An Interview with Harriet Lane

 

Harriet Lane, author of Alys, Always

 

Another author interview for you, this time with Harriet Lane, the woman who penned one of my new favourite books Alys, Always.  I focused my interview questions this time on the process of Lane’s writing.  To me, her writing style is very unique as she creates a lot of space for her reader to think.  As well, as I head along my own journey of growth with writing, I’m curious about the craft as much as the actual story.  I hope you are too.

 

Alys, Always by Harriett Lane

 

Thanks to Harriet Lane for taking the time and sharing her words with all of us.

 

1.  Did you know in advance what Frances would be up to (I’m being careful so no spoilers). Do you even know yourself what she was up to?

I knew from the first moment that the novel would depend on a slow reveal. I liked the idea of a narrator whose personality and intentions come to light gradually, incrementally; after all, that’s how you get to know people in real life. Also, I thought it would be fun to write, if I could pull it off. So yes, I knew her gameplan. But some of the little details surprised me.

 

 

2.  Your descriptions are beautiful, yet you don’t use excess words. How exactly do you manage that? 

Well, that’s a lovely thing to hear. I think it all boils down to Frances. As soon as I found her voice, everything just fell into place. Frances isn’t given to wasting words. She’s very sharp and precise and economical. She uses words carefully; they matter to her.  I liked the discipline this gave the story.

At the same time, she’s in a rush. Once she has set things in motion, there’s a real urgency to her (though she keeps it well-hidden), a momentum to her story. I wrote the novel very quickly — the first draft took 11 weeks, I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before my kids broke up for the summer holidays — and I think that kept the writing focused.

Because of the kids I don’t have as much time to read as I used to, and the books that I love tend to have very tight narratives that make it hard for me to put them down. I’m always wildly grateful to writers who whip things along. Mostly I get a bit restless when faced with pages of lyrical description. The right sentence can be just as effective in conjuring up character or atmosphere or a sense of place. I guess I prefer the haiku approach.

 

 

3.  Did you do a lot of research when writing your novel, or rather draw on people and places that you well know?

I had the idea on a Saturday afternoon (it fell into my head while I was watching my husband playing football with the children) and straight away I could see there were no obstacles to starting it immediately. I wouldn’t have to research shipbuilding or Victorian mourning rituals or the geology of Polynesia; I could just get cracking. It was a terrifying moment, but also thrilling.

I’ve worked at a newspaper, I live in north London, I went to school with a fair amount of over-entitled girls… And the rest I could just make up. No excuses. So on the Monday I dropped the kids at school, came home and flipped open the laptop — and that was it, I was off.

 

 

4.  I’m sure a lot of people ask, is the character of Laurence Kyte based on any specific author? If yes, who? 

No, he’s not based on anyone. I wasn’t sure initially whether he should be a novelist or a theatre director: I just knew he had to do something creative where he could feel in charge, in control of other people’s lives and destinies. But I figured I didn’t know much about theatre directing (there might be technical jargon I’d get wrong, stuff like that). So, I made him a novelist. Fewer rules! I hoped that would give me a bit more freedom and confidence.

 

 

5.  Do you write with an outline or on the fly?  Did you choose your method or did it choose you?

When I had that idea in the garden, I ran inside and grabbed my little orange jotter and scribbled down the outline on about three pages. I stuck to that, pretty much. It gave me a lovely feeling of security: I always knew where I was going next. All I had to do was write it. And the writing was pure pleasure, pure happiness and amusement, really.

I had the outline, the shape of the narrative, but not necessarily the details, and there was this delight as those details materialised. You know, like the tiny moment early on when Frances removes a scrap of lint or mustard (or perhaps nothing) from Laurence’s sleeve. The bits of light kleptomania. I hadn’t seen them coming.

So at that level, I was never absolutely sure what Frances would get up to next. She was great company.

 

 

6.  Did you workshop or have early readers of your book?  What was your path to publishing?

I’d always written. But I hadn’t written fiction since school. I’d been a journalist, contributing to the Observer, Tatler, the Guardian and Vogue. I loved my work. And then out of nowhere in 2008 I started losing my sight, and I had to put my career on hold. Turns out I have a super-rare chronic form of optic neuritis, an inflammation of the otic nerve. I have to take handfuls of pills every day to preserve the sight I have left (I’m now blind in one eye).

I was spending so much time in hospitals, I put the freelancing on the back burner. But I missed the writing. I missed the blissful sensation of finding exactly the right word. It was a sort of ache. Something else I’d lost.

It was a very unhappy time, but I wanted to see if I could get some of that happiness back. So I joined a local creative writing course. Walking in to the class that Thursday lunchtime felt like the scariest thing I’d ever done. Who was I, a voracious reader, to dare to attempt fiction myself? It felt soimmodest, somehow. It’s silly: I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt like that if I’d joined a life-drawing class. But once I’d got over the embarrassment (what was I doing, sitting around, making stuff up?) I felt fantastic. Alive. Liberated from something.

I had a friend, Cat Ledger, a literary agent, and she’d been nagging me to write a book ever since my eyes went wrong. She’d ring me up and say, “Come on then, where is it?” She made me feel it wouldn’t be the most unlikely thing. I’m so grateful to her for that. It really helped.

So I started the book in May, finished the first draft in August, and Cat sold it (in that state) in September. By that point my husband and my best friend had read it, but otherwise I hadn’t really told anyone I was writing anything. I was scared I wouldn’t finish it; then, when it was finished, I guess I worried no one would be interested in it. I didn’t want yet another reason for people to feel sorry for me.

I was lucky that it went out to an editor called Arzu Tahsin. She saw exactly what I was trying to do; she completely got it, in all the ways I hoped a reader might. As well as making countless brilliant suggestions to do with pace and plot and character, she also (so important, this) told me when I was explaining too much. She was the ideal co-conspirator. Right after she bought Alys, Always she wrote me a note saying, ‘I hope you enjoy every stage of the publishing process,’  and I can honestly say that I have. Every minute. Not least because it has been a fabulous distraction from all the eye rubbish. I’m thankful something good has come out of that.