Charlotte Philby’s debut spy thriller The Most Difficult Thing is out now from Borough Press. She starting working on her early version of this novel on two of our six-week online novel-writing courses (Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel). We asked Charlotte more about her experience of the course what motivates her to write …
You took our Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel courses back in 2017. Are we right in thinking that this is when your debut novel, The Most Difficult Thing, started to come to life?
Absolutely. At this point in my life I was in a bit of a rut. I’d recently had a third baby, was in the midst of a full-on home rebuild and my career felt like it was in free-fall. I’d already written the rough draft of a different novel, six years earlier while on maternity leave the first time around, but I’d never really progressed with it after the manuscript I sent out was rejected by several agents. The day my maternity leave was up I returned to my day job as a newspaper reporter at The Independent, resigned to the fact that I couldn’t expect to juggle a full-time career, being a remotely useful parent to young children AND writing fiction…
Then, at this slightly fraught juncture in 2017, I had this revelation that if I felt I had nothing to lose, perhaps now was the perfect time to return to (attempted) novel-writing. Besides, writing fiction gave me an escape from the drudgery of my domestic life, it was a way to transport myself anywhere I wanted at a time when I felt trapped. I had an idea for a modern spy novel which started with the protagonist – a woman in their thirties with young children – walking out on her family. (!). I had recently started freelancing after quitting the magazine I’d been running so my time was more my own. I found the course online – was relieved that it wasn’t prohibitively expensive – and signed up, as a way to kick-start my confidence as much as anything else. It being an online rather than a centre-based course made it manageable alongside my various other responsibilities, and the structure it provided in terms of what I needed to achieve each week was just what I needed. Soon the threads of various ideas I’d been mulling over for a while started to tighten.
What was your experience of studying online with us? Are there any pieces of Anna’s writing wisdom which have stayed with you?
I think when you’re starting a project as big and potentially daunting as writing a novel, when you haven’t done so before, or for a long time, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Anna was an incredibly reassuring voice of reason. Her notes and practical advice really helped provide a practical framework in which I found I could approach the writing process in palatable chunks. Being able to engage with the course at a time that worked for me (be that while my baby napped in the day, or during a night need), made it a far less daunting prospect than something more rigid. What stands out for me specifically was Anna’s advice around POV and how she highlighted the questions one should ask oneself about why one has chosen to stay in one voice or, indeed, to move around. This was something I had been struggling to crystallise in my own head, and her straightforward clarity on the subject really helped me decide what I needed to do.
You’re already an award-winning journalist, what made you want to write fiction? What are some of the challenges of writing fiction compared to writing an investigative non-fiction piece?
Writing fiction can be hugely therapeutic. When I first started, rather than expecting to make a career from it, it was about finding ways to work through feelings and experiences that it was difficult to comb through on a more conscious level. I think, to be honest, I was a terrible news reporter in that I loved discovering and investigating stories, but I was terrible at sticking to really tight word-counts and resented being bound by pure fact. I’m all about conjecture, which is not so great when you’re reporting on a court case – ! – but perfect if you want to take a real-life case or character and embellish it, trying to understand not only what happened, but why and how.
I’m hugely lucky in that the contacts I’ve made over the years as a journalist have been very generous with their time and expertise – after all, there is only so much one can make up when you’re writing a semi-political crime thriller.
In an article in for the Observer you discuss your grandfather, Kim Philby. You spoke of how his life initiated your interest in spy narrative, but that for your first novel you wanted to steer away from his legacy. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to forge your own identity within the world of spy thrillers?
I’ve always been fascinated by true crime, and espionage in particular has long-held a particular interest for me, perhaps as a consequence of hearing about my grandfather’s endeavours from such an early age, and then investigating his legacy and that of his contemporaries as a result, as I grew older. I love the human questions that the best spy fiction raises… When I went back to Moscow in 2010 and wrote a big exploratory piece on his legacy, I made several offers to write a book. I suppose I held back for various reasons – for one, there are already countless great books on his life – but primarily I didn’t want my first book to be about Kim. I wanted to make my own name. In lots of ways, I’m glad I didn’t write a book then because my relationship with my grandfather’s story has developed so much since then, and as I have children of my own, the way I feel about his choices have become more nuanced.
Ironically, it was this aspect of how I construe my grandfather’s story – the questions it raises in my mind around the relationship between betrayal and family, as opposed to betrayal of a country as spy stories are often framed – that inspired The Most Difficult Thing. But the story itself, which is contemporary and set between London, Greece and the Maldives, is completely different to Kim’s, and it’s very much my own. So often the women are written out of the story in spy fiction, and I wanted to redress that whilst writing something that felt fresh and relevant, and which really conveys the unrelenting darkness involved in such a treacherous profession. How does a person, who could be you or me, not just take such a momentous decision but enact that in their everyday lives? And when they do, what is the impact of that level of deceit not just on those around them, but on their own mind?
The Most Difficult Thing has already had some fantastic reviews from the critics, including Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, who said: ‘‘Spying has been her inheritance and this brilliant, beautifully crafted debut novel uses it to the full – and so much more besides.” How does it feel when you read these reviews?
It’s the best feeling in the world. Writing a novel, as everyone knows, is such a personal and exposing thing, and while I know there will, inevitably, also be scathing reviews now that the book is out in the world, it’s been so heartening to know that people whom I admire and whose opinion I respect have enjoyed my book. I’ll just have to keep those kind words in mind when I see the less generous reviews!
Do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to aspiring authors?
Don’t give up. Having just reworked the first manuscript I wrote (and had repeatedly rejected) eight years ago, and brought it back to life in the form of my second novel, A Duplicitous Life, which is coming out in 2020, I can honestly say that nothing is wasted. I spent eight years feeling like a failure over that, and I realise now that it isn’t until that moment when you finally have your novel bought (or you decide to self-publish, or you finish the draft you’ve been working on – whatever your personal milestone might be) that what at the time feels like a piercing failure reveals itself as merely a marker on the road to achieving whatever it is that you want to achieve. That sounds so hideously corny that I’m tempted to delete it, but I won’t because I think it’s true.
Borough Press have just bought two more of your novels – any hints as to what they might be about?
Sure! They are both contemporary espionage/suspense novels, similar to The Most Difficult Thing. I loathe the whole genre definition restrictions that the publishing industry insists on, but I do think this label describes them quite well. I’ve just finished the second novel, A Duplicitous Life. It is set in present day and centres around a character called Kate who works in Counter-Terrorism at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in Whitehall. After a six-month stint in Moscow she returns home her husband and two children in London, where it soon becomes apparent something isn’t right… I’m very tempted to say more, but I don’t want to give anything away! I love books that are twisty and compulsive and which transport me to places and worlds I wouldn’t otherwise get to experience, and hopefully both books tick these boxes!
Find out more about our six-week online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.