Libby Page | 'I was essentially a nerd, something I now admit proudly about myself'

Libby Page | 'I was essentially a nerd, something I now admit proudly about myself'

Libby Page made waves at last year’s London Book Fair when her debut novel - about a local community’s campaign to stop the closure of Brockwell Lido in Brixton - drew in offers from 11 different territories, including two six-figure deals from Orion and S&S (to publish in the UK and the US, respectively).

Championed by agent Robert Caskie, The Lido follows 26-year-old reporter Kate, who joins forces with 86-year-old widow Rosemary to save the lido after the council announces plans to transform it into a state-of-the-art gym. 

Beautifully capturing the spirit and energy of Brixton, this is a warm, uplifting tale of friendship, loneliness, resilience and strength in community.   

We caught up with Page, who worked in marketing while writing The Lido, to discuss her inspirations and plans for the future.

What are the main themes of the book?
For me, one of the key themes in the book is the value of community and its importance within our society. This was the driving force behind the book: the idea that hubs like lidos, libraries and other community spaces are worth fighting for. The book also covers the topic of loneliness from two perspectives: that of a bereaved 86-year-old, and perhaps the lesser-told story of the loneliness that many people experience in their twenties when finding their feet in the world and dealing with the pressures that come with that. Also important are themes of friendship, love and, of course, swimming.
Kate and Rosemary are quite an unlikely pairing - how did you come up with the characters and why do you think they become the driving force of the campaign to save the lido?
Lidos are very unique places in that they really are spaces where people of all ages and backgrounds come together and have opportunities to connect in a way they may not in their everyday life. This inspired the idea of a cross-generational friendship. Some of the most dedicated outdoor swimmers are older women, and I liked the idea of a young character learning from an older female character, and vice versa.

I wanted to draw parallels between the characters despite their differences in order to show how much we all actually have in common with each other. Kate and Rosemary may be very different in ways, but they share many emotions and come to bond over a love of outdoor swimming and a passion for protecting their local area. This idea that we share more with others than we think was a particularly important message to me given how stories of intolerance and hate can so often dominate the news.

How much of the story is rooted in fact - and the history of the real Brockwell Lido - and how much is fictional?
I was inspired by the real Brockwell Lido and the role it serves the local community, but used my imagination to create the rest of the story. The real lido has a fascinating history - it was actually closed for several years and re-opened thanks to the efforts of the local community.

I did consider writing a historical novel, but in the end I wanted to think about what would happen if the lido was threatened with closure now. I think we are living through a time where community spaces are being closed down at a particularly rapid pace and that was the story I wanted to tell. The lido was the location I used in order to tell that story. So while the history definitely inspired me, and a few touches of truth have found their way in (for example the Mayor throwing a young woman into the pool on opening day in 1937), I decided to opt for fiction, giving me more scope to let my imagination and my characters take the story in their own directions.

You do a wonderful job reflecting the energy, diversity and community spirit of Brixton - why did you choose to set the story here?
Thank you! I have lived all over London, but it was while living in Brixton as a student that I felt particularly struck by the sense of community there. It felt to me a really special, diverse area with a community spirit that I recognised from growing up in a small town.

But I also noticed that it was a community under threat: while I lived there the process of gentrification and closure of certain spaces like the stalls beneath the railway arches that had been there for generations, was well underway. I then came to realise that this was a story being played out across London as well as in many other cities. Wherever I went I seemed suddenly to spot new blocks of swish flats being constructed, and it made me begin to really worry about the kind of cities we would be left with if all our community hubs were replaced with luxury flats. That was the start of the story for me.

I also wanted to touch on Brixton’s interesting and complex history - something I chose to explore through Rosemary’s character.

What was your favourite part to write, and did you come across any challenges?
As a keen swimmer, I particularly enjoyed writing the descriptions of water and outdoor swimming. It is a unique and invigorating experience, and I hope readers of my book will either recognise the sensations if they are an outdoor swimmer already, or be inspired to go for a dip if they’re not!

I also loved writing Rosemary’s character - she became very real to me in my head so at certain points it felt as though she was more in control of the story and her speech than I was!

The main challenge for me was making time to write and getting through moments of writer’s block - as I was just writing it for myself it sometimes took a lot of strength not to give up when it became difficult. But I’m so glad that I persevered.

How much research did you do prior to writing the story?
I did a lot of research before starting the book, and while writing. I found it really interesting to learn more about the history of the area and to bring out aspects of this through the love story of Rosemary and George, which spans many generations.

I also tried to familiarise myself with Brixton today - visiting regularly and writing "sketches" from different areas and in different moments to have as a bank of inspiration to draw from, as by the time I started writing the book I was actually not living in the area any more. I also did a lot of swimming!

Do you have a background in writing?
I have been writing since I was very little: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an author. As a child I entered endless short story and poetry competitions and spent many weekends and school holidays at "writing camps" with other keen children (I was essentially a nerd, something I now admit proudly about myself).

I have been through phases where I spent less time writing creatively, but writing has always been there in my life. I am a keen diary and letter writer (my best friend is also my pen pal!), and had a blog for a while too.

