Morgan McCarthy didn’t start with just one debut novel, she began with two.
She started writing her first novel, which became The Other Half of Me, straight after studying English Literature at university, and after a few years began sending it out to agents. "When I was waiting for it to come back or just getting a bit fed up with it, I started The Outline of Love, and then wrote them side by side over a long period of time."
She is philosophical about the years spent writing and re-writing while working and renovating houses with her partner: “I left uni in 2003, got my book deal in 2011 I think, so it took about seven years to do both of them... when I finished the first book and handed it in, I had a pretty much finished novel two. It was a total mess but it was a finished novel to go back to. It was a case of: 'here's one I made earlier'!"
The Outline of Love is published this week, and it’s a compelling story of a young woman, Persephone Triebold, living in the very remote Scottish Highlands with her father and the memories of her mother, who died when she was small. Persephone decides to attend university in London, and steps into an alien landscape of drink, sex, flatmates, sleazy student club nights and a yearning for the very handsome, very unobtainable rockstar author, Leo Ford, who has his own secrets.
“I wanted her to come from somewhere where she would have very little influence growing up, somewhere very remote and cut off from society.” McCarthy researched the Highlands until she found a “white house in the middle of all these mountains in this expanse of nothingness and I was like: ‘that’s perfect, that’s Persephone’s house’.”
The university setting, which she admits is the most "autobiographical" part of the novel, “was a way of exploring someone thrown in at the deep end, having to learn new social codes and all the pitfalls you encounter”.
Persephone (named after the character from Greek mythology, more on this later) is both naïve and insecure and determined to experience life and a great love. She sets her sights on Ford, whom she first spots in a TV interview, “his eyes the colour of sea edges, horizons, mountains: distant things”, and gradually insinuates her way into his circle of glamorous friends.
A wanted man
“I thought: what are the elements of a wanted man, that get women intrigued? [Leo's] got the mystery and the fame and the hint of danger, he has a lot in common with Byronic heroes and people like that.”
“He’s certainly not based on anyone I know, probably for the best!" McCarthy laughs. "I really created him to be this archetype – he’s the ‘distant man’ so there are elements of his life that are quite fantastical, everything around him puts him out of her reach.
“You never really get a sense of who he properly is until it’s too late.”
The novel also places a magnifying glass over the 21st-century obsession with celebrity. “Persephone is coming to it totally cold and from the outside and because she's had so little exposure to social things, it’s almost like you’re seeing a 'natural' reaction to what she’s found. [Celebrity culture] is something that’s always really interested me: our expectations of people who are famous, the pressures that are put on them."
As Persephone gets closer to Ford, she meets his beautiful, troubled sister Ivy and brutal father. "Families are central to so many books because they are so important in real life - the sibling relationship in particular. I quite like the idea of duality and halves."
The novel is interwoven with excerpts from Ivy, an acclaimed academic’s, book on the Greek myths, a topic Morgan finds fascinating: "I like the way they are so ambiguous, there are no good or bad characters, and whenever there seems to be a happy ending something terrible will happen after that. It really does seem completely random and unfair."
"There are so many references in The Outline of Love to myths and fairytales or other fiction – so many tropes and familiar themes. While I wanted it to feel fresh and modern, I also wanted it [to be] part of a tradition, a slightly different look at the very familiar.”
Morgan is currently working on her third novel, which will be divided into three parts, each told by a different woman, and will be about “how we make mistakes based on our own prejudices”.
It is a very different writing experience from the last (two) times: “It's the first time I haven’t been restructuring and rediting – it’s actually just been a blank page looking at me and I have to fill it.”
We can’t wait to see what she comes up with.
The Outline of Love by Morgan McCarthy is published by Tinder Press on 4th July.