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A Q & A with Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship

18 Mar

You know you’ve come across a good book when it stays with you after you’ve finished it. Whether that’s in the way you look at things with a new understanding or whether you find yourself speculating beyond the last page you know that for a time it will be there. Rarely have I come across a book that haunted me like The Ship. Long past that normal period of recalling and reflecting I found it drifting into my consciousness. I read it to Mrs Van and it was the same with her. Months after finishing, we were watching the news one night and a particular bulletin resulted in us turning to each other, eyebrows raised, saying, ‘The Ship!’ It’s no surprise that this book was among my top 5 of 2015, and I don’t need to tell you what an endorsement it is that it was in Mrs Van’s top 3, so I am delighted to be involved in the blog tour for the paperback launch of Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship.

Antonia kindly agreed to answer just a handful of the many questions this book gave rise to. I hope you enjoy her responses.

Antonia Honeywell copyright Chris Honeywell The Ship PB


What sparked this story in your imagination? How did it become a story you wanted to tell?

Do you read Dorothy L. Sayers at all? She is one of my go-to favourites for a good story well told, and her heroine, Harriet Vane, is a poor but fiercely independent woman who writes popular detective fiction. When she marries the wealthy Lord Peter Wimsey, she finds that her unwonted happiness and security sends her writing into darker places. That was my experience too. In my early thirties, for the first time in my life, I was able to look at someone I loved and think, ‘You love me,’ with confidence. (Politically we’re poles apart, but at least mealtimes are never boring.) It set me thinking about the terrifying prospects the human race is facing, and the responses of those with the power to effect change.


The sense of claustrophobia on board the ship is heightened by what’s either withheld from or simply not acknowledged by Lalla. Of the people that interact with her and shape her journey who was the most difficult to get right?

Michael was a tough one – in the early drafts, he was an aspiring cult leader, pure and simple. But as I began to live with him, I realised he was far more complex than that. His overriding motivation is his love and concern for his daughter, which brought him far closer to me (and I hope to the reader) than is entirely comfortable. The people’s motivation was easier – they have all suffered so badly that their critical faculties have been blunted. They’re too grateful for their sanctuary to ask questions. Michael doesn’t have that excuse – but he does want the best for his daughter. So at some point in that cycle, he has to be condemned for what he does – unless you think he’s doing the right thing. And I see that leads me straight into your next question…


One of the themes running through the Ship is the misuse of our planet’s resources. Did you undertake a lot of research around the science involved in the world you portray? What surprised you the most in what you discovered?

I did indeed. I’ve got files full of the stuff. Not just the misuse of the planets’ resources, but the amount of tinned tuna it would take to feed 500 people for 20 years and the biggest bags of rice you can buy and how long cooking oil keeps for and whether you can power a freezer from a solar panel. What surprised me most about the resources question is just how much we know about the damage we’re doing to the planet. It’s no mystery; the information’s all there, researched and proven. We know we are sitting on finite resources, and yet we buy strawberries in December and fly our green beans in from Kenya. We know the cost of cheap clothes, both for the environment and for those who are paid slave wages for making them, and yet Oxford Street is packed every Saturday. And I’m as bad. I have my car and my gas central heating, and although I don’t buy many clothes that’s only because I hate shopping. On the other hand, I don’t fly to Antarctica to personally inspect the impact of global aviation on the environment either. At what point do we stop and tell ourselves that what we’re doing is wrong?


Of those resources it’s arguably food that plays the most important part. Was it always your intention to have this focus or was there a process that led to its prominence in the story?

I think food is where it’s at, ultimately. We have to eat. The way we organise housing and education, the role of technology in our lives, how we travel will change, but if we don’t eat we’ll die. And in the western world at least, food has become increasingly separated from its source. Industrial farming is a long, long way from the pretty pictures on the sanitised packages in which we buy our meat. Food storage is an advanced science; it’s completely possible to eat a full diet using stored food. Tinned vegetables and fruit often contain more nutrients than the fresh ones we buy in the supermarket. By living in such isolation from our food sources, we’re depriving ourselves of the chance to understand them. I feel that we’re understanding less and less about more and more of the things we rely on for survival.


