1988. 12-year-old Harper Richardson's parents 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 default membership of the Lone Rangers single parents' club.
Harper got questionable dress sense, a zest for life, two gerbils, and her Chambers dictionary, 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 tackling the business of growing up while those around her try not to fall apart.
1. If you could work with any other author, who would it be and why?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as it would pre-suppose that they’d want to work with me! However, if I could go back in time, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the Duino Castle when Rainer Maria Rilke was writing his Duino Elegies. I was obsessed by Rilke in my early twenties when I was working in Chartres as a waitress; I was introduced to his work by another poet who had just spent two days sleeping on top of his grave! Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a must-read for emergent writers in any genre.
2. What would be a typical working day for you? When and where do you write?
I don’t have typical days on the whole. As I have young children (six and eight years-old) my days are relatively short, and I’m too exhausted to work in the evenings. Once a week I try to get to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to work exclusively on my writing and I finish off the day with a punishing Ashtanga yoga class to get the blood flowing again. I also work in an office once a week which I share with filmmakers, environmentalists and hydro-engineers. I try to do all my web-based writing and admin in that space, between our impromptu tea breaks. The rest of the week, I work from home. I have an old-fashioned oak school desk complete with holes for inkwells through which I trail my laptop cable. The desk was given to me by an ex-boss who worked as a literary agent. It’s tiny, and so it fits nicely underneath the bedroom window which overlooks a Welsh hillside populated by sheep and cattle.
3. What is the hardest part of the writing for you?
Definitely the generation of ideas stage. I love it once I have the characters in my mind, and I tend to let them guide the plot, rather than sticking to any hard and fast outline. I also love the logistical challenge of re-writing, and, as both of my parents are qualified proof readers, I have inherited their love of editing and spotting typographical errors. However, I have to switch off that part of my brain when I write, so that the prose can flow.
4. When and why did you first start writing?
I used to staple pages of A4 together as a child; when I was 6½, I wrote two book called The Zoo and The Snail. I started to write in earnest when I was 19 and took two writing modules at the University of Warwick, specialising in poetry. In my third year I won an award for a poem about a squash court of all things! As I got older, I realised I didn’t have quite the right mind set for poetry. However, I found that I tended towards the lyrical in What a Way to Go. Perhaps this is because I learnt quite a lot of technical poetic skills in those early years, most of which I have long since forgotten, but I do wonder if something stuck on a cellular level.
5. How did you come up with the idea for your book?
In all honesty, it was desperation that drove me to write the book! I had moved to mid Wales with my husband, a nine-month old baby and a toddler with not a second thought as to what I’d actually do for a living. When I heard about the Literature Wales bursaries for writers, I applied and submitted 4,000 words of an autobiography I had written in my mid-twenties and said I’d use the grant to write a completely new book, this time a novel, but keeping the theme of divorce and the late 1980s as a backdrop. So, I had the setting, an historical era, but I didn’t have a protagonist. Through the process of trying different voices, I found Harper and she didn’t let me go until I wrote ‘The End’.
6. Are you a big reader? If so, what are you reading now?
I do read avidly now that my kids are a bit older. Aside from their bedtime stories – we’re reading The Little Grey Men by BB for a second time – I’m reading Sophie Someone by Hayley Long, which has been shortlisted for a COSTA prize. I am also reading AS Byatt’s Angels and Insects which is a pick at the rather raucous book group I’m in: it’s a gluten-free book club as we have member who is coeliac, however there is no shortage of opinions, humour and friendly disagreements.
7. Do you have any advice for other aspiring writers?
It took me a long while to work out what my weaknesses were. I think I lacked confidence – especially as I took five years out to raise children – and I also lacked application: the simple fact of showing up at the desk, regardless of how awful or wonderful life is feeling. So, I’d say if you could focus on just two aspects of what you need to address in order to complete a full-length work, then that can help. Move towards those aspects of you character where you feel the most resistance, and then face any shortcomings head-on. The other thing that has served me well is to trust my intuition: the gift of doing or saying something completely unexpected is vastly underrated.