Giveaway now closed.
It’s paperback publication day for another of my books of 2015 today, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell. I’m delighted to have Antonia on the blog discussing The Ship and her first year as a published writer. I’ve reposted my original review below and W&N have kindly given me a copy for one of you to win. Details of how to enter are at the bottom of the post. But first, it’s over to Antonia.
A number of reviewers have described Lalla as ‘unlikeable’. I’m fascinated by this as I think the idea that characters are unlikeable is inextricably tied to society’s idea of how females should act. Do you think Lalla’s unlikeable?
No, I don’t.
There’s a longer answer, of course which goes something like this: Right up until the day she turns sixteen, Lalla is sheltered to an incredible extent. Her parents make sure that she has food; they try and educate her; most significantly for Lalla, though, they don’t allow her any contact with other people. Other wealthy families have left London; the Pauls have elected to stay and follow another path, and Lalla’s crippling loneliness is part of the price. She’s given no choice. There are other people in London. Lalla’s mother, Anna, often visits the community that’s established itself in the British Museum. Her father, Michael, is often away, doing the deals by which he stocks the ship. He’s worked for the military government. And yet neither of them ever folds Lalla into these interactions. They won’t even take her to the holding centre, where the people of the ship are gathered prior to their departure.
Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to arrange playdates in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. I am saying that Lalla’s never given the chance to form relationships of her own. Every experience she has is moderated by her parents. And her parents go to great lengths to make sure that, once on board the ship, Lalla will be surrounded by people whose world view agrees with theirs.
So when Lalla begins to ask questions, there is no one to help her. Every single person on the ship – however kind they are – has a vested interest in keeping Lalla from growing up. Her developing awareness is constantly held in check. There is only one path laid out for her, and not only must she follow it, but she has to be grateful, too. Because the whole thing was done for her.
Historically, men and women have both been subject to a level of societal expectation. I’d argue that, for men, those expectations have included far more opportunity. To men, the education, the adventure, the pioneering. To women, the domestic and the drudgery. Princes fight dragons; princesses are bestowed as a reward. And gratitude for thrown crumbs is part of the women’s package.
To me, Lalla is heroic for questioning, then standing against, the consequences of a choice she was given no part in making. She has to find the courage to reject a gift that was been procured for her at great trouble and expense. And she has to trust her own instinct when not one single person around her supports or encourages her to do so. To those who find it hard to like her, I’d say only this: I’m doing this for you is the lie abusers have told their victims throughout history.
Who are your favourite female protagonists and did any of them inspire the creation of Lalla?
There are so many. Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, forging her own path at huge personal cost. Lucy Snowe from Villette, learning that love lies not in being absorbed by another, but in working alongside them. The heroines of Kate Chopin and Sarah Grand, showing the price of standing against a society that dictates who and what you must be. Emily, the young girl in Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, rebelling and needing approval all at the same time. And Angela Carter’s women – particularly the twins in Wise Children and the fairytale characters of The Bloody Chamber – laughing and having sex and bleeding and suffering and being shamelessly fabulous. Sometimes all at the same time. They’re all there in Lalla. If it’s anything at all, The Ship is the story of Lalla coming to realise this for herself.
There’s been a change to the cover for the paperback, particularly in terms of the colour scheme. Can you tell us about the process of deciding on a cover?
The hardback cover went through three or four drafts, each very different. The first draft showed the prow of the ship with a tiny figure on the stern, all in greys and yellows. One draft had a series of stylised waves in front of a London skyline; another a sunset. The publisher proposes the images; they then go to agent and author, and a dialogue ensues. The final cover brought together the best features of all the drafts – the figure of Lalla looking back at London brought a real human interest to an already powerful image, particularly once we started taking chunks out of the London landmarks. The paperback design brings out the more lyrical aspects of the novel; I particularly love the flock of birds escaping the constraints of the image of St Paul’s cathedral.
I love both the covers. The hardback is brighter and bolder; the paperback more impressionistic and reflective.
You’re an avid reader and I know you read many books listed for prizes. What impact do you think this has on your writing?
Yes – I’m really looking forward to shadowing the Baileys prize with you and the others again this year. I know there’s at least one book we’re going to have an extremely robust discussion about. The reason I read so many prize listed books is that I don’t feel I can argue strongly for the books I love unless I’ve read all the others. The disadvantage to this, of course, is that it takes a great deal of reading time. Since I’ve been published, I find myself less and less aware of the books that aren’t being pushed by their publishers. I tend to read all the proofs I’m sent (I don’t get sent as many as you!) – and that, of course, means I’m automatically reading books that are getting support. I’m finding that the publishing industry tends to focus lots of attention on just a few new titles – so I end up reading those. Some are wonderful, some less so, but I need to give more time to seeking out the excellent writing that’s happening under the radar. There’s a lot of it.