I understand your short story, The Time Being is included in the paperback. Which came first, the novel or the short? Have you thought about writing beyond the last page and doing a sequel?

The novel came before the short story. The publication process for The Ship was already underway when W.F. Howes, who did the audiobook, requested the story. At first I was rather nervous, but the chance to explore Lalla’s pre-ship life was irresistible and in the end I loved writing it. As for writing beyond the last page – well, twelve years ago I was never going to marry or have children and here I am with a husband and four incubii. Having said that, The Ship was written as a complete story.


You are a year on from the initial publication of The Ship – your debut novel. What’s changed since then in your writing, your expectations and the expectations of others?

The Ship was my first published novel, but it wasn’t the first novel I’d ever written. I served a long apprenticeship of failure, during which I learned that the only way to be a writer is to write. And write. And write. I always thought that publication would magically create writing time, so I strove for it, creating time where none existed. Then I got published, and whoever or whatever was going to give me all that time obviously didn’t get the memo. The children still need feeding, meals still need putting on the table, bills still have to be paid… So I’ve learned, really, that nothing changes. Except everything has. I’m still writing surrounded by chaos, making the most of the gaps, but now I’m writing this, for you, because my paperback’s coming out. And that brings a sense of deep contentment.


There’s some really nice imagery in the book, and I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of the inverted Adam and Eve moment in the middle. Were you aware early in the process that you wanted the religious parallels or is this something that emerged during the writing?

I wanted them but wasn’t sure how to get them in. But as I wrote and redrafted, I realised that they were there naturally. I just had to give them a bit of space.


There seems to be a wealth of young adult protagonists in literature at the moment and dystopias of many flavours abound. The future vision of the Ship is particularly stark, though scarily, not that far-fetched. Do you think literature (and by association, writers) has a valid role in waving a warning flag to the younger generations?

Yes. Yes, I do. I remember reading Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land when I was twelve or thirteen and having my world turned upside down by it. After all, it’s the younger generations who have to live with what we leave behind, just as we had to live with the world our parents and grandparents created. It’s a formative life stage – are you going to continue down the same route as your parents, or challenge it? Literature speculates to entertain, but it also speculates to explore.


What’s the best editorial advice you had for the Ship?

The absolute best? It was terrifying. Brace yourself – my editor told me to change the ending. I was horrified – the ending was the one fixed point, the thing I’d been sure of throughout the writing process. That advice taught me two things – firstly, that nothing you’ve written is sacred. Nothing. Secondly, that the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the part that’s been identified as the problem. I didn’t change the ending, but I did change almost everything else. It was the right ending, but I’d been so sure of it myself that I hadn’t written up to it effectively. I’m grateful for everything my editor did, but that stands out for me.


With a growing sense of disconnection, Lalla makes her own little Museum to keep important things in. What would you put in your museum?

The value of Lalla’s museum is that the things in it are only valuable insofar as they relate to her story. No gold, no diamonds, no artefacts of exquisite workmanship. What would be in mine? The poem James wrote when he proposed. The cork from the champagne we drank when our first child was born. A paper of seeds from the guerrilla sunflowers the children and I planted all over the garden a couple of years ago. Or this – last week, I took my father to the theatre. The last time we went out together was when he took me to see The Empire Strikes Back when I was nine. I don’t know how you put that in a glass case. Maybe that’s why I write.


Thank you so much for your support for The Ship, and for having me on your blog, Van. It’s been a real pleasure.

The Ship blog tour banner


If you haven’t yet read The Ship (why ever not?) you can find it at your local (Independent or otherwise) book shop. If you have read it, find a friend who hasn’t!

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published in paperback by W&N (Imprint of the Year, 2015 at the Bookseller Industry Awards) and is out now

A Q & A with Janet Ellis, author of The Butcher’s Hook

29 Feb

I’m very happy, along with Jaffa Reads Too, to be kicking off the blog tour for Janet Ellis’s compelling debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook (you can read my review here). Janet kindly agreed to answer some questions (I could have provided pages of them but – spoilers) her answers to which I hope you will enjoy.

janet ellis author pic


Anne Jaccob is quite a singular character. A protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable but there does need to be a level of acceptance with the reader. There are influences to set against her behaviour but how important do you think the period you chose is to encouraging that acceptance (I can imagine Anne garnering little sympathy in a modern setting)?

