While being dubbed a “true new talent” must be flattering, I can’t help but think it probably adds to the pressure for a debut author – although Lex Coulton more than lives up to the hype.
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of her stunning novel, Falling Short, at the start of the year and I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to wait until June to start raving about it’.
Thankfully, June has finally arrived and I will post my review on Thursday, which is publication day (spoiler: I loved it – pre-order now).
Just after I finished reading, Lex and I got talking (via Twitter) and, after gushing about how much I enjoyed her novel, I was very cheeky and asked if she would take part in my Behind The Book series. I was pleased when she said yes but absolutely delighted when I read her answers.
Before we get to them, here’s the blurb for Falling Short:
Sometimes getting it wrong is the only way to get it right . . .
Frances Pilgrim’s father went missing when she was five, and ever since all sorts of things have been going astray: car keys, promotions, a series of underwhelming and unsuitable boyfriends . . . Now here she is, thirty-bloody-nine, teaching Shakespeare to rowdy sixth formers and still losing things.
But she has a much more pressing problem. Her mother, whose odd behaviour Frances has long put down to eccentricity, is slowly yielding to Alzheimer’s, leaving Frances with some disturbing questions about her father’s disappearance, and the family history she’s always believed in. Frances could really do with someone to talk to. Ideally Jackson: fellow teacher, dedicated hedonist, erstwhile best friend. Only they haven’t spoken since that night last summer when things got complicated . . .
As the new school year begins, and her mother’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, Frances realises that she might just have a chance to find something for once. But will it be what she’s looking for?
If you have any interest in writing (and reading) I know you’re going to love what comes next.
Having read your brilliant debut, I was struck by just how perfect the title of the book is. Was it something you came up with? If so when and how?
There was quite a lot of internal debate about titles, as it happens, and at one stage I despaired of ever finding the right one! Because there is a lot of imagery in the novel connected with water, because of Frances’ father’s disappearance at sea, I initially wanted to focus on that in the title, but eventually it became clear that what was really engaging people about the book was its more immediate human concerns, and because some of it happens in a school, we felt it would be great to have a school-report sort of approach with the title. One of the ironies for me as a teacher is how often pupils seem to be more worldly and wise than their teachers, and I think it’s fair to say that Frances and Jackson, as teachers, are often a bit more like naughty pupils themselves, who would probably get fairly poor reports in some areas!
You studied English at Oxford and then went on to teach in secondary school for many years before going back to do an MA in creative writing. Had you always thought you wanted to write? What inspired you to go back to university?
I was literally writing from the age of six onwards – but as a teenager it was a most luxurious form of escapism: I wrote the life I wanted to have, with all my Jilly Cooper fantasies regarding racehorses and tennis players completely fulfilled! My dad gave me an old desk-top computer when I was fourteen, which was the best present ever. I can vividly remember printing out reams of auto-fiction on that old-fashioned printer-paper with all the holes down the side, and although it may sound a bit narcissistic I actually still love reading what I produced then. It feels like a doorway into the past.
Regarding the MA, I went back to university really having reached the age of 34 and feeling as though I needed some concrete goals with my writing, and also because I missed the intellectual stimulation of study. My friends were mostly getting pregnant or promoted, or both, at that stage, and I felt I needed to create my own path and my own goals.
After your MA you took a year-long sabbatical in Paris (#jealous). What was that like? How did you stop yourself from simply wandering the city, visiting galleries and sitting in cafes every day instead of writing?
The sabbatical was a result of an unhappy professional year in teaching, where I was made to feel continually as though I was really ‘falling short’ in most of what I did. My husband sat me down one evening and basically told me life was too short to be this miserable, and asked me what I’d most like to do to be happy. I said I’d like to write my novel. So we came up with an action plan to save as much money as possible, I handed in my notice at the end of the school year, and off we went, dog and all.
I think what gave me real focus was first of all having someone who really believed in my writing and was not as risk-averse as I am (my husband), but also, having made quite a public statement of intent about writing – it was no longer a private whimsy, it was a documented intention – my pride made me realise I had to deliver, not least because so many people had been so very patronising about those intentions and clearly saw them as a smokescreen for not being able to cope with professional life: ‘Oh, you’re going to write a novel. Bless your little heart,’ was something I heard a lot, before people turned away raising their eyebrows and mouthing ‘Poor thing,’ to one another!
