Meet the new faces of fiction for 2017

fortysomething still ‘pinching herself’ at starting a publishers’ bidding war. A woman who fell under a witches’ spell. And a film critic with widescreen ambitions: here are some of the stories behind our pick of 2017’s debut novelists

l to r: Mahsuda Snaith, Beth Underdown, Joseph Knox, Nuala Ellwood and Xan Brooks
Some of this year’s selection (l-r): Mahsuda Snaith, Beth Underdown, Joseph Knox, Nuala Ellwood and Xan Brooks. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

This year’s writers take on subjects as diverse as PTSD, online obsession, alcoholism and witch-hunting. However, the scarcity of new black and ethnic minority writers is a problem publishers need urgently to address. (A recent survey revealed that writers called David are more likely to get into the bestseller charts than BAME authors.) Two new awards, the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME prize and the Jhalak prize, aim to redress this imbalance but at the last count the Jhalak prize had received only 51 submissions, a figure its chair, Sunny Singh, branded “pathetic”. Let’s hope 2018 tells a different story.
Lisa O’Kelly, books editor

Gail Honeyman: ‘It’s no handicap to be older. A bit of life experience is no bad thing’

Gail Honeyman
Subject of a fierce eight-way auction: Gail Honeyman. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

The late starter from Scotland rewarded with a dream beginning to her writing career

Having nursed a secret ambition to write through her 20s and 30s, Gail Honeyman sensed, as her 40th birthday loomed, that it was now or never. “Writing had always been at the back of my mind but it’s quite a wake-up call, that classic 40th-birthday thing when you think: this might be the time to try something different.”

The decision turned out to be life-changing. Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is a warm, funny and thought-provoking story that has so far sold in 27 territories, reportedly racked up seven-figure advances and is already garnering rave reviews from previewers five months before publication.

“Even now, talking about it, I’m still pinching myself,” says Honeyman over tea in a west London cafe. “Even in my wildest dreams it’s not a situation I ever imagined myself to be in.”

She grew up in central Scotland, a voracious reader who was taken to the library “a ridiculous number of times a week”. She studied French at Glasgow University followed by postgraduate studies at Oxford, but decided against becoming an academic: “I started doing a PhD and then I thought I don’t really want to spend all this time on my own in the library. Now I’m on my own in the library all the time and I love it,” Honeyman laughs. “But I guess what’s right for you at 22 isn’t necessarily what’s right for you 20 years later.”

Honeyman had a career in economic development and university administration before enrolling in a Faber Academy writing course – whose alumni include Rachel Joyce and SJ Watson – and deciding to write a novel: “I thought: even if I just put it away and don’t show it to anyone – I want to prove to myself I can get to the end.”

She wrote in the mornings, evenings and at weekends, and began entering writing competitions. Success came rapidly. She was longlisted for the BBC’s Opening Lines competition, won a Scottish Book Trust award and her entry to the Lucy Cavendish prize was spotted by one of the judges, agent Madeleine Milburn, who immediately signed Honeyman to her list.

Within a year, Eleanor Oliphant was the subject of a fierce eight-way auction in the UK and became one of the most talked-about books at the 2015 Frankfurt book fair. When did Honeyman realise that this flurry of activity was unusual? “I was managing my expectations the whole time. I wasn’t particularly confident about it. But having more than one publisher want to publish it – that was huge.”


It’s easy to see why Eleanor Oliphant is generating so much buzz. The novel’s heroine is a socially awkward 30-year-old with a traumatic family history, a protagonist who forces readers to question their attitude to society’s outsiders. The book occupies that sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction: a highly readable but beautifully written story that’s as perceptive and wise as it is funny and endearing.

Eleanor was so much fun to write, because there’s a brutal honesty about her. She’s got no filters and no concept of social norms.”

Honeyman cites Jane Eyre as the biggest influence on her heroine. “Jane is hard to love when she’s a kid. She’s a weird kid. There are reasons for that – she’s had a difficult start in life. So I was thinking of that with Eleanor – she doesn’t make it easy for herself. She’s not a people pleaser, not naturally charming, and that can make life really difficult for people through no fault of their own.”

With publication still five months away, wWhat does Honeyman hope readers will take away from the novel? “That kindness doesn’t need to be some massive philanthropic Bill Gates-style donation. Tiny little acts for the right person at the right time can be transformative.”

Honeyman joins a growing band of novelists – the likes of Claire Fuller, Kate Hamer and Joanna Cannon – who subvert the fascination with literary wunderkinds, and I wonder how she feels about publishing her first novel at 45? “It’s one of those jobs where the more life experience you have, the better – so it’s absolutely not a handicap to be older. Look at Diana Athill. A bit of perspective and life experience isn’t a bad thing. Anyway, if you start a new career at 40, you’ve still got another 35 years to go.” HB

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine will be published by HarperCollins on 18 May

Beth Underdown: ‘There are edges of our minds that don’t belong to the daylight’

Beth Underdown.
Up at 5am to write before the office: Beth Underdown. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

A footnote, a great uncle, and her hometown near Pendle combined to inspire this writer’s debut, set among East Anglia’s infamous witch trials


Inspiration takes many forms, but Beth Underdown’s route into writing about Matthew Hopkins, the notorious “Witchfinder General” immortalised on film by Vincent Price, is particularly striking. She was reading about 17th-century midwifery – unusual in itself, given that she was neither historian nor academic – when she came across him in a footnote, and suddenly found herself sucked into his world. “Something chimed with me about it,” she tells me, as we sit in her publisher’s office on the Strand. “All of this history that isn’t really taught, and isn’t really known about. You spend all your childhood looking at Vikings…” She’s right: we have an image of Cavaliers and Roundheads in our mind, but they are somehow less familiar to us than the Tudors or Victorians. And yet, as Underdown points out, the country was gripped by seismic change in the 17th century: “They thought the world was ending.” England was in turmoil, taking “lurching, imperfect steps” towards trying to find a new way, culminating in what Underdown memorably describes as “basically like the protest vote, but with swords”.

