Hello Felicity, and welcome to Cosy Books. Could you tell us a bit about yourself ?
The People At Number 9 is your latest adult novel, could you tell us what it's about in your own words?
The People at Number 9 is really a story of unrequited love, not between individuals, but between couples. Sara and Neil are happy-enough, jogging along in their suburban life, until a new family moves in next door and they glimpse a glamorous, Bohemian existence that makes their own seem hum-drum. They are surprised and flattered when Gav and Lou their new neighbours seem keen to make friends, but what starts out as a mutually supportive meeting of minds, degenerates into an exploitative and even corrupting relationship where heads are turned and lives turned upside down.
When I read The People At Number 9, I felt the characters were so realistic that I could recognise them in people I knew myself! How do you go about creating such believable characters and are they based on people you know?
I’m glad you found the characters believable. The way I discover characters is through dialogue. If I can hear a character speak, they usually start to live for me and I can work out what they look like, where they live and so on. The central characters in The People at Number 9 are pretty familiar, but I wouldn’t say they were based on people I know (that would be too dull). Rather they share characteristics with a various people I have known. I have always had a bit of a weakness for ‘arty’ types, and from University onwards I’ve gravitated towards flamboyant, non-conformists, even though (or perhaps because) I am not like that at all myself. Sara is the character in the book whose circumstances and attitude most reflect my own, which is why I wrote it from her point of view but I didn’t realise until the end that in her own way she is just as selfish and even more foolish than the neighbours she is besotted with. I am always intrigued by the debate in fiction about whether characters need to be likeable. For me, what matters is that they are real.
The book explores an intense relationship between neighbours, which turns sour, where did the idea come from to write your book?
The London street I lived on for twenty five years belied the cliché about the capital being a stand-offish and unfriendly place. It was a fantastic community, where the kids played out together, and the parents - some working, some not - socialised together. Sometimes that closeness could be a bit oppressive – there was that thing of everyone living in everyone else’s pockets. The idea for The People at Number Nine grew out of the gossip and gripes that flourish in that setting. It was a what if scenario- what if those people down the road were not just having a boring book club, but were… well I don’t want to spoil the story.
I started thinking about my neighbours...I live in a bubble and don't even know most of them, but I wondered what they think of me behind the curtains...So... How are YOUR neighbours? And what kind of neighbour are you?
I could get in a lot of trouble here, couldn’t I? After 25 years in one place (a London Street very much like the one in The People at Number 9), the last eight years have found me in two very different communities – surburban Melbourne and rural Gloucestershire. I had fantastic neighbours in London – very friendly and supportive – everyone knew everyone else and the only downside was that at Christmas, we ended up repeating the same conversations over and over as we all turned up to the same get-togethers. No complaints really though, some of those neighbours have become lifelong friends. Melbourne was a hard nut to crack. We moved to quite a posh suburb where people were mostly out at work during the day. People were very polite, but not especially friendly - they probably just had us down for the fly-by-night ex-pats we were. I made some wonderful friends in Melbourne, but they weren’t my neighbours. And now, living in rural Gloucestershire, in what is essentially a hamlet, I see more sheep than people. We just about know who our neighbours are and they are perfectly genial, but we hardly ever bump into them.
As for what kind of neighbour I am – over-involved would probably be the way I would put it. Is that the same as nosey? I do like to get on with the people around me and to feel a sense of trust and community. But I suppose there’s also some truth in the adage good fences make good neighbours. You have to have boundaries. That’s where my character Sara comes to grief!
The People At Number 9 has a subtle darkness, in the ordinary and everyday, which simmers rather than explodes. Was this your intention when writing it?
That’s a lovely description. I don’t think it was my intention to write a dark novel – it just came out that way. Of course I knew the scenario was a doomed one, but for me there was also a lot of humour and pathos in the situation, as Sara’s pretensions get punctured and she finds out that all life choices come at a cost. I have a great affection for my characters. I don’t think there are goodies and baddies in life, so I don’t think there should be in fiction. It’s more complicated, and more interesting than that.
