The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is a first for me. It was the first book I ever discussed in a book club, the first book I ever reviewed, and now I am delighted to say that Antonia is the first author I have ever interviewed. She very kindly agreed to answer all of my nosy questions about writing in general, The Ship in particular, and the balancing the creative with the personal…
The Ship was your debut novel, but like most writers, your journey to publication was not a short or simple one. Could you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer, and what kept you going?
I always wanted to write – I always wrote. But for a long, long time there was no one in my life who believed I could do it. And because I was rather a strange teenager who only read books by dead people, it took me a while to understand that writers were just ordinary people, and that it wasn’t preposterous to aspire to be one. When I wrote my first novel and began to submit it, I had another set of false impressions to overcome. I sent it to six agents who all rejected it and thought I’d given it a good go. It was only when I began to talk to other writers that I began to understand that six rejections is nothing – by which time, I was knee-deep in another novel. All this time, of course, I was also earning a living. As for what kept me going – I’m still not sure about that. I think it’s simply this – that if I don’t write my stories, no one else will. And I’ll never know what might have happened. I need to know what’s going to happen next, and writing is the only way I can find out.
It has been over a year since I read The Ship, and yet the atmosphere and themes of the book are still very vivid in my mind. Re-reading the reviews, nearly everyone comments on how much the story stayed with them long after they put it down and how thought-provoking it was. Was this an effect you deliberately tried to achieve, and HOW did you do it?
It’s an effect I dreamed of achieving and I’m so grateful to those reviewers (including you, of course!) I started by trying to make Lalla’s sheltered world a recognizable place, and to show the reader why her parents make the decisions they do. The desire to protect our children is universal, so I hoped that readers would identify with that part of the story. Then I pushed that natural human instinct to its limits to work out what it costs. For me, the engagement lies in the question, ‘What would I do in those circumstances?’ And because I didn’t invent any of the features that brought the world of the novel to collapse, I think that readers come to realise that the question’s not as far removed from reality as we’d like to imagine. The reader exists right there, in the pages of the novel.
You manage to conjure up a dystopian London not that different from our own, yet chillingly realistic in just a few pages. Did you know it was a dystopian novel when you set out to write it? (Very interesting to see on Amazon that most readers of The Ship also bought Station Eleven, btw, which is another fantastic, literary dystopian novel that haunts you long after reading).
I didn’t set out to write a dystopia, but I did want to create a world that Michael Paul, the father, would want to escape, and it didn’t take me long to realise that I was writing one whether I intended to or not! I had to be efficient in creating that world, because the main thrust of the story lies in the life on the ship itself, which is about as far from dystopian as it’s possible to get, and the sense of the horror and desperation beyond it is essential in the creation of tension.
I was desperate to read The Ship as soon as I first saw it on twitter – it was such a compelling cover and concept. It’s really interesting to see the new cover for the paperback version – just as beautiful but very different. Can you tell us about the thinking/strategy behind these different covers?
The hardback cover took a few drafts to get right, but the moment my agent and editor saw this one, they knew it was right. I think the two covers make a perfect pairing. The hardback has stronger colours and sharper outlines – it reflects the adventure and suspense of the novel. The paperback is softer and more impressionistic, which reflects the more thoughtful, meditative aspects. I couldn’t choose if I had to. Fortunately I have both!
When I first read The Ship, I assumed it was a YA book because the protagonist, Lalla, is sixteen, but I think it was marketed for adults. What is your view on the distinction between YA and adult books and have you had many teen readers?
The Ship wasn’t written as a YA book or marketed as one. But the responses of readers show that it resonated with the YA market, as well as with readers of literary fiction. I think there are lots of books which occupy this space – Nineteen Eighty Four, for example, which I read for the first time when I was thirteen and thought had been written for me personally. It’s the age for questions of identity and place in the world – and for rebellion, too. I think the rise in YA in recent years is something to celebrate, and novels like The Ship benefit from the engagement and enthusiasm of that wonderful community of writers and readers. I’m not at the centre of it – but glad and grateful to have been given a seat on the side.
As well as being an author, you are a mum to four children, a wife and a daughter; you read a lot and are active and generous on twitter. When do you make the time to write, and how do you cope with the guilt and (presumably) not doing it all?
Yes, I’ve got four, all quite close in age – my eldest is ten now. Time is my biggest issue. There’s never, ever enough of it. I look at writer friends whose children are older, or who are child-free, and yearn for the time and space that they supposedly have. But every writer has things that drain their time, and the children are growing up so fast. I tend not to waste time wishing I had more time. I multitask – bake while helping with homework, play board games with one hand whilst making notes with the other, get tea together at the same time as I’m making breakfast. I also (don’t tell my husband) hide behind a cushion at one end of the sofa while we’re meant to be watching films together. I accept every atom of help I can get. And I take my laptop everywhere and write anywhere.
What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it? (I am interested in this because some people find reading and/or twitter a distraction, whereas I find them both energising. I am intrigued by what gives/depletes energy in different writers and what we can do to respect/nourish that.
Writing is such a solitary occupation. On the whole, I find Twitter a genuinely restorative place. As for reading – it’s the reason I write. It’s as simple as that. Other people’s success is a harder one – we’ve all seen a writer go a little over the top on the self-promotion side – but on the whole it doesn’t last long. The wheel turns again and it’s someone else’s chance. It’s up to you whether you look at someone else’s good news and feel crushed, or whether you look at it and go, ‘Wow, so it IS possible!’ Everyone has to allow themselves that little grip of envy – but I don’t buy the whole Gore Vidal death-every-time-a-friend-succeeds thing. This industry is hard. Let’s celebrate everything we can.
What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal?
Red wine and perseverance, with or without the red wine.
Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?
I’d like to stay published. That’s all. Of course I’d love to win a prize and get a foreign deal and travel with my book and all that kind of thing. But really, I’d just like to stay published and to know that people are reading my books. That’s ambition enough.
Last year was an amazing year for you with the publication of The Ship, an awful lot of things – both good and bad, personal and professional seemed to happen to you all at once. What do you remember most about that year, and what will you treasure?
There are so many things to remember – Jake Arnott’s face when I started singing at my book launch, the first time I saw The Ship in a real bookshop, the writers I’ve met, GollanzFest, all the incredible book people I’ve made friends with. But Jo – this is the real heart of everything – I’m here, with James and the children, and everyone’s still alive and nothing’s broken, and there’s a book on the shelf that proves that writing isn’t only for dead people sitting on clouds. Whatever happens next, The Ship has become a part of the story.
The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published in paperback by W&N and is out now http://amzn.to/1K7sAtQ