I studied fashion journalism at university and then worked for a year as a journalist at the Guardian. But I actually found that writing as my day job allowed me less headspace in my free time to write creatively. I wasn’t finding the time or energy to write the book I knew I wanted to write, so I switched careers to work in marketing. I was working as a brand executive when I started writing The Lido - doing something very different in my day job just seemed to work for me. It meant I had the space to focus on writing in every spare moment: before work, on lunch breaks, at the weekends.

Who/what are your main inspirations/influences?
Inspiration for my writing can come from anywhere: a conversation I overheard on the bus, a newspaper article, something I have experienced in my own life, films, music, a scene I witness on the tube… anywhere really.

Like any writer, I am a keen reader and I believe everything I read has some sort of influence on my own writing. From the books I devoured as a child that made me want to become a writer myself (authors like Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, JK Rowling and so many others), to the books I read now. I tend to prefer books set in the present day that focus on human relationships, so I suppose it is no surprise that this is the type of story I chose to write.

Some favourite authors include Sarah Winman, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Nick Hornby and Mark Haddon. But I also read all sorts of other books, including a lot of non-fiction.

Everything plays its part. It can be something quite random that comes up and influences me when I sit down to write - a comment an English teacher made years ago that has stuck with me, or a conversation with a friend that gives me a new way of thinking about something. I find inspiration a fascinating topic - I still don’t really understand myself where it comes from always; it can feel very random at times. But that is part of the fun.

How instrumental was your agent/publisher in your writing/publishing journey?
I feel so lucky to have such great people working with me on The Lido, including my agent Robert Caskie and the team at Orion.

I reached out to Robert after a year of sending my manuscript out to agents. I was close to giving up when I read on The Bookseller website that Robert was co-founding a new agency called Caskie Mushens, and was actively looking for new writers. I decided to get in touch, and I am so pleased that I did. Robert replied quickly and with enthusiasm, and it wasn’t long before I was meeting and signing with him.

As soon as I met him, things started to move very quickly. He gave me some editorial notes which I worked on and then sent the book out to publishers. After having felt like I was at the end of my journey with The Lido and that it just wasn’t meant to be, it was amazing to then find myself instead at the beginning and with someone at my side who really believed in the book. Throughout the process he has been a wonderful champion of the book and has been a great support personally too: I didn’t really know much about the publishing industry a year ago so have felt very grateful for his experience.

I have similarly been blown away by the enthusiasm of everyone at Orion right from the beginning. I feel like they are just as excited about the book as I am (and I am rather excited), which is a wonderful feeling. After a somewhat isolating experience writing the book by myself, it is great to now feel part of a team. And ultimately, the book I wrote and dreamed of writing for years, will soon be in bookshops. This couldn’t have happened without my agent and publisher.

What was your experience of last year's London Book Fair? How has life changed since then?
At last year’s London Book Fair I was still working at my job as a brand executive in a charity. I had handed in my notice by then (I handed it in the day after I signed the deal with Orion, which was a few weeks before the fair). For me it was a strange limbo period - everything was starting to happen with the book and I was extremely excited, but I was also still working full-time in the office and juggling working my notice period with starting edits and keeping up with what was happening to do with the book.

As more foreign deals started to come in throughout the fair my excitement levels rose and it was hard to always hide this from my colleagues. Luckily they were all incredibly supportive; most of them knew I was a writer outside of work, and they were just really happy for me.

Now, I am a full-time writer and have been spending the past year writing my second book. I write from a small office in my flat; it has taken some adjusting to make the switch from working in a big office to working on my own but I feel I have found a routine that works for me. It’s hard to really say how much my life has changed, because it feels entirely different in so many ways. Luckily the one thing that hasn’t changed is the amazing support of my friends, family and my partner. In a year of change, it has been really helpful to have them as my anchor.

Catalyst Global Media optioned the film rights last July - are you excited to see your characters brought to life? Will you be involved in the production?
Selling the film rights to Catalyst Global Media was very exciting. The thought of seeing a story I created in a different format, and brought to life visually, is a wonderful one. At the moment it is early days: the script is being worked on by the screen writers involved in the project. I’m looking forward to reading their script and being involved to a certain extent, but for me part of the joy is to let other creatives take the story and use their expertise to translate it into a different medium.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I was lucky enough to sign a two-book deal with Orion, so I am busy working on my second book now. It is a standalone book so not related to The Lido, but I hope that readers of my first will enjoy my second book too. It is great to be writing again - that, after all, is the thing I love the most.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
My main advice would be to stick at it. I have wanted to be an author since I was about six years old, and it is just the best feeling to have achieved that dream and now be working full-time as a writer.

It took me a year to find an agent. After receiving many rejections, I was very close to giving up when I found Robert. Now my book has been sold in over twenty territories and will soon be out in bookshops in the UK.

I never believed this was really possible, but now that it’s happened to me I just want to encourage others to pursue and make time for their dreams. If my experience can inspire another writer who has a story to tell to make the time to write it and to persevere with finding an agent and getting published, then I would feel extremely happy. Good luck!

The Lido (Orion) is published on 19th April