Following Frida, a cynical divorce lawyer and secret descendent of immortal love god Eros, The Gods of Love (Piatkus, £8.99) is a modern romance underpinned by ancient mythology. The debut novelist says she honed her voice writing columns for Big Issue North.
You’ve worked as a bookseller, copywriter, journalist, fictional agony aunt and Big Issue North columnist, of course. How did that work prepare or hinder you in writing your own novel?
Being a freelance writer for 18 years has been both a huge plus and also, at times, a drawback in writing the novel. I thought I had the self-motivation thing cracked, but when you write a first novel there’s no deadline, no payment, nobody is waiting for it and nobody cares a jot. This requires an entirely new level of determination bordering on the delusional.
One transferable skill was that, over the years of writing for a living, I had learned how to trust an idea. There’s a sort of wavelength you get on when you’re writing, and then a click when the whole thing falls into place. It’s the same for a novel as for a column, just on a mindbogglingly larger scale.
I admit, when I turned from journalism to fiction, I did have a vague sense that I should adopt a more serious, writerly style and perhaps start wearing a hat. But I eventually realised that I already had a “voice”, I’d been honing it all these years in my columns, and that my subject matter, too, was just an extension of my existing preoccupations with human behaviour, and that I don’t suit hats.
Working as a bookseller showed me how important it is that your book fits into a genre so they know where to shelve it, a fact I blithely ignored while writing this awkward cross-genre fantastical rom-com. Sorry about that, booksellers.
Do you believe having a female Greek hero, rather than male, challenges some of the traditional assumptions found in Greek mythology?
Having my hero be a woman probably stems from my own desire to see more women in the role of adventurer. In early drafts my protagonist was a man, but he wasn’t a hero in the typical Greek sense and, anyway, it didn’t work. When in later versions Frida elbowed her way into the spotlight I knew this was the way to go.
To me, it just seems natural to have a female hero because mythology is something that we can update and recreate for our times. I’m a big fan of the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero Journey (which informed George Lucas’s writing of Star Wars) but I’m interested in what a woman’s hero story might be if she doesn’t choose what Campbell sees as the creative work of motherhood and marriage, or if those things only form part of her story alongside slaying the monsters. So maybe that’s what I’m exploring here.
Which Greek god would you like to be and why?
Definitely Artemis. As a child I was always climbing trees and befriending animals and wholeheartedly believed I would be happiest living wild in the woods. This was Stockport circa 1982 so I’m not quite sure how that would have panned out.
Is romance dying in the modern age of technology and social media?
It’s tricky. On one hand, social media and internet dating have opened up a social space for anyone no longer going to bars a few times a week. On the other hand, what technology frequently does is deprive us of the quiet, still, connected place inside which tells us what will bring us genuine happiness. There’s a manic quality to being online, and a prioritising of things that look impressive above those which are unshowy or unseen, but genuinely and personally rewarding.
That said I met my partner online so it absolutely can work! But it’s a brutal process, like shopping for people, and those embittered by their experiences online are legion. To make online dating work for you, you really need to be incredibly grounded, take nothing personally, toughen up to rejection, have your eye out for sharks and remind yourself that you’re perfectly okay, whatever happens. (In many ways this is the perfect preparation for the publication process.)
How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Can it do more harm than good?
I personally do not celebrate Valentine’s Day, in the same way that I don’t make a big deal out of New Year’s Eve, because I’m irritated by the idea that we should be chivvied, cattle-like, into certain behaviours/purchases/overpriced nightspots.
Who enjoys Valentine’s Day really? If you’re single you feel conspicuous, like you have to defend your happiness. Meanwhile couples are undergoing the fraught process of overly high expectations followed by crushing disappointment followed by sulking. Why, when yesterday everything was fine? Who enjoys Valentine’s Day? Retailers. That’s who. I mean, do what makes you happy. If that’s a six foot padded card and chocolate body paint, then go for it. But know that, ultimately, it’s all nonsense. (I realise I have a book out for Valentine’s Day and am thus contributing to the problem, but my book does offer an antidote to the commodification of love and, at the very least, it will not insist you don edible underwear.)
You conceived Gods of Love a while ago. How has it evolved since then?
It changed a lot over the years. Initially the book was in the third person, multiple viewpoints and, as mentioned, a male hero. I got an agent for it but in the rewrites I just couldn’t make it work and, gutted, I decided to let it go. When the idea came back to me a few years later it felt almost fully formed. This time it was in first person, with a female hero, very pacey and was an absolute joy to write. I pitched out again, got a new agent, got a two-book deal and here we are. I’m am so glad I didn’t publish the book back then. I’m 100 per cent sure that this is what the novel wanted to be; it was just waiting for me to get with the programme.