My agent forwarded an email prefaced it with the words ‘you might cry with happiness’ and she was right! Elisa Lodato on her book deal for 2016 longlisted An Unremarkable Body:
Congratulations Elisa, on your exciting book deal news…
It’s a strange thing really. I wanted it so much, visualised it, dreamt of it and then when it happened…it was a rush of emotion too great to process in the hours, days and even weeks afterwards. It’s a new – still unbelievable – fact that hasn’t quite settled into place yet. But it will. The reaction has been eye-opening, enlivening and emotional. My immediate family, who have been so supportive of my writing, were very happy for me. Friends have sent cards and bottles of champagne: the cards are on a shelf above my writing desk and the empty bottles have found their way into the recycling. I’ve also been very humbled by the comments on Facebook, the support of the Bath Novel Award and other authors I’ve met on Twitter.
An Unremarkable Body looks back at the relationship between a mother and daughter, using findings from an autopsy as a springboard after the former is found dead at the foot of the stairs. What sparked this idea?
I had the idea back in 2006 when my grandmother died. I was looking through her post-mortem report with my aunt and when we got to the abdomen section she turned to me and said, “that’s nice isn’t it? Granny had her porridge the morning she died.” And that was it, the spark of an idea: I suddenly thought about how you could piece a person together by their body and not necessarily tell the story of how they died, but of how they lived. The choices they made. The idea stayed with me for nearly ten years until after my second child was born. Life was busy, chaotic and – at times – unpredictable but putting pen to paper and delineating a world completely controlled by my own words felt exhilarating. And freeing.
Did the autopsy findings structure make plotting easier or more complicated?
A bit of both really. The tight structure placed a very secure framework around the narrative – episodes had to correspond to parts of the body which meant I always had a very clear destination: the novel had to culminate in a ‘Cause of Death’ chapter. But the challenge was marshalling all of the stories Laura uncovers and making them fit, in a meaningful order, within the itemised headings of a post-mortem report.
An Unremarkable Body won one of our judges’ golden passes straight to the longlist. [As well voting on extracts, each member of our judging panel can also award one golden pass to the extract which they most want to see on the longlist.] Did you keep track of the golden passes as they were announced?
Keeping track of the golden passes was how I got hooked on Twitter actually. It was unbelievably exciting: searching for my little story in the cryptic comments posted by judges. The Bath Novel Award was such a crucial step on the way to publication for me. Seeing An Unremarkable Body among the list of 39 long-listed novels was the first time I really understood that this thing I’d done, this story I’d written, had legs. But the long-term benefits of entering the competition are just as compelling: I’ve got to know wonderful people: writers, judges and organisers, all of whom offer support and encouragement to those who enter.
Were you ever inhibited by the thought of what your own mother would make of the finished book?
Not really. My mother is a very inspirational woman: she is a survivor of Irish institutional abuse and very outspoken about how art – in all its forms – aids healing. So I knew she’d be proud of me and see my achievement as an extension of her own strength and courage. Incidentally, my mother has a torn earlobe which was the inspiration for the opening scene in the playground, when Katharine is attacked. That was the first piece of sustained prose I’d written in years and it made me feel powerful: like I could uncoil any feeling and lay it out on the page in a string of words. So – on a personal level – it was the moment when I knew I had it in me to write a whole novel.
We recently did a Twitter survey of published authors which suggested what while half of book deals come very quickly, the other half come after waiting several months. How long did you have to wait long for your book deal news and how did you keep yourself distracted?
Becoming a writer has taught me the great value of patience. But that doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. I knew being on submission would be hard because querying agents had been quite fraught. So I had lots of baths in the evening and decided to re-read Anna Karenina because there’s something about Tolstoy’s writing that always calms me. But I was lucky to be in such good hands: I knew that Alice [Lutyens, literary agent at Curtis Brown] was passionate about me and my book. I was very fortunate: I was on submission for just over a week when Alice forwarded an email from Arzu Tahsin at Weidenfeld & Nicolson to me. She prefaced it with the words ‘you might cry with happiness’ and she was right!
Alice said that when she first read your manuscript, the hairs stood up on her arms and she knew she wanted to offer you representation. When and how did you sign with her?
