New voices are the life-blood of the world of books, especially when it comes to fiction. As the old, established novelists slow down and – whisper it – show signs of becoming stale, how refreshing, how rejuvenating, it is to welcome fresh faces to the table. Not surprisingly, spring, the time for new beginnings, is the season when publishers large and small choose to unveil their new talent and the class of 2018 looks particularly promising. For the fifth year running, the Observer
New Review has chosen six debut novelists we believe will make a splash, among them two teachers, a former fashion journalist, a one-time literary agent and a gallery attendant at the British Museum. The subjects they take on range from mermaids, child abuse and outdoor swimming to old age and the “comfort” women of Japanese colonial rule in South Korea.
What makes us so sure these new writers will stand out from the crowd? It can never be more than a hunch but our track record in picking the cream of the crop speaks for itself. Previous New Review debutantes have included prize-winners and bestsellers such as Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), Emma Healey (Elizabeth Is Missing), Laura Barnett (The Versions of Us), Sally Rooney (Conversations With Friends) and Gail Honeyman, whose Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine has just won the Costa debut novel award for 2017. It is heartening to see more black and ethnic minority authors among 2018’s first-time novelists, a sign that publaishers may be starting to address the imbalance that means writers named David are famously more likely to get into the bestseller charts than BAME authors. Could they do more? Evidently. Let’s see what 2019 brings. Lisa O’Kelly, associate editor (books)
Michael Donkor was born in 1985 and grew up in a Ghanaian household in west London. He works as an English teacher
Michael Donkor’s fiction debut followed three bears going on an adventure across Europe and ending up at the Eurovision song contest. He was eight years old. “I was a bit of a Eurovision freak back then,” he admits. “Still am in some ways.” No one in his family was especially literary, and he didn’t know any writers, but he liked the fact that he received praise for the story and he had control over a world.
Donkor’s Ghana-born parents, in the way of many west African immigrants to Britain, would have preferred him to become a doctor, lawyer or accountant, he says. But he was the youngest of three, his sisters did well, and he was allowed a little latitude. He studied English at Oxford and then slipped, almost unnoticed, into a creative writing MA.
Around this time, a character called Belinda popped into Donkor’s head. She was a housegirl, the type of maid he remembered from family trips to Ghana. Housegirls would be a similar age to him, maybe slightly older, but while he was on holiday they would be working.
“I read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when I was about 20, and I thought: ‘There’s a missing story here,’” says Donkor, when we meet in a coffee shop in Brixton, London. “In all the big African novels I’d encountered to that point, the voice of this section of society didn’t seem to be present. So I thought: ‘Let’s see if I can turn these weird memories of these quite silent girls into something more substantial.’”
The result is Hold, an arresting and textured novel that tracks Belinda from employment in a well-to-do house in Kumasi, Ghana, to south London, where she moves in with Nana and Doctor Otuo, expatriate Ghanaians. Nana brings diligent, strait-laced Belinda to Britain not to work, but in essence “to fix” her daughter, Amma, who is a similar age but has grown up in much more privileged surroundings.
It’s a world Donkor knows well: he was raised in west London and in 2002, the year in which Hold is set, he was a teenager who liked to hang around Brixton. He has a gift for succinct, piercing description: through Belinda’s eyes, the exotic (Ghana) becomes familiar, and the familiar (London) becomes exotic. Throwing Belinda and Amma together allows both young women to reflect on their lives hitherto and what the future might hold.
While there are autobiographical elements in the novel, using female protagonists helped to give Donkor a different spin. “I didn’t feel nervous about it – perhaps I should have,” he laughs. “Girls in Ghanaian society are often overlooked and there’s a real bias towards to the achievements of the son. But in our house it was my mum and my sisters and all of my friends at secondary school were female. The novels I loved most were written by women, so the complexities of the female experience have always been around me.”
