It’s often said that it’s not enough to write a good book any more and I really believe that an author who’s willing and able to engage with their audience, online and in person, has an advantage. Giving readings from a new novel is a great way to ignite interest and hearing Zoe Pilger read from her debut Eat My Heart Out certainly had that effect on me. Later I was very interested to learn of Zoe’s longstanding collaboration with Hannah Westland, her publisher at Serpent’s Tail. I’m delighted that they’re both joining me in the week of publication in the Literary Sofa’s first two hander guest post, to share the inspiring story of their close literary relationship (my mini-review follows):
I first met Hannah in the summer of 2008. I had sent the first 20,000 words of a novel called Cover Me to RCW, where Hannah was then an agent. I was 23, just graduated from university. She was 29. By the time she wrote back to me and asked to see the full manuscript, I already hated what I had written.
Hannah and I remained in touch and met regularly over the next two years. I continued to write compulsively – often just fragments or poems, which Hannah read and responded to. Our dialogue was invaluable to me. Her continuing interest in my writing meant that I didn’t feel I was writing into a void.
In September 2010, I wrote a short story about a bad one night stand. I sent it to Hannah, then I went on holiday to India for a month. Hannah said she liked it and told me to keep writing. So I did – at record speed. I wrote the first full 100,000 word draft of Eat My Heart Out over three months at night.
Hannah read it and suggested that I add backstory. I rewrote the novel over the summer of 2011. Hannah read it again and offered further suggestions. I rewrote it again over the first three months of 2012. At that point, Hannah became the publisher at Serpent’s Tail. She reread the new draft and bought it outright on Friday 13th (which has now become my lucky number). Jenny Hewson at RCW became my agent. I rewrote the whole manuscript from scratch over the winter of 2012-2013.
The process of working with Hannah has been profound. I’ve never done a creative writing course so our discussions were very much my apprenticeship. She always renewed my determination to write as well as I possibly could. Her belief in my writing has been so precious that I doubt I would have written Eat My Heart Out without her.
For four years, Hannah was almost the only person who I showed my fiction to; I lacked confidence and she gave it to me. Her skill as an editor is phenomenal – she can often tease out what I mean better than I can myself, and guide me in ways that are completely attuned to what I am trying to do. At no point did Hannah tell me to reign in my slightly anarchic imagination. At no point did she suggest that I consider the market. I had complete freedom to take as many risks as possible; indeed, Hannah encouraged me to take those risks and dissuaded me when I lost my nerve and veered into mediocrity.
A mutual friend of ours pointed out to me recently that Hannah is both a radical and a really nice person. It is this combination which has brought out the best in me. So much of a good writer-editor relationship is based on chemistry; Hannah and I share a sense of humour and a taste for the macabre. Most importantly, we are friends.
I vividly remember the first manuscript Zoe sent me: Cover Me was an intense, unstructured monologue narrated by a young woman who’d lost her mind during her university finals and was obsessed by meat.
It had a very powerful elemental quality to it. It was raw and truthful and funny. And it had a fearlessness that excited me straight away.
She still had quite a long way to go at that stage. The comic gifts, fierce intelligence and desire to push at the boundaries she had in spades, so I just tried to give her some practical help and advice on writing fiction and developing her work. Over the next few years, whenever she sent me something new, it was always exciting to read it, and she got better and better.
When I moved to Serpent’s Tail and took on Eat My Heart Out properly, we began an intensive editing process, going through several drafts of the book together over a six month period. Editing is a dynamic exchange, and you can really only be good at it with those writers whose intentions you’re properly tuned in to. Zoe’s book is both a fast-paced contemporary satire, and a serious novel that interrogates feminist ideas in an explicit way, and we talked a lot about how to balance these two things successfully in a piece of fiction. Her book works brilliantly because she has a gift for comedy and also a deep understanding of the feminist ideas she’s writing about. I’ve learned and relearned a lot about feminism from working with her, and I’ve also gone back to writers I love, like Muriel Spark, and discovered new ones, like Jane Bowles, in the course of our many conversations.
Zoe is incredibly hard-working and has an enormous amount of energy, and that energy is infectious. She’s also very open to criticism – not all writers are! – and she has allowed me in to her work in a very open way, which has felt like a great privilege as well as being a lot of fun. We had all sorts of lively and surreal debates in the margins of her book. Every draft I read made me laugh more than the previous one.
Zoe’s writing captures something immensely difficult to express about the chaos and misery of youth, and about female anger and fear. I do feel like her writing speaks directly to a hidden, wilder bit of me, and that connection is all I’ve ever really read fiction for. I so hoped that other people would feel the same way about her work, and it has been thrilling to see people take the book to heart. This week in reviews she was compared to Bret Easton Ellis and Bridget Jones, which sounds bizarre but I think makes perfect sense. Bret Easton Ellis is revered for plumbing the darkest depths of the male psyche, and Bridget Jones is loved for supposedly telling the truth about women’s inner lives. It shouldn’t be a newsflash that women’s psyches are just as dark as men’s, but it seems to have surprised people.
Whatever Zoe writes next I know it will surprise me. I can’t wait to work with her on future books.
In Brief: My View of Eat My Heart Out
The first thing I noticed about Ann-Marie, the first person narrator of Eat My Heart Out, was her unique voice. She is one of the most vibrant, engaging and individual characters I’ve come across in a long time and the other characters are fabulous too. It’s impossible to give a meaningful impression of a novel which has this many layers. On one hand it’s the compelling tale of a college drop-out’s wild and absurd adventures and predicaments as she’s forced to face up to the harsh realities of London and adult life. But it’s also a blistering satire on numerous aspects of contemporary culture including gender, class, education and the workplace. It’s highly intelligent but never intimidating and frequently hysterically funny (some might say shocking). If you’re desperate for something to blast you out of a reading rut, this could well be it.
Thanks to all readers of the Literary Sofa for making this an outstanding January – everything I’ve posted has attracted huge interest. Last week’s post on Likeable Characters is still buzzing and it’s never too late to add your opinion on any post.
Next week for those who aren’t on Twitter, I’ll post a link here to my interview with Ruth Hunt (@prozactaker) in which she invited me to talk about the Writing Process.