At the same time, women were not passive. Hundreds of midwives massed outside parliament to protest that not enough babies were being born because so many men were away fighting, and violent politics permeated even the most domestic of scenes; Underdown found a commonplace book in which a woman had noted the execution of an archbishop next to worries over a colicky baby. And, as the activities of Matthew Hopkins and others demonstrate, women were as vulnerable as ever to being singled out as disruptive, sinister forces.

The Witchfinder’s Sister takes a sideways look at Hopkins, whose determination to root out East Anglia’s “witches” in the 1640s led to a reign of terror that saw hundreds of women die. But Underdown was interested in what allowed Hopkins to flourish, and to that end invented for him a sister, Alice, who has returned to the Essex family home in unconscionable circumstances: pregnant and without husband. What fascinated Underdown was the question of Alice’s complicity in her brother’s sadistic and misogynistic quest, and her attempts to subvert it: “The idea of what makes somebody stand by while something happens is, in a way, scarier. Because Matthew is there, and of course terrifying, but you’re always going to have people like Matthew: and a huge amount depends on what the bystanders do.”

It wasn’t simply that footnote that turned Underdown on to the period: she was brought up near Pendle, scene of one of the most famous witch trials in English history. And there is also a family connection: her great uncle, David Underdown, was a distinguished English civil war historian, who spent most of his career teaching in the States. Because he was absent, Underdown wasn’t much aware of him until he was diagnosed with cancer and came back to Britain to visit. “I remember thinking, wow, cool guy. And he’d come because he thought he was going to die imminently, I suppose, but he didn’t – and he did this goodbye visit every year for about 10 years. It was great. On one of those visits – I was about 17 – he gave me his book.”

She put it aside. Years passed and she moved to London, starting working as an editorial assistant in publishing. She also began to write, getting up at 5am for a stint before the office; but she lacked a subject, and writing about contemporary life wasn’t working. She certainly didn’t want to write anything autobiographical: “I feel like quite a dull person. I’m not the staying up all night and going to literary salons type. I go to bed at 10. So I don’t want to write about me. That’s boring. There’s all this world out there that’s amazing.”

She picked her great-uncle’s book from the shelf, and was impressed by his “very human approach… The book is about this big fire in Dorchester during the English civil war, and it’s looking in detail at ordinary townspeople, digging through parish records – who’s been hauled up for brawling, and who’s been fined for not going to church – and thinking about their experience on an ordinary level. I hadn’t read a lot of history that was like that.” She began to read more widely in the period, and eventually came across Hopkins, and a whole world of religious mania, superstition and persecution that gripped her: “I like to think I’m a rational person,” she says, “but I pray on aeroplanes – I promise I’ll be good if the plane lands safely. I think a lot of people are like that. There are edges of our minds that don’t belong to the daylight.”

A period of ill health slowed her down but it also intensified her interest in the way women’s bodies are looked at and medicalised. Now recovered, she teaches at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, and is embarked on her second novel, a move away from the 17th century but still firmly set in the past. Which, in her hands, is not so much another country but very recognisably our own. AC

The Witchfinder’s Sister is published by Viking on 2 March (£12.99). To preorder a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Sally Rooney: ‘I had to walk out of my job to force myself to finish it’

Sally Rooney
Interested in ‘ambiguous relationships’: Sally Rooney. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

The 25-year-old Dublin graduate stormed out of her restaurant job… and wrote a novel that started a bidding war

When I meet Sally Rooney, she has just come from her Observer photoshoot and has the air of someone trying to remain calm and process what is happening to her. How was it, I ask. “Mortifying,” she replies, then quickly corrects herself. “Listen to me complaining! Oh, it’s so terrible getting my photo taken to promote my first novel.” She pulls a face. “I know this doesn’t actually count as a problem.”

She might be forgiven for feeling some shellshock. Rooney, a Dubliner, is just 25, and her debut, Conversations with Friends, sold to Faber last April after a seven-way auction among publishers. Rights have been sold in 12 countries; the deal was, she says, enough that she now doesn’t have to work “for a couple of years”. Faber’s Mitzi Angel describes her as a “phenomenal talent”, a Martin Amis or Jay McInerney for the Snapchat generation. The change in her life has, she says, been “so colossal that I almost haven’t been able to react”.

Until late 2015, Rooney was doing an admin job in a restaurant while she tried to work out what to do with her life after graduating with a master’s degree in American literature from Trinity College. She had been writing “failed novels” since she was in her teens, and while at university had a short story published in Winter Papers, an anthology edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, and an essay in the Dublin Review.

Then one day she received an email from Tracy Bohan, of the Wylie Agency. “She had seen my story and wondered whether I had anything else she could read.” Rooney had the first draft of what was to become Conversations with Friends. “But I didn’t send her anything for ages,” she says. “I don’t know why. I didn’t want her to see this shoddy draft.”