Donkor’s day job as an English teacher also helped him access the female teenage mindset. His current post is at St Paul’s girls’ school in west London. “It’s funny,” he says, “because the girls at school ask me whether they have inspired some of my observations about teenage girls… and yeah, I’m watchful of the ways young people interact. And how direct they are.”
Finding a publisher for Hold has, he says, been “a wiggly route” and the whole process has taken 10 years. He sent out an early version of the novel to “100, maybe 200” agents and didn’t hear anything. Then, in 2014, he was selected on the Escalator mentoring scheme by the Writers’ Centre Norwich and that smoothed the path. The decade has also seen Donkor go through some major life changes. In his mid-20s he came out to his mother, and latterly his father died: both of these events influenced the plot development in Hold. Being openly gay, Donkor says wryly, is “kind of un-Ghanaian” and he’s intrigued to see how Hold will be received when it’s published. “It’s clearly autobiographical and it will force me to talk about that stuff, which is long overdue,” he says. “I’m ready… I think!” TL
Londoner Imogen Hermes Gowar, 30, was a gallery assistant at the British Museum when she began to write stories
The “mermaid” that sparked Imogen Hermes Gowar’s tale of the merchants, seafarers and courtesans of Georgian London is a deeply unsettling sight to behold: a grotesque, shrivelled corpse as far from the enchanting, long-tressed woman with shimmering tail of popular legend as one can imagine. But Gowar’s mermaid is that most fascinating thing: a real fake, made up of a monkey stitched to a fish that she encountered while working as a gallery assistant at the British Museum.
“It’s kind of mesmerising,” she says, adding, with some understatement, “it’s not nice.” Such artefacts, she continues, were often made by the Japanese and then bought up for fortunes by Dutch seamen, eventually finding their way into gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosities. But how was anyone ever fooled?
“What’s easy to forget is that loads of things that you saw and were told were real were also dead and stitched together,” she explains, citing the kangaroo that Captain Cook brought back from Australia in the 1770s, a flayed skin subsequently stuffed in Europe. “The presence of stitches and frame and straw inside it wouldn’t put people off thinking that’s real. You take it on faith; you’re never going to go to Australia and see if this thing really exists. This is the best you can do. So why would you not think the same about a mermaid that might also be a monkey stitched to a fish?”
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, acquired after a 10-way auction and so hotly anticipated that collectors and dealers have already been pursuing proof copies, brings to life a pre-Darwin society, in which people might believe in the existence of a lion simply because they had seen one on a heraldic coat of arms, but would reject the idea of a duck-billed platypus as too far-fetched. It also portrays a capital city roiling with men organising, financing and undertaking perilous sea journeys, and women frequently faced with a stark choice: secure the protection afforded by marriage, or achieve a different form of independence through prostitution. The more that she wrote, says Gowar, “the more that I felt it was kind of a survey of 18th-century options for women”.
Now 30, Gowar has had a circuitous route to publication. Having studied archaeology, anthropology and art history at the University of East Anglia, she gravitated towards museum work, eventually finding herself working at the British Museum, an institution she describes as highly departmental and hierarchical, with a marked divide between its back-of-house and front-of-house functions. “They think you’re total oiks,” she says of her time working in the galleries, which coincided with the new coalition government’s swingeing cuts to museum budgets.
Her personal life was tough, too: her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and Gowar had moved back home to Kingston upon Thames to look after her. “I just started needing to do something that wasn’t any of those things,” she remembers, and so she began to create narratives based on the objects and artefacts she saw around her.
A short story that formed the basis of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock ensued but, unable to make anything more of it, she put it to one side. She wrote a novel, set in the 1960s, which was “dismal – like a bad relationship, just thrashing it out, you’ve got to stay because you’re here now...” But a few years later, having attended creative writing evening classes and been encouraged by her tutor to apply for an MA, she found herself back at UEA. Set an assignment that involved historical writing, the mermaid story resurfaced.
