Gail Honeyman arrives in London trailing a wheelie-case, having travelled from Glasgow on a plane that was supposed to leave at 7am, but was delayed by the freezing weather. As we take the escalator up to liberate her of the case for a photocall, we muse on the peculiarity of a –7C ground frost stranding a plane which regularly flies at air temperatures of –40C.
In ways that only those who have found themselves sucked into her award-winning debut novel will truly understand, this is an Eleanor Oliphant moment: it enfolds a stressful experience, stoically borne, in the beady intelligence of a woman who is rarely seen in public without a trolley-bag. The comparison has less to do with Honeyman herself than with the capacity of her writing to make everything seem a little bit strange, slightly dislocated from its face value.
The protagonist of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is in some ways a classic unreliable narrator, reminiscent of Zoë Heller’s spinster schoolteacher from Notes on a Scandal or any number of girls on a train. But whereas most such narrators exert a sinister control on the perspective and plot of the novels in which they appear, Eleanor is immediately revealed as an eccentric, pratfalling her way through the early chapters, apparently oblivious to the way her foibles appear to those around her, even as she reports the bitchy conversations she has overheard.
She shores herself up with ritual (The Archers on weekday evenings, two bottles of vodka at the weekend) and barricades herself behind a comic formality of thought and speech, while harbouring an adolescent crush on a singer known only to her through his Twitter feed.
The character grew, Honeyman explains, out of a newspaper article she read years earlier about the problem of loneliness. “At the time it was something that wasn’t discussed much and when it was, it was usually in the context of older people who are widowed or whose families have moved away.”
She was particularly struck by an interview with a woman in her 20s who confessed that after leaving work on a Friday night she often wouldn’t talk to anyone until she returned on Monday morning. “I started to think how could that be the case, and I realised there were lots of ways people could end up leading that sort of life through no fault of their own.”
As Eleanor herself puts it, in a rare moment of self-pity: “These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted.”
If Eleanor’s story is about the long-term cost of bad things happening, Honeyman’s is in part about the short-term cost – in terms of public interest in her private life – of good things happening.
She admits to having grown up in a village in central Scotland, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but, when pressed about her background or her personal life, clams up. It simply hasn’t occurred to her that such questions might be relevant. It takes a mid-interview phone call to her parents to reassure her that it’s OK to mention what they did for a living: her mother was a civil servant and her father worked in a science lab, both are now retired. There was no history of writing in the family, and she and her younger brother went to the local state school. “There’s really no mystery. It’s all very ordinary.”
Honeyman went on to read French language and literature at Glasgow University and then set off for a postgraduate degree at Oxford with the intention of becoming an academic, but decided in her 20s that the scholarly life was not for her.
Returning to Scotland, she settled down to backroom jobs, first as a civil servant specialising in economic development and then as an administrator at the university where she had once studied. She had shown an aptitude for writing at school and had always had a pipe dream of becoming a writer, but it wasn’t until her 40th birthday that she made the decision that it was now or never. “It was such a cliched thing to do – either that or go off and do a bungee jump,” she says.
She joined a writing group and started producing short stories, “because though in some ways short fiction is harder, it seemed more manageable”. When Eleanor’s voice began to speak to her, she captured it in three chapters, which she submitted to a competition for unpublished fiction by female writers run by Cambridge’s Lucy Cavendish College.
“I was incredibly lucky because three chapters was what they were looking for.” Though she didn’t win, one of the judges was a literary agent who liked it enough to sign her up.
Honeyman finished the novel in the evenings and in her lunch breaks and was so intent on “managing my expectations” that she was away on holiday in France when her agent decided it was ready to send out to publishers.
Her editor at HarperCollins, Martha Ashby, takes up the story: “I went into a side office and started reading it on my Kindle and it was one of those books that you could just immediately tell was really special,” she says. Her colleagues shared her enthusiasm – as did seven other publishers who joined a hastily convened auction, which soared to six figures in four rounds of bidding.
On the final day, Honeyman was confined to her hotel in Carcassonne while the competing editors called her up to make their cases and find out more about the unknown writer on whom they were about to bet the corporate silver. When results came through, late on Friday afternoon, Ashby, who had been fighting a heavy cold, was sitting in a station waiting for a train. “I remember screaming on the platform and then sitting down on the train and realising that I was really quite poorly. It was the biggest auction I’d ever done.”
For Honeyman it was the start of a period of editing and revising which she found she enjoyed as much as the writing itself. She handed in her notice at work and embarked on the life of a full-time author, a move which, she wryly remarks, returned her to the library life that she gave up in her 20s because she found it too isolating – “but I suppose what doesn’t look fun at 22 can be fun when you’re 42”.
By the time the novel arrived on the shelves it had already built up a head of steam, selling in 30 countries and being snapped up for a film by Reese Witherspoon within days of publication. “And what a joy it is,” wrote novelist Jenny Colgan in the Guardian. “The central character of Eleanor feels instantly and insistently real, as if she had been patiently waiting in the wings for her cue all along.”
Its word of mouth success spread throughout the autumn of 2017 – it was a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime – and with perfect timing, just before the paperback was due to be released this month, it was awarded the Costa first novel prize, putting it in contention for the book of the year, which is announced on 30 January.
Strangely, for a novel centred on an oddball whose life has been knocked off kilter by an unnamed childhood horror which she can only recall from her sense of its “before” and “after”, Eleanor Oliphant satisfied a yearning for the feelgood fiction that publishing insiders have dubbed “up-lit”. The US crime writer Attica Locke spoke for many when she wrote: “This book gave me immense joy during a year that I think we can all agree was a challenge to every American’s joy centre.”
The point, as Honeyman says, is that “although she’s had a fairly catastrophic start, Eleanor is the agent of her own life. I didn’t want her to be portrayed as a victim, and I didn’t want her to be self-pitying either.
“I tried to leave space in the narrative so that the reader can feel those feelings on her behalf.” It is a story of the transformational power of small acts of kindness, often involving food: complimentary truffles with a cup of coffee, a plate of biscuits to accompany a mug of tea.
For Honeyman it is also a love song to Glasgow, where she has lived since she turned her back on her academic ambitions. “I wanted to set it there because it’s a place that I love and it’s a very kind city, though I don’t think it’s always portrayed like that,” she says.
Eleanor’s unravelling – and subsequent redemption – begins when an old man collapses in the street. “It’s definitely my experience that, if that were to happen in Glasgow, 10 people would rush forward. I think that it has an undeserved reputation as a hard city and it’s nice to show the more positive side.”
Eleanor’s partner in kindness is computer nerd Raymond, who overcomes her prejudice about unshaven “illiterates” who communicate in textspeak with outings to see his aged mother and a weekly lunch date in the local cafe. He hardly has the makings of a romantic hero – but then this is not quite a love story. It’s an exploration of platonic friendship, says Honeyman. “I think there are a lot of Raymonds in the world: he’s the sort of ordinary, kind, decent man who doesn’t often get featured in fiction.”
She’s aware that Eleanor is going to be a hard act to follow, but she is already hard at work on her next novel, about which she reveals little except that it will be set in a different period and location. “I’ll see what happens, I guess,” she says, as she wheels her case off to the next appointment. She might not yet feel comfortable with the public demands of her sudden celebrity, but she’s clear about one thing: “It’s a dream come true for this to be my job.”
Source: The Guardian