CATHY LAYNE was born and grew up near Liverpool, but has spent the last twenty years living in Asia—Japan, mostly—and for the moment she calls Bangkok home. She has a degree in Modern Languages from Leeds University, and a Masters in Advanced Japanese Studies from Sheffield University. She has worked at two major Japan-interest publishing houses, where she devoted many years to acquiring and editing the books of others. After her own unpublished debut novel, You’re Beautiful, was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2016, Cathy received eight literary agent requests for her full manuscript and recently accepted representation with Zoe Ross at United Agents.
Congratulations, Cathy. How did you decide Zoe was the right agent for you?
Thank you! This is literally a dream come true. I spent the first week after accepting representation with Zoe feeling a bit numb and disbelieving. Then Zoe’s notes for revisions came in, and the contract arrived in the post, and it all started to feel a bit more real. I think the moment I finally believed I had an agent was when my author photo and bio went up on the United Agents website.
I just want to say that the support from the Bath Novel Award has been amazing. I’d entered the competition in the hope of attracting agent attention, but I’d imagined that if I did well it would be down to me to advertise my success to potential agents. I did not expect that you would spend so much time researching suitable agents and contacting them on my behalf. It’s been great to be championed in this way and to have your name behind me. I’m incredibly grateful for all the hard work you’ve done on my behalf, and I am so glad that you identified Zoe as a good match for me.
Before I had my first meeting with Zoe I’d looked on the United Agents website at the list of fiction authors she represents and they seemed edgy and quirky, which I liked. We’d also started following each other on Twitter before we spoke, and her tweets made me laugh; I liked her sense of humour and that made me feel she would be someone I could get along with. When we spoke for the first time, I was amazed how familiar she was with the book; it was wonderful to talk about the characters with someone who knew them as well as I did. She was very complimentary about the book, but also had some suggestions for improvements, most of which were to do with making certain characters more consistent and giving some of the story threads more clarity. Every one of her suggestions made perfect sense to me, and even though there were still other agents in the running who had expressed an interest, I couldn’t imagine meeting anyone with a better vision for the book than Zoe. So I was really happy to accept her offer of representation.
I am working hard on the revisions that Zoe and I have agreed and she is hoping to start approaching publishers by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
You’re Beautiful broke our voting record by achieving the highest ever number of individual YES votes our panel have ever given. Who else had read it before you sent it to us?
No one! Well, almost no one. I showed a very early draft to a friend who was a literary agent, but to cut a long and rather painful story short, he didn’t like it. I lost confidence in the book then, and I stopped working on it for a year or so. But one day I looked at it again and I thought, hang on, it’s not actually that bad. So I embarked on a massive revision and rewrite until it reached its present form. It was longlisted in the Lighthouse First Chapter Competition in 2013, and I think I may have had a short spurt of submitting it to agents after that, but I didn’t get any interest. So no one had read the whole book in its current form before I’d entered the Bath Novel Award.
Eight agents in all requested your full manuscript. How was the querying process from your perspective?
Having the Bath Novel Award send out queries on my behalf was wonderful, because since my previous agent died seven years ago, I’d had no luck in attracting a new agent through my own solitary efforts. Most of these submissions were for two novels that I’d written before YB, and I’d become used to getting standard rejection letters or no reply at all. I’d lost a lot of faith in myself, so it was lovely to have the Bath Novel Award sing my praises in the submissions they sent. I know a lot of authors find the querying process stressful, but as on the one hand I was used to rejection, and on the other hand I had the support of the Bath Novel Award, it was fine.
YB tells the story of two young English people living and working in Tokyo. You’ve been living and working in Asia for twenty years, in Japan until Fukushima, and now in Bangkok. What’s your experience of living in other countries and cultures. Do you feel at home and are there things / people you miss about the UK which might one day draw you back?
I lived for fifteen years in Japan, then two years in Malaysian Borneo, two years in Singapore, and now I’m in Thailand. One of the best things about living abroad is being an outsider—my experience of living in all of these countries is that as a foreigner you will never be fully accepted into the local culture. This is especially true of Japan, a country that until the end of the nineteenth century was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, and where there is still a deep-rooted antagonism towards foreigners. It was hard at first being made to feel strange and different, or that people were afraid of you or suspicious of you, but in the end I felt it was really freeing to never be expected to conform, or understand, or fulfill societal obligations. I’ve enjoyed living on the fringes and it will be weird going back to the UK and being a fully integrated member of society again. But I’ve missed my family and friends of course. And sausages. And having lived in the tropics for the last five years I’ve really missed winter and wintry stuff—big thick duvets, winter coats, boots . . .
