“It was interesting to me to see where socially acceptable romantic yearning tips over into criminal behaviour.” 2016 shortlistee CATHY LAYNE on her powerful Tokyo beach novel and the obsessive side of unrequited love...
Congratulations on reaching our final four from over a thousand entries with YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL. What’s the reaction been like from friends, family, colleagues?
They are all as thrilled as me! My biggest cheerleader is my old friend Susan d’Arcy who is a travel writer for The Sunday Times. We grew up around the corner from each other in identical red brick terraced houses in working class Irish Catholic families, and went to the same snooty convent grammar school where some of our classmates were so rich they had their own ponies. Now we are both leading unexpectedly exotic lives on opposite sides of the world but our shared background is a strong bond. She’s one of the few people I trust to read my writing and she gives great editing advice.
How was the waiting?
To be honest, I’d been entering competitions for so long, that I almost forgot about this one until just before the long list was announced. I couldn’t believe it when I made the short list. I tried not to stress too much about actually winning. I knew that finishing in the top four, whether I won or not, would probably go a long way to help me in my quest to find an agent and a publisher.
You wrote YB at your weekend cottage in a seaside village outside Tokyo. How long did it take to write?
About a year for the first draft. I then tinkered with it for a couple of years until it reached its present form. During that time there were quite long spells where I left it alone and worked on revisions to my other two novels or on short stories.
You’re currently living in Bangkok, teaching English to small children…
I left the UK in 1996. I had been working as a secondary school teacher in London, and was offered a year as an exchange teacher in Tokyo. To cut a long story short, I fell in love with Tokyo, and never went back! I carried on teaching for a few years then got a job as an editor with a publisher that made Japan-related books for the English-language market. In February 2011 the publisher announced they were closing down. Two weeks later came the earthquake and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Like many scared foreigners, I left Japan. I got a job in Borneo working on an education development project in rural primary schools for a couple of years. When that project finished, I went back to editing at another Japan specialist publisher in Singapore. Then my partner got transferred to Bangkok, where I managed to get a teaching job. My dream future would be one in which I have an agent, a publisher, and am able to devote most of my time to writing fiction!
YB is character-driven, with a distinctive cast and unforgettable anti-hero lead who is socially awkward and very overweight. Describe John Lennon Tanaka’s character and how he came to life…
John didn’t come to me fully formed as a character. He evolved organically as I started thinking about how to move forward with that first page of the story that had been sitting on my desktop for ages. Who was this person secretly watching Lisa on the train? If he was another foreigner, she’d notice him, so he had to be Japanese. But I didn’t feel confident about writing from the point of view of a Japanese male protagonist, so I made him a Japanese man who’d been brought up in England. I did some research into the psychology of stalkers and decided to make him an “intimacy seeker,” someone who is lonely and isolated and copes with this through fantasies and delusions of love. Lonely and isolated then were the two key words I had in my head as I developed his backstory: absent father, breakdown of his relationship with his mother, overweight and unattractive, the only Asian child growing up in an all-white neighbourhood.
John is in Tokyo to search for the father who walked out before he was born, about whom his mother refuses to talk. How much do you think his parents are to blame for John’s actions in the book?
I’m teaching three and four year olds at the moment and it’s a real joy—they are so open, trusting, and loving. I don’t believe that people are born “bad.” Children’s lives are shaped by the way they are treated by the adults around them. I portray John as a normal, loving, innocent little boy who is gradually damaged by his mother’s domineering behaviour and her inability to cope with the terrible secret she carries about John’s father. And of course she is like this because she was damaged by her own father. So John’s mother bears a lot of the blame for his outlook and his feelings about the world. I would like to think though that however emotionally damaged we are by our parents, we still have some control over our actions.
YB is also the story of Lisa, an English girl who is in Tokyo to pursue a man with whom she had a brief holiday romance. The pain and perils of unrequited love is a recurrent motif in both the main and sub plots. We’ve all been there. What were you wanting to say about one-sided love?
John is a stalker who displays clinically recognised symptoms of stalking behaviour. But Lisa is just as deluded as a stalker in her relationship with Dan: monitoring his movements, investing his words and actions with false meaning, believing he loves her when he obviously doesn’t. Yet to me, Lisa is very relatable. I’ve behaved like her, and I don’t think her behaviour is uncommon, especially when we are young and searching for the happy-ever-after romantic ideal that society forces on us. It was interesting to me to see where socially acceptable romantic yearning tips over into criminal behaviour.
