Interview: debut novelist Julia Rampen

When you’re writing or editing for a newspaper, you have to constantly think about metrics – how many people will click on this story, how many words etc. Writing the novel was like going for a walk without a map, and discovering something new as a result.

JULIA RAMPEN lives in Liverpool and is a journalist, writer and worker for IMIX, a charity which connects refugees with trusted journalists. Her debut novel The Bay was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2020 and will be published by Saraband in August 2023. Set in an old-fashioned fishing community, the novel recalls the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster and is a tender story about loneliness, confronting prejudice, and the comfort of friendship, however unlikely.

The Bay is unflinching and hopeful in equal measure. How difficult was it to strike this balance?

My whole journalism career has been like this – one day you’re editing an article about soap operas, the next you’re live-blogging a terrorist attack. So this balance felt quite natural to me. I did feel that it was important that I didn’t play down a tragedy like that by having a happy ending where everyone gets saved. But at the same time, I wanted to reflect what I actually found in Morecambe, which was a whole series of community initiatives designed to learn from the tragedy and respect those who died. 

We especially loved the redemptive friendship between unlikely duo widower Arthur and cockler Suling. What sparked the idea for this surprising friendship?

My experiences of visiting Morecambe Bay have always been associated with visiting my grandparents, who were effectively my guides to the area. It was them who told me that the Bay was dangerous, but also pointed out different birds, and took me to their treasured spots. I wanted to give Suling something of that. I was also influenced by the memoir of Cedric Robinson, the former Guide to the Sands, whose life spanned such a transformative time in British history. At the time I started writing the novel, I was only in my early twenties, so it felt natural to me that Suling would be quite young, but after reading Factory Girls, a series of interviews with teenage migrant workers in China, I thought it made sense that she would be a teenager as well. I also thought there were some interesting parallels between Suling’s generation in China and Arthur’s generation in Britain, and I wanted to show that the desire to change your fate was the same.

Deep currents of powerlessness and injustice run through the novel about how we treat those who seek refuge. What would Suling make of Suella (Braverman) two decades on from the Morecambe Bay disaster?

I think Suling would be terrified of Suella Braverman. If she received protection as a survivor of modern slavery, she would have moved on with her life, and be a British citizen by now, but I’m sure that deep down, she would still be afraid of deportation. But I say ‘if’ because I deliberately ended the novel while Suling is still waiting to hear whether she would receive protection or not, because this felt like the most honest depiction of what happens to many survivors of modern slavery and others who find themselves in the asylum system. You can be left waiting for years, and in the meantime you have to find ways to cope with living in the present. Unfortunately, Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill would only increase that population left in limbo, and actually dismantles many parts of the mechanism put in place to protect survivors of modern slavery after the tragedy. 

Writing novels allows you to go to places you can’t go with journalism, like inside people’s minds and imagining what they’re really thinking.

The Bay was written in consultation with those who investigated the tragedy at the time and told the survivors’ stories. How did their reportage inform and shape the book?

When I first started writing, I knew the chances of publication were slim, and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time, so I started by reading what was already out there, particularly the reportage of Hsiao-Hung Pai, who went undercover as an undocumented migrant worker in the wake of the tragedy. I also drew on my own experience of visiting a detention centre, and my knowledge of the area around the Bay. However, during lockdown, I summoned up the courage to write to Hsiao-Hung and ask if I could commission her to read over it for accuracy. Despite the fact that at the time I was only a night editor at a local paper with a Word Doc, she read over it and gave me feedback. Her knowledge and understanding of the issue is incredibly deep, and her generosity meant I was able to have an ongoing conversation with her about how to strike a balance between fact and fiction.

I also reached out to one of the survivors, via a contact in the police, but was told they did not want to retell their story again, so I tried to work from the existing accounts instead, which were already testament to their courage. One of the gifts of a novel is that it is not a documentary and we don’t have to make people relive the worst moments of their life again and again, but rather use our imagination to try to feel our way into their shoes. That said, I would like to see more opportunities for undocumented workers to write for themselves, and I hope this won’t be the last word on this particular subject.

