Flame and glory

Author Caroline Hulse has followed her sharply-observed debut The Adults with a second story of familial truth and lies

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Caroline Hulse’s story is one of perseverance, of learning to accept life won’t always give you the break, and to enjoy the ride when it does.

Now in her early forties, the Manchester author finished her first book at 22, but couldn’t find a taker for it. Embarking on a career in HR, at various times she tried again, working around the day job. The break didn’t come until she hit 40, when The Adults was picked up by Orion. Published in 2018, it became a bestseller and has been translated into 14 languages. Last year, it was optioned by Tiger Aspect, so a film or TV adaptation is a tantalising possibility. Now Hulse has published her second novel, Like A House On Fire.

“The whole thing was a surprise. I never imagined it would take off with the international sales,” says Hulse. “I was really naïve when I wrote the first book at 22. I thought: ‘I’ll write at night, and it will happen.” By age 40, I’d moved to contracting jobs and writing in between. It was quite unsettling in some ways to think this is now a job.”

It’s easy to see why The Adults struck a chord. In TV terms, you’d call it a comedy-drama. It opens with an emergency services call about a shooting (archery, not drive-by) at the Happy Forest Holiday Park. This Center Parcs-style place is the Christmas break destination of the book’s blended family subject – divorced Claire and Matt, their daughter Scarlett and their respective new partners Patrick and Alex. Oh, and Scarlett’s imaginary friend Posey, a toy rabbit.

It’s a lively paced, highly relatable tale with awkwardness and cringey moments everywhere as the story builds to the shooting, a rare violent incident that shows the book’s origins as crime-lite.

“I’d always tried to write crime and suspense, because that’s what I’ve always read so much of. Basically, every time I found myself not enjoying work, I’d throw myself into writing a book, and they were often based on situations I had first-hand experience of – the workplace or a casino,” says Hulse, who used to be a competitive poker player. “But my agent said quite firmly: ‘You need to write comedy’.

“You have to be aware of what’s going to be commercial – there’s no point pouring your efforts into books no one wants to read.”

There are similarities between the first book and Like A House On Fire – an awkward set-up, people not being fully frank with each other, generational differences. The plot revolves around married couple Stella and George. Interspersed with context-setting flashbacks, the action takes place at a murder mystery party hosted by Stella’s mum Margaret.

Stella and George have split up, but Stella hasn’t told her family yet, and with Margaret about to start cancer treatment, she doesn’t want to. Hence George is roped into playing nice with his sort-of former in-laws.

“However people develop through adulthood, when you go back to your parents you find the same things in the same place, and people just fall into their assigned family roles,” says Hulse. “It looks at how people can get incredibly irritated by others’ habits and quirks, but tries to see it all from those different viewpoints.”

Much of the generational tensions revolve around Tommy, Margaret’s husband, who has recently handed down the family corner shop. He’s the guy who reads terms and conditions text in full. He’s an anachronism. But he’s also a man who knows full well that four quid for a bag of fancy crisps is not what a neighbourhood shop should be about.

As with The Adults, the dialogue in Like A House On Fire is keenly observed, always believable. But Hulse isn’t part of a blended family, and insists she’s never hosted a murder mystery party.

“To some extent, certain parts are influenced from your life. If you want it to be relatable, you do take things from your own experiences. But my dad’s nothing like Tommy!

“It must be so hard for people of older generations to deal with cultural change, to take on board what’s construed as inappropriate now, and deal with gentrification. People have different values and beliefs, and how prepared they are to talk about different things, such as Margaret’s cancer, can create tension, while she’s being all smiley for her guests.

“There is awkwardness, and some of the things people do here are definitely wrong, but I hope there’s compassion there too. Nobody is setting out to be the bad guy and make others’ lives worse.”

As to how Stella and George got to where they are, it’s that classic “opposites attract, but does it last?” thing, Hulse says. “The Stella and George relationship highlights that question of how people with different attitudes can suit each other but drive each other mad, and how you either find ways of dealing with it or you don’t.”

The Like A House On Fire manuscript has been undergoing refinements since mid-2019, but was “finished” in a meaningful sense two years ago. – Hulse’s next novel, based around an 11 year old’s coming of age story in the mid-1990s, is already pretty much written.

With this disconnect, is it hard to maintain focus? “To an extent. But I’m quite structured, I like deadlines, and you have to try and focus, accept that you’re not involved in the output part of this one. I should really just try and enjoy having a lie-in before coming to work.”

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