While working as an editor in Tokyo, you met your agent, the late William Miller, who mentored you through two early novels. What do you think William would have made of YB and your success?
I met William when I contacted his agency to see if they could find a publisher for some Japanese short stories I had translated. They couldn’t but William liked my writing. He set me a challenge: he asked me to write two sides of A4 on the subject of cherry blossom. No cliches. This ended up being my first short story, which I loved writing, and which he enjoyed reading. So he set me a second challenge: he asked me to write a novel. So I went away and wrote two chapters of a novel. They were terrible, and William was brutally honest with his criticism. I went away again, rewrote the first two chapters in the light of his criticism, and kept going until I had a whole book, which took about a year. William liked the book enough to submit to several publishers in the UK, although we didn’t find a home for it. So in answer to your question, I think he would be very happy that I never gave up and managed to improve my writing enough to do so well in this competition. Because he saw the writer in me before I did. As for YB itself, I think he would have appreciated my portrayal of Japan, an adopted home for both of us for many years.
Your second novel was longlisted by Mslexia in 2015 and garnered some interest from UK publishing houses but ultimately did not find a home. How did that experience influence the writing of YB?
I had written the first page of YB long before I finished the second novel. The opening scene where the girl is secretly being watched in a crowded train carriage just popped into my head one day and I had to write it down. Once the second novel was finished and while William was sending it out to publishers, I started working on the first draft of YB. Over the last few years I’ve had periods of intensely focusing on revising and submitting one novel or another, whilst also working on new stuff. It hasn’t really been a linear process. YB had already been written by the time the second novel made the Mslexia longlist.
A Friday evening commute on a packed train from the city to the end of the line sowed the seeds for YB. A recent Transport for London campaign highlighting how common harassment is on the Tube and trains. Was it a similar situation in Tokyo?
Tokyo generally is a very safe place but the groping of women on crowded trains is an acknowledged problem. Because of this, on certain notorious train lines there are “women only” carriages during rush hour. Luckily, in the fifteen years I lived in Tokyo I never personally experienced any groping! The issue for me was leaving the noisy, crowded city and a couple of hours later finding myself in a dark, silent village, alone. I always used to wonder what if someone had followed me off the train and onto the bus and down the lane and was behind me in the garden as I fished around in my bag for the front door key and then tried to find the keyhole . . . So the starting point for the book—the girl being followed by a deluded stalker—sprang from a personal fear rather than any kind of reflection on the dangers of living in Japan.
What are your favourite books?
Literary fiction about ordinary human beings and their everyday lives. All time favourites are John Updike’s Rabbit series and Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series. I love Martin Amis, especially The Information. I love Solzhenitsyn, especially Cancer Ward. I love The Corrections and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Recent favourites include A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; The Forrests by Emily Perkins; Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. I also love a good rock or pop memoir, for example, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band.
How did you plot YB?
I didn’t! I just started writing and let the plot unfold on the page. I had no idea at the start where it would lead. That’s how I write everything.
What are you writing now / next?
I’ve gone back to the second novel for more revisions. I’ve also got the next novel on the go; a saga following the lives of a group of friends that begins in a Brixton kitchen in the 1990s and leads to a dramatic denouement at the Fuji Rock Festival twenty years later (yes, I know how this one will end but still not sure how I’m going to get there!).
Do you have a critique group?
No. I’m very shy about showing my writing to people other than those who might be able to get me published. I’ve been working in isolation without any kind of feedback for so long now that it was a real shock when the first three chapters of the novel were published on the Bath Novel Award website. Oh my God, people are going to read it was my first terrified thought. I’d forgotten that the main point of writing fiction is so that readers can engage with it!
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering their novel for a future award?
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get anywhere the first few times. Keep refining, polishing, and entering, and one day you’ll make a long list, and then a short list. It happened to me, so it can happen to anyone.
Read Shortlistee News: Cathy Layne signs with Zoe Ross at United Agents here
Read the opening chapters of You’re Beautiful by Cathy Layne here
Read more about Cathy and the inspiration / setting for You’re Beautiful by Cathy Layne here
Follow Cathy on Twitter @TheCathyLayne
INTERVIEW by CAROLINE AMBROSE