It’s 1988. Twelve-year-old Harper Richardson’s parents are divorced and it seems as though she’s the one doing the fixing.
Us kids left behind in the wreckage of a broken home cope by creating two cut-out versions of ourselves: one for each parent. At Mum’s, I watch four hours of telly a day, read trashy novels and speak my mind. At Dad’s, I watch my Ps and Qs, digest facts and toe the line.
At her dad’s house, which used to be the family home, Harper’s former friends have frozen her out. Now her only friend there is Mrs Curtis who’s ‘dead bitchy’. No one else speaks to Mrs Curtis after her son, Gregory, left for London, apparently got divorced and never visits.
Part of the time at her dad’s is spent at Lone Ranger events. It’s a group designed to support single-parent families.
…the kids are chucked together to ‘have fun’ while the adults get bitter about their exes. Once they’ve exhausted each other with tales of being back on the shelf, with raw deals and colossal mortgages, the kids are given the job of taking black bin liners around to collect the stale crisps and plastic cups which have been crushed in frustration by grown-ups and children alike.
There Harper’s dad finds a new girlfriend and Harper meets a boy who’ll change her view of the world in the way that relationships can in your early teens.
Harper also has her mum’s dates to deal with until Kit arrives and it seems as though everything might just work out.
The town Harper lives in with her mum is called Blackbrake, ‘famous for lager, lifts and loonies’. When she’s not sussing out potential stepdads, Harper and her friend, Cassie, trespass on the grounds of the private mental hospital, sneaking in to use the gym. Otherwise she’s setting up her own shop: Harper’s Bazaar or spending the holidays in the advertising agency where her mum works.
It’s not long, however, before questions begin to arise about Harper’s parents: why did they lie about where they met? Why’s there a period of time when Harper can’t recall her mum being around? And those around them: Why’s Kit in town kissing another woman? Why doesn’t Mrs Curtis’ son ever visit?
What begins as a humorous, pitch-perfect, coming-of-age story, turns into something with much darker undertones. Forster covers themes of divorce, being a single parent, mental health, death and sexuality. What she does well here is maintain the lightness of touch seen throughout the novel whilst giving these themes the gravity they need. The reader follows Harper in discovering that life is much more complex than it sometimes appears.
What a Way to Go is an entertaining look at some of life’s challenges with some brilliant 80s references scattered within. It’s perfect for fans of Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm.
I’m delighted to welcome Julia Forster to the blog to answer some questions about the novel.
You tackle some big issues in the book – mental health, death, divorce; did the story begin with the themes or did it come out of an idea for a character?
I knew three things when I began writing this novel: that it would be set in the late eighties, that it was the story about a twelve year-old girl whose parents had divorced and that it would be divided into two parts. Aside from that, I had no idea what would happen, how it would end nor how I would get there. I felt like a tourist parachuted into a foreign city for which I had no map and where I didn’t speak the language. The positive side of this was that I didn’t bring my own baggage into the narrative, and that I was light on my feet.
Harper was my diminutive tour guide, waggling her umbrella above her head, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to make sure I was keeping up with her. By the time I’d finished writing What a Way to Go, I felt entirely fluent in her language; when I wrote ‘The End’ I trusted that we’d found our final destination.
Some of the other characters’ complexities only revealed themselves to me as I was in the final throes of writing the book, so I then went back to amplify some of the earlier symbolism. I wanted little objects that appeared in the story to take on an extra significance, a bit like retrofitting a pistol on a mantelpiece after the gunshot has gone off.
Despite the big issues, the novel’s also very funny. Did you always intend the humour to be there and how do you balance the funny and the dark?
Thank you. No, I didn’t intend the humour to be there at all. It wasn’t a self-conscious act to make it funny, that was just how it came out. The humour took me by surprise; as my good friends and family will attest, I forget punch lines when I tell jokes. Not only that, I take things far too literally. I am epically gullible.
The balance between funny and dark, light and shade took a bit of work. In the first draft I would move too swiftly from tragic moments into comedy. When my agent (Sophie Lambert at Conville and Walsh) pointed this out, I then took a red pen to quite a few of those scenes.
In truth, I think that I found the emotional scenes difficult to write. Finding the funny side was a way of side-stepping the pain, like wrapping my characters in the cotton wool of humour. I learnt to resist this tendency, and to spotlight the emotion for just long enough without, I hope, it becoming mawkish.
As an 80s child, I loved all the references to the food and culture of the time. What sort of research did you do into the period?
Here are just a few of the things I had in my arsenal:
- Now That’s What I Call Music! 11 CD on repeat. I eventually made my own Spotify soundtrack for the album, which you can listen to here
- Twenty pounds’ worth of penny sweets
- A calendar for 1988 with each weekend marked up ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’, depending on where Harper was staying (she spends alternate weekends with her parents)
- An almanac of Smash Hits magazine
- Old photographs from the mid to late eighties, such as this one of me as a gap-toothed Brownie, aged eight, in 1986
- Letters that I sent to my pen friend – remember pen friends? Mine lived, rather un-exotically, two miles away, on the other side of Northampton. We corresponded monthly over a ten-year period
- A list of the number one hits from 1988
- The brilliant No Such Things as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980 by Andy McSmith (Constable) was on my desk throughout
- Youtubing too many vintage Kylie videos than I care to admit, as well as watching footage of musicians performing live, such as Tanita Tikaram, Queen and also key moments from Live Aid. Adverts from that era are also weirdly evocative, perhaps because I routinely spent five hours a day watching television as a child! The third one in this montage, advertising British Telecom’s work to improve telephone boxes in rural communities, is perhaps the most poignant in today’s era of mobile communications…
The voice of Harper is very convincing. Was it a challenge to write from a first-person twelve (and a half!) year-old’s point-of-view?
I worried that I would have lost my connection with that childish point of view as, when I began the book, I had two pre-school children in tow. My concern was that I would struggle to remember how the world looked through a twelve year-old’s perspective because my own children’s point of view might cloud it, or somehow super-impose my ability to see the world through a fictional child’s viewpoint.
I had written another full-length work, an autobiography about my childhood, when I was 24; I think this helped in that I had captured some of my own experiences from a younger perspective in that piece of work. I didn’t consult the autobiography at all while I was writing What a Way to Go, but I felt I had almost bottled that emotion in my mid-twenties. On some level, then, the perspective was still available for me to dip back into, a decade later when I came to write the novel.
There is a lovely quote by Mary Karr on ‘The Art of Memoir’ in the Paris Review series in which I think she gets what it’s like to be a kid spot on. I had this quote metaphorically pinned above my desk:
“Childhood was terrifying for me. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down…”
It was also a bonus for me that Harper seemed to have these diametrically opposed aspects to her personality: while she is mature for her age, she can also be quite naïve and while she is opinionated, she can also be self-delusional at times. Coupled with that she doesn’t take herself too seriously – that lifted a great load off my shoulders as an author. I felt like, with Harper, anything could happen.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Very difficult question, but to name just a few:
Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca inspired me to write when I was young.
Amy Poehler – I loved Yes Please, despite not knowing who half the people she talks about are, having never watched an episode Saturday Night Live. It’s a testament to the writing that this didn’t matter one jot.
Siri Hustvedt – when I read non-fiction, it is often about psychology, and here is a novelist who combines great storytelling with characters who show real psychological depth.
Miriam Toews – I have followed her work ever since I read a manuscript of A Complicated Kindness as part of a job interview in a literary agency.
Diana Athill – I’ve read all her work except for her latest, Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter which is at the top of my TBR pile.
Thanks to Julia Forster for a great interview and Atlantic Books for the review copy.