale for Halloween – Matthew Marland on Little Sister Death by William Gay

LITTLE SISTER DEATH COVER 2“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.

Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.

Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”

For your chance to win a copy of Little Sister Death, simply visit our @CBBookgroup Twitter handle and retweet one of our competitionTweets by midnight on Saturday 23st October.

Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.

‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.