Author Q&A: Rosamund Lupton

Three Hours (Viking, £14.99) 

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Three hours is ordinarily a morning’s lessons or a dress rehearsal of Macbeth but today, at a progressive school in rural Somerset during a blizzard, it is an eternity waiting for news while the school is under siege. Rosamund Lupton’s gripping new novel examines the creeping grip of the far right, the impact of a 24/7 news cycle and the way different characters react to extreme circumstances.

What does a story set in a tight time frame allow you to do as a writer?
It gives the story cohesion and tension. In the first paragraph, the headteacher is shot in a corridor and badly wounded. Kids grab him and drag him into the library. The novel follows what happens over the next three hours. The story is told by a number of people – the injured headteacher, the teenagers looking after him, parents anxiously waiting and the police who are working against the clock to try and end this. Having a short time frame means all these different experiences are linked tightly together. I also wanted to write a book where the reader is reading almost in real time alongside the characters.

Much of the story is told through tech and news reports happening in real time. As a writer of novels, which are often years in the making, how do you feel about the modern dissemination of stories?
I think unfolding news that you get almost instantly is absolutely compelling, which is why I use it in the book. But when I was researching the novel I discovered how terrorists use social media and how news sites help them disseminate material. In my novel, social media catches fire and sets challenges for the police. Although I still like getting up-to-the minute news, I also like reading long-form articles, when the dust has had a chance to settle and you can see things more clearly.

Why did you choose to set Three Hours in a progressive school in leafy Somerset?
I wanted a school which has very young children right up to sixth formers and I also wanted the school to have a history of taking in refugees, so chose a “progressive school” with a history of liberalism.  The story is set in Somerset, partly because it’s remote with woodlands but most importantly because it’s by the sea. In the story, junior school children and their teachers wait on a beach, hiding under the cliffs, to be rescued by boats and that’s important both in terms of the story and the themes of the book.

The book explores how individuals react differently in a crisis. Did you give a lot of thought to how you would react?
I thought about my characters’ behaviour rather than my own – how would this young deputy head with depression and little self-confidence act (he is extraordinarily brave)? What about this teenage couple who are in love? This older teacher? Through researching the book I discovered how courage exists in ordinary people, especially when people they love or their community is threatened. I think after the recent London Bridge attack we are all in awe of the heroism of seemingly normal people.

There’s an undercurrent of Islamophobia and far-right sentiments in the story and Rafi’s character is the perfect antidote. What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I wanted the drip drip drip of far-right sentiments, especially Islamophobia, to be seen as potentially very dangerous, as well as wrong. I hope with Rafi a reader sees a courageous boy who loves his brother, his girlfriend and his new community.

School shootings are terrifyingly commonplace in the US, but rare in the UK. Do you fear we could become like the US?
As long as we continue to have strict gun control laws I don’t think we’ll become like the US. The attack in my novel isn’t like a US school shooting, where a gunman/gunmen goes on the rampage from the off. It’s about tension, not carnage. As it’s far harder to get a gun in the UK, there is something bigger in play than just the two gunmen.

Your family and your in-laws both have stately connections to Yorkshire. Do you have any personal connection to the county?  
I spent many childhood Christmases in Yorkshire and still love visiting my family there. My father grew up in Yorkshire and as a boy planted saplings that we now go and visit as mature trees. I feel a sense of connection and continuity with Yorkshire.

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