Friday, 27 April 2012
Floats like a butterfly stings like Ernest Hemingway... Sophie Coulombeau
WHEN I was 27 I was mostly off my face. Yes, I had a five year old kid. Yes, I had a degree. Sort of. And yes, I was working - kind of But mostly I was out of it. Or planning to be out of it very soon. Novelist Sophie Coulombeau is making much better use of her time. She's a sort of warrior academic of the kind the Spartans might have been proud of. She's got a first from Oxford, she's doing a doctorate on the eighteenth century... and she relaxes by boxing (and eating cheese).
And now she's a published novelist with celebrity literary fans like Philip Pullman and Sophie Hannah.
She wrote her first novel - Rites - extraordinarily quickly for a competition the Yorkshire publishers Route were running to find the Best Young Yorkshire Novelist (young meant under 30). I was on the judging panel along with five others and to be honest it was an easy choice. There can't have been so little debate on a literary judging panel since the panel met in the Mermaid to give the Upstart Crow Award for Most Promising New Playwright to a young William Shakespeare. Rites was a unaminous choice. And you're going to hear a lot more from her.
It's a great book. Four fourteen year olds decide to lose their virginity together and it doesn't go to plan. Things spiral out of control in a way the participants couldn't have expected and certainly don't desire. Fiona Shaw (another fan) puts it well: ‘Rites is a powerful read that has you questioning the wisdom of any adult and the innocence of any child. The story Coulombeau tells is an everyman tale of desire, friendship and betrayal. Behind it is a mind that takes nothing at face value: not love, not desire and not the violence that we are capable of doing to one another.’
Hello Sophie - can you give me your autobiography in 50 words exactly (not 49, not 51...)
Born in London. Grew up in Manchester. Twenties a long, messy ménage a trois with books & politics: undergrad at Oxford, work for a pollster, Masters in Philadelphia, tinkering with justice system in London, fighting organized crime in Brussels, PhD in York. Now 27, live in York, researching & writing.
Why should I read Rites?
Because Philip Pullman likes it, and he’s amazing. Also because it will hopefully make you think; about belief, trust, love, friendship, culpability, forgiveness and the unreliability of memory. And everyone should think about those things.
How far is this novel based on personal experience?
Not as much as you might expect. It is, on the one hand, very much about the particular kind of Anglo-Irish Catholic community where I grew up, and about some of the psychological effects growing up in that kind of community can have on people. But none of the characters are me. I definitely wasn’t as resourceful and precocious as my four teenage protagonists. I spent most of my time in my bedroom reading Tintin and Asterix, and wondering why my life wasn’t more exciting.
You’re a PhD student. How did your studies help inform the writing of Rites?
I think it’s true to say that my academic practice makes my creative style a lot more controlled, precise and well-researched than it used to be. When you’re used to watching word count like a hawk and footnoting every fact, you don’t suffer sloppy writing gladly. But in terms of subject matter, this book is rather unrelated to my research, which addresses the relationship between naming and identity in late eighteenth-century fiction. This may not be the case with my second novel, which I’m currently writing...
How long did you spend writing the book and were there moments where you felt like giving up?
I wrote the first few chapters of the book in a couple of weeks in the spring last year. Then I sent them in to a competition run by Route Publishing to find a young author under 30. And when I heard I’d made the shortlist, I had to write the rest of the first draft in rather a hurry. So I didn’t really have much time to reflect on my own inadequacies, at least until I’d finished the thing and sent it off. I think there’s a lot to be said for lighting a fire under your own arse; over-thinking is the aspiring writer’s worst enemy.
What has the reaction been from family and friends?
They’re all really supportive and excited about reading it, which is great. My favourite thing is that a few friends have written to me saying that the knowledge that I can get a book published – a real person who they know, who’s completely normal (and by implication, totally uncool) – has spurred them on to really get to grips with writing their own. Because if I can do it, anyone can. I think that’s lovely, in a knockabout sort of way. Writing needs that sort of demystification.
Any events lined up?
Surprisingly, yes, even though the book isn’t out yet. I’m speaking in a New Novelists panel at the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival on 2nd July with Selma Dabbagh, Suzy Joinson, Peter Salmon and Ros Barber. I hope you haven't forgotten that you're chairing it... I’m also talking in a similar panel at the York Festival of Ideas on June 23rd, with Kathleen McMahon and Essie Fox. The thought of speaking at arts festivals is surreal, but I hope it’ll be a lot of fun.
Who in life or writing do you admire and why?
Life - I’m just going to be a massive stereotype and (truthfully) say my parents, because they support me through thick and thin even though I imagine I often baffle them. Academia – the University of York is stuffed to the gills with amazing thinkers, writers and innovators including John Barrell, my supervisor Harriet Guest and, until recently, the late and great Jane Moody. Writing – I admire a vast and diverse range of writers, but my top five (in no particular order) would be Frances Burney, Philip Larkin, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes and Philip Pullman. Oh, wait, and Angela Carter. It’ll have to be a top six.
How do you relax?
Eating cheese, drinking wine, painting bad pictures of celebrities who make me laugh, walks and pints with my friends, running and boxing (in the feeblest, most amateur way imaginable). I love to travel too, when I can afford it. Turkey and Cuba are next on the list, and I have a turbulent on/off affair with the USA.
What’s next for you?
Finishing my PhD in the next couple of years, and applying for jobs researching and teaching. I love working in academia – which despite the stereotypes is a dynamic, creative, fulfilling and often downright hilarious environment - and hope I can do so for a long time to come. I’ll be writing (and hopefully publishing) fiction too. I’ve just started my second book – a twisted take on the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, set on the eve of the French Revolution – and am also bouncing some ideas around for a play.
Tell me something I don't know...
When I was working at the European Commission, a friend and I noted over a beer that the English have no word to describe "pleasure in someone else's success" and the French have no term to denote "to get things done". And I was once told that I had no personal integrity. By Jeffrey Archer.
Rites is published by Route and is available from June 16 - though you can order it now. You can even order a signed copy. Or come and see her in person in Hebden Bridge.