My wonderful friend and fan, Ros, came early so that we could catch up and so that I could sign her books. This is who I write for!
On Tuesday the 15th of August, I returned to my beloved Reading Waterstones to launch the two novels I published this year, Before I Was Yours and Wishbones. It was such a joy to be surrounded by friends, family and readers. Here are the thoughts I shared that night.
A very warm welcome and a big thank you for coming. It is so special it is for me to be standing here tonight.
First, because writing in Waterstones, Reading, is where my road to publication began and this bookshop is where I’ve launched every one of my literary babies.
Cheryl Dibden is the most extraordinary events manager and has organised every one of my launches – if only she could coordinate my whole life! A huge thank you, Cheryl, to you and your team for doing so much to make tonight so wonderful.
The awesome Cheryl Dibden (second from left) and her team at Waterstones
Tonight is also particularly special in that it brings together those I love and have been away from this past year: my British friends and family and readers. It is wonderful to be in your company and to share my latest books with you. I wish we had more time together. I hope that, by reading my stories, you’ll feel that I am always with you.
So being here, in my old home, feels deeply familiar – and also a little strange. Just as my life in new home in American has gone from feeling very strange to a little like home – though not quite.
That unsettling, between worlds feeling, a feeling of homesickness, of being a stranger, looking at the world from the outside, has been the theme of this year, of my writing, of the books I’m sharing with you, and so of tonight’s talk.
A year ago, I moved to America: everything that Americans take as normal and every day, I saw as new and strange and interesting. This fed me creatively – and, at times, exhausted me too! I still haven’t got the hang of turning right on a red light, of calling trousers pants or of coming across a moose standing in the middle of the road. Many of you have shared in my daily and then weekly diary on Facebook in which I’ve tried to chart some of these impressions.
And now I’m back – in a place I still refer to as home – it feels strange and after a year away, I’m seeing things with fresh eyes.
Last Wednesday, I made notes for this speech in Costa, Crowthorne, a coffee shop where some of you first met me. I sat at the same table, next to the same plug, with the same laptop and notebooks and the same coffee under the same, benignly watchful eye of dear Richard, who has accompanied me through many days of novel writing. I recognised many of the locals who stopped to give me a hug. And I felt at home. But I also knew those few hours were now an exception rather than a norm – that this was no longer my everyday home – not least because my bicycle wasn’t tied to the railing in front of the Co-op across the road. I knew that I would have to leave – and that it would be a while before I came back.
And so, in coming back to England, my homesickness is not fully alleviated, because both I and my old world have moved on a little and that even the bits that haven’t changed, don’t seem quite as familiar as they did.
It is an unsettling feeling but I am in good company: some wonderful authors have lived away from home, some voluntarily, others in exile, from Ernest Hemingway an Tom Stoppard to Isabel Allende – and many claim to have written better about their countries of birth by living at a distance.
I gather that living away from home is good for the muse because it helps us sharpen the skill of seeing the everyday in from a new perspective: it stops us from taking anything for granted, it makes us question and look deeper and so present the world in a way that is fresh and new.
So, at this point in my life and my writing career, I find myself straddling two worlds and two cultures and one language expressed very differently on each side of the pond.
And as I considered this between worlds position, one in which everything feels slightly new and odd, I’ve come to realise that this feeling connects the characters in the novels I’m celebrating tonight.
As with all my adult novels, Before I Was Yours is told from several points of view, but perhaps the most intriguing view is that of seven-year-old Jonah, the little boy from Kenya abandoned at Heathrow airport and taken in for adoption by the Keeps, a white, British couple desperate to have a child.
Jonah looks at England through his wide, slightly frightened eyes and sees it in a way that is fresh and sometimes funny and sad too. He also feels deeply homesick for the place where he was born and grew up, the coast of Lamu in Kenya.
Every novel has its different demands and processes. Before I Was Yours was my most research-heavy book and the story which owes a great many thanks both to those who inspired me and informed me.
I’d like to mention some of those people now.
Anne, my godmother, who has come from Switzerland to be here tonight, is one of the people who inspired the emotions behind this book – and the main female character, Rosie Keep.