What she did, however, was to walk out on the restaurant job. “I came in one day and somebody had left a note on my desk, just a list of things I needed to do that day. I thought the tone was a bit snippy. So I did this really quite dramatic walk-out.” She laughs. “I don’t know why I didn’t just send them an email.”

Perhaps she had to make it impossible for herself to go back? “Yes, I think that’s it. I had to really mess it up and leave myself no choice but to finish the book.”

She worked on the draft until March, and then sent it to Bohan. From her response, Rooney realised there was a real possibility it would be published. “It’s really weird. You’ve been locked away working on this thing, and suddenly you start thinking about, like, your mum reading it.”

Rooney cites Salinger as a key influence, and that is evident in Conversations With Friends, which combines poise with emotional acuity. It tells the story of Frances, a 21-year-old aspiring writer, and her best friend (and erstwhile girlfriend) Bobbi. The pair have been inseparable since school, but their relationship is forced to change when Frances begins a passionate, turbulent relationship with Nick, an older married man.

Rooney is, she says, interested in “ambiguous relationships”, those which resist neat labels like “girlfriend”, “friend”, “gay” or “straight”. Ambiguity is a word that comes up several times during our conversation. Rooney was involved in competitive debating at university, and won the European University Debating Championships in 2013. The skill set, she says, is fundamentally the same: “exploring concepts in language”. However, debating is structured around binary choices: “there is no ambiguous position. And I think that might actually have helped me to critique that approach.”

The book is coming out in June, and Rooney has finally taken the plunge and sent it to her mother. What did she make of it? “I don’t know. I’m kind of waiting for that curt two-line email: I read your book.” The last few months have certainly been quite a journey for Rooney. And I have no doubt that this is just the beginning. AO

Conversations With Friends will be published by Faber in June

Nuala Ellwood: ‘Angelina Jolie would be my top choice to play my heroine, Kate’

Nuala Ellwood
Interested in war reporting and PTSD: Nuala Ellwood. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

A fascination with war reporting helped turn this journalist’s daughter from singer/songwriter to novelist

Whenever you read a book – whether you like it or not – an image of its author takes shape in your mind. Nuala Ellwood’s formidable debut thriller, My Sister’s Bones rivals The Girl on a Train as a compulsive read (and beats it for style). As I wait for Ellwood – a girl on the train herself today, about to arrive from York to London’s Kings Cross – I am already picturing a person as guarded as her novel, a manager of secrets. But then, through the ticket barrier, steps a smiling 37-year-old who proves not only transparently talkative but ready to put up with the rather strange pub in which we fetch up for pre-elevenses coffee.

In April 2014 Ellwood secured Arts Council funding, with her illustrator husband, Nick Ellwood, to research post-traumatic stress disorder – she already knew this would be at the centre of her novel. She interviewed human rights organisations, war-reporters and Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at Toronto university. “A female war reporter had been referred to him, suffering nightmares and extreme anxiety after returning from Bosnia,” she explains, and Feinstein subsequently discovered that, incredibly, there was, at that time, no literature on the link between PTSD and war reporting. War reporters, we reflect, often behave as though they lead charmed lives. Ellwood says: “They do not admit to PTSD, for fear of being demoted.”

In My Sister’s Bones, Kate Rafter is a war reporter, just returned from Syria. Her mother has died and she moves into the family house but is harrowed by PTSD. Her home becomes her war zone. Sally, her alcoholic sister, is a casualty. Her brother-in-law, Paul, tries to be caring, but can he cope with the two sisters? And what is to be done about Kate’s insistence that she has seen a disturbed Iraqi boy in the neighbour’s garden?

Ellwood’s novel is dedicated to her father, television journalist Luke Casey. “He won the RTS best documentary for Crying in the Dark, an investigation into the Cleveland child abuse crisis. He also covered the aftermath of civil war in Beirut. I’m the youngest of five – we grew up near Darlington. And although Dad never had PTSD, his experiences made him extremely protective of us.”

Ellwood’s mother, she says, was “like Barbara from The Good Life – able to live in the middle of nowhere with horses, cats, dogs and five children”. Her sister has worked for ITV and she has an actor brother – performance is in her genes. Ellwood always wanted to write but the urge started “song-shaped”. After studying sociology at Durham, she worked at London’s Chelsea Arts Club (frequented by the late and legendary war reporter Marie Colvin – another inspiration for the novel). She loved working there: “It was my home from home.”

During the same period she performed her songs at the piano in venues around Soho. It was only when she became pregnant with their son, Luke, that she and Nick took the “big step” of moving back up north.

The novel, however, is set in Kent. In February 2015 Ellwood travelled to Herne Bay (chosen for its proximity to Dover) and stayed there for two weeks: “I walked from the town up to Reculver’s twin towers. It is the most eerie and unsettling landscape – Turner painted it. There is this sense of otherness. Is that blur ahead of you a person? Or sky? Dog walkers would disappear in and out of the dunes. I thought: this is fabulous.”

She and her husband are to produce an illustrated booklet, The Story Behind My Sister’s Bones, to be published by the Arts Council later this year (an earlier version can be viewed on Ellwood’s website). Nick, she explains, volunteered in the Calais camps over Christmas 2015 (the drawings that grew out of that experience were recently exhibited at Oxo Tower). And his chilling accounts helped fuel the novel. Ellwood also read war reporters on Syria and steeped herself in footage. Even the researching, she recalls, made her feel anxious, hyper-vigilant, protective of her son. “In a strange way, it was like PTSD by osmosis.”

