Every story has its own story – the story of the story. Any debut novel is a tale of hope against the odds; you write it, you have no idea whether it will ever see the light of day, and then, miraculously, it does. That was so for Stop the Clock, my first novel, and yet it’s also true for After I Left You, which I started work on long before. So you could say that After I Left You is my other first novel.
The very first prototype of one of the main characters in After I Left You, which is due to be published in November this year, appeared in a fledgeling story about university students that I began and abandoned way back in 1999. The character who first emerged back then was Clarissa Hayes, the second-generation celebrity whose sitcom actress mother is a national treasure.
Clarissa didn’t start off having a famous mother, but she always seemed like a potential star herself – from the start, for good or ill, she was the sort of character you notice. It’s the presence of Clarissa in After I Left You that takes the story overseas for a brief interlude in 1990s Los Angeles, where three of the characters go rollerblading on Venice Beach – or rather, two go rollerblading and one sits out, for reasons that will become clear when you read the book. (Just to prove that I am a conscientious author and do my research, see below for a snap of me on Venice Beach in 1995.)
Some other elements of the story were present from the very first fragmentary drafts, including the idea of a secret that has caused one person to break away from a group of friends, and will eventually be revealed. Another character who appeared early on was Keith, the melancholy Gothic misfit. He attempted to squeeze into an early draft of Stop the Clock, but was cut out, which was just as well, because After I Left You is certainly where he belongs.
But much of the novel that will be published in paperback in July 2014, and is now available for pre-order on Amazon, only really came together once I had decided to tell it from the first person point of view. Anna, who is the eyes and ears of the novel, knows all too well what happened back in the past to prompt her decision to exile herself from her friends, but she’s keeping it to herself. That tension between telling and holding back kept me on my toes as a writer and hopefully will have the same effect on readers too.
Writing in the first person
What happened to prompt the choice to write in the first person? While I was working on Stop the Clock over 2009 to 2012 I read all the Twilight books, and then the Hunger Games series. Also, Fifty Shades of Grey sat at the top of the bestseller charts for months on end, and I looked through that too, purely for research purposes of course… All of these books are first person stories, and that’s what gives them a lot of their immediacy and drive.
Another book I tried to learn from is I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith’s brilliant novel which foregrounds the fact that its narrator is not just telling you the story, she’s scribbling it down – right from the start when she tells you ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, and then goes on to explain she’s actually sitting on the draining-board with her feet in the sink, because it’s the last place in the kitchen with any light left. (As good a metaphor as any for the situation in which the woman writer finds herself working, with domestic concerns never far away?)
I’m a big fan of the first person narrative, and always have been. Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye are two of my very favourite books. The first person works brilliantly for coming-of-age stories, and After I Left You is a coming-of-age story with a twenty-year interval, so it struck me as an approach I should try.
I also love Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which puts age in sharp contrast with youth, and has a story-within-the-story – you’ll find a bit of that in After I Left You, too.
The novel as timetravelling machine
After I Left You has two timelines, one set in the early 1990s and one in the present day, which was fun for me because I could time travel, which is something that, in my view, the novel does better than any other art form. (See The Time Traveler’s Wife, which does this so brilliantly it was always going to be hard for the film to match up.)
Like zillions of other readers, I was very taken by One Day, and part of the pleasure of that was recognising the times that the characters pass through, from the late 1980s up to the present day, which are so sharply and astutely observed; I started a little later and missed out all the years in between, but was able to play with a similar timescale.
Where? An Oxford novel, or a novel set in Oxford?
Another decision that I made at a late stage was the decision to set After I Left You fair and square in Oxford. Now, I love Oxford, and Oxfordshire, which is where I live. But I was nervous about writing about Oxford students. Brideshead Revisited, another book that I love, casts a long and rather daunting shadow, although of course it isn’t really about Oxford students at all; it’s about the big, universal themes – love, family, loss, change and the passing of time; innocence giving way to experience; wrongdoing and redemption.
Actually even Brideshead isn’t even quite what you think it is. When I re-read it I was amused to find a scene I had quite forgotten, in which the students go up to London and get bladdered and drive the wrong way up a road and nearly end up getting arrested. Not so much of the cricket jumpers and fine wines, more your everyday big-night-out-on-the-town bender. But anyway, you’ll find at least two sideways nods to Brideshead in After I Left You; a scene in which somebody throws up, and another, on a quite different note, that takes place in a chapel.
My editor helped to get me over my scruples over setting After I Left You in Oxford by sending me Jilly Cooper’s Harriet, which opens with an account of Harriet, an innocent student, being quizzed by a rather randy-seeming tutor about which of Shakespeare’s characters would be best in bed. (She reckons, not Hamlet – he would have talked too much). So then I just got on with it and Oxford fell into the place in the story that it should really have had all along.
Another novel set in Oxford (but not explicitly about students) that I’m an admirer of is Charlotte Mendelson’s fantastic Daughters of Jerusalem, just for the record.
The story behind the story
Stevie Smith typed on yellow office paper while working as a secretary; Colette was locked into a room by her husband; Jane Austen wrote in the drawing-room and covered up her work when somebody entered. There’s always a story behind the story, and when we read we often want to know about that other story, too.
When my first novel, Stop the Clock, was published in August 2012 I knew exactly what the story behind it was: it seemed clear and distinct, with a structured timeframe and a hopeful ending. The first draft was written in instalments over the course of a year, a chapter a month, and handed over to a colleague, a fellow part-time working mother, in a series of A4 envelopes. A writer friend, Neel Mukherjee, suggested an agent to approach; two rewrites later, it found a publisher.
Shortly before Stop the Clock came out, my son, then four, was diagnosed with autism. The experiences of working on the novel and having it published, and working towards that diagnosis and obtaining it and moving on, are intertwined for me. The book was a breakthrough that helped to keep me upbeat, and the diagnosis was a traumatic but fundamentally positive watershed that showed the way to our family’s future.
‘So is it easier second time round?’ This is a question that friends have asked me a few times over the last few months, and I’ve found it hard to answer, because, like one birth compared to another, it has just been so different. One thing I do remember, though. Some years ago, around 2007 or 2008, I ceremonially posted off the first three chapters of an earlier version of After I Left You to a selection of agents (not including Judith Murdoch, the brilliant agent I am now represented by, who I approached later on with Stop the Clock.)
The agents who saw this early version of After I Left You all rejected it so fast it made my head spin, and probably they were quite right to do so, as it was a long way from taking the shape it has now. Anyway, that was obviously a bit of a downer, but not at all the end of the story.
Because what I really remember from that experience was this. I had gone into Oxford with my husband, and we sent off the chapters from the post office on St Aldate’s before going out for a celebratory lunch. And it felt special. It felt Christmas Eve, when everything is quiet and expectant, and the magic is just about to kick in. It felt like something was going to happen. And now it is.