Reading’s always gone hand in hand with writing for me. I find inspiration, challenge and pure entertainment in the books I read. If I don’t read, I can’t write – it really is as simple as that.
What’s been the best thing about your first year as a published author?
Without a doubt, the people I’ve met as a direct result of publication. People who take the time to organise events. The bloggers – like you – who’ve been kind enough to give The Ship their energy and attention, and with whom I’ve enjoyed brilliant book discussions. Other writers, both published and aspiring. The booksellers. And above all, the readers – anyone who finds themselves lost in a book, whether that’s The Ship or anything else. Readers are the reason that writers are able to do what they do, and I’m grateful to every single one of them.
I don’t have any answers, Lalla. Only questions. That’s how you learn.
We’re in the future but not so far into the future that the world’s unrecognisable:
I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear…Across the country, people lost their homes, the supermarkets emptied and the population stood, stunned and helpless, in the streets. My father watched the riots and the looting, the disasters and the forced evictions on every possible channel; he had the computer, his phone and his tablet and juggled them constantly, prowling about the flat and never seeming to sleep. The government resigned, and then came the tanks, and the troops with their terrible guns. My father vanished. Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and I watched the orange skies from the circle of my mother’s arms, weeping for him.
Our narrator is Lalage, who turns sixteen in the opening pages of the novel. Her father, Michael Paul, returns soon after his disappearance having sold his invention, the Dove, to the military government. The Dove registers people’s ‘screens’ (tablets) and they’re given an identity card with their screen address encoded, traceable by satellite. Important information is communicated via screen so those registered ‘got the information they needed to survive’.
The Dove makes Michael Paul a very rich man. As the world disintegrates, he uses that money to build a ship; a future for Lalla (as her father calls her), a safe haven.
On Lalage’s birthday, her father brings her a diamond he’s swapped for a tin of peaches. As St. James’ Park is bombed, eradicating those attempting to build an alternative society outside government control, Lalage’s parents argue about whether it’s time to move onto the ship. When Lalage’s mother hears a scream on the street, she moves to the window and is shot. The only place with the equipment and expertise to save her is the ship; they leave immediately.
The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. At her first meal, Lalage is served chicken and pineapple cake. She hasn’t tasted chicken in five years and has never seen pineapple before. Her father presents her with a screen and reveals it contains photographs of exhibits from every museum and art gallery. She begins to get to know the people on board and realises that they’ve been chosen by her father to be part of his dream. But Lalage isn’t clear as to exactly what that dream is; where is the ship going and what are her father’s intentions?
The doctor was right; I had never felt pain. I had never felt loss, or hunger, or genuine fear either. My parents protected me so well from what the world had become that I had no means to navigate it. They had surrounded me, made their plans to keep me safe, made sure that my only compass through life was my own experience of it. And it wasn’t enough. How could it have been? A lifetime ago, the sun had set in front of the infirmary door. Soon, it would rise on the other side of the ship. Already the sky was imperceptibly lighter, like a screen that has just been turned off. And as the light grew clearer and brighter, I realised that my parents had been wrong. That, far from being the pivot around which the world turned, I was smaller than a mote of dust, less significant than a gnat.
While Lalage’s mother has tried to show her the realities of the world she’s been living in, both she and Michael Paul have protected her from any real experience of them. It means she’s naïve and initially, unquestioning. It takes the first traumatic event on the ship to make her realise this, after which, she begins to listen to the stories of those around her and slowly begins to wonder what other people want from life and ultimately what she wants.
Although set in the future, The Ship reflects the time we’re living in. It raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It also prods at religion and asks why people value it despite its failure to deliver any concrete solutions. As Lalage questions her father’s motives, the reader questions what led to them, particularly as the stories of the characters on the ship are revealed.
The novel’s tightly plotted with a number of surprising twists. Occasionally, Lalage’s naivety means the reader realises the twist before Lalla does. When this happens, the dramatic irony serves to heighten the tension as you wonder what her reaction will be when the truth is revealed to her.
The Ship has the language and ideas of a literary novel, combined with the pacing and twists of a thriller. It’s an impressive debut.
As I mentioned W&N have kindly provided a copy for one of you to win. All you need to do is leave a comment below saying who your favourite female protagonist is. Entries are open until 5pm (UK) Sunday 12th March. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.
Huge thanks to Antonia Honeywell for the interview and to W&N for the giveaway.
I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:
1 – Janet Emson
2 – Cathy746Books
3 – Elle
4 – Sarah
5 – Laura
6 – Rebecca Foster
7 – CPhillipou123
8 – Sophie Glorita
9 – Sakura
10 – Amy
11 – Matthewclarkleech
12 – Claire Davies
And the random number generator says:
Congratulations to Sakura – check your email for what to do next – and thanks to everyone else who entered.