Hmm… setting aside what Anne gets up to (I know that’s not easy!), she’s almost like those friends who are trying but loveable, isn’t she? But, yes, although I hold firmly to the belief that people of any bygone age feel all the big emotions – like love, greed, hate, jealousy and sorrow- and the little ones (scorn, irritation etc) as we do, there’s no doubt Anne’s a child of her time. Her sequestered, claustrophobic existence and her unique experiences have helped her make interior decisions that manifest in rather dramatic exterior actions. And having no peer group, no confidante and certainly no therapy does leave her adrift. added to that is the fact that, as a girl in Georgian England, her opinion was of no consequence and her future decided without consultation. All that gives her plenty to rail against. Nowadays, she might have found other outlets. I wonder….


Your settings are richly-evoked, centred as they are more in the sensual than the visual. Did your research take you to any interesting places, or bring any unexpected discoveries?

I hadn’t linked the fact that I’m short sighted with the reliance on our other senses in my writing till now! But I suppose the visual clues- the art and architecture- are more instantly available than what London smelled of, its noise and even its temperature. Making one of the characters a butcher’s apprentice meant I wanted to find out what happened in the abattoir and the shop. I spent some time in the library of The Worshipful Company of Butchers, trying to find answers to specific questions and often stumbling across unexpected facts. The actual details of the killing haven’t changed much over the years, but the way cattle were driven into London in great herds – often having swum from island to mainland – was fascinating. And people’s attempts to disguise their lack of washing (of themselves and their clothes) with various scents must have added to the heady cocktail from the open sewers that ran through many streets and the manure from all the horses. And when I’ve been trussed up (that’s how it feels after our comfortable clothes) in Georgian period costume, I’ve been only too aware of how long it would have taken Anne and Fub to remove those clothes for, well, anything.


I felt a distinct nod towards Dickens in the naming of Mr Onions. Did you feel the influence of our rich literary heritage when you set out to write The Butcher’s Hook? What were the books that inspired you?

Anything you read is like a little building block, isn’t it, helping to build your thoughts. I’ve always read voraciously and widely, and must have been taking it all in. It’s hard to refine my inspiration down to one or two books – but as a child I adored Black Beauty, I really loved Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Rumer Godden, Mary Renault and Daphne du Maurier. I could go on. I’m (very) flattered by the allusion to Dickens, his depictions of people are so vivid that if you’re reading something by him, you can’t help seeing everyone around you in Dickensian mode  (I like to pass the time on train journeys by casting my fellow passengers in Dickens novels). I collect names, too, ready to give them to unsuspecting characters as they appear. I expect Onions was hoping for something fancier, though.


I recently finished reading Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of The Sea Maid, another book set in the mid-1700’s with a strong female protagonist hemmed by convention, although the paths these two women take are very different. What are your thoughts on these books being considered feminist novels, especially where strong female characters in classic novels (Lizzy or Kathy or Jane) don’t necessarily draw the same comparison?

I haven’t read that yet – it’s on my list. It’s an odd one, the F word, isn’t it? I have no hesitation in describing myself as a feminist (I’m perplexed by people who don’t, to be honest) and Anne draws no line between getting what she wants and being a woman, so she’s signed up. Despite the fact that the characters you mention are hidebound by social convention, I still think they’re in favour of an equal society – and both the Brontes and Jane Austen took swipes at what women of their time were expected to do over what they could have achieved. I’m happy if Anne’s attitude stands for strong women and seizing opportunity. Although some of her methods are ‘don’t try this at home’.


The dynamic between mother and daughter is quite affecting. Again I suspect this would be viewed in a different manner in a modern setting, but how important is the distance in that relationship in shaping who Anne has become?

