In conversation with... Fenella Gentleman

Hi Fenella! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of The Reading Party. Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you! The simplest is to say that it’s a love story about a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. But the setting and the period are significant: It’s Oxford, where the main character, Sarah Addleshaw, is a feisty young academic; and it’s the 1970s, when women were just being admitted to male colleges. So Sarah faces the double challenge of being the first ‘Fellow’ in the college she joins and also of hosting its first mixed student retreat to Cornwall. The pressures on her to set a good example are acute – and then she goes and falls for ‘the wrong person’.  

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing or did it develop before your eyes as the characters grew on the page and did something that you were not expecting?

A: Absolutely not the first and only a bit of the second! I started out with two ingredients: a vague idea of Sarah and an older male don, which I thought an interesting combination; and a notion of writing about a reading party, a nutty but appealing anachronism offering plenty of scope for drama. Sarah and Dennis Loxton (her elderly colleague) had emerged from two recent creative writing exercises, while the reading party had intrigued me since experiencing one as an undergraduate. Despite this promising material, it took a long time and many drafts to work out exactly what story I was telling and how to tell it well. Essentially, Sarah’s attraction to ‘forbidden fruit’ (and the paranoia that went with it) became more important, while the detail of the reading party became less so.  

What kind of research did you carry out before and/or during the writing process? Which aspect of this activity did you enjoy the most?

A: I chatted with people – academics and students - who’d been at Oxford when the first colleges went mixed; watched videos and audio recordings from or about the 1970s; did a lot of background reading; listened to the music of the period; revisited Oxford and the spot in Cornwall where the ‘real’ reading party took place.  The best was what came first-hand: the conversations gave me lots of quirky details, and the visits were really important in evoking sensory details.  

If this novel could be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Sarah?

A: What a wonderful thought! Sarah is a freckly redhead, petite, aged 26; she’s been a bit of a tomboy and has a verve about her, whilst also being academically able and quick-witted. When I was first imagining her, I might have suggested Emily Blunt, who’d do the answering back, or Carey Mulligan, who has the impishness; now, Emma Stone would certainly look the part. But it would also be great to let a complete unknown make the role zing: after all, Sarah’s an outsider; she captivates them all, from nowhere.  

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: There are so many scenes that I love – perhaps particularly where there’s sparring between the characters, whether it’s Sarah with Dennis Loxton (the older don), or with one or more of the students: I enjoyed writing those bits of dialogue. The most difficult to write were the scenes showing the growing attraction between Sarah and the man she’s drawn to: I wanted this to be subtly done and every time I was asked to ramp it up a notch I worried that I’d gone too far. My editor assured me I had not.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Oh, lots. As a writer should, I cut repeatedly. It wasn’t so much dropping whole scenes as trimming what wasn’t important, particularly if it held up the action. Early on there was more about an old boyfriend of Sarah’s: that got in the way and wasn’t necessary, so it largely came out. But mostly the cuts were of descriptive detail which mattered to me when I was trying to make the thing real in my head, but wouldn’t matter to the reader. Thankfully, my editor was firm about this too.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I do have something in the early stages, again about a culture clash, but this time between people from more overtly urban and rural communities and set in the 1990s. Fewer characters, thankfully, but perhaps some related themes. I’m definitely interested in women and how they negotiate their working lives, in all their variety.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: This is my first book, so contact with real readers is only just beginning, but I’d love to have those conversations: I enjoyed drafting some prompts for book clubs (you can download them here) and hope to eavesdrop on some such discussions or to be invited to comment. That’s most likely to happen online, which is fine: it may be time-consuming, but chatting on social media can be instructive; it’s also a lot of fun. So right now I’m very happy to make it a focus. The test will come when I need to get back into the rhythm of concentrated work on the next book – but I’ve been disciplined before and I hope to manage it again.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Expect it to be an iterative process. A cycle - of drafting, editing, listening to feedback and round again - that you’ll repeat many times before you have something ready for publication. You also need faith and tenacity, but that’s true of most new undertakings. The reward comes way down the line, but right now it feels to me huge!

Thank you for your time!
The Reading Party was published by Muswell Press on June 14th. On June 17th I shared my thoughts on the book as part of the launch blog tour here. There is a copy up for grabs too!

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