Tuesday 15 October 2019

Glasgow girl Gail is living the dream

Scottish author Gail Honeyman's debut novel is a study in contemporary loneliness. She talks to Julia Molony about finding success in her 40s and striking deals with Reese Witherspoon

Gail Honeyman was almost 40 when she wrote her debut novel 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine', an uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine
Gail Honeyman was almost 40 when she wrote her debut novel 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine', an uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

It is the day of the Costa Book Awards in London, and Gail Honeyman is fresh off a plane from Glasgow, suitcase still in tow. Her blonde hair has been styled into tumbling curls, and they fly into a nervy dance around her face whenever she laughs - which is often.

She seems to have a touch of nerves herself. Big awards ceremonies are a strange and exotic part of the new world that has recently opened up to her, since her debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine became the title everyone is talking about. She already knows she'll have at least one gong to collect on stage (a few weeks ago, she was announced as the winner of the First Book Award) and right now she seems most concerned about the risk that she'll trip or pratfall on her way up to the stage.

Later, it will be revealed that she's been pipped to the post for the overall prize by the poet Helen Dunmore, but for now, she's the bookies' favourite and everything is still to play for. "It's all a bit of a whirlwind," she says. "I haven't had a chance to think about it much yet, but that's probably a good thing."

Her family, to whom the book is dedicated, are all "very excited" on her behalf, she says, but she won't be bringing any of them tonight. "I think it's an industry thing rather than a family thing," she says, looking uncertain when I enquire as to who is going with her. So it won't be a big boozy night, then? "I'm not going to be having a piss up! I'll be too nervous."

Honeyman is scrupulously polite and very smiley, but she seems a touch wary about being interviewed - drawing back between each question with a worried look - as if bracing herself for what is coming next.

Now in her mid-40s, she grew up in a small village between Edinburgh and Glasgow, where her mother was a civil servant and her father worked in a science lab. The eldest of two (she has a younger brother), she was a bookish child, "always at the library". And it's since those earliest of days that she's harboured a secret dream to write a novel. But she was almost 40 by the time she eventually got down to it. "It's such a cliche!" she exclaims with a laugh of how the approaching milestone number drove her into action. "It's a big number. It's a mind-focusing number. I loved writing when I was a child and I wrote a lot, but when I went to university, I stopped. And then life kind of happens." She studied French Language and Literature at Glasgow University and began a PhD in French Poetry in Oxford with a view to becoming an academic. But she baulked at the idea of long hours alone in the library and eventually became an administrator instead, while her writing ambitions remained on ice. "It's one of those things where, I always thought, one day… one day when I've got loads of time. But that big birthday focused my mind. I thought, do you know what, there's never going to be the perfect time to do this. So I thought, 'I've been daydreaming about this for about 20 years... at least put yourself out of your misery! Then you'll find out if you can do it or if it was just a daydream, and then go and do something else instead'."

The idea for Eleanor Oliphant came to her after reading a newspaper article about loneliness, in which a woman in her 20s talked about how her weekends were passed in total isolation. "It was a few years ago that I first read that article and it wasn't really discussed very much at all at the time, which I think was why it jumped out at me because I thought, 'this is something quite new'. And then, it was the fact that it was a young person talking about it. If you ever did hear about it, it was mostly in the context of older people... I just started to think well, how could someone in their late 20s or early 30s with a job and a flat and all that stuff not talk to anyone from when they leave work on Friday night to when they go back to work on Monday morning? But then, when I thought about it, there were loads of ways actually that that could be possible."

From there, the utterly original character of Eleanor began to emerge. She's 29 when we first meet her, living alone in a small flat in Glasgow and working in the accounts department of a graphic design company. Outside of work, however, she lives an entirely solitary life. Her evenings and weekends are meticulously timetabled - measured out in episodes of The Archers and bottles of vodka. As a child, Eleanor was a clever, articulate girl who survived an horrific trauma in her early years and then grew up entirely without family. Now, as an adult, she's perfected a kind of atomised self-sufficiency. She's slipped through the seams of the social fabric and, bar strictly functional interactions with colleagues and shop workers, finds herself in a state of almost perfect isolation.

