In commercial fiction, every so often a novel comes along that taps into what people are already thinking and talking about. The rewards for capturing the zeitgeist in print can be huge.
In 1996, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding—the intimate and very funny diary of a thirtysomething looking for love—founded a genre, described then by the now much-maligned term "chick lit". Books in the genre went on to sell in huge numbers to young women who wanted to see their own lives reflected in the books they read. In 2002, Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, the tale of a woman struggling to balance work and motherhood, hit a chord and became a word-of-mouth hit.
Which brings us to How Do You Like Me Now?, the first adult novel from YA author Holly Bourne which, I reckon, has the potential to be the zeitgeist novel of 2018. Why? It has already resonated with early NetGalley readers— some sample reviews: "I f**king love this book"; "I was not expecting to feel so understood"; "There were times I felt Holly had climbed into my mind"; "I needed to read this book so badly. Holly speaks for me completely". The word that recurs again and again in those reviews is "honest".
When we meet at her publisher’s office in central London, Bourne confirms that honesty is crucial to her writing. "With all my fiction I always try to be honest about something that I don’t think people are being honest enough about. That is the gap I’m trying to fill. That’s my brand, I guess. The most important thing to me as a writer of fiction—oddly enough, as it’s an imaginary world—is to tell the truth, because I think that helps people. I really believe in the power of fiction, that the right book at the right time can change, or even save, someone’s life. That has certainly happened to me with books."
Bourne is, of course, already well known as a writer of YA fiction, including the Spinster Club series. Meeting her, it is easy to see why she is such a hit with teenage readers on the school-visit circuit; friendly and enthusiastic, she exudes passion for what she does. Bourne was inspired to write her first novel for adults after turning 30 and becoming very aware of the pressures on women to get married, start a family, etc. "I felt that I hadn’t read a book about this age that was being honest. I thought, ‘I’ve got to blow the lid off this’."
How Do You Like Me Now? follows Tori Bailey, about to turn the big 3–0, who makes a living touring and talking about the bestselling self-help memoir she wrote in her twenties. Entitled Who The F*ck Am I?, Tori’s book saw her dubbed "The Queen of the Quarter- Life Crisis", and inspired her readers to live the life they wanted to, not the life others thought they should be living.
But despite the continued adulation, Tori no longer feels like a success. In fact, she feels rather a sham. She doesn’t have a new book up her sleeve, despite increasing pressure from her publisher. All her friends are getting married or having babies—"Turning thirty is like playing musical chairs. The music stops and everyone just marries whoever they happen to be sitting on," Bourne writes— which she can just about cope with, as long as she has her best friend Dee onside. But at another tedious wedding, Dee meets someone, falls pregnant unexpectedly, and suddenly Tori feels in danger of being completely left behind by her peers—her boyfriend of six years, who she lives with, won’t even have the conversation about getting married or starting a family. The novel is set over nine months—the term of Dee’s pregnancy—while Tori’s life gradually starts to fall apart, behind the perfect front she feels obliged to present on social media.
An open book
The novel is very, very funny throughout, but there is a dark undercurrent concerning Tori’s relationship with her boyfriend Tom. "The book is about how to leave what I believe to be an abusive relationship," says Bourne. "Although I’ve been very careful to not spell that out and to let the reader decide if it’s just a relationship that’s not ‘right’ anymore, or if there is something darker going on." Interestingly, among early readers of the novel there have been different reactions: "Some people have said, ‘Oh, that’s just what relationships are like after a while,’ or, ‘He’s just a bloke, isn’t he?’ Whereas other people who are a bit more ‘woke’ have said: ‘He’s an emotional abuser, he gaslights her, you can see her mental health declining’."
Bourne is a big fan of Marian Keyes and cites This Charming Man, which dealt with domestic violence, as a particular influence. "I think she’s phenomenal in that she’s able to go to the very darkest parts of the human experience with such lightness," she says. "I do think you can go very ‘dark’ with books, and it’s important to. But if you can just get a few jokes in there too . . ." The first draft of How Do You Like Me Now? was written in an astonishing three and a half weeks, following a conversation with her agent Madeleine Milburn. Bourne, a former journalist, was delivering two books a year to her YA publisher Usborne but had a "gap" in that schedule and said to her agent, "I really want to tell this story, but it’s adult." Milburn was very keen, but there was a catch: it needed to be ready in time for the London Book Fair, which gave Bourne a month to write the first draft and a month to revise it. "Hell on Earth" is how she describes the process now, laughing.
For the first time Bourne worked very closely with Milburn in the planning of the novel, scene by scene. "Because of the time constraints, she was like: ‘We don’t have time for you to suddenly get lost 45,000 words in, have a nervous breakdown, and ring me and say you’re going to pay back the advance.’ All the fun things I’ve done to her over the years," says Bourne, amused. "I had to write three and a half thousand words every day for 30 days, so you need to make sure those words are going in the right direction.
"We had to spend at lot of time building Tori’s brand. People think that world-building is something you only need to do in fantasy novels. But [with the character of Tori] I had to think: what’s the name of her book? What’s her brand? How does she write to her readers? How do they respond? I had to work on this imaginary career trajectory that she has."
Bourne now plans to write YA novels in tandem with adult novels: "I’m definitely not turning my back on YA. I love being a YA writer, but there are some things you can’t do or say." In writing for adults, she observes: "You can have a female character who is more unlikeable, that’s the main thing. Teenagers haven’t quite got the patience: you’ve got to have a slightly aspirational edge to your female characters in YA."
Reflecting on her first book for adult readers, she says: "It’s a very honest, but hopefully very funny examination of the ludicrousness of your early thirties and how that can lead you to make unhealthy decisions for the wrong reasons." She is hopeful that the book "will help people realise that it doesn’t matter what it looks like on the outside [via social media], as long as it feels good on the inside . . . Whereas actually, we live in a world where it seems to be the other way around."