Francesca’s debut novel, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel award and her follow-up, The Awkward Age, was recently published. Buy it here.
The Awkward Age is set just round the corner from me in London and sets a microscope about a “blended” family where a step-brother and sister get on a bit too well. If you like an intelligent, polished and totally gripping domestic drama, you will go mental for this book.
1 When did the germ of the idea for The Awkward Age come to you?
I knew what I wanted to write next was a love story between a mother and a daughter. It’s such a beautiful, fraught, consuming passion,and I wanted to explore all the ways in which it is, and isn’t, like a romance. And then I read an article that mentioned the frequency with which teenage step-children have relationships with one another and I thought – sweet Jesus, that’s not easy. What a perfect sabotage to your parents’ newfound happiness – just assert this new happiness of your own. It was those two ideas that came together.
2 Where did having the twin (girls, born in 2015) fit in to the writing of it? Were you mid-writing it, before, after?
I was mid. I had a fantasy, or rather I was entirely convinced, that I would whiz off the book the night before I gave birth to them. I found out early on it was identical twins and so I knew I was having a C-section and had a date in the diary. I kept grandly announcing to my editor that she’d have the book 6pm the Friday before. I don’t know how she kept a straight face through it all. In the event, neither the babies nor the book played ball. It was a long way from ready. I went back to work very quickly, and had a long, hard year.
3 How do you focus on work with small kids?
Poorly, but doggedly. It is not a very interesting observation but nonetheless essential that good childcare is is absolutely the key. We have a wonderful nanny and that frees me emotionally, because when I have work to do, hearing giggles from downstairs is considerably more reassuring than worrying that they’re miserable. I wish I remember which novelist said it, but someone once said they ‘make a rag-rug of the minutes’ and now I remember that phrase so often. When I tried to google it obviously I just got a lot of instructions on how actually to make a rag rug. Who has time to make rag rugs? I used never to be able to work unless I had a clear four hours. Now, give me forty minutes and I am focussed like a ninja.
4 How do you feel *now* about the “pram in the hall” being the enemy of creativity as opposed to before you had kids.
I loathe that phrase, and have always loathed it. I think exhaustion is a challenge to creativity, however, as is broken thought, and both of those are close correlates of the pram. But I also now understand in a way I never did how bloody lazy I was with my time before I had children – I had seas of it! Oceans of the stuff! And I squandered it.
5 Do you feel you made any judgment about the behaviour of anyone in TAA? My feeling was that you set it up and then just marvelled from a distance at their cock-ups… am I missing out on something? Is there a message here?
I had absolutely no intent to judge. I wanted to write a novel in which a lot of essentially kind, well-meaning people were busy doing their best, which sometimes involved making one another’s lives bloody difficult. That’s real life. It’s not for me to moralise.
6 Someone once said of Richard Yates that he “led his characters down dark alleys and then left them there”. In both TAA and The Innocents you rather pour people into a small room and then shout “Fire!” Both novels have a background of claustrophobia to them – is this intentional?
I think maybe that sense of claustrophobia in both books comes from my fascination with family. Families are basically what you describe – a group of people who may or may not have anything in common, cohabiting in a very small space. I didn’t even need to shout ‘fire’ – someone in that room was bound to start one.
7 Are those Valentino Rockstuds [which Francesca wore to her book party] comfortable?
YES. Yes. Go and get them immediately
. As soon as my sister got engaged, my immediate thought was that I could now buy myself a pair. I wore them for the first time to the wedding and they were on my feet from noon until midnight and I had no need of Compede, flip-flops, or a podiatrist. I have now boxed ALL my other smart shoes and I wear these to absolutely everything.
8 What are you having for dinner tonight?
As a prelude, I will be eating wild organic salmon, grilled organic broccoli, and extortionately expensive organic blueberries, all of which have been squashed onto the mat beneath two highchairs. Later, my husband and I might order a pizza.
9 What was the last clothing purchase that you are excited about wearing?
Rockstuds, see above, but mostly a pair of leopard-print harem pants from H&M (£12.99) which I will never wear out of the house, but in which I will almost certainly write 98% of my next novel.
10 Complete this sentence: “My kids are…” enchanting and enervating.