About The Author
While Gail Honeyman was writing her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. It has subsequently sold to almost thirty territories worldwide, won the Costa First Novel Award and was chosen as one of the Observer's Debuts of the Year for 2017. Gail was also awarded the Scottish Book Trust's Next Chapter Award in 2014, and has been longlisted for BBC Radio 4's Opening Lines and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She lives in Glasgow.
Gail's endearing heroine, Eleanor Oliphant, leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted - while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she's avoided all her life.
Exclusively for Foyles we chatted to Gail about the loneliness of some young adults, the things in life everyone ought to be able to take for granted and the benefits of being in a writers' group.
Questions & Answers
How did you get started on this book?
I’d been thinking about writing for years, but my impending 40th birthday was what finally prompted me to make a start on a novel –that cliched thing where a big birthday makes you focus on things that you haven’t done yet but have always wanted to. Even if I ended up never showing it to anyone and just hiding it away in a drawer, I wanted to find out whether I could complete a novel, manage the shape and the weight of it, and be able to wrangle with a narrative arc over that space, having only ever written short fiction before (which is not to say that short stories are easier to write!).
What gave you the idea for the book?
The idea was initially sparked by an article I read about loneliness. It was an interview with a young woman who lived alone in a big city, had a flat and a job, but who said if she didn’t make a special effort, she would leave work on a Friday night and wouldn’t talk to anyone again until Monday morning. That really struck me, because when loneliness is discussed in the media, it’s usually in the context of older people - which is obviously a huge issue - but it was intriguing to think that it could also affect a younger person in this way. When I thought more about it, I realised that there were plenty of potential routes to a young person finding themselves in those circumstances, through no fault of their own, and how hard it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections.
What was your day job at the time?
I was working full time in an administrative role in a university, so I was writing before work, getting up early in the morning, or spending my lunch break in a café, making notes. It took about two and a half years to finish the first draft.
There are very specific reasons why Eleanor is living such a lonely life at the start of the book, but your epigraphs from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City also made me wonder if you think loneliness is on the increase for people generally, as Eleanor herself says, ‘loneliness is the new cancer’?
I’m not sure. Thankfully, it’s definitely a topic that’s being discussed and considered more, and taken more seriously.
Some of the scenes are hilarious, such as Eleanor’s first bikini wax. How did you get the balance just right between laughing with her and not at her? Was it partly about allowing her to deliver the best lines?
That’s a great question! I think the first person narrative helps - seeing the world through her eyes means that you’re experiencing it with her as a participant, almost, rather than just an observer. I also thought it was important that Eleanor doesn’t display or experience self-pity, however awkward or distressing her circumstances. I really wanted to leave space in the narrative for the reader to draw their own conclusions about her life and her experiences and how she’s responded to them, and hopefully, to empathise with Eleanor. It’s hard to laugh at people you feel a connection with.
In the end it was not social services, nor even really therapy, that started to change things for Eleanor. Do you think the various service-providers could or should have done more or can these formal interventions never replace, say, friendship or meaningful relationships?
That’s a difficult one – I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer that question. I don’t dwell on the details of her experience in social care in the novel because I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to try and tell that particular part of her story, not without having done a lot of detailed research beforehand.
Eleanor heartbreakingly notes that people around her were able to take so much for granted: “that they would be invited to social events, that they would have friends and family to talk to, that they would marry and have children….” Do we take these things too much for granted or is the tragedy that Eleanor cannot?
Social connections, meaningful relationships, are a fundamental part of the human experience, and, as you pointed out, an important stage on Eleanor’s journey is that she comes to realise this. She also realises that it’s a two-way thing; people can enjoy connecting with her, just as much as she does with them.
What do you think of the way Eleanor goes about choosing her reading matter? She is very funny describing how to work out who the murderer or the love interest is. Does any part of you agree with her? Presumably you wanted your readers to realise who played the transformative role in your own book long before Eleanor does?
That’s another really interesting question! Part of the fun of writing this particular character was trying to see the world from a completely different point of view. I made myself laugh quite a lot when I was writing Eleanor for that reason – because she says and does and thinks about things so differently. It was so much fun to try to see the world through this particular character’s eyes.
Do you think you have to have part of a character in you in order to be able to write them?
I don’t think so, not necessarily. For me, part of the challenge, one of the things that makes writing interesting, is to push yourself, to explore, to go to places where you haven’t necessarily been. It was great fun as a writer to explore that with Eleanor.
Would we all be better off if people were actually more direct, like Eleanor?
That’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Eleanor’s directness causes her some problems, socially – the first person narrative means we as readers know that there’s no deliberate intention on her part to offend, but it does make life a bit tricky sometimes!
Your book has already garnered some awards, at least one of which was for work in progress. Did that pile on pressure or act as a great incentive during any times of struggle?
I’d written the first three chapters and entered them for the Lucy Cavendish award [for unpublished writing]. Being shortlisted for that award was a real confidence booster because, particularly in the early stage of the novel and for me as a first time novelist, it’s not easy to be confident and it’s very easy to lose heart, particularly at the 3-chapter stage, so it was great to have the affirmation.
Did you know where it was going at that point?
No, I had the ending but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I know some writers are meticulous plotters and mappers, and that’s probably a more efficient way to write, but I like to know the end point but not necessarily how I’m getting there. That keeps it interesting for me as a writer and allows the characters space to develop.
Were you in a Writers’ Group?
Yes. That’s been invaluable, to get feedback, and also you learn a lot from reading other people’s work as well as them reading yours. It’s also nice to talk and socialise with other writers, it’s a bit of a solitary business sometimes so it’s good to have people who can celebrate or commiserate with you. It’s a lovely community of encouraging and supportive people.
Have you started another novel?
Yes. I don’t want to say too much about it at this stage but my new novel has a male and a female narrator. Although I loved writing Eleanor, I’m really enjoying working on something so different.