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.

Five Classic Mary Renault Novels

In honour of our book of the month, THE LAST OF THE WINE by Mary Renault, for this month’s ‘Five Books Feature’ we have given ourselves the tough act of choosing just five classic novels from Mary Renault’s illustrious oeuvre. With a writing career that spanned five decades and hundreds of thousands of copies of her novels sold worldwide during her lifetime, we certainly had plenty to choose from! As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites too.

97818440895051) The Charioteer

In this story of a love affair between two young servicemen in the Second World War, Mary cleverly recasts contemporary questions surrounding the politics of homosexual love in the classical context of platonic ideals. When it was first published in the UK in 1953, William Morrow’s fears of hostility towards the serious gay love story in the U.S. meant that it couldn’t be published across the Atlantic for a further six years. Good thing it finally escaped the censors, as its recent Virago reprint features a fantastic introduction from Simon Russell Beale.

2) Return to Night9781844089536

Mary’s fourth novel was important in more ways than one. Aside from being another great example of how Mary allows her readers to get inside the heads of famous classical figures, this was also the book which allowed the author to take a one-way trip out of the UK. When MGM Studios bought the rights for $150,000 (worth over £1,000,000 today), Mary and her long-term partner Julie Mullard were able to escape to South Africa which, in the 1940s, had a far more liberal attitude towards homosexuality than the English Home Counties.

97818440895743) Fire from Heaven

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of the first two-thirds of Alexander’s life. In this first novel about the heroic leader, Mary exploits this fascinating gap, gaining some serious posthumous success in the process. In 2010, it was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize (an award given retrospectively to novels from 1970 when the Booker Prize skipped a year). Despite losing out to J G Farrell’s Troubles, Mary gained a series of high-profile fans, including broadcaster Katie Derham, critic Rachel Cooke, and poet and novelist Tobias Hill.

4) The Last of the Wine9781844089611

The first of Mary’s classical works, the strand of writing for which she is best known, this novel (this month’s Book Group read) moves through the lives of Theseus, Plato, Dionysius and Alexander during the Peloponnesian War, blending fact with Mary’s unique brand of imaginative speculation and humanising these legendary figures. Coupled with highly realistic scenes of daily life in times of both war and peace, this is an absolute must-read for Mary fans.

The Nature of Alexander5) The Nature of Alexander

For our final pick, we’ve chosen a non-fiction gem. Despite writing several historical novels featuring the mighty Alexander, Mary still felt this wasn’t enough to tell his whole story, completing this biography instead. Mary manages to capture, on the one hand, his extraordinary grace and beauty and, on the other, the brutality and menace associated with his life and legacy. What Mary creates is a profile of a truly great man, although whether that reputation is based on equally great reasons is for you to decide…

There you have it – our favourite five Mary Renault novels. Any that you think we’ve left off? Tweet us your suggestions @CBBookGroup.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault is our October book of the month, available now from @ViragoBooks

Introducing our October Book of the Month: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

‘Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers’ – Hilary Mantel

Curtis Brown has a rich Estates list, and having touched on the theme of rediscovery last month, we thought it was time to bring out an incredibly important author, who Virago have been republishing this year: Mary Renault. With fans from Simon Russell Beale to Tom Holland, and Sarah Dunant to Hilary Mantel, we want to introduce her to a new set of readers…

Before setting her sights on the more ancient side of history, Mary wrote six fantastically compelling novels, but it is her work set in Ancient Greece that gained her widespread admiration for her scrupulous recreation of post war Athens.

The Last of the Wine was the first to mark this change in style in 1956, telling the story of champion runner Alexias in Athens at the end of the Golden Age and the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.

We follow Alexias from birth through to manhood, when he gets noticed for his beauty and his sporting prowess. In his adolescence, he meets and falls for Lysis, a man in his twenties who is a student of Socrates, and becomes Alexias’ mentor. In spite of their relationship, they both seek to marry and have children, as was the pressure and custom of the time. Lysis and Alexias compete in the Olympic Games, while Alexias juggles his training with his new responsibilities as man of the house, after the death of his father sends him reeling.

Mary Renault coversIn the latter portion of the book, war wreaks havoc on Athens, and Alexias is forced to fight both on land and at sea to protect his family, and regain his city from the oligarchs. The intense realism of Renault’s writing sets this story apart, as you see Ancient Greece through Alexias’ eyes.

Richly descriptive, and absolutely addictive, Renault weaves a tale of beauty, courage and war that will leave you wanting more. As always, we will be posting more about the book, so watch this space.

Last of the Wine is published by Virago Books.