I never thought I’d be lucky enough to receive multiple offers of representation but that was what happened. Back in March this year, I spent a day in London meeting four agents, all of whom were extremely positive about me and my book. I asked for some time to consider my options and then Alice, who had recently had a baby, invited me to her home a couple of days later. I was without childcare but she told me to bring my kids and as we sat in her garden, discussing my book, enjoying the sunshine while our children played together, I knew I’d found the right person to represent me.
She understood exactly what I was trying to do. She knew I wanted to tell a big story about a small life, she pinpointed exactly where she felt it could be ‘noisier’ and together we devised a plan to steer it towards a more fitting conclusion. An Unremarkable Body is a much better book because of her.
What editorial changes did Alice ask you to make and have you had any notes from Arzu yet?
She always wanted more of An Unremarkable Body. The early version she read was pretty short so my first job was to add more items from the post-mortem report and develop the narrative in line with them. She also pinpointed areas that needed more explanation. Alice has a very close eye for what’s plausible without ever losing sight of what’s working. Arzu is doing a forensic (forgive the pun!) read so I expect some edits to come my way soon.
Did you have the title from the start?
Yes. I knew the language of the post-mortem report (‘lungs unremarkable’ etc.) was the central premise of Laura’s quest to uncover the truth of her mother’s life. That what might be unremarkable in a medical sense can never be unremarkable to those who want to remember. And remake. As soon as I started writing, I knew there could be no other title.
How, when and where do you write?
I’m a very busy mother to two small children: my daughter is five and my son is three. I used to teach English at a local secondary school and ran a home-tutoring company, aimed at families who couldn’t afford private tutoring, for a while. But writing fiction is absolutely what I want to do and now I have my book deal, I plan to dedicate much more time to it. My husband is very supportive: he’s built shelves, bought me a desk, a computer, even pens and notebooks. He’s essentially cleared a space around me so I can write. I feel very lucky to have him.
I get up at 5.30 and write for an hour and a half before my children wake. My son goes to nursery a couple of mornings a week so I make good use of those hours and then, whenever he sleeps in the day. It’s hard to find the time but I know it won’t be like this forever – that when he goes to school I’ll be able to dedicate more time to writing.
I also write to particular music: I build up a playlist as I’m writing. There are 74 tracks that belong to the ‘An Unremarkable Body’ playlist and I listen to those same songs whenever I’m editing – I find it a very useful way to submerge myself back in the world of the characters.
I attended the Complete Creative Writing Course in London back in 2008, in the hope it would act as a catalyst and push me towards writing a novel. I completed the beginner and intermediate levels but in order to enrol on the advanced, you had to have a manuscript to work with. I had just got married and I was working for Google at the time. I managed to convince myself I didn’t have time to write, that I had a full-time job and a busy life. It was only after having my children that I understood what busy really meant. So the creative writing course helped uncover a latent ability but the motivation to write…well that had to come from within.
Favourite writers? And any particular mother-daughter novel recommendations?
I LOVE Iris Murdoch. I remember reading The Sea The Sea during my first year at Cambridge and experiencing such happy pleasure at the description of Charles Arrowby eating lunch in a ramshackle house by the sea. It still fills me with a kind of wistful longing I can’t quite articulate. Part One of Atonement by Ian McEwan is one of the most redolent and vivid pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. That hot afternoon at the Tallis country estate is seared on my memory and has become part of me.
Carol Shields’ Unless is a very moving account of a mother who tries to unpick her daughter’s inexplicable and – seemingly – unstoppable retreat from the world. I found that very moving.
The first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth deals with a young woman who loses her mother suddenly and how her own grief is sidelined as she worries about her father. But Lahiri weaves two realities: the daughter who neglects her own sorrow and the father who has discovered the pleasure of independence in the wake of his wife’s death. I think Lahiri is a masterful storyteller.
What’s next for you?
The next novel is currently about 15,000 words. I have vivid characters in my head and narrative strands that I want to lengthen and expand. But it’s still very early days. I am enjoying it much more the second time around though: I feel more confident and certainly more supported. I know Alice and Arzu believe in me and are waiting in the wings to help me edit and polish. That makes a big difference.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Elisa Lodato grew up in London and read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After graduating she went to live in Japan where she developed a love of cherry blossom and tempura. On returning to the UK she spent many happy years working for Google before training to become an English teacher. Helping pupils to search for meaning in a text inspired Elisa to take up the pen and write her own. Her first novel, An Unremarkable Body, was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2016 and will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 2017. Elisa is represented by Alice Lutyens at Curtis Brown