I don’t think their relationship is specific to their time, actually. Don’t we all know mothers who don’t feel close enough to their daughters to share real intimacy. Her mother’s acceptance of life’s difficulties and unhappiness, her shutting down after bereavement and her inability to stand up for herself all feel contemporary. Nowadays, she might have been more aware of what her relationship with both her husband and daughter could be, but that doesn’t mean she’d have been able to act on it. That’s what keeps the agony columnists busy (I speak from experience), isn’t it?


There’s a small moment near the end of the book that made me smile it was so in-keeping with Anne’s character (it involves some money and a worn-to-nothing old boot). This scene also serves to highlight the difference between Anne and those characters who are stifled by circumstance. Were you conscious of having something to say about the fate of the downtrodden?

I could make all sorts of claims for wanting to highlight this or champion that, the truth is more that Anne, as an equal opportunities opportunist (!) seizes the moment constantly. But the moment you mention was there to illustrate that she was never going to be overwhelmed by sentiment. Or gratitude, come to that. I felt really sorry for that chap – her, not so much.


Alongside the harshness there’s a dry humour too. Did you know when you began that you wanted those moments of levity or is this something that rose naturally from Anne’s disposition?

Yes and yes again. My favourite people are the ones that make me laugh and think, both together. Often, the darker the circumstance the more likely we are to find inappropriate humour in it, although we can’t often admit it. It helps us adjust to the awful reality in a way, doesn’t it? I knew early on that Anne would have a sideways take on things.


Behind every great book there’s always a host of people who have assisted in some manner along the road to publication. What’s the best editorial advice you had for The Butcher’s Hook?

I’ve had a plethora! From the word go, my agent and my editor and their teams have been terrific in their clear-sighted approach to making the book better. Probably the best bits of advice were ‘Don’t be scared of the copy edit’ (it looks TERRIFYING when it first arrives) and ‘Do it again please,’ (but way more cleverly put) when I’ve been the teensiest bit, um, lacking in some rewrites.


Novelist is one of many features on the map of your career and I always think it’s difficult for people who come to writing when they are well-known for other things. For my money, The Butcher’s Hook is a great story well told. Was it important for you to feel your work was accepted for its quality and not your name?

  Have you always written? Has it always been an ambition to write?

Thank you SO much and, you’re right, it is hard to change careers. I’ve absolutely no regrets about what I’ve done so far – far from it – but the book is incredibly important to me. I’ve never minded looking daft as an actress or presenter (just as well), but I take my writing very seriously. That’s one of the (many) reasons why it’s taken me this long to produce a book. When my agent first suggested I submit The Butcher’s Hook under a pseudonym, I wasn’t keen – I HAD written the thing, after all. But he convinced me that decisions about the book should be made alone, without any possible connection to past occupations. He was so right – and it’s a fact that I hug to myself, with joy. I’ve always written, though I’ve never finished a book before – but it was a massive ambition. The only one I ever had, actually. I knew I’d be an actress….as you do when you’re a child – but could only dream of being an author.


Is there anything you can tell me about your next novel? Historical fiction again or will you be looking in a different direction?

It’s set in the Seventies (history for some!) and is about an affair, a mistaken connection and making the wrong choices. I’m not sure how it’ll finish, but I didn’t know how The Butcher’s Hook would end either, so I’m not too worried. That’s not true, I’m VERY worried, but I’m hoping Marion, Adrian and Sarah, my new characters, are going to help me out.



My thanks to Janet for answering these questions, and for The Butcher’s Hook. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fabulous novel, and I hope the first of many. Thanks also to Rosie Gailer,  Yassine Balkecemi and all at BookBridgr.

Don’t forget to catch the remaining stops on The Butcher’s Hook blog tour.


Butchers Hook blog tour poster

A Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

21 Jan

The Chimes PB cover

I’m delighted to welcome you to the first stop on the Blog Tour for Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, published in paperback by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of those questions to Anna.

Anna Smaill author pic


While reading The Chimes I was strongly reminded of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, not only in the reverence you give to music in the story but also in the simple language Simon uses to tell his story. Who are your touchstones in writing – those you admire, those who inspire you, those whose books you go back to?