In literary terms, the writers she has been most drawn to have included Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan, Pat Barker and MR James. But it is Martha Gellhorn whose mission she hopes to share, making “an angry sound against injustice”. I tell her that I can imagine My Sister’s Bones making a powerful film (discussions about rights are ongoing). She laughs: “Angelina Jolie would be my top choice to play Kate.”

She volunteers that she is already at work on a second thriller, set on the West Yorkshire moors, about a GP who wakes after a car crash to find everything changed. And this leads us to talk about the way that in her writing – as in life – there is always more to a person than meets the eye. Sometimes, she says, she plays with the idea of reimagining herself. “I’ll think about being Lydia from Maidstone.” And now it is my turn to laugh: Lydia from Maidstone does not convince. But we are all about to be convinced by Nuala Ellwood. KK

My Sister’s Bones is published by Penguin on 9 Feb (£12.99). To preorder a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846 Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Karl Geary: ‘My life was transformed because of the written word’

Karl Geary
‘Class is a huge part of the book’: Karl Geary. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

The Dublin boy with a learning disability has gone on to become an actor, New York hipster… and now a dedicated novelist

“It’s about that feeling of freedom…” says Karl Geary when I notice the bird with spread wings tattooed on to his hand. A feeling of freedom is what the characters crave in Geary’s powerful Montpelier Parade, the story of 16-year-old, working-class Sonny who yearns to escape from 1980s Dublin where he is violently bullied. One day, while helping his father build a wall in well-to-do Montpelier Parade, he meets the troubled, enigmatic Vera. “Class is a huge part of the book,” says Geary. “Sonny builds walls with his dad and all he wants to do is leap over them. Vera introduces him to other possibilities. It’s really about two people who free each other in some way.”

Through Vera, Sonny discovers the power of books: “Books give him the strength to climb over that wall. His journey towards literature is one of understanding that the narrative he has grown up with isn’t completely true”.

Sonny’s family warn him against “getting ideas above his station”: “His mother has the burden of readying her children for a life of poverty and doesn’t want him to be hurt,” Geary explains. Were books a part of his own childhood? “No, I had a learning disability growing up so I didn’t discover them until much later. But when I did, my life was transformed because of the written word.”

Born in 1972, Geary grew up in Dublin, then left for America aged 16. “I left for economic reasons and it worked out well for me. I loved the freedom of New York – the community of the East Village, with the artists, the people who didn’t fit in anywhere else. I was a bike messenger for six months. Then someone approached me to do a film with Peter Fonda [the post-modern vampire movie Nadja, directed by Michael Almereyda]. I could not believe it was happening – the only poster I had as a kid was Easy Rider.

His acting roles after that were as diverse as Sex and the City, Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story and Hamlet. He also owned a bar in downtown Manhattan called Scratcher and co-owned another club, Cafe Sin-é, in the East Village, where he waited at tables alongside Jeff Buckley. Regulars included Marianne Faithfull and Sinead O’Connor. Iggy Pop, PJ Harvey, Johnny Depp and U2 were also known to pop by.

Although Geary drew on memories of his childhood in Ireland, the novel is not autobiographical: “There are parallels but my personal experience and Sonny’s are not exactly the same. Chekhov said: ‘It should be enough for a writer to walk past a barracks and understand something of the life of the lieutenant.’ I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”

The rural and oral traditions in Irish writing were an inspiration for Montpelier Parade, which is narrated in a haunting second-person voice. The novel was written mostly in a dilapidated house in upstate New York. “I was on my own – that sense of isolation seeped in,” Geary says. “Every character is solitary in some way, and they’re filled with longings, fears and anxieties but can’t express them, so these feelings get played out in what’s not said. It’s almost like music where it’s the beat of silence between the notes that’s important.”

He moved to Glasgow a year ago and now lives there with his wife, the Breaking Bad actor Laura Fraser, and their daughter, Lila. (The couple met in 2003 while filming Coney Island Baby, which Geary wrote and appeared in.) Writing is intrinsic to Geary’s daily life. “I get up early – 5am. I try and do 500 words a day.” Finally getting a publishing deal has been “amazing”, he admits, but “if I hadn’t, I would still be writing. It wakes me up to my environment in a way that nothing else does – and I would never give that up”.

Montpelier Parade is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Joseph Knox: ‘I had to make it happen: it was life-or-death’

Joseph Knox
Inspired by The Great Gatsby: Joseph Knox. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

This fiction-buyer knew how hard a successful writer must work… but never expected his own debut to take eight years

After six years of working on his noir thriller, Sirens, Joseph Knox finally had a finished draft. “By this point, everyone I know and love does not believe this book exists,” Knox smiles. “It’s a fantasy. It’s a mental illness almost. I know I’ve got to make it happen and all this pressure is coming from internally basically, but it’s very, very real to me. It felt life-or-death to me to finish it.”

Knox, whose day job – perhaps helpfully, maybe not – is crime-fiction buyer for Waterstones, read the manuscript through: the first half was exactly what he was hoping for, tight and atmospheric; the second half wasn’t. It felt limp and loose, the ending derivative. “I thought, ‘This could get published but it’s not going to stand next to anything I love. It’s not even going to be in the same room.’ Even thinking about that moment makes me feel sick. I walked around for many days with this weighing on my mind and I realised that the answer was just to delete the second half and start again. Which is what I did.”