I did do some wandering around the city at the weekends, but I spent much more time walking with my dog in the vast and beautiful Bois de Vincennes on the east side of the city, near where we were staying. Like so many writers, I find the rhythms of walking very helpful when drafting, and I ended up walking between 5km and 10 km every day. The dog and I got very fit, which was useful for counteracting all the lovely bread and wine we consumed (more bread and less wine in the dog’s case, obviously!)
Can you talk some more about Falling Short? How long did it take to write? How did the characters take shape for you?
I came up with the character of Frances Pilgrim in 2011 after a truly disastrous and quite surreal dating experience with a man who turned out to have quite literally fabricated every detail of his identity and then disappeared. I’d been seeing him for almost six months and I was a bit gutted, to be honest, but increasingly more curious about the real-life narrative which would lead someone to behave like that. I started constructing all sorts of stories to try and make sense of it all, and Frances’ narrative at various stages has been a psychological thriller and a much bigger, more multi-faceted mystery story. I even tried to write it as a film script, which was frankly disastrous…. Eventually, in 2015, I sat down and wrote the first draft of a new version over my first three months in Paris.
A lot of editing and paring down then happened with both my agent, Sue Armstrong, and then my editor Mark Richards, and I do think that the less-is-more approach to plot is good for the sort of writing I do, which is very voice- and character-focused.
The novel as it stands now is really about people and the losses which shape them, and I feel the reader has room to appreciate what is funny as well as bleak in the story that exists.
I had intended to have another scene at the end, but somehow when I wrote what is now the last line I felt that more would be over-kill. I like the fact that some questions are not neatly tied-up with a ribbon, and have been massively reassured by reading the work of writers like Adam Thorpe, Elizabeth Strout and Jon McGregor, where it is the characters rather than a neatly-folded narrative which remain with the reader after the last page.
You deal with some sensitive issues (very honestly and well done, in my opinion) some of which (Jackson’s thoughts about his students) make for uncomfortable reading (well, it did for me, anyway). Did you feel uncomfortable writing it? Did you ever wonder what the reader would make of it?
It’s such an interesting question isn’t it? And as a teacher myself, yes, I think I am acutely aware of the responsibilities incumbent on us as professionals to behave appropriately, so writing about Jackson – who I adore as a character – was interesting and challenging. I think it’s important to state that what both my editor and I wanted for Jackson was for him to have a sufficiently compelling arc as a character, and one which would require him to move forwards as a man and grow up over the course of the book. And I would also say, quite unequivocally, that what I think is crucial is that although he is very aware of one or two of his more flirtatious sixth form girls, he is also very clear that he doesn’t want to act on this sensation of awareness and so he is constantly in an almost comic cycle of self-monitoring and self-censure.
I grew up in a rather different age really, reading and loving the work of Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, early Ian McEwan, and Muriel Spark, all of whose work is characterised by a rather dark and transgressive humour, and this aspect of their books has undoubtedly affected me in my writerly development. However, I’m also keenly aware now that, back in 2015, I was also writing into an essentially pre-Harvey Weinstein world, and I think in the current climate we are much more aware of the potential for people in positions of power to misuse their positions, so it’s my hope that readers will understand that Jackson is really meant to be a bit of a victim himself: rather bumbling and lost with women, and consistently being made a fool of by all the females in his life, rather than being a risk factor himself.
What about Frances and her dad? Without giving anything away, did you ever think of finishing their story in a different way? I remember at the time I pondered whether, had it been a film, and they had done one of those audience previews, they would have asked you to change it (although I think its perfect).
I did have a completely different ending to begin with. Without giving things away, my instinct as a writer is often to tend towards the sentimental. There were numbers of options on the table for Martin Pilgrim, and I still find myself pondering the might-have-beens. Dog originally had a rather fuller role, too, and one version the novel did have a more conventional, tied-up-with-a-ribbon ending involving all the characters, Dog, and a beach. But life isn’t always like that, is it? And I think I’ve been quite affected by something Francis Spufford (of Golden Hill fame) wrote in an essay, which is that the difference between fiction and reality is the way in which fiction has a tendency to fold life neatly down the edges – too neatly, perhaps, sometimes. But I think a new breed of fiction is on the rise at the moment – you’ve only got to read Jon McGregor’s staggering Reservoir 13, Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay, or Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Bartonto see masters at work, playing deliberately with our very deep-laid expectations of plot and resolution and those neatly-folded edges. Of course, I’m not implying that I’m writing fiction of anything like their quality, but it’s something to aim for, I think!
What about your path to publication? When did you know it was time to submit? How did you find out they loved it?
