Today I’m thrilled to chat with author Lucie Whitehouse about her writing process, the authors who have influenced her work and her latest novel, Keep You Close (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Lucie, thank you so much for joining me! One of the things I love about your work is the way you lead readers into seemingly perfect, heightened worlds and then set about breaking the enchantments of these perceived Arcadias and revealing the rot underneath. What is it, do you think, that makes us yearn for such worlds and yet take such pleasure in their destruction?
I think heightened worlds are seductive because people – myself included – like to imagine that somewhere they might exist, that a perfect version of life might actually be possible. It’s a dream, a form of escapism. I often think of Richard Papen in The Secret History and his ‘morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.’ I recognise that longing in myself – though happily it’s not morbid nor at all costs – and I think many people share it.
The pleasure in seeing these worlds destroyed comes, I think, from knowing they can’t be real – or sustainable, anyway. Perhaps we feel that people who have experienced them, however briefly, have to come unstuck – they’ve flown too close to the sun. Maybe we feel satisfied because the rightful, imperfect order of things has been restored.
Also, as a classicist, whenever I hear the word ‘Arcadia’, I think of Virgil’s Eclogues and ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – ‘Even in Arcadia am I’. The ‘I’ is death.
Two of your novels, The House at Midnight and Keep You Close, focus on friendships, specifically the intense friendships formed in adolescence and early adulthood. As a writer, what appeals to you about these kinds of relationships?
Again, it’s the intensity – they’re heightened. As you get older, you learn that, much as relationships might hurt, they’re not actually life-and-death but in one’s teens and early twenties, it can feel that way. Also, I think our choice of friends and relationships at that age speak volumes about the people we aspire to be. It’s an age where we make a lot of the choices that determine the path our lives will take. I read somewhere recently – I can’t remember where, which is frustrating – about a woman cursing the younger version of herself for the choices she’d made for her. I find that period of time and its relationships really compelling for that reason. It’s all still to play for.
In your latest novel, Keep You Close, a young artist, Marianne, is found dead in the opening pages, and her work holds some of the key clues to unlocking the secrets of her past. Do you believe art in general has a certain obligation to the truth?
Yes, I do. Fiction is very interesting on that score because stories – or good ones –explore or reveal truth within the framework of something made up. It’s the truth in a story that makes the connection with the reader who recognizes it.
Your work has a strong sense of place and the settings always play a key role in the story. Are the locations you choose to set your novels also places that have personal significance? (I particularly loved the Glass’s house in Keep You Close—is it based on a real house?)
I love writing place. When I start thinking about a new novel, the location is usually one of the first things I know. All the settings of my novels – South Oxfordshire and West London, the Isle of Wight, Oxford itself and, to an extent in Before We Met, New York – have personal significance. They are all places where I’ve lived or at least spent a lot of time. Before We Met was the only one of my four books so far for which place and atmosphere wasn’t one of the first triggers.
Fyfield Road, location of the Glass family house in Keep You Close, is a real street but I’ve never actually been inside any of the houses there. I know that kind of Victorian house in Oxford, though – I lived in a flat at the top of a much smaller one and have been inside several converted into student accommodation.
Your stories are also very tightly plotted and you have a real gift for foreshadowing. I’m curious about your drafting process. Do you plan your novels in detail before settling down to write, or do you tweak as you go?
Thank you! I’ve actually changed my method over time. My first two novels were voyages of exploration – I started writing with a location, a handful of characters and a sense of the situation they would find themselves in but nothing more concrete than that. It wasn’t an efficient way to work at all – I think I must have written a million words for the 120,000 that ended up in the published version of The House at Midnight. I would explore ideas by writing them out and then have to scrap great swathes because they took the story in the wrong direction.
It was Before We Met that led to the method change. There are so many lies in the final version of that book that, even with a detailed outline to remind me, it was challenging to keep track of what the apparent reality was at any given point, and I knew I wanted Keep You Close to be even more twisty. Having taught myself to plot in advance now, I don’t think I could ever go back.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or did you have other ambitions?
I always knew I wanted to write though I had related dreams of being a journalist for quite a while, too. I quickly realised, though, that I wasn’t enough of a news-hound to be a serious reporter – I didn’t have that hunger for current affairs, the need to be up to date with every little development. When I got my first job in publishing – I worked at literary agencies before I was published – it was like stepping into a warm bath on a cold day. I can’t think why it hadn’t occurred to me to go into the book trade straight away.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Before I got married and had my daughter, if I was really in the thick of something, I would write from about ten in the morning until two and then again after four until midnight or later. These days, I write whenever I have childcare and after my daughter’s in bed. My old hours are the ones in which the writing comes easiest but it’s satisfying in a different way to know that I can switch my brain on when I need to. Coffee is an essential part of the writing process but otherwise I’ve become very flexible.
Are there particular authors who have influenced your work?
Daphne du Maurier was an early influence and also Susan Cooper – I loved her The Dark is Rising series when I was a child. I read Penelope Lively’s children’s books and then moved on to her adult novels. Barbara Trapido was a big favourite of mine, too. These days, I think Graham Greene and Dickens are among the most influential for me – I admire the way their work is strong in plot but literary, too. That’s my ideal.
What do you like to read and can you share some of your favourite books?
Graham Greene and Dickens are high on my list – I’m in the fortunate position of having not read much Dickens until five or six years ago so I still have some left to read for the first time. A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are my favourites. Of Graham Greene’s, I like The End of the Affair (or the first half, anyway) and Brighton Rock, which is crystalline. I like some humour in with the darkness. I love Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. It’s set in Cambridge and is a messy, bloody love story interwoven with two sets of murders, one in the seventeenth century and one contemporary. It has Newton, Bubonic Plague, physics and alchemy – everything, essentially. Among crime writers, Denise Mina is my favourite. I’ve read all her novels.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
Read as much as you can and be analytical: how do writers create the effects you admire? Keeping going is vital – The House at Midnight took six years and countless drafts but I knew I had to persist. It’s a good idea with a first novel not to reread too much or be critical until you have written enough that jettisoning it would really hurt. It’s easy to look at five or ten pages, despair and throw them in the bin but the only thing that improves writing is practice. By the time you’ve written 30,000 words, you’ll have grown in skill and you’ll have a sense of achievement and momentum that’ll carry you on.
Lucie Whitehouse was born in Gloucestershire in 1975. She read Classics at Oxford University and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The House at Midnight, the TV Book Club pick; The Bed I Made and Before We Met, which was also a Richard & Judy pick and an ITV3 Crime Book Club selection.
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