Two years later, Sirens was again finished, and this time Knox, who is 30 and writes under a pseudonym, was completely happy. It was sent out by his agent to publishers, and a staggering 10 came back with offers. Knox decided to go with Transworld, because they were the most excited about developing the book into a series. “Eight years!” says Knox, shaking his head. “Nothing should take that long! I thought about getting a tear tattooed on my face for every one of them.”

Sirens follows the mostly nocturnal adventures of a junior detective in Manchester called Aidan Waits. He is sent undercover to track a 17-year-old girl, the runaway daughter of an MP, and finds himself caught up with a drug dealer who uses exotic female cash collectors, and the long-unsolved disappearance of one of them. Waits goes native, indulging fairly liberally in drugs and sex – old-fashioned cop work, I think it’s called – and scrabbles to keep a grip on fast-unravelling events. It is thrilling, breathless stuff, and Knox swingingly evokes an underworld both seedy and alluring.

The idea came to Knox when he was an English student at Manchester University. One evening he found himself at a party – a pill party to be precise, where revellers bring prescription and over-the-counter medicines and mix them up – with no idea who owned the rather grand house they were in. “I was reading The Great Gatsby and it went off in my head right there that you could update that into a noir-ish criminal setting,” he recalls. “Instead of Gatsby throwing these jazz-age shindigs, you’ve got a criminal throwing raucous pill parties. And instead of Gatsby’s lost love, you’ve got the criminal’s – literally missing – lost girlfriend. And instead of Nick entering this world as a naive young man, you’ve got a young detective who has been seduced into it.

“That just dropped into my head immediately as a really fun thing to do,” he goes on, “but that idea is looking pretty thin when you’re seven years later and still banging your head against a wall.”

Knox really means it: he is a cheery fellow to have a beer with in the Waterstones cafe in London, but he clearly has an obsessive streak. He uses every spare second he has to write, and – as a lifelong insomniac – works long into the night. Surely now Sirens is being published, it must be a relief?

“It’s like coming out of a coma in a way,” says Knox. “You call up all your friends and the phone numbers don’t work. You look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Who’s this old guy?’ So I had this brief fleeting window of relief and then I found myself stood in the shower and I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, that depressing prick that you were for all the years up to the point where every minute was accounted for? He’s back! He’s back with a vengeance.’”

Knox laughs. “And that day, I just started the second book.” TL

Sirens is published by Doubleday (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Xan Brooks: ‘It’s like pumping water out of a well. The first stuff is going to be brown and sludgy and stink’

Xan Brooks
‘I’ve only just told my dad about the book, what it came from’: Xan Brooks. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

The former Guardian film editor quit journalism to work on his first novel, a dark and funny fairy tale – based on a strange reality

Given its dark subject matter, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is a thrilling, disturbing, and somehow very funny first novel: a twisted fairy tale, set in 1923, with touches of magic. Xan Brooks started on the book when he left Guardian, bashing out a chunk of the work in the first three months.

In order to focus, he took on no journalism (although a young baby provided some distraction). He finished a first draft in the first six months of 2015. I tell him I can’t imagine that the disturbing events in this book can be taken from reality, but they are.

There are two groups of characters – four ex-soldiers from the first world war, named after characters from The Wizard of Oz, and a group of four teenagers from north London – Winifred, John, Edith and our hero, Lucy. Every Sunday night the two groups meet in Epping Forest. It is not immediately obvious why, and it is not comforting to find out.

The title is a line Brooks’s wife once said about the erratic timepieces in their own home, while the dark subject matter of the narrative originates in his own family history, he says: “In 2014 I spent some time with my dad in New York, which is where he lives. His aunt had recently died, knocking 100, I think, and once, in a hasty two-minute conversation in the kitchen, she told my dad that she used to be taken to the woods to meet “the funny men from the war”. I think she was so unnerved saying it, that he felt he couldn’t ask any more questions about it. But it stayed with me. And I looked into it. I’ve only recently told my dad about the book, how it came from that.”

The mystery of what happens in the woods unfolds each time we follow the kids into the cover of the canopy away from their broken families in Walthamstow, depleted by fathers who didn’t come home from fighting or mothers who fell to the flu. The damage the war has done is rooted in the book, like the great trees in the forest – damage that’s passed on and gathers speed. Characters shift their identities to cope and we are never sure whether a grimace is in laughter or in pain and quite often it’s both. One particular method of coping is the most sinister of all.

Brooks didn’t just want to write a straight novel about the war and he rejects the label of historical fiction, telling me “a story is a story”. He grew up in the West Country rather than north London, but that’s where what happened to his great aunt took place. He didn’t get too bogged down in research either – “then you end up focusing on washing-machine brands” – and there are touches of Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie in the magical elements of the narrative.

He believes being a journalist helped him as a writer of fiction, he tells me, because journalists just have to get on with it. “But I do remember the first thing I did in my early 20s in the 1990s, was ghostwriting film reviews for the Radio Times. They didn’t even have my name on, and I thought no matter what I did these blurbs of films will be the most widely read of all.”

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times looks set to be widely read: it is a bold, ambitious, weird novel with a lot of foliage to get lost in. It wasn’t his first attempt, he adds.

