Friday 11 March 2016

Q&A with Antonia Honeywell, author of The Ship

Hi Antonia and thanks for answering my questions! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your debut novel, The Ship?

Hello Sophie – thank you so much for having me.

The Ship’s my first published novel – I wrote it while I was busy bringing up babies and toddlers. Before that I was a teacher, a job I loved and may yet go back to. I’ve also worked in museum education. I bake, read and make my own jam and (luckily) thrive on chaos.

Do you think writing The Ship in first person has an influence on how well a reader can believe and get into the head of Lalla’s character? Why did you choose to write it in first person?

I experimented a great deal with point of view while I was writing The Ship, and I realised that it’s not just a story about a society, it’s a story about how we begin to understand the society in which we live. This meant it had to be told in Lalla’s voice. Lalla is in the privileged position of having enough to eat and a secure place to live, but that means that all the information she receives is mediated by her parents, or by the government firewall. She’s not allowed to talk to the people living on the street, or in the British Museum. She’s presented with her father’s truth – but there are no absolute truths under the emergency government in post-collapse London. Everyone tells the story that supports their own reaction. Lalla has to decide where to put her trust – that decision is as much part of the plot as what actually happens on the ship. First person gives the reader just enough information to stay one step ahead of Lalla, and therefore gives them a vested interest in the decisions she makes.

Set in the future, The Ship explores a version of London which is quite scarily plausible. How far removed do you think your version of London is from 2016 London?

It was further removed when I wrote it than it is now. We may not be shooting people who float up the Thames seeking sanctuary, but people are dying on boats as they try to make their way to England to claim asylum. We’re selling off the council housing that made life in London possible on a low income. The refugee camps in Calais were bulldozed recently. My new phone recognises my thumbprint. We’re running out of bees… I didn’t make anything up for The Ship. I just read the papers. Now I read the papers and tremble.

Each chapter fascinatingly begins with a heading containing a summary of the main things to come – can I ask your reasons for including this?

It’s set in an alternative present, but The Ship is a traditionally-told tale. I wanted to give it a flavour of the nineteenth century novels I love so much, as well as the feel of a fable or fairytale. It’s a reminder to the reader that I’m telling a story; the real ending of the truths from which I wove it is in the reader’s hands.

The Ship possesses really vivid, beautiful imagery. Did you have a favourite passage to write?

That’s a lovely thing to hear, thank you. I loved imagining things I take for granted through the eyes of someone who has never experienced them. When Gerhard tries to explain what an orange is, I wanted him to get a little carried away, so that however hard he pretends it doesn’t matter that he’ll never see another, the reader knows it does. If I had to choose one passage, I think it would be the final paragraph. The details Lalla sees there contain the fate of the whole ship.

How long did the process of beginning the first draft to seeing it becoming an actual published novel take? Had you been resting on the idea of The Ship a while before writing it down or did you begin straight away?

The Ship floated at the back of my mind for a good year or two before I started writing it. Some ideas are like that – others need to be written immediately, before they evaporate. I had Michael; I had the ship; I had London. I even had the British Museum. But it took me a while to realise that this was Lalla’s story. Once I started writing, the first draft took another year – and then the real work began. It was three years between beginning to write and securing the book deal, and several months of editing after that.

Could you tell us a bit about how your publishing deal with W&N books came about?

My agent sent The Ship out to a few publishers and within a few days we had a choice of offers. We hadn’t heard back from W&N at that point, so on the Friday afternoon my agent and I had a calm, professional discussion and made a decision (don’t tell my agent, but I was in the kitchen cooking the children’s tea, and I got so excited I spilt boiling water over my hand and dropped peas all over the floor. I was so eager to maintain the illusion of calm professionalism that I didn’t even squeak. I hope he thought the crashes were just celebratory cymbals.) Shortly afterward, he rang again, to suggest we held off on the final decision because he’d just had a call from another editor who’d just started reading it and begged for the weekend. On the Monday, W&N came roaring up on the inside lane and I had a publisher.

How supportive have you found fellow writers to be since becoming a published author yourself?

Very. Writing is a tough old business whether you’re published or not, and every time you reach the summit, you realise there’s a higher one just ahead of you. Of course there will always be writers who are so focussed on the next peak, or so sure that they made it alone, that they don’t look back. But the vast majority remember what it was like – or are on the same path - and are generous with advice and encouragement. And cake. The writing community is largely fuelled by cake. The trouble is that no two mountains are alike. The landscape shifts constantly, often under your very feet. Finding the people who’ll help you stand up again is important. As is holding out your own hand and helping others along. We all have our own earthquakes.

How do you manage your time to fit in your writing? Do you set daily word-count targets?

I set word counts when I’m writing a first draft. After that, I begin to chip away at the great lump I’ve created and word counts become meaningless. Two things make my writing possible time-wise; one is that, when I identify an hour or two I can use for writing, I ringfence it. I’ve lost count of the number of invitations I’ve turned down, must-see television I’ve missed, films and plays I haven’t seen. But if James is away, and/or or the children are all occupied elsewhere, then that’s my time to write. That’s non-negotiable. I’m lucky that my friends understand. Most of them are juggling work and children too.

The second is that I don’t have set requirements about the circumstances in which I write. I write in the car, in soft play centres, in waiting rooms… All I need is my laptop or a notebook. George Monbiot has a wonderful piece of advice for aspiring journalists on his website – he says the less you can live on, the wider your opportunities. I think that applies to writing time too – the more places you’re able to write, the more writing you’ll do. (Having said that, I’m looking forward to a time when my schedule isn’t constantly dictated by the children. I do love being within reach of a kettle.)

The Ship was one of those books I could not stop thinking about and asking questions about long after I’d finished reading it. Are there any books you could name or recommend that have left you feeling in a similar way?

I’m so pleased it had that effect on you – thank you. There are many books that give me that feeling. For example, Villette, by Charlotte Brontë. It’s not as widely known or adapted as Jane Eyre, but every time I read it I find something new. For me, it’s a novel which encapsulates what it means to love. EM Forster’s novella The Machine Stops is another. A more recent discovery was Patricia Dunker’s novel The Composer and his Judge. Her new one, Sophie and the Sibyl, is every bit as inventive and absorbing. I was so hoping it would be on the Bailey’s longlist. I’m on the Baileys Shadow Jury this year and am looking forward to finding some new favourites, too. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman was the revelation of last year’s list for me.

Could you name the book you’re most looking forward to reading in 2016?

There are so many – but I think I’d have to choose Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, which will be published in May this year. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a proof of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, for which I predict great things. And now, of course, I have the Baileys Prize List to read. Exciting times!

Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Sophie, and for such interesting questions.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published in paperback by W&N, out now


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Yesterday the blog tour stopped at The Writes of Woman with a Q&A with Antonia and another chance to win a copy of The Ship.

Make sure to visit One More Page on Monday as the blog tour continues and catch up with the other hosts below!

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