But that's about to change. Most of her colleagues treat her like a freak, until the guileless and well-meaning Raymond from the IT helpdesk makes a low-key overture of friendship. This starts a cascade of small kindnesses which threaten to break down Eleanor's carefully constructed carapace.

There is nothing of Gail in Eleanor. "I've never really met anyone like Eleanor," she says. "She's not based on anyone I know or anything."

It's unusual to read a novel in which the main driver of the plot is small acts of kindness, and I wonder does this idea reflect Honeyman's own faith in people's better nature? "Not to sound too Pollyanna-ish, but I think most people are decent, caring human beings," she says. "You don't necessarily see that reflected in fiction maybe, because possibly it's perceived as not having much dramatic potential. If you break things down to goodies and baddies, the baddies are always a bit more alluring in fiction, and that's true from a narrative point of view. But I wanted to write a novel about real life, and real life is a bit more nuanced than that."

Finding a subject that is little explored in fiction was very much part of her plan.

"I think, that's what I wanted to show with the relationship between Eleanor and Raymond as well. That is a platonic friendship in the course of the book, though who knows what will happen," she says. "But again, it's something that I think isn't portrayed very often in fiction. Platonic relationships between men and women are quite common I think, but you don't often read about them."

She wrote the novel on weekends, on her lunch break from work, and would set her alarm really early in the morning "to get a bit done before work". When she had the first three chapters of the book written, she entered them into the Lucy Cavendish Competition run by Cambridge University. She didn't win, but her work was seen by a top literary agent who took her on.

"I think you get to a point when you think 'I can't give up now because I've got to 30,000 words or something, just keep going to the end'. However much you doubt whether it's any good or you think, 'why am I doing this?' You get beyond the point of no return... I just wanted to prove to myself I could write a novel."

She was in a writing group too, "which was massively helpful", she says. "It's helpful to get feedback on your work and I think you learn a lot from reading other people's work and giving them feedback. And just the common goal of it. We'd have a glass of wine afterwards and a bit of a chat."

She looks pained when I suggest the others must be a bit jealous now. "No! Oh no," she says. "They've been so lovely about it."

With her strikingly original voice - unfailingly practical, never self-pitying, and her sense of remove from day-to-day interactions of the Glasgow characters who surround her, Eleanor is an unintentionally comic character.

And in the way that the arrival of a few simple decent folk into her life changed it forever, Eleanor too has transformed things for her creator. The book has been translated into 27 languages and currently sits atop the UK's bestseller charts. Reese Witherspoon, producer of Gone Girl, Wild and Big Little Lies has snapped up the option rights to the film - and reports have suggested she plans to take on the role of Eleanor Oliphant herself.

Honeyman's approach to all of these breathtaking successes has been measured. She hasn't splashed out on any big purchases or joined the glitterati. "I don't come to London very often," she says. She still lives in the same house she did when she worked as a university administrator. "The most material change is that my job is now writing. And that's a dream come true. That I earn my living doing something that I did on my lunch break just for the sheer pleasure of it. That's definitely the most material change. And who could ask for anything more than that?"

The rest of her time, she fills with reading. "That has never diminished, I'm such a passionate reader and that's a huge part of my life," she says. "I quite like cooking as well, I'm a bit of a foodie. I find it quite helpful, if there's a thought that's niggling away, it's quite a mindless thing in some ways, cooking. The chopping - it gives you head space to think of other things. I quite like baking as well, or bread-making because it's quite a meditative thing. You are using your mind, but you are keeping it free to mull over other things."

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by HarperCollins. As part of the Mountains To Sea literary festival, Gail Honeyman will be in conversation with Eithne Shortall at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, at 11am on Saturday, March 24. Paviliontheatre.ie

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