Her first degree came into its own, making her “think about people’s stories and lives in a very tactile, physical way”. As well as research into 18th-century sex work, maritime history, mercantilism and insurance, she walked many of the streets that provide her setting, recreating journeys from London Bridge to Deptford undertaken by Samuel Pepys. It might have helped that a branch of her own family has been based in the city for 400 years, in similar south of the river territory.
But at the heart of the book is the fantastical and the spectacular and the emotions they provoke. Gowar was captivated by the idea that mermaids “could be powerful and female but also unfeminine, and tied up with melancholy – sailors having this kind of nostalgia thing where they’re longing for home and then when they’re home they’re longing for the sea. That sadness was something I wanted as well.”
Now writing full time – aside from volunteering at Dr Johnson’s House – Gowar is at work on a second novel, not set in the Georgian era but, she says, with definite thematic links to her debut. Of this first novel, she maintains that “I wanted to write the book I wanted to read”. If early indications are anything to go by, she’s not the only one who wanted to read it, either. AC
Former fashion journalist and marketer Libby Page, 25, is a keen outdoor swimmer whose passion inspired her first novel
“I’ll be wearing red,” says Libby Page, when we email to arrange our meeting. She turns up in pillar-box red lipstick and sparkly gold desert boots. The cool, quirky look is clearly a legacy of her fashion student years (“I’ve always liked fashion”). That was just four years ago and she has since worked her way through journalism (at the Guardian for a year) and retail marketing before becoming a full-time writer, all by the age of 25.
She was 23 when she quit her job in marketing and told her family she was heading to Paris to make it as a writer. She had been working on her first novel ever since graduating (in fashion journalism) but found that nine-to-five office life in London did not allow enough time to write.
The bold move paid off. She rented an Airbnb in Paris for six months and wrote The Lido, a heart-warming story of community, loneliness, youth and ageing, with an odd but endearing female friendship at its centre – between 26-year-old local journalist Kate and 86-year-old widow Rosemary, who come together through their love of outdoor swimming. “It felt like a cliche but I’d write in the day and then explore swimming pools in Paris,” says Page.
She came back to London and finished off the novel but a year later, she still hadn’t found a book deal and was on the verge of giving up when the agent Robert Caskie found her manuscript on his slush pile and loved it. Twenty-four hours after submitting her book to publishers, he phoned her to tell her that she had landed a two-book deal for a six-figure sum. The book has since sold in 24 territories and film rights have also been bought. “I was having dinner with my boyfriend’s parents when Robert rang and I burst out crying.”
The Lido was inspired by many things: Brixton, the area in south London she got to know so well in her student years that was then in the process of being gentrified; the loneliness of her early 20s and her love of outdoor swimming – she and her older sister are known as the Swimming Sisters on Instagram. “There’s something about taking off your clothes and getting in the water that breaks barriers. It makes everyone equal, especially outdoors,” she says.
But perhaps the biggest factor was the sense of community she found as a teenager when she moved to the city from the countryside. It was this urban neighbourly spirit that inspired the central symbol of the lido. “I grew up in Gillingham, Dorset, which was a place where you’d say hello to everyone on the street even if you didn’t know them. Until I moved to London, I thought that’s what everyone did everywhere.”
There was a different kind of community in Brixton. “You have to look for it in London but it’s absolutely there, in the lidos, in the libraries. You have to nudge open the doors to it.” The Brockwell Lido, in her book, is just such a door nudged open. The pool here has been sold to developers who are turning it into luxury flats; Rosemary and Kate plan a local campaign to wrest it back for the community who have shared memories of it that stretch back to the second world war. There are protests, petitions, and a 1970s style “sit-in”.
The book’s themes of community, protest and activism are urgent ones in Brexit Britain. Was the book also inspired by the European referendum, I ask. “Well, I wrote it in 2015, before Brexit, but Brexit didn’t just happen overnight,” she says. “A series of things led up to it. In difficult times, people want to hold on to the things that are important. For the community of swimmers in my book, it’s the lido. For the women, the lido means so much more than a pool.”