“It’s like pumping water out of well. The first stuff that comes out is going to be brown and sludgy and stink, but you just have to keep doing it.” He eschewed the agent route and took it straight to publishers. Salt – which since its move into fiction has a habit of choosing quirky books which go on to resonate (see Wyl Menmuir’s Booker-longlisted The Many) – picked the book up. Wise decision on Salt’s part. Brooks hopes so. “The worst thing is fear,” he says. “The path is made by walking it.” HP

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is published on 15 April by Salt (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.64 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Olivia Sudjic: ‘I do feel I’ve shared too much information’

Olivia Sudjic
Her parents were ‘understandably’ concerned: Olivia Sudjic. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

She tried to write a historical novel but ended up with a fascinating story about how we connect in the digital age

Imagine Alice Through The Looking Glass for the Instagram generation and you’ll get a sense of Sympathy. Set largely in New York in 2014 – the disappearance of flight MH370 is among the real-world events that penetrate its narrator’s filter bubble – it explores the obsession of one young woman with another, an obsession fed by social media feeds and resulting in a slow but devastating slippage of identity.

Given its bang-up-to-the-minuteness, it’s a surprise to learn that the book was originally set 350 years in the past. “I had this idea in my mind that to be taken seriously your first novel has to have a historical element, and preferably something intergenerational,” Olivia Sudjic muses, “and then after a while, I was just like, ‘Mmm, that’s not coming naturally.’”

Sudjic’s plan was to write about sympathy powder, a “crackpot” form of 17th-century medicine “which turns up in lots of funny books like Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before and Longitude by Dava Sobel”. But then she realised that her ideas could be translated to the present. “Our technologies are like a modern form of that – medicine, magic – where we can connect across time and space, so the seeds are still there but I got rid of most of it.”

You might assume from this that Sympathy was a slow write but Sudjic, now 28, only began the book in 2014. “At university I read a lot of novels but was very used to breaking them down and seeing them from behind the scenes and it didn’t really facilitate a sense of ‘I could create one as well,’” she reflects.

Sudjic read English literature at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and “basically did a job a year” before joining the brand consultants Wolff Olins. There she was so unhappy that she decided to take the plunge, to quit and work on Sympathy full time, despite not having written creatively since her school days.

Sudjic’s parents were, she says, “understandably” concerned. However her grandmother was supportive and, turning fairy godmother, offered her a base in New York for three months while she got under way. “[New York] was a good place to write and then it became the book itself,” Sudjic recalls.

If the author’s name is familiar it is because her father is Deyan Sudjic, currently the director of London’s Design Museum and formerly the Observer’s design and architecture critic; Sudjic’s mother, Sarah Miller, founded Condé Nast Traveller magazine. “When I first said I was going to write the book my parents were like, ‘Oh! Well obviously it’s going to be about us!’” she laughs. “And I said, ‘Well no, it’s definitely not, but at the same time the characters will probably have parents.’”

Sympathy’s narrator, the knowingly-named Alice Hare, in fact has many parents: adopted into a white family, she is herself mixed-race, though that fact isn’t immediately apparent Sudjic wanted to surprise readers. “You imagine you’ve understood someone else’s way of thinking or lived someone else’s life, but actually what you’ve done is replayed your own.”

AtOver 400 pages Sympathy serves up David Mitchelllevels of plot; it is also subtly mimetic. “I liked the idea that someone would be reading a physical book, but feeling almost as though they were in a different medium,” Sudjic says, and she has succeeded: Sympathy’s narrative advances like a search, link by link, as Alice follows her nose through meat – and cyberspace – leaving not breadcrumbs but photos behind.

With so much going on – did I mention the particle physics…? – I can’t help wondering if Sudjic ever felt in danger of vanishing down the wormholes into which her protagonist dives. Did Sudjic do a Franzen and disconnect entirely while she was writing? No, she says, but her own relationship with social media has definitely changed. “I look back and I do feel like I’ve shared too much information… Writing the book has made me a lot more self-conscious about my relationship to technology.” But if Sympathy is in part a cautionary tale, its author is very far from po-faced: abuzz with ideas and enthusiasm, she leaves you convinced that there’s much, much more to come. SC



Esquire’s 25 Best Books of 2016

A collection of the best novels, non-fiction, and memoirs from the past year.


At a time when politics have dominated the national conversation in a way that can often feel overwhelming, the best books of 2016 so far have provided escapism and comfort. They’ve shown us that empathy is a great virtue, and that art can transcend the unhappiness of the everyday. These 25 books are all highly recommended.

Esquire’s 25 Best Reads 

Kim Hodges

Mental Health Month

Learn and Grow – 2016’s Mental Health Month theme

This is my story based on my life experience of growing up in an isolated small country town, Coolah, in central west NSW, Australia in the 1980s. This Memoir is written in the first person through a sensitive adolescent lens and personal reflections from me as an adult are embedded in the writing.

As I attempt to make sense of my teenage world, themes such as: self; identity; belonging; alienation; sexual awakening; coming of age; inequality and emotionality are explored as I develop my own social conscious and moral compass. Also the differences between ‘townies’ and ‘graziers’ and the expectations of male and female behaviour are scrutinised within the everyday. I also examine the day-to-day going-ons in my own family, other families, school and the town with watchful eyes and an inquisitive mind.

