Local Winchester author Beth O’Leary talks to MA student Jane Baldock about her forthcoming debut novel, The Flatshare.
Your background is in children’s publishing. Did you consider writing for children?
I’d always written teen books before. I started writing novels as a teenager and I read a lot of YA. This idea lent itself more to being an adult book. Now I know that’s what I want to do. It just feels like the right voice for me.
Did you do anything with your earlier books?
I tried to get an agent but didn’t get anywhere. By the time I got to this one, I knew the drill of waiting. I was quite realistic. I didn’t expect it to happen. I sent The Flatshare out to five or six agents and Tanera (Tanera Simons – Darley Anderson Agency) was the only one who asked for more than the first three chapters.
Did you send it out to different agents at the same time?
Over a couple of months. When Tanera didn’t get back to me, I thought, ‘Well that’s that.’ The website says to contact them if you don’t hear back within eight weeks. So I emailed and she replied ‘I totally missed this! Don’t go anywhere! I’ve just picked it up and I’m really enjoying it.’ It was honestly the most exciting thing and I didn’t want to hope. After we met, she said she’d like to represent me. It was such a dream!
Did you have to make many changes to the original manuscript?
I think the biggest change was that the characters met too early. I had to move that meeting point later. I found that quite challenging. But the process of working with professional editors was amazing.
Having been an editor yourself, did that give you some insight?
It’s very different from anything I’d worked on. I definitely feel that a book is made better by editors. Even if at first you don’t like the feedback, give it a couple of days, usually it’s right.
The story is about two people who live in the same flat but don’t meet. How did you come up with that?
When Sam and I first moved in together, I was doing the commute and he was working nightshifts. He would go to work just as I was coming back. A friend suggested a person could rent out their room when they’re not there and I thought that would be a really good concept for a novel. I think there is a romance in the little things you can do for somebody when they’re not there.
How did you come up with the title?
Ah the title! It was always The Flatshare from the first time I saved the document. I tried different titles with my writers’ group and my agent. It was briefly called ‘The First Rule of Flatsharing’, but people still referred to it as ‘the flatshare book’!
How long did it take you to write?
I wrote it in about six months and then spent that time again editing it. I do write quite fast. My first draft is always slightly frantic – like it’s rolling away from me and I’ve got to keep up.
You don’t plan in a formal way?
I have some idea. There were things that I knew I wanted to happen. The subplot’s changed a lot from what I originally envisaged. I had in my head roughly where I intended it to go. I’m probably quite character-driven.
It’s alternate chapters isn’t it?
Yes, although dual-perspective comes with problems that I didn’t anticipate. I’d really overwritten one character – she’s very chatty. The guy is a man of few words and his chapters were always tighter.
Who was the inspiration for your characters?
There’s a lot of me in both of them. The characters came out of the concept really – I thought about what kinds of people would do this. They each had to have a reason to be open-minded about that sort of living arrangement.
You’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to The Flatshare. Does that make it harder to write the next book?
It’s given me confidence in my abilities as a writer and that definitely helps going into the second one. But the pressure is such a different experience from writing the first one, when you’re just hoping someone will take it up.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary is due to be published by Quercus in April 2019.