Page also deals with age and generational change in refreshing ways. Rosemary defies the stereotype of the elderly woman: although she is deep in grief from the recent loss of her husband (beautiful reminiscent passages describing their youthful skinny-dips), she has an indefatigable lust for life. Page says she often saw this kind of formidable woman while swimming. “Often, the strongest, most dedicated outdoor swimmers are older women. The rest of society is telling them that they’re invisible but they are there, swimming every day. You don’t hear their stories so much but they’re still an active part of the community. Like them, Rosemary is a young soul.”
Just as refreshingly, Page shows us the loneliness of youth through Kate’s anxiety, which she labels “The Panic”. She hopes that an honest portrayal of youthful loneliness and anxiety will resonate with other twentysomethings. “It’s something I experienced myself and my friends experienced it too in their 20s. You have this perception of what your 20s should be like, but in reality a lot of us feel lost and struggle to find a place in the world. Loneliness affects all ages; it’s what brings Kate and Rosemary together. In The Lido, I was trying to say that we have a lot in common – the young with the old.” AA
Lisa Halliday, 41, grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Milan. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review and she received a 2017 Whiting award for fiction
Lisa Halliday tracks her debut novel back to her early 20s, when she landed a job with the Wylie literary agency in New York and found herself in the perfect position to listen in to the wisdom of writers. “They say many charming, clever, provocative things,” she explains. “I like the idea of combining someone like I was, living in New York, with someone who can teach her quite a bit and also talk to the idea of storytelling in general.”
In less flattering terms, she knows what it’s like to be [her protagonist]Alice, struggling to concentrate on an “impassable” book with “almost exclusively long paragraphs and no quotation marks whatsoever”. In the opening scene of Asymmetry, the twentysomething publishing assistant is doing just that when she is approached by an elderly man eating an ice-cream. He is Ezra, a Pulitzer prize-winning writer with a zipper-like scar from his stomach to his sternum – and so begins a May-December love affair that is also a masterclass on the craft of the novel.
It’s a bold scenario for a debut novelist with everything to prove, and Halliday is knowingly reckless in her invocation of the literary greats. In one early scene, Ezra advises Alice to remember what Chekhov said: “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first chapter, in a later chapter it must go off.” To which Alice replies, “If there’s a defibrillator hanging on the wall in the first chapter, in a later chapter must it go off?”
The answers to this and many other questions are artfully concealed in a work that defies some key conventions of its chosen form yet remains triumphantly a novel. It is structured in three sections, with the story of Ezra and Alice’s affair followed by an apparently unconnected narrative involving a young Iraqi detained at Heathrow airport.
Born in Medfield, a small town 45 minutes outside Boston, to a mechanic father and a mother who started out as a seamstress and went on to found a pest control business, Halliday was a bookish child, who would sit on the steps of the local library waiting for it to open. She graduated from a local school to Harvard, an achievement she attributes to the good fortune of growing up in a town with an outstanding record in public education.
But, though she had always been praised for her writing, she lacked confidence, and says “it was meeting real writers and observing their work ethic and their concerns about their work that made me think I could do this – that all it requires is persistence and perhaps I should give it a go.”
She stayed with the Wylie agency for eight years, working in both their US and UK offices, and punctiliously recording in her journal the wit and wisdom of the authors she encountered along the way, before leaving to embark on own writing career. But only now that she is 41, and living in Milan with the distraction of a small baby, is she is publishing her first novel. What took her so long?
Partly, she admits, it was due to the demands of finding the money to pay the rent once the day job had gone. But subsequent freelance work – editing, proofreading, ghostwriting and translating – gave her a second apprenticeship and taught her about structure and unselfconscious storytelling.
Her early attempts at writing her own fiction attracted “encouraging rejections”, one of which described her work as “Babar written by EM Forster” – which she took to mean she had talent but had yet to find a story. It was such useful feedback that she has dropped it into the novel.