The plot explores: how I make sense of life and death; construct my personal identity; the effects of my upbringing; navigating a fractious mother-daughter relationship and am void of any sense of belonging within my family, school and the town. My curiosity poses many questions as to why things are as they are, but often remain unanswered.

The Memoir also exposes and examines the prejudices, social mores and unwritten rules that are constructed in this class divided town, why these exist and how they are sustained. Distinctions and similarities between individuals, families and classes are scrutinised often with humour to offset the sadness. My own personal challenges, barriers and adversities to reach my full potential are woven throughout the story with both heartbreaking and liberating consequences.

Join us as we mark Mental Health Month with Kim Hodges, author of  Girl on the Edge, a powerful memoir that richly illustrates the struggles of a young woman coming of age in 1980s small town Australia. Kim will be making a presentation based on her own experience of mental health, Flying in the sky to drowning in the sea: living with denial, terror and unwellness.

Kim Hodges @ Balmain Library                           Tuesday 25 October 6:30pm

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Liguritudine by Danilo Sidari

Liguritudine is a collection of short stories by Italian author Danilo Sidari, many of which are set in his home town of Taggia, a beautiful medieval town in western Liguria. These short stories are a tribute to Danilo’s Italian heritage and are imbued with nostalgia. Come along to Leichhardt Library and hear Danilo’s tales.

Traveller’s Tales @ Leichhardt Library           Thursday 10 November 2016—6:30pm

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Taggia: PanoramaTaggia: Panoramic view

Taggia: Panorama Taggia: Panoramic view

The Sydney Ducks another ‘Boat People’


In gold-rush California, Aussie diggers were unwelcome boat people

By Peter McAllister

How their spirits must have soared as they sailed through the Golden Gate. After the interminable, vomitous passage from colonial Sydney’s slums, the calm of San Francisco Bay must have seemed heavenly, the sprawling, gold-rush shanty towns the anterooms of a promised land. Imagine, then, their confusion at the sudden tramp of an armed boarding party’s feet on the deck, their bewilderment as they were taken, one by one, for “processing” in a makeshift interrogation cabin. And then, finally, their disbelief as they were sent, under guard, not to the modest boarding house or tent camp they’d expected, but to onshore detention to await forced deportation.

Such was the fate of many an Australian immigrant to 1850s San Francisco – the “Sydney Ducks”.

Anglo-Australians were once boat people – economic migrants – too. Between April 1849 and May 1850, the maelstrom of gold-rush California sucked some 11,000 Australians to San Francisco’s shores in search of gold and a better life. There they collided with the 20–30,000 rabidly nativist American migrants already in residence. And the scene was set for one of the most peculiar episodes of attempted ethnic cleansing in colonial history.

The grim rollcall of events seems eerily reminiscent of today’s asylum-seeker problem. There was the outrage at a potential immigrant crime wave, the clamouring demand that an out-of-touch political elite take severe action against the “Sydney scoundrels”: “Are we to be robbed and assassinated in our domiciles, and the law to let our aggressors perambulate …?” There was the dramatic birth of a military-style operation – not Operation Sovereign Borders, in this case, but the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance: “Lynch law must be the remedy!”

This last, incidentally, was no joke. At least four Sydney Ducks (criminals all, admittedly) would leave San Francisco at the end of a lynching rope.

There were boatloads of unauthorised and undocumented arrivals turned back or deported, usually to “the care of their natural protector, Sir Charles A FitzRoy” (the then governor of colonial New South Wales). Detention centres featured too, in this case the hastily adapted prison cells in the chambers of the firm Bullitt, Patrick & Dow. There was even an attempt at a regional solution: a US consul, one correspondent thought, should be stationed in Sydney permanently to stem the vile torrent at its source.

The Sydney Ducks (a derogatory moniker that apparently mutated from the earlier “Sydney Birds” and “Sydney Coves”) were stereotyped as claim jumpers rather than queue jumpers, of course, but that was the mildest slur they suffered. They were “hardened thieves and robbers”, “the most abandoned men and women”. “[They have] mildewed the name of everything Australian,” one San Francisco weekly thundered. They congregated in their own “whorish quarter”, an ethnic slum called Sydney-Town, where “vagabonds watched the street … their features concealed by slouch felts”, and the depraved inhabitants indulged in “the most hideous orgies”.

They even looked different. Sydney Ducks were often recognisable, straight off the boat, by their shaved heads: “so recently [were they released] from confinement that the hair had not had time to grow”. Their legs were bowed and they walked with a peculiar swinging gait, learnt from wearing leg irons. They were also, fortunately, identifiable from their peculiar accent and dialect, which bristled with criminal “flash talk”.

So ingrained was the Australian criminal stereotype that it even became the yardstick of other misfortunes. For example, the abolitionist agitator George Thompson, wrote one newspaper correspondent, was “a greater curse … than a full cargo of Sydney convicts”.

As always, the stereotype was only partially deserved. Certainly, some Sydney Ducks were escaped convicts who, in true people-smuggling style, had bribed captains to let them stow away. Others were ticket-of-leavers, freed convicts who couldn’t resist plying their old criminal skills in a new setting. Since there were so many Sydney Ducks in San Francisco, however, even a small number of these made for a bustling cast of colourful underworld characters.