I think you may be the first reviewer to spot that connection. The Glass Bead Game made a big impression on me when I first read it as a teenager (probably the perfect time to read Hesse), and it was continually in the back of my mind while I was writing The Chimes. The concept of an intellectual elite whose philosophy and ethics are structured by music was essentially lifted from Hesse’s novel, though of course The Chimes is also very different. The writers I most admire are those for whom writing is some kind of essential mediating device, a way of decoding or just surviving existence. I love Janet Frame, Russell Hoban, Kafka, Borges, Marilynne Robinson, the NZ novelist Pip Adam. I also often re-read read George Eliot, Ondaatje. I find myself continually shaped and inspired by my favourite books from childhood, too. Particular favourites are Rosemary Sutcliffe, K. M. Peyton and the Uncle books.


Have you always written?


Yes, since I can remember. I’ve kept journals since I was about 9 or ten. It’s really very much how I work out what I think about things.


The scene between Simon and Steppan brings home the chilling reality of a world without memory. Simon feels balanced between feral and humane. Why did you focus on memory?


I think I’m so focused on memory because it seems so close to the core of what makes us human. For some reason the idea of losing memory has terrified and fascinated me from quite a young age. Trying to make sense of your memories, putting them together in a way that seems meaningful – I don’t take this for granted in any way.


You take the idea of music as a means of communication to an extraordinary level in The Chimes. What was the seed of this idea and how did it develop into the world you created?


It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea came from. When I was playing the violin, I got a bit obsessed with thinking about the differences between music and language as two different forms of communication, and was always seeking direct equivalencies between the two. Of course, they can’t be reconciled in this way. There were other elements there too. I had an utterly eccentric music theory teacher when I was at university, who liked to expound on a methodology of his called ‘Body Tonics’. His basic argument was that chord progressions in a piece of music could be matched with physical movements, and that if we enacted these movements while listening to the music, we’d gain some deeper musical insight. I may be bastardising his theory. It was basically a sol-fa technique (the thing the Von Trapp children do while running around in the mountains) that engaged one’s whole body. So, there was that, and also Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is about how aboriginal Australians ‘sung’ their sense of landscape into being, so that all physical markers – rock formations, valleys, lakes, etc – can in turn act as a kind mnemonic device for their creation myth. All of these things coalesced somehow.


I’d like to ask about Jemima. Though she only appears for a short while you portray her in quite a touching way and she presents an interesting counter to Lucien. The question of course is that posed by Simon. Is she immune to the effect of Chimes?


I enjoyed writing Jemima because she’s nicely practical and pragmatic – which offered a bit of a relief from the intensity and idealism of Simon and Lucien. She seems older than them, in a way; more worldly. In some ways I didn’t want to examine Simon’s question too far. In a practical sense, she’s still affected by Chimes because they involve infrasound – vibrations that are inaudible but affect you physically at the level of your nervous system. However, I liked to think that because her awareness and communication isn’t directly reliant on music, her mind and consciousness is different – she’s developed different ways of thinking and remembering.


I found the Order intriguing. With their presenting and reinforcing of ‘OneStory’ they seemed to me somewhere between a religious parallel and a political one. Were you conscious of creating them in either a religious or political mould, or did you strive to avoid those direct associations?


I wasn’t striving either to cultivate or avoid those specific associations. I guess, it’s more that political or religious extremism was simply another arm of the sort of extremism I hoped to represent with the Order. I was interested in what happens when we take idealism to an outer limit. How does that pursuit allow for the ordinary mess of human lives, and the human impulses that can’t be tidied or understood? The Order obsessively believe that human expression, and human thought, is our highest function – which means that all that isn’t perfect, or orderly, has to be expunged. I think this impulse is fairly similar in much religious thought, that sense that the body is a threat to the spirit. They’re very basic and central human impulses, but they become destructive when they’re taken to an extreme.


There’s something very close to fairy tale in what you present in The Chimes: a band of outsiders and a governing organisation, the uncovering of clues and the overcoming of obstacles, and the passing down of a tale in rhymes. There’s even an aged mad woman. Were you aware early in the writing process that you wanted this reflection of the importance of oral history or did this develop as the story came together?