Having time off from work meant I had time to get organised and enter writing competitions, and this was a massively helpful part of the process.
I had a boat-load of rejections for short stories in the autumn of 2015, but finally got a couple of long-listings and then a tiny flash fiction accepted online in November of that year. The next communication I had in December 2015 was from Literature Works, informing me I’d won their First Page Prize for 2015 for an extract (subsequently cut!) of Falling Short, which of course was a massive confidence boost.
By that stage, Falling Short was resting in a drawer before a proper edit, but after a final sweep through, I took the plunge with agents in January 2016. I had some nice positive responses from the get-go, but feedback on the full ms made me go back and do some further tidying. In the end, I was very lucky that three agents were keen to offer representation, more I think on the overall premise and on the voice/writing than by the fact that the product was anything like shelf-ready.
I chose Sue Armstrong because she had such a great list of writers whose work I had read and enjoyed, I felt we would work collaboratively – and also because she and everyone at C plus W Agency made my dog so welcome at Haymarket House! I think it’s important to remember that many agents are very happy to be very hands-on editorially, and are genuinely excited by ‘a hot mess’ of a manuscript, so sometimes even if the ms isn’t quite ‘there,’ agents will spot potential. I think being humble and prepared to take advice and keep editing with an agent is the most important thing.
Falling Short has had some lovely reviews pre-publication. What was that like? Are you still worried about it post-publication? How do you cope with the fear that people won’t like it – and I ask that because I’m pretty sure that’s what’s stopping me writing my own at the moment.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of people reading and reviewing your book. And I won’t lie – when someone says they love it you basically want to fangirl them and send them flowers, but when they say it’s rubbish/they didn’t get it/ it didn’t meet expectations it can feel like a big old slap-down.
However, what I’ve found really constructive is looking up the Goodreads reviews of writers I love who are hugely successful, and seeing that they, too, get some 2 and 3 star reviews, and some pretty fierce/blunt criticism. None of us are immune to bad reviews, because which book ever written has been loved by everyone? So I’m learning to distance myself, and try to regulate how many times I check into sites to see what people are saying.
As far as anxiety about starting to write goes, you have to remember that we all write about human experiences, and usually, let’s face it, the things which have been challenging or humiliating or even heart-breaking. And as readers, we love reading because, in the words of a character in the film ‘Shadowlands’, we read to know we’re not alone. So writing a novel is really like joining a conversation. You just have to take a breath and step away from the wall and start talking!
I know you’re writing a second book. Can you talk about that? Do you feel less pressure now you’ve already had one accepted for publication?
On the contrary, writing book two has felt harder in some respects because I know more about what I got wrong the first time around. What has been nice is knowing as I started that I was capable of seeing it through, but delivering even a skeletal first draft has taken me almost a year, and many, many, many thousands of words written only to be cut. I feel this time around that I’m really writing it wrong on my way to writing it right, but the fact that I am able now to make those sorts of judgements tells me I’m developing as a writer.
In terms of content, book two is again focused around a school, but the character who really keeps me going and constantly surprises me as a writer is a sixth form pupil, who sets out to solve a mystery involving the death of a former pupil at her school back in 1992. What is becoming more interesting to me as writer as I go along is her motivation for ‘finding answers’, most of which is rooted in the fact that her own family has fallen apart fairly spectacularly, leaving her with unanswered questions about why people behave in the way they do. Again, I’m returning to that idea of needing to use narrative as a way of re-orienting oneself in an unstable world – but the problem for Finn (my MC) is that she begins to work out, in a rather Francis Spufford kind of way, that real life doesn’t always fold neatly down the creases in the way she wants and needs it to….so it’s a coming-of-age story in one way, but still a very adult story, I think, rather than YA.
Lastly, do you have any tips for struggling writers?
Yes! I once heard a school chaplain describing the process of prayer to pupils as being more about listening than talking.
Don’t put words in their mouths: let them speak!
Also, with regard to rejection, everyone fails. A lot. Even the prize-winners (probably especially the prize-winners.) So keep sending out the stories, the poems, the flash fictions. Try and learn from the rejections, and last but not least – remember that Twitter/Instagram is only what people choose to broadcast……
Told you! Weren’t they brilliant answers? I feel very inspired. I want to pack up and go to Paris right now – although I’d probably take Freya as I don’t have a dog (not sure a four-year-old would be quite as happy to walk 5km minimum a day though).
If you’re not already convinced, please pop back on Thursday to read my review.