Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ has been making waves and for good reason. In our insightful Q&A, the author opens up about her debut novel as well as her inspirations. For your chance to get your hands on British Book Awards 2018 Book of the Year winner, enter our giveaway here!
About the book
Your readers have particularly responded to the way in which you identify the importance of simple, small acts of kindness in this book. Are there books which conjure up the same response for you as a reader? What has been the most striking or memorable response you’ve had to the book from a reader?
I guess the act of reading fiction is, in no small part, an exercise in empathy, and I couldn’t begin to list all the novels that have demonstrated that for me here – there are so many! In terms of my own novel, I was very touched when readers said that they’d like to be Eleanor’s friend. She’s not the most immediately endearing or charming character, and it was wonderful to find out that the character had elicited this incredibly generous response.
There’s a strength; a kind of core of steel, to Eleanor. It’s something that helps to ensure that whilst Eleanor is often very funny she is never a character who a reader laughs at. Was it important to you for a reader to be inside Eleanor’s experience of the world, to emphasise that we all see the world differently?
Absolutely – I didn’t want Eleanor to be a figure of ridicule, and I tried very hard to make sure that any humour was never at the character’s expense. That’s also partly why I decided to write the book in the first person. Having access to a character’s inner thoughts and feelings hopefully means that we come to understand and empathise with Eleanor – when her behaviour seems quite challenging or strange, as it sometimes does to other characters in the novel, we know that this is not her intention.
Do you think contemporary obsessions with self-promotion, particularly on social media, tempt us to place too much value on the need for our lives to be extraordinary to have meaning? Was it important to you to write a book that explores and recognises that the experiences that make everyday lives meaningful and valuable are made up of a very different, much more ordinary kind of wonder?
That’s another interesting question! In the novel, I just tried to show, for these characters, how transformative small, everyday acts of kindness can be, and to highlight the importance of friendship.
Would we all be better off if people were actually more direct, like Eleanor?
That’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Eleanor’s directness causes her some problems, socially – the first person narrative means we as readers know that there’s no deliberate intention on her part to offend, but it does make life a bit tricky sometimes!
Eleanor is clearly a character who readers have fallen in love with, do you think you’ll ever return to her story?
It’s a huge compliment if people say that they are interested in reading more about her! I’m happy to say goodbye to Eleanor and Raymond where we do, on the cusp of a much more positive future, and leave it to readers to imagine what might happen next, I think.
About the author
What was it about turning 40 that prompted you to write your first novel?
I wrote fiction and poetry when I was at school, but stopped when I went to University. Years, decades, passed; I kept dreaming about writing a novel, thinking one day…My 40th birthday was a wake-up call – a bit of a cliched one – when I finally realised that there would never be the perfect time to write, and that I should stop daydreaming and make a start, if only to prove to myself whether I could do it.
Do you recall the day you began? Where did you start? (Also, where did you get the idea and what inspired you to write it?)
I can’t recall the exact day that I began, but, over the course of two and a bit years, I wrote a novel, starting at the beginning and working chronologically to the end. The idea came from a newspaper article about loneliness. Unusually, it included an interview with a young professional in her twenties. She lived in a city, and said that she’d often leave the office on Friday night and not speak to another human being until she returned on Monday morning. Often, when loneliness is discussed in the media, it’s in the context of older people, and I was struck by hearing a younger person’s experience. When I started to think about it, I realised that there were many routes which could lead a young woman to live that sort of life, not by choice and through no fault of her own. I was also reminded of how difficult it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections. From there, the story and the character of Eleanor Oliphant slowly began to emerge.
What is your relationship with Eleanor herself? To what extent did you put yourself into her, or empathise with her? And in what ways did your relationship with her change while writing?
Part of the challenge and the pleasure of writing is trying to interpret the world through a completely different set of eyes to your own, imagining what your characters see and feel. I made myself laugh writing some of the scenes in the book – it was so much fun to place the character into everyday situations and think ‘what would Eleanor do?’ As the plot and characterisation progressed, I grew extremely fond of her. I cried when I was writing the final chapter.
What were your vices while writing? And how disciplined were you?
When I sit down to write, I tend to get pretty caught up in it and don’t really notice or think about anything else. A strong cup of coffee beforehand never does any harm, though. Working on my first novel, discipline didn’t really come into it – I was writing without a publishing contract, without even knowing whether I’d be able to finish it and, if I did, whether I’d ever dare to show it to anyone. I was writing purely for myself, no one was making me do it.
To what extent was the tremendous success of this novel a surprise? And to what extent has this success, and your large readership, put pressure on, or shaped, the writing of your next novel, which I understand you are currently working on?
The success of the novel was, and remains, completely astonishing to me, and it still doesn’t feel quite real. I had no expectations for it; in fact, I was very rigorously managing my expectations throughout the whole process towards publication and beyond, so the response it has received has been the most wonderful surprise. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Now that I’m working on my next book, I’m just trying to keep my head down and focus on the writing. The writing is the most important thing.
How do you feel about the forthcoming film of the book? In what ways do you plan to be involved? How do you feel about the casting with Reese Witherspoon as lead? (Did you have her in mind while writing?)
It feels like I know so many details about my characters – what brand of shampoo they use, how many fillings they have, their earliest childhood memory – but if I try to picture them, I don’t see a fully formed face, if that makes sense. Because of this, when the film rights were optioned, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas in mind of who might be cast. I’m in awe of the way actors can inhabit characters and bring them to life. It’s still very early days in the process, but I’m excited to see what happens next.
What was your relationship with writing when you were growing up?
Reading was more important to me than writing when I was growing up – I was (and still am) an obsessive reader, and I always had my nose in a book.
Whether it be fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, contemporary novels or classics, which six books mean most to you and why?
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Even after countless re-readings, I’m still astonished at the complexity of this novel, the timelessness of the characters and ideas. It is hard to believe this was written almost two centuries ago, because it still resonates so strongly and it feels completely fresh.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
This book is, above all, charming, and it achieves a difficult thing, which is to capture the essence of what it feels like to be on the cusp of adulthood, the agonies and ecstasies of first love, without ever being sentimental or patronising. The writing is wonderful – it has a beguiling lightness, but there is real depth of emotion too.
Right Ho, Jeeves! PG Wodehouse
Good comic writing is incredibly difficult to carry off. I never tire of the adventures of Bertie and Jeeves, and this one in particular still makes me laugh every time I re-read it – Augustus Fink-Nottle, in particular, is a joy, right from when he first makes his entrance dressed as Mephistopheles in a very ill-advised pair of red tights.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum Kate Atkinson
I could have chosen any of Kate Atkinson’s novels – I love them all. She is a wonderful writer, someone who can effortlessly combine ideas with emotions, and the tone is always perfect – never sentimental, always wise and generous. I first read this quite soon after it was published, in one gulp. It was during a very long train journey, and I didn’t look up for five hours.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
All of his novels are fantastic, and this one perfectly encapsulates what he does so well. As a reader, you know from that start that you are in for a treat; he builds worlds, sometimes strange, sometimes familiar, that are completely convincing and utterly entrancing (in this case, 18th century Japan) into which he places living, breathing characters who grab you and won’t let you go.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
His short stories are incredible. How does he manage – with such powerful simplicity, so quietly, so precisely – to write about ordinary, sometimes unhappy lives and plain, everyday things in a way that honours them and makes them magnificent? Perfection.