On Wednesday evening (30th January) I travelled to Hachette HQ on Victoria Embankment for the Rooftop Book Club. The focus of January’s event was to celebrate some of Headline’s newest authors with books releasing in 2019:
Richard Lumsden – The Six Loves of Billy Binns
Emily Gunnis – The Girl in the Letter
Rhik Sammader – I Never Said I Loved You
Sarah Davis-Goff – Last Ones Left Alive
Dominic Nolan – Past Life
Harriet Tyce – Blood Orange
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Dominic Nolan couldn’t attend the evening’s event, but the introduction to his novel, Past Life, was fascinating and I’m sure it will prove to be a great read.
The discussion was chaired by Hannah Beckerman, longstanding literary journalist and an author herself.
Splitting the authors into two groups, she began by asking Richard, Emily, and Rhik how they were feeling about having their first book published.
Richard, whose book was released on 24th January, said that while it was both exciting and terrifying, it was also anticlimactic, because there was nothing more you could do to change it. Emily and Rhik both said that seeing their books in shops, having somewhere real to send people to buy it, would make it feel more real for them.
When the conversation moved on to nerves, Richard pointed out the overwhelming choice readers have and feared his book not being given a chance more than the idea that some readers might not enjoy it. Rhik joked that he was most nervous about a no deal Brexit and how that might affect his book sales. Emily’s nerves had focussed on publicity, but now she’s been on the New Voices tour, she was much more confident about it.
Next came a more in-depth talk about these first 3 books, starting with Richard and The Six Loves of Billy Binns.
Billy Binns, at 117 years old, knows his time is almost up but he has a final wish: he wants to remember what love feels like one last time. Looking back at the relationships that have shaped his life – and the events that shaped the century – he recalls all the hope, mistakes, heartbreak and, above all, love that he has experienced.
Noting that ageing heroes are popular in contemporary fiction, Hannah asked Richard what had appealed to him about such a protagonist. Richard responded that he had begun writing this book in the 1990s, but after 100 pages he realised that he had no authority or authenticity to write from for a character reflecting on their long life. That reflection is appealing to everyone, a sense of imagining different outcomes in our lives if one moment had changed. He tried to instil a sense of humour too, with Billy’s realisation of all the trouble he had caused, and his attempts to rewrite his history. Billy becomes the detective of his owns story to find out what happened. As Billy was born in 1900, the book covers a huge sweep of British and world history, and the research Richard did for that seems extensive. He said it was daunting but incredible and necessary, as authenticity is very important to readers.
Emily Gunnis was next. Her novel, The Girl in the Letter, has already been released on Kindle, but the paperback is yet to be released.
In 1956, Ivy Jenkins falls pregnant and is sent to St Margaret’s, a dark, brooding house for unmarried mothers. Her baby is adopted against her will, but Ivy never leaves. In the present day journalist Samantha Harper stumbles upon a letter that shocks and moves her. She is pulled into the tragic story and discovers a spate of unexplained deaths surrounding St Margaret’s. But with the building ready for demolition, there’s not long left to piece together a sixty-year-old mystery before the truth, which lies disturbingly close to home, is lost for ever.
When asked about the origins of the story, Emily recalled her horror at discovering that mother and baby homes for unmarried women were just as prevalent in England as they were in Ireland, but this part of recent history is still secret because it is shrouded in shame. She had this great sense of injustice, particularly as a new parent herself, at what these women were forced to do, and it moved her to think of the impact this would have had on so many lives. Though she did lots of research, she focussed more on what had been written, feeling that if she met anyone who had lived through this, too much may have gone into her books. Her dedication to telling this story is evident, and was very moving in itself.
Rhik’s book, I Never Said I Loved You, was the only work of nonfiction showcased during this evening. It’s a memoir that explores Rhik’s experience of depression, but as seen from the opening lines, he has worked to try and tell his story in a way that can be entertaining rather than simply a public form of therapy.
“Christmas morning, 2010.
