Superstitious fear of the number 13 is as old as time.
However, prolific commercial women’s fiction writer Freya North—with 12 books and more than 1.5 million copies sold under her belt—is not particularly superstitious. She didn’t even believe in the concept of writer’s block—until it struck her down “like lightning” one day when embarking on her latest book, The Way Back Home (HarperCollins)—her 13th.
“It was terrifying,” North says. “I thought: ‘That’s it, I only have 12 books in me.’ I was so sufficiently ill with it that I had to go to a doctor. For six months I couldn’t write and I didn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to write, it was that I couldn’t get the damn thing out. In the end, I literally pulled myself down to the library, sat there and dragged it out word after word. I didn’t plan it, I started on chapter one and just saw where it went.”
North says she had “no idea” why writer’s block suddenly struck her, and admitted to being skeptical the condition even existed before she experienced it herself. “During my career I have been able to write through some pretty big upheavals. I moved from London to where I am now—in the countryside in Hertfordshire—which was a big move for me. I split up from my partner and my mum has been very ill—but I could always write.”
North adds: “I don’t know why this one was so problematic. Prior to this, if someone talked about writer’s block I wouldn’t believe it. I thought it was more an excuse for authors who were feeling uninspired or lazy.” But she says she is “tremendously proud” of the finished article: “When I read it back, there were parts I didn’t even remember writing. I must have been in the zone.”
Her hard-toiled latest centres around 34-year-old Oriana Taylor, who has returned from sun-soaked San Francisco to cold, dreary, rural Derbyshire with no explanation of why. A few weeks living with her self-centred mother Rachel and cliché-talking stepfather Bernard Safely (by name and by nature) is enough to drive her to shelter with her oldest friend Cat McCabe—a much-loved character from previous North books—who is expecting a child.
Feeling isolated and unwanted, with no place to call home and approaching the age (perceivedly difficult for a woman) of 35, Oriana’s mind drifts to the unruly and ungoverned years she spent growing up at artist’s commune Windward; the dangerous love triangle she was embroiled in with the Bedwell brothers, Malachy and Jed; and the devastating reason she can never return. It turns out that a horrific incident took place in Windward when Oriana was 15, the details of which North leaves hanging until the final, suspenseful chapters of the book when the plot unravels and the drama that caused her to flee to San Francisco is finally revealed.
The book marks a slight departure for North by her own admission, striking a reflective tone and a more psychological edge than her previous work. “I suppose this is less of a feisty romp,” she puts it.
The book is certainly not without raunchiness, though, and it contains rousing flashbacks to the pent-up sexual tension between Oriana and Malachy as teenagers—but this time the eroticism is in the tension of what is forbidden, rather than in the acts themselves. North says she was interested in “that cusp of going from a teenager to an adult, when you have finished your exams, and life and everything else is ahead of you. You feel more intensely about everything when you are that age—that’s what I was trying to capture.” And it is in these scenes, along with the present-day tension between Oriana and Malachy, where the book is at its most compelling.
Writing less explicit material but with more complex emotional depth is a braver move for North than one might think. As she reveals: “I get a lot of letters from people who are grateful for my books being raunchy. I have had a husband writing to me saying: ‘My wife read your book on holiday and I had a nice time, thank you very much.’” But North adds: “You have to realise that my first novel was in 1996 when I was in my twenties and now I am in my forties, 13 books later. The whole mood of a book changes when you are writing in your forties. I hope my writing has tightened up, along with the characters . . . this is a more reflective story.”
However, some things have not changed for North after 18 years as a novelist: the values that govern her writing, her characters and her affection for the publishing process. “I am not an issues-led author,” she says. “I will never start by thinking: ‘What are the issues I want to address?’ I very much tell stories as they come to me.” North also says it was as important to her to have solid male characters alongside strong female leads in her novels. She also considers a particular place or setting as much of a “character” in her books as the protagonists. Windward, for example, was inspired by a real-life artists’ commune called Marden Hill.
Of the publishing industry, North says: “[It] has changed a lot. I was first publishing books before the Net Book Agreement and to do well in the charts all you had to sell was 3,500 copies. Now you have to sell much more than that, but the prices are lower, so you are earning the same. I don’t mind, because it means people are reading more—that can only be a good thing.”
North embraces new technology and believes that social media and other digital platforms are there to be embraced by authors of all generations. “If you are frightened of it, it will swallow you up and hold you back,” she says. “I love Facebook and Twitter—it’s a great way to connect with readers.” She says she is “hugely” supportive of being published by a traditional publishing house as opposed to going it alone by self-publishing. “For me, it is a great benefit to have that support from very skilled, experienced individuals,” she says.
As for the future, North says: “I am nervous because I don’t want to feel the way I felt in my last book. It really hampered my health. I read an interview with Gary Barlow and he said when he was writing his last album and he got writer’s block, he sat underneath his piano crying—I remember being sat at my table thinking I was going to throw up. When I couldn’t write for six months I thought: ‘What am I going to do? All I can do is write and now I can’t do it anymore’. However, at the moment I am toying between two books, which one to do first. I often get struck by a thought which will turn into: ‘Bingo—there is a book!’”
Formats EB (£5.99)/HB (£12.99)
Rights HC has UK and Commonwealth, and US market rights
Editor Lynne Drew
Agent Jonathan Lloyd, Curtis Brown
1967: Born in London
1991: North gave up a PhD scholarship in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute and claimed the dole in order to write her first novel, Sally (William Heinemann)
1996: After several rejections from publishers, Jonathan Lloyd, agent with Curtis Brown, represented North and she won a three-book deal for a six-figure sum with WH after a five-publisher auction
1997-2014: Publishes 13 books: Sally, Chloe, Polly, Cat, Fen, Pip, Love Rules, Home Truths, Pillow Talk, Secrets, Chances, Rumours and The Way Back Home
- Rose Tremain | "I'm very, very uncompromising. I just think 'that's what I want to write' and no other thing."
- Michel Faber | “One of the things I keep coming back to in my fiction is how much people underestimate the degree to which they really are on a different planet from the person right next to them”
- Jesse Bering | “Science will force us to address sexuality straight. Things will get worse before they get better, but they will get better”
- Anna Freeman | “I think I’ve created characters that don’t necessarily buy into the society they are in—they think and feel like we do”
- Khaled Hosseini | “I’m far from an experimental writer, but finding new formats and new ways of telling a story is part of the reason this novel is a kind of departure for me”