Today is the birthday of my second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells. It’s also the birthday of a new teashop-bookshop which opened on my local high street, Beatons. This afternoon I went in and ordered a pot of loose-leaf green tea, chatted to the owner, Paul, and gazed, with joy, at their shelves of books. I allowed myself a little pinch of pride when I saw What Milo Saw there – and Norah in the window. And then I sat down at one of their beautiful white tables and, the sunlight streaming in over my shoulder, and worked on my third novel.
This shared birthday got me thinking about the importance of local community to writers. A couple of years ago I visited Concord in Massachusetts. As I walked around the cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, with my husband, we were both awed and humbled by how many wonderful writers had connections to this small town, including Ralph Waldo-Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. We thought about what their lives had been like in this community: the tea shops they had visited, the libraries and bookshops and grocery stores that formed part of their daily lives, the streets they’d walked down, the park benches they’d sat on, the neighbours they’d tilted their hats to. And how this daily interaction with their town shaped their lives and so their writing.
I don’t live in the prettiest town in the world – it’s not a patch on Concord. I hope people won’t mind me saying that the high street is a little ugly and that, when I first came here, I missed the dreaming spires of my hometown, Oxford. And yet I’ve grown to love it, more, perhaps, than anywhere I’ve lived before.
And I know this is because I’ve grown into a writer here and also because this is where I am raising my little girl. There’s something about having children, whether they be flesh and blood babies or literary babies, that makes you scratch beyond the surface of your community and go deep into what matters: the lives of the people who live alongside you.
It’s at Newman’s that I bought my little girl’s first pair of shoes and in the library that she goes to Bounce and Rhyme every Tuesday morning. It’s at the health food shop that I treat myself to ingredients that keep my body healthy. It’s at the optician’s, Norman Prince and Partners (where they still write all their notes by hand, know you by name and spend longer over your eye test than any optician I’ve ever visited), that I did my research for Milo’s Retinitis Pigmentsosa. It’s in the small village hall that I go to my yoga classes every week, led by the incredible Sam Rao, who inspires me more than he will ever know. It’s the owner of the the little DIY shop who put a groove in a screw we needed for our baby gate, without asking for a penny. It’s at the cobbler’s where my worn down, battered shoes are resuscitated. It’s at the cycle shop where I get my trusty bicycle serviced, where I had my little girl’s bike seat fitted and bought her first pink helmet.
And it’s in the coffee shop at the top of the high street that I spend most of my days, working on my novels. A place where I feel loved and looked after and appreciated, where I meet friends who have come to be my family, where, every now and then, I’m slipped a free coffee and it’s also where I launched the paperback of Milo. And then, a few months ago, I was contacted by Paul, the owner of Beatons, who said that he’d love to work with me as Beaton’s most local author. And so now I have another home.
Signing books in Costa when Milo came out in paperback.
If a novel is the sum total of a writer’s thoughts and experiences at the moment in their lives when they wrote that particular story, then my community is most definitely lives in my novels. It’s no coincidence that my novels themselves are about extraordinarily ordinary towns, towns with fictional names and yet ones which could be my town or yours or the next one along. I am certain that my readers feel right at home in Norah’s Holdingwell, just as they do in Milo’s Slipton. The charity shops, the hairdressers, the cafes, the corner shops, the nursing homes, the animal shelters, the kebab vans, the doctors, the co-op, the bank. I write about contemporary life, contemporary Britain in particular, and about families, and families are, almost unavoidably, rooted in their communities: they shape them and are shaped by them and, for those of us who sit and observe and write, they form part of the stories we tell.