I’m in bed with my mother, in a Bangkok sex hotel. It is my 30th birthday. How have things got this out of hand?”
This moment was described by Rhik as the opening up of a kernel within himself that led to writing the memoir: he admits to not being one to share feelings often, but with nothing else to do on Christmas day (also his birthday) he and his mother had simply talked. Though writing had been difficult, it had also become a compulsion and a cathartic experience. He described the letters that feature at the end of each chapter as something very direct and personal, and one aspect of the book that needed to be written solely for himself. This sounds like a very honest, painful, but engaging read.
After some very funny quick-fire trivia questions (choose 3 literary dinner guests as an example), Sarah and Harriet moved into the hot seats. The UK tour was once again discussed – it seems it was a great, fun-filled week – before talking about Sarah’s dystopian novel, Last Ones Left Alive.
On an island off the west coast of Ireland, Orpen’s childhood was full of love and stories with her mother and her partner. However, Ireland has been devoured by a creature known as the skrake; Slanbeg is safe for now, Orpen is prepared to be ready to run or to fight. Maeve, her mother’s partner, is bitten, and Orpen must choose whether to kill her or try to get help. She sets off on a journey that will test her to her limits, on which she will learn who she really is, and how to create a future in a world she cannot comprehend.
The drive of this story, according to Sarah, is the cost of being a protagonist in your own story, of making decisions about your own life. Zombies, she said, are a great way to explore various concepts surrounding life and death, be it souls, consumerism, or in her case, addictions eroding someone’s personality.
The feminist core at the heart of the novel comes from a place of anger which Sarah noted can be a great creative force. This anger centred on the process that has only recently been put into an official process to give women in Ireland bodily autonomy. She is also horrified by the condition that refugees in Ireland are faced with by the authorities.
Hannah observed that this novel reads as more literary than ‘populist’, to which Sarah commented that she is fascinated by high concept novels, where there are short, visceral bursts of energy as characters need to move ‘from A to B’. This novel appears to be dark, thrilling, and insightful.
The final book of the evening was Blood Orange, by Harriet Tyce.
Alison seems to have it all. A doting husband, a lovely daughter, and a rising career, having just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems. She drinks too much, neglects her family for work, and she’s having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries may be more than she can handle. Defending her client might help Alison to start saving herself. But wants her to pay for what she’s done, and they won’t stop until she’s lost everything.
Inspired by her own decision to set aside a career in law when she had children, Blood Orange is Harriet’s imagining of an alternative ending. The tension throughout the novel is derived from the professional success counterbalanced by disasters in other parts of life. It also comes from the universal sense of guilt that mothers are expected or forced to feel when considering work and home life; they are almost set up to fail, and are constantly judged whatever decision they make.
Also explored is that link between sex and power, driving it to dark extremes. Beckerman testifies to the intricate twisting and turning plot that readers expect from psychological thrillers, which Harriet said was great to craft because she knew early on how she wanted the story to end. She could dictate the course, and explore the double meanings in certain dialogue or plot points that could mislead people but also leave a trail of clues. It’s clear what great fun she had writing this book, and I’m certain thriller readers will love it.
After another round of trivia questions, all the authors gathered for the Q&A session, and then we dispersed for a more casual post-event chat. As each seat had been adorned with a tote bag with a lucky-dip of proofs inside, the authors signed books for those that would like them, so generous and open with their thoughts.
My proof was of The Girl in the Letter, and I also bought The Six Loves of Billy Binns from the beautiful stand provided by Primrose Hill Books. The balcony was also open and offered fantastic views over the Thames.
This was a wonderful evening, full of warmth, excitement, and celebration for the achievements of these authors. Thanks to Hannah Beckerman for being a fantastic chair, with so much enthusiasm and insight to open the conversations. Thanks to Headline for putting on a lovely event. And most of all, thanks to the authors for sharing their time and their creativity with us!
I can’t wait to attend more of these events! Any book lovers out there, definitely keep an eye out for future Rooftop Book Club evenings.
Thanks for reading!