You've previously written extensively for children – what made you switch to adult fiction and how different is writing for this market?
I don’t think there’s such a big difference between writing for children and adults. Children are extremely discerning – they’ll see a hole in a plot quicker than an adult, they get subtle humour, they don’t like clichés. I think I’m a better writer for having written children’s fiction – you have to cut the waffle and you can’t get away with the sort of purple passages that can slip through into adult fiction if you’re not careful. I would say writing for children was the best apprenticeship I could have had and I wouldn’t mind doing more of it one day – maybe when I’ve got grandchildren!
Most writers are readers first....is this the case for yourself? Which authors and novels would you recommend as must reads?
Yes I am a lover of reading, especially fiction. I have a pretty short attention span these days though, so whereas I used to plod on even if I wasn’t enjoying a book, now I give up and get on with the next one. As far as must-reads go, I love Jonathan Franzen, particularly Freedom. I am also a big fan of Colm Toibin and Anne Enright – their novels share an intensity and an interiority which I really enjoy and they write brilliantly about families. For me, a stand-out recent novel was Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I love short stories – Lorrie Moore’s are favourites, and I have discovered some wonderful new writers by listening to The New Yorker short story podcasts – check out The Prairie Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld.
As a non-writer, I'm always fascinated by the writing process...can you tell us about where you write and any rituals or routines you have to aid the creative process?
This one made me smile. When we moved to the country cottage we live in now, my dream was to have a writing shack in the garden with a wood-burner and a well-stacked book shelf. I would be so productive in there, I thought, writing away with the cows staring through the window and coffee brewing on the stove. We couldn’t afford it, so second best was a study. I insisted we get it kitted out with a sound-proof door and a nice desk in front of the window. I think since it’s been finished, I’ve written in there twice! Something about going in and shutting the door, sitting down and staring at the blank screen really intimidates me. It is “writing’ and I don’t do that. So my writing happens in bed, when I’ve opened my laptop and mucked about on social media for a bit. That way it’s casual, non-committal – I can sneak up on it. If I’m lucky, I’ll have written half a chapter before I’ve noticed I’m working. It’s terrible for my back, but I’ve accepted now that it’s what I do. That’s my ritual. That and stopping when it’s not going well. I used to feel like such a slacker, bunking off for a walk or to the swimming pool, but the number of times I’ve cracked a scene, or a chapter or a plot point while my mind’s been in neutral, makes me realise what a useful strategy it actually is. Yes. It’s a strategy – not a cop-out!
Finally, what are you working on next?
My next novel is a gothic psychodrama about a menopausal woman in an unhappy marriage who moves to the country. As she slowly loses her grip on reality, neither she nor the reader knows whether the malevolence around her is in the community, the landscape, her marriage or her mind.
Thank you Felicity for taking the time to answer my questions...I hope you enjoyed them!
Thanks. I did!
About The Book
Have you met them yet, the new couple?
When Gav and Lou move into the house next door, Sara spends days plucking up courage to say hello. The neighbours are glamorous, chaotic and just a little eccentric. They make the rest of Sara's street seem dull by comparison.
When the hand of friendship is extended, Sara is delighted and flattered. Incredibly, Gav and Lou seem to see something in Sara and Neil that they admire too. In no time at all, the two couples are soulmates, sharing suppers, bottles of red wine and childcare, laughing and trading stories and secrets late into the night in one another's houses.
And the more time Sara spends with Gav and Lou, the more she longs to make changes in her own life. But those changes will come at a price. Soon Gav and Lou will be asking things they've no right to ask of their neighbours, with shattering consequences for all of them...
Have you met The People at Number 9? A dark and delicious novel about envy, longing and betrayal in the suburbs...
Published 6th April by HQ Stories (UK)
Fancy reading The People At Number 9 for yourself? I have 3 copies to giveaway courtesy of the publisher. Just head over to twitter and follow me @vicki_cosybooks and Re-tweet my pinned tweet about the giveaway to enter