I started writing The Chimes very much under the influence of the young adult literature that moved and interested me. A lot of the radical freedom of excellent fantasy and YA is that, maybe because it isn’t weighed down with the responsibilities of realist representativeness, it can really cut to the fundamentals, the verities – love, loyalty, the struggle for meaning. Those mythic rhythms and emotional chimes are ones I also find in fairy tales, myths, stories which tell us something simple and deep about being human. I suppose I was striving for and craving that sort of deep resonance in what I was writing. I had just finished a PhD on contemporary poetry, and most of my previous days had been filled with dense academic language!


Your choice for The Pale Lady is a very good fit but I wonder whether you began with scientific reasons for the choice, practical reasons around availability or whether the word play led you there?


A little bit of all three, in a somewhat circular way. I knew I wanted a sort of ore, a shining metal that would act as currency yet also present a sort of mystical physical and spiritual pull. I happened on to palladium, as far as I recall, because it had the pleasing attribute of being occasionally used in the production of concert flutes. The slang forms for palladium followed naturally, but it felt as though they’d also preceded me somehow – particularly as the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ had already shown up in the writing. The scientific connections – ie the fact that palladium is used in catalytic convertors to filter exhaust, and as a conductor in electronics, added a sort of synchronicity and metaphorical richness to the idea for me. Though I should state that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the uses to which I put palladium in the novel…


There’s something a little ‘overnight sensation’ about debut novels and the way they’re marketed (though with a Man Booker longlisting, and having read The Chimes it’s the overnight bit that to my mind is the false note). How long did it take from first putting pen to paper to publication?
What’s the best editorial advice you had for this book?


Yes, I agree – there tends to be a fascination with that breakthrough moment. I think in part, it’s fair. There is something distinct and utterly unusual about first novels: they involve so much of your life, they’re a kind of leap into the unknown, a massive and intriguing gamble, and they can utterly turn your life around. But these are all narratives that don’t ultimately connect with the nitty gritty facts of writing. The first glimmers of The Chimes came way back in 2009, while I was finishing my PhD. I didn’t acknowledge that I was working on a novel, though, until 2010. In 2011 my daughter was born and any semblance of a writing routine flew away and then I only returned to proper routine work on it early in 2013. With two days a week to write, I finished in about 4 months. It had a long long gestation, but a very fast delivery. Then the editorial and pre-production of debut novels is typically quite slow, as they want to spend a decent length of time on publicity and marketing prior to the release. And now it’s 2016, a terrifying number of years later, and the paperback is coming out!

I had so much excellent editorial advice with this novel. My agent Will was one of my first readers, and just prior to submission he dropped a particular gem about how one might go about sustaining uncertainty in the reader. The beginning of my book is essentially a cloud of vagueness, but he made the important point that I had to distinguish between the general mystery of the opening (ie – the facts of the world that were simply yet to be revealed to the reader) and the things that were weird or perplexing to the protagonist. It sounds simple, but it really transformed how I thought about the opening sections.


What does the future hold for your readers, can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?


I’m working on a new novel, which feels in many ways utterly different from The Chimes. It’s set in a contemporary, far more familiar and realist Tokyo. But, I can’t quit that drive toward the fantastic, so the city is becoming denser and odder as I write. There is also music creeping in as a method of plotting the story (I won’t give away too much), and elements of a thriller also.


If you had to travel with a roughcloth bag what would your objectmemories be? (sorry, I know it’s sacrilege to ask, but…)


It’s not in keeping with the universe of The Chimes (where they’d have been burnt long ago), but I’d probably take my journals. They all have different associations, depending on where I bought them, the paper, the pens I used, so that even if I couldn’t read them, I think there’d be sensory memories there. I think, a bit embarrassingly, I’d probably take my old Burberry trench coat. I lent it to Simon for the novel, but I had it first! Bought off Ebay before my daughter was born, and my single most-worn item of clothing ever. There are plenty of memories in that homely old gabardine.



My thanks to Anna for making my questions look insightful (and for adding a few more names to the TBR pile), and my congratulations for writing such a wonderful book. I feel it will be with me for quite some time! Thanks also to Ruby at Hodder for making this Q & A possible. Don’t forget to check in with the other stops on the blog tour.


And, of course, don’t forget to read the book!