Gradually, her work began to find its mark, and she started to publish short stories and author interviews in the Paris Review. When her English husband landed a job as rights director with an Italian publisher, and the couple moved to Milan, the pieces of Asymmetry began to fall into place.
The “lightbulb moment” came when she had the idea of pairing the stories of two young people who happened to be living at the same historical moment, during the Iraq war. At first she tried to force their stories to intersect, but gradually she understood that to do so was a mark of immaturity as a writer. “Sometimes,” as Ezra says, “you just have to let your characters get on with it, which is to say coexist.”
She knows that some early readers have felt challenged by the novel’s structure, but also that there is a consensus that it is a challenge worth taking, which is reflected in its translation into half a dozen languages. Big history dances on tiptoe in the background, as do tricky questions about cultural appropriation and the freedom of writers to go anywhere their imagination leads them.
The aim, she says, is to achieve what Italo Calvino described as leggerezza, and during the interview, we ponder what this “lightness” means. An hour later she emails a quote: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight,” wrote the Italian master in his 1985 lecture collection Six Memos for the New Millennium. “Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language…” Yet again Halliday invites comparison – not arrogantly but with a confidence that seems both innocent and entirely justified. CA
Mary Lynn Bracht, 39, is an American author of Korean descent who now lives in London. Her first novel is inspired by Japan’s occupation of Korea 1910-45
Mary Lynn Bracht walks into the coffee bar at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, London. She is, at 39, a poised presence, all in black, with an alert smile. I tell her I read her harrowing debut novel, White Chrysanthemum, set in South Korea and Mongolia, in one sitting – horrified and rapt. Bracht’s mother is Korean but Mary Lynn grew up in the US and lives in London. The novel was partly inspired by a trip to her grandmother’s village, Gungchon-ri, east of Okcheon in South Korea, in 2002. She had always wanted to write about her “amazing” mother, she says, to “introduce the world to her”. But she then stumbled upon a piece of history she could not ignore that would take her novel beyond her mother’s experience.
During Japan’s colonisation of Korea (1910-1945), more than 200,000 women were captured by the Japanese military as sex slaves. Known as “comfort” women, their plight was not known about in the west. “I read about them in an article online and was shocked.” She asked her mother: “Have you heard of these women?” Her mother’s response shocked her too. She said: “Everybody knows about them.” Bracht protested: “But you’ve never told me.” “Everybody knows,” her mother repeated.
“In Korea,” Bracht concludes, “bad things happen to women. It’s not a big story – it’s just known. It’s not in our history books, not on the radar and over 70 years later, these women are still fighting for recognition.”
Bracht writes about two sisters: Hana, abducted by a Japanese soldier, becomes a comfort woman; Emi remains behind. “The comfort women were referred to as ‘toilets’ and seen as disposable – that’s how bad it was.”
She writes unflinchingly about what they endured: “The hardest part was knowing that no matter what I wrote, the experience for real people was worse.”
Bracht studied anthropology and psychology at Texas university. Psychology taught her when to “shut up and gaze”. She adds: “I knew I had to stay in Hana’s head.” She wondered what Hana thought as she was raped: “Where does your mind go?” The novel is about survival and she admits she has had, in her life, “scary experiences – though nothing I’d want in print. I’ve had that startled deer feeling: am I going to get out of this OK?”
But above all it was “the strength of my mother” that inspired her ideas about survival. Bracht’s mother lost her own mother and two sisters before she was 16. She moved to Seoul in the late 60s and worked in a factory “making bouffant wigs for the west”. Her father was an American soldier stationed there. “They met, fell in love and are still together – going strong.” Bracht’s family feeling is evident – one of the novel’s charms – it’s a family of divers/fisherwomen who seem to exist, physically and psychologically, in a different element. “These Korean divers are an endangered species now. Most of the women are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s. They’ve Unesco historical status. They’re a tourist attraction.”
