The stories behind the books of the year

From the writer's pen (or keyboard) to the reader's hand, all the books shortlisted for the seven Books of the Year categories have been on a journey. Here, authors and editors talk about how the shortlisted titles came into being.

Fiction: Début Book of the Year

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Viking)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (4th Estate)
Sirens by Joseph Knox (Doubleday)
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (HarperFiction)
Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims (HarperNonFiction)

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi, whose novel Homegoing is shortlisted for Fiction: Début Book of the Year, talks about the inspiration behind the book.

What inspired you to write the novel?

Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip to Ghana. While there, I took a tour of the Cape Coast Castle, a place that features prominently in the novel.  It was an incredibly powerful experience to walk through that imposing building and think about the lives of the people who had passed through it centuries before me.  I knew that day what I wanted to write about.

What was your favourite part of the writing process?

I really enjoyed the research process for the H’s chapter, which takes place mostly in the coal mining town of Pratt City, Alabama.  I knew very little about coal mining and the convict leasing system and reading about it in order to write the chapter was equal parts fascinating and enraging.

How does being published in the UK compare to the US?

It’s been amazing to see the enthusiasm for Homegoing in the UK. There were billboards for the book in London, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a billboard for a novel in the US!

What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

I hope Homegoing allows readers to think about their own place in history and to recognise that history isn’t a discrete thing that happens and then ends. It is always being made.  

What did it feel like to hold a finished copy of your book?

Indescribable. It still seems like a kind of magic to watch a book leave your mind and appear in physical form before you.  

Conversations With Friends

Mitzi Angel describes how she came to publish Sally Rooney's first novel Conversations with Friends, which is shortlisted in the Fiction: Début Book of the Year category.


 
I acquired the manuscript of Conversations with Friends from Tracy Bohan at the Wylie Agency following a seven-way auction. It immediately struck me as a novel which manages to be serious without being heavy and fun without being silly. It’s stylish and moving and wonderfully smart. It’s a book about young people and it wonderfully records the way Sally Rooney’s vivid characters talk, so that much of the novel takes place through dialogue, through conversations with friends. It’s also a beautiful, complicated love story.
 
Within the first few pages I felt that Sally Rooney was in control. I could hear the intention driving the novel in every sentence and—it may be a cliché—but the characters came alive. It’s unusual to see that level of confidence and skill and imaginative reach in a first novelist’s work.
 
 Our campaign for Conversations with Friends started about a year ahead of publication with a big run of book proofs and pre-publication publicity profiles in the Observer and The Bookseller. We wanted to make the book one of the most talked about debuts of the season so we partnered with Foyles, Stylist, Twitter and The Pool to get as many people reading the book as early as possible. It was the second most recommended book in the Books of the Year round-ups and some of the coverage included interviews with BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, VICE and the Guardian, and serialisation in The Pool’s Bedtime Bookclub. We ran one of our biggest ever social media advertising campaigns and placed stand-out billboard ads across London.
 
I learnt from the industry that it embraces new talent with open arms! It was wonderful to see colleagues of all kinds—bloggers, booksellers, journalists—fall in love with the book and be willing to spread the word. (Word of mouth was in fact a very important component of publishing this book effectively.)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Helen Garnons-Williams, publishing director at 4th Estate, outlines how she turned Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling—shortlisted for the Fiction: Début Book of the Year—into a UK-wide hit.

How did you acquire the novel?

It started with an email sent at 3.30am from our literary scout in New York, which said: “Hi, Helen. I mean this in the best possible way: I've just read the first 86 pages of a novel that has me feeling like I've been hit by a truck.” This is not the kind of email you receive every day so I started reading as soon as I woke up—and I couldn’t stop. One attempted pre-empt, and a hard-fought eight-publisher auction later we acquired it for 4th Estate.

What attracted you to the manuscript?

It had such a visceral, pulse-racing impact on me. The writing is lush and beautiful, and the plot is exhilarating, but above all, I loved Turtle: a teenage girl, battling demons inside and out, who is a heroine unlike any other.

What was your marketing and PR strategy?

How do you convince people that they need to read an American literary début about incest?! This was a passion project from the start, and I was awed by the confidence and dedication of the whole team, who were determined to make it a bestseller. From the moment we acquired it we started talking to everyone about it—and we never stopped. We brought Gabriel over to the UK before publication, creating a genuine groundswell of support among booksellers and the media.

Why, in your opinion, does the novel stand out from its competition?

It’s completely unlike anything people have read before, which is why all kinds of readers find things to love in it, and why writers ranging from Stephen King, to Joanna Cannon, to Kevin Powers felt they had to champion it.

What did you learn about the industry by publishing this novel?

In many respects it restored my faith in the ability of literary fiction to still have an impact in the market. There are so many passionate readers, publishers, booksellers and journalists who are longing to read and generously champion great books. You do need a book that lives up to the hype though, and the way that Gabriel’s novel made people feel was the momentum that raised it above the parapet.

Sirens

Joseph Knox shares how his love of noir fiction and F Scott Fitzgerald inspired his debut novel, Sirens, which is up for the Fiction: Début Book of the Year award.