YB is also a story that has beauty as one of its themes, particularly the pursuit of beauty in our everyday lives and the importance we give to it…
I didn’t deliberately set out to explore the theme of beauty; it arose naturally as the story took shape. First there was the presence of Mount Fuji, arguably the most beautiful mountain in the world, which just happened to be part of the geographical location of the story. Then one night I’d gone out to a bar in Tokyo where my friend and I were the only customers, and we sat at the counter while two barmen spent the whole time silently carving ice balls. I decided to throw in the two barmen obsessed with creating the perfect ice ball just as a bit of a joke, initially. So there was a quest for aesthetic beauty in the book—everyone longing for a glimpse of Mount Fuji through the summer heat haze, and barmen Jun and Yasu intent on transforming blocks of ice into these perfect spheres. Then there was the obsession with human beauty in the various love relationships, as well as glimpses of parents besotted with their beautiful babies. Once this theme had asserted itself, I did a bit of reading about the concept of beauty, and why it is important to human beings. Beauty and its place in our lives has been the subject of much complex philosophical discussion through the ages, but one argument that made sense to me is that beauty stands alongside truth and goodness as an ultimate human value. Eric, the most “good” person in the book sees the beauty in everything and everyone. Lisa, the confused female lead character, tries hard to see beauty but doesn’t always succeed. John, the stalker, thinks his victims are beautiful but constantly judges other people and things as ugly, useless, or unremarkable. The barmen Jun (whose name means “truth”) and Yasu (short for Yasuhiro, meaning “abundant honesty”), who spend all their time in pursuit of the perfect ice ball, are a kind of Greek chorus: they are not involved in any of the storylines, but they frequently make incisive comments about the actions and motives of the other characters.
When we last interviewed you, you mentioned you were writing a new novel about a group of friends from Brixton, which began in the 90’s and ended twenty years later at the Fuji Rock Festival. How’s that going?
It’s going well, so far I’ve done 66,000 words of a first draft. There are five main characters, so it’s a challenge weaving all their stories together. A lot of the writing I’ve done so far is exploratory—just getting to know the characters and seeing where their story goes, and a lot of it will probably end up getting cut, but I feel it’s an important part of the process.
Lastly, we need to ask you about James Blunt. We’ve always assumed the book was named after that song and because of that line about “she smiled at me on the subway” which is how your main characters’ paths first cross…
Gosh, I didn’t even know that was one of the lyrics! I can’t remember exactly how I came up with those two particular words “You’re Beautiful” for the title, but I know I wanted something that tied into the theme of obsession, and I definitely wasn’t referring to the James Blunt song. But I do remember that after I settled on the title, I decided to give a nod to the song. I was living in Japan when the record was a big hit in the UK, and Japan has its own huge domestic pop music industry—you don’t get much Western pop music on the radio or TV there. So I wasn’t familiar with the lyrics. I had a quick look at them online when I was thinking how I could build a mention of the song into the book. The lyric that stood out for me was ” I’ll never be with you.” In this book about deluded love, the main character, John, is convinced that the object of his obsession, Lisa, is in love with him and he will most definitely, without a doubt, be with her. So this is his reaction when he goes to the house of his colleague Tammy and the song is playing on her CD player.
” . . . he can’t bear the bland monotony of James Blunt, that crappy song that had been everywhere a few years ago, although it’s ironic that the lyrics now make him think of Lisa—you’re beautiful . . . I saw your face in a crowded place . . . I’ll never be with you—well, apart from the last line. Loser. He presses stop, picks up the empty CD case on the table, examines it briefly and discards it with a snort.”
The Bath Novel Award & The Bath Children’s Novel Award are annual international prizes for unpublished and independently published novelists. Each offers a £2,000 prize plus a shortlist award of £500. The Bath Novel Award 2017 will be opening to entries from 1st December 2016.
The Bath Novel Award & The Bath Children’s Novel Award are sponsored by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy