Louise Doughty's sixth novel, Whatever You Love, is bold and arresting. Laura needs to find the motorist who killed her nine-year-old daughter. In seeking retribution, how far will she go? Here, Louise talks about 'method acting' her characters, cannibalising her life for the sake of fiction and how judging the Man Booker Prize made her a ruthless critic of her own work
PJ: Your previous two novels explored Roma culture, up to the 1940s. This new book is very much of the present day - did you feel the need to get back to the contemporary?
LD: Yes, I needed a change. Zadie Smith has said that you write each novel to correct the faults of the previous one. I certainly agree with that. To some extent you do write each novel as a reaction to the previous one. I'd done two big historical novels and my intention with this was to write one of those fast-paced, high-octane, short contemporary novels. It turned out to be longer and more complex than I'd intended.
PJ: With the migrant workers in this book, is there perhaps in your mind, a link to the earlier, historical books?
LD: Yes, definitely. But, I deliberately didn't make the migrants
on the cliff Roma. I couldn't have done that without giving them a narrative
strand, and this is very much Laura's story. But, yes, there is a nod to my
previous territory with their appearance. Roma issues, economic migrancy,
asylum seekers - these are abiding interests of mine.
PJ: Whatever You Love, is a daring, bold book; daring creatively and personally. What made you dare to write this book?
LD: I'm not interested in writing quiet novels. I like novels where the characters are thrown into extremis, that's what interests me. I've never been of that English tradition, where the character reaches a quiet realisation, the Anita Brookner thing. That's not what I do. I like to put very ordinary characters in extreme situations and see what happens. It was also about exploring my own fears. I started writing it at a time when I was beginning to let my daughter cross the road, on her own, come back from school, on her own. I was completely obsessed with her being knocked over. As a novelist, when you're obsessed, well, that's a clue ...
PJ: So there wasn't, for you, any superstition - be careful what you wish for?
LD: No, but my partner really hates this book. He hates the idea that I've gone there in my head and sees traces of our daughters in the characters. He does think that it makes it more likely to happen. I think the opposite. I'm a hard-nosed, rationalist and I think it's highly unlikely for a novelist to write a book with this story line and for that then to happen in real life. So I feel as If I've protected my children by writing this book.
PJ: Are your
daughters old enough to read the novel? How do you feel about that?
LD: They're 13 and 8. The thirteen-year-old hasn't asked yet, but I have a feeling the time might come soon! I'd be a bit worried about the sex scenes. Especially the one towards the end that is unpleasant. It is a very dark book, not just the sex, but the emotions in it are very dark. She's too young now. At what age do children have the sophistication to realise this is an invention? It's just dawning on me that this is going to be an issue. Up to now I've only worried about what my parents think of what I write.
PJ: I wonder what the mothers at the school gates will make of the book?
LD: One of my very good friends is a mum at school gates. She read the manuscript and made some useful comments and saw resonances. The geography of the book is similar to the geography of the school where my children go. Some parents will find that creepy but, hey, that's a small group of people. I think as a novelist you have to put those considerations aside. You have to write the best book you can and that inevitably means you end up cannibalising parts of your own life.
PJ: Through Laura, the first-person narrator, you take the reader to dark places that are, potentially, in us all. What was the process of imagining yourself into her need for retribution?
LD: That wasn't difficult. I like to think of myself as really rational most of the time. But in extremis those who think they are most rational will most likely go off the deep end. I remember having a conversation with my partner about what we'd do if anyone harmed one of our girls. I said, it's very simple: I'd take the knife from the knife block and go and find him! He was horrified. I like to think of myself as a supporter of the rule of law, democracy, etc. But I do think there's a huge irrational streak inside me that, thankfully, has never been tested.
PJ: You have the novels in which to channel it.
LD: Yes, that's probably why I'm a novelist. It's better than bothering people on buses.
PJ: You're too experienced a novelist to give a character the same initials as your own, Laura Dodgson. She's even referred to by her lover as LD. What was that about?
LD: That was a bit cheeky wasn't it? An in-joke for my writer friends. None of the reviews have mentioned it yet. But, yes, that was me nodding towards the fact that, in many ways, this is the most personal book that I've written.
PJ: At one point, Laura's action make her reflect on how far she's prepared to go. To say more would spoil the ending. Was writing this book about you seeing how far you could go?
LD: Ultimately Laura discovers she is not capable of hurting an innocent party but she is capable of doing some very dark things to characters who, like her, have committed morally ambiguous acts. It was important that Laura committed a transgressive act. The question for me was - what level of transgression was she capable of and what form would that take?
PJ: The book is very tightly plotted, but always following Laura's state of mind. Did you work it out in advance or follow the character?
LD: With the first draft I method act it. I imaginatively put myself in that state - which is horrible - pretending that it's happening to me. After that comes the honing and working on it. That first draft is really important to fully imagine what you are doing to your character. The plot is finding what the character would do next.
PJ: Tell us about the research for the book - you acknowledge police and medical sources. Do you write first, then check facts, or ask questions to generate story?
LD: It was a combination of the two: some research in the early stages, then it's an on-going progress. A bit of research, a bit of writing - an organic process. There were a couple of things that came directly from research; The Gold Group, dealing with ethnic tensions in the town, that came from a cop. Also the way the police handle Laura when she walks to the shop at night - that came from asking a policeman what he'd do in that situation. He told me that, to make sure she wasn't going to hurt herself, he'd take her in a bear hug, so I used it.
I wanted Laura to be something medical but not a doctor. To me it's important that characters in novels have jobs. Giving them jobs means you get a lot of material. A friend, who is a physiotherapist, came round to lunch and we got talking. The scene with David in the office came from her telling me what she does when she first sees a patient. That suggested a scene.
PJ: One reads the book at a cracking pace. Did you write it fast?
LD: No, sadly. There's a lot of work behind the flow of it. It was very effortful. It took two and half years. I had to do a lot of restructuring to end up with that apparently artless structure, going backward and forward. Each time you mess with the time-line you change everything.
PJ: Can you say more? I know many first-time novelists get to the end of their first draft and think: that's it, the book's done.
LD: I did major surgery on it twice. Completely re-ordered the structure. The first time it was alternate chapters: past, present. That didn't work. Then it was in two halves, prologue + all the past, then all the present, that didn't work either. I completely took the whole thing to pieces like a jigsaw and had to leave it for a couple of months, then re-read as fresh. Then more re-writes. A huge amount of work went into structuring that book.
PJ: In your book, A Novel In a Year, you talk about your own intensive writing periods - I think you said 8 weeks then you need a break before resuming work on a book.
LD: I'm basically a binge writer. I do it in mad bursts, get exhausted then need to do something else for a bit before I can go back to the novel I'm working on.
PJ: You've judged quite a few literary prizes, including The Man Booker - how does such intensive reading impact on your own writing?
LD: When judging the Man Booker I was writing Whatever You Love and I determinedly kept working on it. I thought: If I don't keep my own writing up I'll go mad. The reading made me more ruthless about my own writing. I was being asked to read and judge books in a short period of time, which means having to be ruthless. I couldn't help thinking: If somebody was reading my book this fast and this critically, which bits would make them stop reading, what would make them put the book down? One of my friends has a theory that novelists get short-listed for the Booker with the novel they write after judging the prize. I would love to subscribe to this theory myself! As a writer you have to read voraciously and comprehensively.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
LD: A lot of memoir. I'm working on a non-fiction book that has memoir elements. I'd definitely recommend Lorna Sage's Bad Blood and Hilary Mantel's Giving up the Ghost.
PJ: So no novel on the go at the moment? Will the next novel be contemporary or historical?
LD: I like to write something different between novels. Usually it's a radio play but with this one I've decided to write a work of non-fiction with memoirish elements. I can't go into the subject matter as I'm keeping that quiet. The idea is for a shortish book, that I can do fairly quickly. I do have an idea for a novel bubbling away. It's come out of the research for Whatever You Love; something that didn't fit into that book.
PJ: If you had one piece of advice for a first-time novelist, what would it be?
LD: The most important talent you need, if we can call it a talent, is stamina. It's a long haul, you're not training to be a sprinter; you're training to be a marathon runner. You've got to train and take it seriously. You have to have stamina in all respects: physical, emotional, psychological.
Find out more about Whatever You Love at Faber & Faber
Find out more about Louise Doughty at her website