Although their expertise wasn’t directly linked to the tragedy, I did commission two other readers to give me feedback — a local fisherman who is also the King’s Guide to the Sands, and an academic from mainland China — and I’ve also received invaluable feedback from friends who have experience of the asylum system, mainland China, and learning English as a second language. I also still regularly encounter people in my day job at IMIX who recount experiences eerily similar to those in the novel, such as fear of deportation, being exploited, or a hostile environment that makes them fear the authorities and want to go underground.

Finally, despite all this research, I think it’s important to emphasise that the novel is fiction. It came out of my reaction to the Morecambe Bay tragedy, but it’s not an attempt to reconstruct it, but rather to explore the fact that this tragedy could have taken place in many locations, and at many times in a country that relies on cheap labour but doesn’t acknowledge it. 

What have you found most challenging and most enjoyable about writing a novel compared to journalism.

Writing novels allows you to go to places you can’t go with journalism, like inside people’s minds and imagining what they’re really thinking. Also, when you’re writing or editing for a newspaper, you have to constantly think about metrics – how many people will click on this story, how many words etc. Writing the novel was like going for a walk without a map, and discovering something new as a result. 

You’ve had lots of success with novel prizes. As well as shortlisting for The Bath Novel Award in 2020,  The Bay shortlisted for The Bridport, First Pages Prize and went on to win the Northbound Book Award which led to your publishing deal with Saraband. Any tips / advice for writers about award success?

I entered some awards years ago, and when I didn’t get anywhere, pretty much wrote them off. Then a friend suggested I enter the First Pages Prize, and to my surprise, it got shortlisted, and that encouraged me to enter the other prizes. I can’t sing the praises of these competitions enough, as it’s one of the few chances you have to get support while still writing the novel, which to me, at least, is itself a huge learning process.

By the time I entered my draft for the first prize, I’d already redrafted it several times and received feedback from friends. So in order to get the most out of prizes, it’s worth researching which one best suits where your work is at. For example, New Writing North, which hosts the Northbound Book Award, also has prizes designed to help writers who show talent but haven’t finished their draft. 

I’d also really recommend a writing group, ideally a small group of writers that you respect and trust enough for them to give you frank feedback. I used to think that writing a novel was a solo process but actually it was opening myself up to feedback that allowed me to improve my writing and finish it. Also, there will inevitably be disappointments along the way, and it’s good to have a group of friends who understand you.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another draft, set in Liverpool, and I’m gearing up to do a really brutal redraft of it after the latest round of feedback. After The Bay, I thought I’d figured out how to write a novel, and this feedback just confirmed I still have a lot to learn!

The Bay by JULIA RAMPEN will be published by Saraband in August 2023 and can be purchased here.

‘Careful and compassionate … subtle, human and meaningful, but also full of humour, and precise and beautiful description.’– Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth Is Missing

In an old-fashioned fishing community on Morecambe Bay, change is imperceptibly slow. Treacherous tides sweep the quicksands, claiming everything in their path.

As a boy, Arthur had followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footprints, learning to read the currents and shifting sands. Now retired and widowed, though, he feels invisible, redundant. His daughter wants him in a retirement home. No one listens to his rants about the newcomers striking out nightly onto the bay for cockles, seemingly oblivious to the danger.

When Arthur’s path crosses Suling’s, both are running out of options. Barely yet an adult, Suling’s hopes for a better life have given way to fear: she’s without papers or money, speaks no English, and chased by ruthless debt collectors. Her only next step is to trust the old man.

Combining warmth and suspense and recalling a true incident, The Bay tells a tender story about loneliness, confronting prejudice, and the comfort of friendship, however unlikely-as well as exposing one of the most pressing social ills of our age.