If anyone was made to be a mother, it was Anne. And yet, as often happens in life, Anne’s path to motherhood was not as straight as it should have been. After many years of fertility treatments and IVF, it turned out that she and her husband couldn’t have children. And so they set out on the road of adoption, one that is full of twists and turns and hope and heartache. They now have two wonderful children: a boy from Romania, my godson, and a girl from Vietnam, Sophie. Watching Anne treat this path to motherhood with so much grace and strength – but with so much sadness at times, too, made me want to write about adoption.
There are other individuals and couples, who longed to have children and ended up going down the road adoption, who have generously shared their stories with me. One of the opening scenes of the novel, the adoption party in which Sam and Rosie Keep first see Jonah, was inspired by a long conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend who is also here tonight: Rossana Novella.
An incredible adoption social worker, Sally Beaumont, was instrumental in taking me through the process of adoption in the UK – and in allowing me to attend one of those adoption parties and other adoption conferences.
The GP, Neill Bidston, gave me lessons in one of the medical conditions that plays a key role in the story: Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
And the QC, Mark-Milliken Smith, talked to me about the legal repercussions for the man who takes Jonah from Africa to England and then abandons him at Heathrow Airport.
If Before I Was Yours required a great deal of research, Wishbones is my most personal novel so far. Many of its themes and issues strike a chord with own life, in particular my adolescence, whether it be eating disorders or looking after a mother broken by loss.
(That said, I did do quite a bit of research with a certain young lady called Emily Pittick, who taught me the ins and outs of swimming butterfly stroke.)
Wishbones also tackles the theme of homesickness, of feeling like a stranger, but in a different way.
If Before I Was Yours reflected my experience of moving to American in the sense that Jonah misses his old home back in Kenya, much like I missed England, Wishbones is more like the feeling of coming home and that home not feeling quite right anymore.
Wishbones, is told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Feather Tucker. She couldn’t be more at home: she lives in a fictional English village, the smallest in the UK, and has done so her whole life. But she too experiences a change of landscape, perspective and so a form of homesickness. As she digs into her mother’s past, the place she thought was home – her family, her best friend and her neighbours around the small village green, suddenly feel foreign.
This is perhaps a metaphor for growing up – for coming of age, which, in one way or another, is the theme of all young adult novels: that what we thought was true of ourselves and the world suddenly fractures and we need to reinvent ourselves and refine our notion of home and family.
I’ve certainly had to do a bit of that too this year.
Maybe we spend our whole lives growing-up – and journeying back and forth from home makes that truth all the more vivid.
So, family, childhood, growing-up, parenthood, homesickness and belonging – these are all at the heart of both Wishbones and Before I Was Yours. This is what connects these and indeed all my stories. And yet, they are of course different too, most notably because one is classed as adult and the other young adult.
Indeed, each book is published by a different publishing house and my editors and publicity agents from both houses are here tonight – which is something of a dream come true: I’ve always wanted to write both adult and young adult fiction.
So what is the difference?
On the one hand, as someone who believes passionately in the right to transgress literary boundaries – after all:
Why should some books be for women and others for men?
Why should some be for children and others for adults?
Why should some be for clever people with advanced literature degrees and others for those who like a quick beach read?
In my world, books, and stories and words are for everyone.
That said, young adult fiction does occupy a special place at the moment, one that is distinct from other forms of fiction, not because it is better, but because it does something unique:
By looking at the world exclusively through the eyes of young people, it gives them a voice;
It addresses issues which are particularly pertinent to their worlds and stage of life.
And it isn’t afraid to go to the dark places – whilst, at its best, always offering hope, which, as my publicist in the US said, is something we all desperately need right now.
It is a category of fiction that did not exist when I was a teenager and although I was quite happy jumping from Roald Dahl to Jane Austen I would have LOVED to be able to read some of these vibrant, fearless, beautifully written young adults books that captured my stage in life:
That complex, slippery, questioning, uncomfortable stage in which, much like travelling and moving continents, the new and the strange begins to replace the familiar.
I believe that reading books like that may have given me hope and inspiration and shelter at that difficult time.
My greatest joy as a writer would be for families will share my stories: for mothers and fathers to read my adult fiction and pass it on to their children as they grow up and for young adults to share my stories with their friends and parents and older relatives – because, ultimately, stories are there to be shared and passed on, they are there to help us understand the world and others and ourselves a little better.
Indeed, I would argue that novels are places where we can find a new home, again and again, whilst the world around us keeps changing.
Some introductory words from my wonderful editor at Sphere, Little, Brown, Manpreet Grewal, who has accompanied and guided me through the last four years of my literary career.