Thieves ranged from the Sydney desperado lashed for stealing six miners’ breakfasts from a Rattlesnake Bar boarding house to outlaws who robbed the Monterey Customs House of $14,000 – a king’s ransom. Slightly more respectable were the gambling scammers who ran tables relieving miners of their ounce-bags of gold dust using waxed cards and rigged wheels. One burly Sydney Duck preferred “The Badger Trick”: playing the outraged husband bursting in on his supposed wife as she seduced some vulnerable mark – he would, of course, forgo violence or the police for a bag or two of dust.

City fathers were particularly outraged by the shady hotels and inns that sprang up in Sydney-Town. Some of these were simply a moral outrage, offering live sex shows or, even worse, all-night grogging and dancing.

San Francisco’s moral panic over Sydney criminals seems to have been partly a hysterical reaction to the fires that incinerated the city six times between 1849 and 1852. The real culprit was probably the explosion of cheap wooden buildings, but supposed Australian arsonists made for a much more tempting explanation. A tiny but highly visible minority seemed determined to prove it. Of 70 looters arrested after one fire, 48 turned out to be light-fingered Sydney Ducks unable to resist the opportunity.

As with most immigrant groups, however, behind the hubbub, the hangings, the colourful misfits, and the petty and not-so-petty criminals lay a silent success story. The committee of vigilance was soon identifying so few convicts among Australian immigrants that it had to disband. In fact, as the Californian census of 1852 revealed, Sydney men turned out to be more often married, employed, sober and non-criminal than Americans. Even single female Sydney Ducks, supposedly prostitutes and unsavouries all, turned out to have their respectable uses in a colony where there were 12 men for every woman. One Sydney shipload “of whom over 70 were females … caused a rush of bachelors to the Bay … with boatloads of them climbing the ship’s sides”. These women, and all their supposedly fallen sisters, disappeared into the matrimonial city where they undoubtedly, as one author has pointed out, went on to produce a large proportion of the city’s later ruling elite.

In the end, the wave of anti-Australian activity broke as abruptly as it had started. By late 1851, the Ballarat gold rush had roared into life and Californian newspapers started decrying the Americans flooding out of San Francisco, bound for Australia. Sydney criminals suddenly seemed the least of the city’s problems, and panic about the Ducks receded. The stereotype lingered for decades, however, as a stock villain in stage plays, and even NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes’ 1882 visit to California was reported under the uncomplimentary headline ‘A Sydney Duck’. It stands now, like the incongruous blue gums that line Californian highways, as a largely forgotten marker of how integration rolls on despite our worst atavistic fears – quietly, unassumingly and ultimately (usually) successfully.

Steve Cannane Journalist at Balmain Library discussing his book “Fair Game”

As astonishing as it is compelling Steve Cannane’s extraordinary insight into Scientology in Australia is investigative journalism at its very best.

From Rugby League players trying to improve their game, to Hollywood superstars and the depressed sons of media moguls, Scientology has recruited its share of famous Australians. Less known is that Australia was the first place to ban Scientology, or that Scientology spies helped expose the Chelmsford Deep Sleep Scandal. Numerous Australians have held senior posts in the organisation only to fall foul of the top brass and lose their families as a result.

Based on years of interviews and research, Walkley Award-winning journalist Steve Cannane tells for the first time the fascinating story of Australia’s vital involvement with this powerful, secretive and punitive cult.

Fair Game

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Traveller’s Tales John Blay talking about the Bundian Way at Leichhardt Library this Thursday evening 15/9/2016

August 28 2015 Canberra Times

South Coast author John Blay believes Bundian Way is path to eco-tourism glory

It’s a picture-perfect late winter’s day on the sparkling southern shores of Eden’s Twofold Bay. The waves are gently washing the oyster-covered rocks, the pelicans are cheekily chasing the cormorants, and along with a few fluffy white clouds, the imposing peak of Mt Imlay holds up the western horizon. From my vantage spot on a headland near the historic Davidson Whaling Station, rays of afternoon sunlight flicker off thousands of tiny white shell fragments which are scattered around my feet, and which form the top of a  three-metre high ancient midden.

“This spot really makes my heart sing,” beams naturalist and writer John Blay as he invites me to join him sitting on an old log, which fell long ago on top of the midden, making a tailor-made seat.

John Blay shares tales of the Bundian Way with Tim near Twofold Bay.
John Blay shares tales of the Bundian Way with Tim near Twofold Bay. Photo: Dave Moore

“We could sit back here and tuck into some fresh abalone, or sip a glass of wine, knowing that people have been coming here, feasting and enjoying this same view for thousands of years,” suggests Blay.

I fossick around in my backpack; all I’ve got to toast this unforgettable vista is a bottle of stale water. But accompanied with an outlook like this, even water left sitting in the sun of the yowie mobile for most of the day somehow tastes refreshingly good.

Ravens flock to the high country's moth places in their  thousands to feast when it's time for the bogongs to leave.
Ravens flock to the high country’s moth places in their thousands to feast when it’s time for the bogongs to leave. Photo: John Blay

Between sips, Blay points towards a gap in the distant hills, and confidently states “after you ford across the Kiah Inlet the Bundian Way then makes its way to the south of Balawan [Mt Imlay].”

If anyone can pinpoint the exact route of the Bundian Way, an ancient pathway used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years which links the far South Coast to the roof of Australia, Mt Kosciuszko, from this distance, then it has to be Blay. The quietly spoken 71-year-old dedicated the best part of a decade traversing some of the nation’s wildest, most remarkable landscapes searching for and rediscovering the 360-kilometre historic pathway which had become “lost” after more than two centuries of European settlement.


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