Bracht used to think novels were what other people wrote, “New Yorkers or Londoners”. Yet while at high school, she told her mother about her ambition to write. Her mother panicked – “No! You’ll be poor for the rest of your life” – but the urge did not desert her. She did an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, read prodigiously (“I was missing a canon”) and established narrative direction: “I’ve a million stories – which to tell?” It was her tutor who – when she wrote a story about comfort women – suggested it could make a novel. “He gave me permission.” Did she ever toy with a happy ending? “Only in my head. Korean stories are sad. The mood of the nation is loss and sorrow.”
“It is hugely upsetting,” she adds, “that what happened is not talked about in South Korea.” She talks about han – Korean for burden – and suggests that because Koreans have been “invaded by everyone over the centuries – they all carry something.” Does she carry a burden? “No, I’ve had a loving, wonderful life.” She says she is already working on a second novel set in Korea and Texas. First, she “dreams” a story, she explains, then it is her job to make it come true. KK
Mick Kitson was born in Wales and lives in Fife, Scotland. He has been one half of 80s pop duo the Senators, a journalist and an English teacher
A year and a half ago, Mick Kitson was an English teacher in his mid-50s working at an independent school in Fife, Scotland. He often felt frustrated by the novels he taught: “There were all these things that I didn’t like and which made me cross. So I had this idea that I was going to write a novel that I would want to read.” Getting started, however, proved difficult: “I used to compare it to going to Norway – a place I’d quite like to visit, but wouldn’t be too fussed if I never do.”
What changed things was the death of Kitson’s father, a former publishing bigwig who lived in Australia. Kitson was with him during his final weeks. “I look incredibly like my dad, and it felt a bit like watching myself die. I remember sitting there with him and thinking, I need to do some of the things I said I was always going to do. It struck me very strongly.”
What Kitson did next was return to Scotland and embark on his long-deferred novel. He spent three or four months carefully planning it, and the next two in a frenzy of writing. “I have this characteristic where I can become very focused, to the point of obsession.” Long ago, in another lifetime, he was like that with booze. But these days, it can be anything: “I have built two boats, and it was the same with them. I did it 24 hours a day.”
The novel Kitson produced is so daring and original that it would be deeply impressive had it taken a decade to write. Sal is the story of two half-sisters from a deprived town near Glasgow – 13-year-old Sal and 10-year-old Peppa – who flee their abusive home life by taking off, on their own, to the Scottish Highlands. They make an unlikely pair of survivalists – neither has ever even visited the countryside – but Sal, who masterminds the expedition, is a highly intelligent autodidact who has prepped for life in the wild by poring over instructional videos on YouTube. She constructs a shelter from birch saplings, builds fires, sets traps for rabbits, and keeps her sister entertained with fireside history lessons, also gleaned from her online self-tutoring. The novel – in essence an ingeniously repackaged adventure story – manages to feel both contemporary and timeless, both heart-rending and uplifting.
What prompted Kitson to cast two socially deprived girls as his protagonists? “I’ve read loads of novels where really the book is a kind of thinly veiled whinge by the author about their life,” he says. “I wanted my characters to be as unlike me as possible.” But he also says he encountered girls a bit like Sal and Peppa while working at various “mean” comprehensives earlier in his career. Sal, the narrator, is hyper-vigilant, stupendously resourceful – traits that Kitson observed in his pupils. “Lots of kids who come from that type of background develop this desire to control events. It’s to do with being able to predict when something bad is going to happen.”
Kitson has taken an unusually roundabout route to being a novelist. He only started teaching in his early 40s, after moving to Scotland (from south-east England) with his wife and two children. Before that he was a journalist, working for local papers and news agencies, and before that, in his 20s, he was one half – along with his brother Jim – of an almost famous 80s pop duo the Senators. (Some of their videos are available on YouTube: they’re pretty good.) The problem with both music and journalism, he says, is that they encouraged his drinking. Hence the relocation to Scotland, a new career, and a life closer to nature.