What inspired you to write the novel?
 
I was reading a lot of noir and F Scott Fitzgerald and had an idea to combine the two. Instead of Gatsby’s jazz age shindigs, I’d have raucous, semi-legal house parties. Instead of Gatsby, with his lost love, I’d have an enigmatic criminal with a literally missing girlfriend, and instead of the neighbour being seduced into this world I’d have a young detective almost utterly destroyed by it.  
 
What was your favourite part of the writing process?
 
Sirens was written over an eight year period, with various patches of doubt and fear interspersed. As that timeframe probably implies, I do a lot of editing, and weirdly it probably is the part of the process I enjoy most. A line of dialogue can always get more natural. A description can always get sharper. A chapter can always get shorter, etc. It’s nice to see a scene slowly improving over several edits – and I despair for writers who only do one draft!
 
As a bookseller, how did writing a book open your eyes to other parts of the industry?
 
It was interesting – of course I thought I knew it all. Of course I was wrong! The main takeaway was the amount of work (and the amount of people) involved in bringing just one book to market. From agent to editor to publicist, right onto booksellers. I felt lucky at every level, but I imagine that feeling’s common – because generally people in this small ecosystem are readers, and therefore, slightly nicer than the rest of the world.
 
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

Sirens is a singularly dark reading experience, but I hope people look for the (faint) silver linings in there. I tried to bury it in as much darkness as possible, but I’m a secret romantic, and ridiculously sentimental.
 
What did it feel like to hold a finished copy of your book?
 
I’d been staying in Moss Side to try and get some of that tough atmosphere for book two, with the result being that I spent six terrifying, sleepless days writing for 15-20 hours at a time. When I got back to London, quite tired and emotional, I held the first proof copy. I might have had something in my eye…

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Gail Honeyman talks to The Bookseller about the inspiration behind Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine—shortlisted for the Fiction: Début Book of the Year—and her favourite part of the writing process.

What inspired you to write the novel?

The idea initially came from a newspaper article about loneliness. Often, when the subject is discussed in the media, it’s in the context of older people, but this piece included an interview with an urban professional woman in her twenties, and I was struck by hearing a younger person’s experience. She said that she’d often leave the office on Friday night and not speak to another human being until she returned on Monday morning and, when I started to think about it, I realised that there were many routes which could lead a young woman to live that sort of life, not by choice and through no fault of her own. I was also reminded of how difficult it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections. From there, the story and the character of Eleanor Oliphant slowly began to emerge.
 
What was your favourite part of the writing process?

I think it was writing the very first draft—exploring various plot possibilities and developing characters. But I suspect I might give a different answer each time I'm asked, depending on where I am in the process currently!
 
As a début author, what surprised you about the publishing industry?

I've had the privilege of meeting and working with some very talented people over the past year or so; writing is necessarily a solitary business, but I've learned that publishing is very much a team effort. Being completely new to the process, it was incredible to see how many skilled people, and how much hard work and talent, are involved in taking a book from manuscript to, many months later, having a finished copy on sale in a bookshop. I've also been astonished and delighted by, and very grateful for, the incredible generosity and support shown to debut authors.
 
What do you hope readers take away from your novel?

In telling Eleanor’s story, I wanted to focus in particular on the importance of kindness, on how tiny acts can be completely transformative, for the right recipient at the right time. That said, I’m happy to leave it to readers to decide what, if anything, to take from it—for me, that’s part of the pleasure of being fortunate enough to have people read your work.
 
What did it feel like to hold a finished copy of your book?

Magical.

Why Mummy Drinks

Gill Sims talks about the writing process behind Fiction: Début Book of the Year-shortlisted novel Why Mummy Drinks, which started life as a blog.

I never thought I would write a novel about being a mother—I spent many years convinced no one else found being a parent challenging. However much I loved my children, I couldn’t shake the nagging fear that I wasn’t doing it right, that everyone else was much better at parenting than me, that I was somehow failing by finding it so hard.

When I initially started my blog, Peter and Jane, it was just meant as a joke with a friend and a bit of satire on some of the 'perfect' parent blogs, but very quickly people started sharing their own stories of how they were also struggling—the ‘perfect’ mums at school would come over and whisper "I feel like that too!" and so the inspiration for Why Mummy Drinks really came out of that revelation that at some point every parent finds it hard and doubts themselves—some just hide it better than others. Writing an entire novel was a very different challenge to writing a blog though, but the best part was probably how the characters took on a life of their own, and started doing things that I hadn’t always anticipated! That and typing 'The End'.
 
This has all been a huge learning curve for me—I didn’t know anything about publishing when I went into this, so it was wonderful to find out how incredibly nice everyone is. Publishing a book is also a huge team effort with the editors, publicity, marketing and sales—writing the book is only the start!

It would be fabulous if my book has made a difference to anyone, but life is too short to take seriously, so if nothing else, I would be delighted if my book just made people laugh, and hopefully feel a bit less alone.

Holding your first book for the first time is incredible. I think I cried; it was just unreal. I’m a very practical person, I never really believed dreams could come true, so I just didn’t have any words for it when I was holding that dream in my hands.