It somehow seems fitting that Sal’s route to publication has also been unconventional. At a wake for his dad held back home in England, Kitson met Jenny Fry, head of communications at the Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate. They bonded over their shared love of the American novelist Marilynne Robinson. A few months later, Kitson had finished Sal and was unsure what to do next. So he emailed it to Fry: “I just wanted her to tell me it was shit.” But she loved it, as did everyone at Canongate – and the firm snapped it up in a pre-empt. It was one of the hits of last year’s London Book Fair, and is being translated into seven languages. While the market for literary fiction is notoriously hard to predict, Sal deserves to one of this year’s hits.
And so the pop star who never quite made it now has a shot at a different – and perhaps more meaningful – type of fame. William Skidelsky
AJ Pearce grew up in Hampshire and worked in magazine publishing and marketing before getting into writing
When AJ Pearce was growing up in late-60s Hampshire, the highlight of her week was the arrival of her copy of Twinkle magazine: “I’ve always loved magazines. I remember as a child the excitement of my weekly comic arriving. I loved that there were things in it, even at that early age, that related to me.”
Almost 50 years later, the world of magazine publishing is the backdrop for Pearce’s debut novel, Dear Mrs Bird, set in London in 1940. The protagonist, 22-year-old Emmeline Lake, is an aspiring war reporter who successfully applies for a junior role on a national newspaper only to discover that the job is actually on Woman’s Friend magazine, assisting the formidable Mrs Bird, the magazine’s resident agony aunt.
Inspiration struck when Pearce stumbled across a 1940 edition of Woman’s Own magazine on eBay: “I thought it would just be a bit of a fun – and then a whole world opened up.” She was soon sourcing hundreds more magazines from the period: “They’re a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this world. You’re reading exactly what the women were reading at that time, and that’s a real bridge for a writer.”
Most intriguing were the problem pages, says Pearce. “As I read more I was really surprised that it wasn’t just the cliched ‘Keep calm and carry on’. By and large the advice was thoughtful and supportive and sympathetic. It’s empowering stuff.”
Dear Mrs Bird is a joyfully uplifting and optimistic novel, at the centre of which is Emmeline’s relationship with lifelong best friend Bunty: “I loved the idea of ordinary friends having adventures. I always wanted the girls to be their own heroes. There’s no white knight on a charger.” The novel follows the pair as they negotiate matters of the heart, friendships and professional lives against a backdrop of the blitz. “I love history. And I was always interested in the wartime era because it’s true that they were our finest generation: it’s ordinary people having to be extraordinary every day.”
Pearce’s route to publication has been long and dedicated. After a degree in American studies at the University of Sussex, she embarked on a two-decade career in magazine marketing, working on everything from What’s New in Engineering to Smash Hits. In 2005, with a week’s spare holiday, she set off from her home in Hampshire to undertake a creative writing course at Arvon, purely for fun – “but then to have two proper authors saying to all of us, ‘You can do this’, was life-changing.” Over the following 11 years she attended more courses, acquired the novelist Julie Cohen as her mentor and befriended authors Katie Fforde and Judy Astley, absorbing as much advice and guidance as she could: “It’s all about patience and persistence – there’s so much to learn.”
After she’d signed with agent Jo Unwin, Dear Mrs Bird became the subject of a seven-way publisher auction and has so far won publishing deals in 12 foreign territories: “When my agent told me I was going to be published there was an awful lot of shouting down the phone and some very colourful language.”
Despite its historical setting, Dear Mrs Bird’s timely story of courage and good humour in adversity is being pitched as the literary tonic of the year. Of course Pearce wrote it before Trump, Brexit and the increase in terror threats, and she says: “I just hope people really enjoy it and take away a feeling that it’s positive… that it’s a book where people are fighting against the odds and doing their best.” HB
• Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is published by Picador, 5 April