Cesca recently chatted to the lovely and talented Ali Harris whose latest book The First Last Kiss is out now.
I loved your second book Ali. It seemed to be a very different book from your first, Miracle on Regent Street. You clearly had to undertake some quite challenging research when writing this book, did you enjoy that process?
Thanks Cesca! I enjoy research when it involves visiting a new place, or learning something new, or researching vintage fashion like I did for Miracle. But you’re right, without revealing anything, I was absolutely dreading some of the research I knew I had to do for this book. It didn’t help that when I started writing this book I was pregnant (read: highly hormonal slash borderline emotionally psychotic) as well as preparing to move house so for the most part, I found it challenging to even think about what was going to happen to my characters, let alone immerse myself in learning about it. When I tried, by contacting a couple of support groups and met some women who go through what Molly does I quickly became a weeping, wailing mess. So I reverted to my natural ‘why do today what you can put off till tomorrow’ proclivity. So, I ignored the research I knew was going to be too hard to deal with and focused on the fun stuff instead. Like visiting Leigh on Sea, where Molly and Ryan grow up and live for a large part of the book. Luckily my good friends Juliet and Nancy live there and Juliet owns an amazing cake shop called Fancy Nancy. Once they’d showed me round the town I put my feet up, scoffed divine cupcakes which was obviously a nightmare, but you know, I did it for my art. Then I made notes whilst they told me all about what it was like growing up there. I even wrote a few early chapters of the book. Then I had my baby and moved house and took a few months off. This is not something I recommend when you then find you only have four months to write an entire book. But oddly it kind of worked in my favour (apart from the nearly having a breakdown part) as it meant I had to write as if my life depended on it, not sink under the pressure, the emotion or the detail. And in terms of leaving the main research till last, I liked that I didn’t know too much detail about Molly and Ryan’s fate. I wanted to experience it with them, as the reader would, so I wrote the emotion first and then added the detail after. The book is, above everything else, a love story and I think the only way to write something like that is from the heart.
Who is your favourite character in the book?
Without question, it’s Ryan. I completely fell in love with him from the start. I loved his honesty, his openness, his easy banter, his love and loyalty for his family, his friends and his home-town. I loved his simple values, his unerring stability and unashamed romanticism. I loved Molly too, but I struggled with her sometimes, much like you struggle with a sibling, or even yourself. She made me uncomfortable because I could see myself in her– even though I was trying so hard to make her as unlike me as possible. And then I became insecure about her – as we all do about ourselves. Will people like her? Is she too flawed? Too pessimistic? Too selfish? But ultimately I knew it was because she felt real. She isn’t perfect and she knows it, she doesn’t sugar coat her emotions. She makes mistakes, she doesn’t always have the best values, or place importance on the right things, but she has a big heart. And she learns so much about life – and herself and comes out a stronger, better person.
The book spans two decades and jumps around, how did you go about editing this book?
Honestly? With hair-pulling, brain-hurting, breakdown-inducing difficulty! Even though I always knew I didn’t want it to be a linear story I decided to write the first draft chronologically, from the moment Molly and Ryan meet to the moment they part. I wanted to really get to know them, to have a real grip on their voices and to make them change as believably as possible from teenagers to young adults, then though their twenties and into their thirties. I also wanted to fall in love with them, as they fell in love, go through each up and down in their relationship as it happened. It meant I became incredibly attached to them – more so than any other character I’ve ever written. While I was writing, I wrote every kiss as a chapter heading on a post it, on my office wall in chronological order. About half way through writing the first draft I spoke to my editor and we decided that the book needed another level; so I added a new storyline that I wrote at the end and that I filtered between the Molly and Ryan’s kisses, where Molly is moving house in the present day. And I went back to Leigh on Sea to write the final scenes of the book – in fact the final scene is what actually happened to me on my drive home, right down to what was playing on the radio. But once I’d written the whole thing I knew I had the gargantuan task of rearranging the book. Luckily one of my best friends from University, Nick, had read the book as I was writing it and come to stay with me to support me as I finished it and to do some early editing. We spent several hours (we lost track of how many) in that office, swapping round post-its, agreeing and disagreeing until we finally had something I was happy with. I honestly don’t know what I’d have done without him.
A lot of novelists talk about the problems writing a second book, did you find this to be the case?
Absolutely! Miracle had been such a joy to write, I was so unencumbered by expectation and the story was so straightforward and so life-affirming. Going to Evie’s world made me happy every single day. But this book was different. As well as being structurally more complex it was incredibly emotionally draining. Without sounding dramatic I felt like I carried the weight of Molly and Ryan’s future’s around with me for the year that I was thinking about it and writing it. Added to that with a second book you’re no longer in this bubble where you’re just writing unselfconsciously or indulgently for yourself. There are no discernible pressures with a debut novel – particularly if you’re writing without a deal. You only have that to focus on. When you write another you’re often editing and then promoting the previous one. You also have the added stress of having read reviews – both good and bad. And you don’t yet have the confidence or the belief that the first book wasn’t a complete fluke so you’re also feeling incredibly insecure. On top of all that I had a toddler, a new baby and we’d just moved to the countryside from London. So to say I was a bit strung out, is to put it mildly! But even though it was hard and I was stressed, I always had complete, immeasurable belief in the book, the characters and my writing. I honestly have no idea where that confidence came from. I don’t think I’m naturally a confident person. But I adore writing, I’m completely passionate about it and I knew what I was writing was better and more complex than anything I’d ever done before. I just wasn’t sure it was going to be done on time. Luckily my publishers took pity and gave me a six-week extension!
How is Book 3 shaping up? Can we expect more of the same or are you branching off entirely?
Definitely not branching off! Even though The First Last Kiss may seem like a bit of a departure from Miracle on Regent Street, I like to think my readers will see that the same sense of magic and possibility and emotional heart is there. And those things will remain in the next book I’m writing. It doesn’t have a title yet but’s a classic twist on a ‘what-if’ story. After a freak accident on her wedding day, Bea Bishop’s world splits and her parallel lives take her on very different journeys. But will she end up in the same place and find the answer to life’s big question, that is, are we in control of our own destinies, or is it all just meant to be?
As to how it’s going, well, let’s just say it is finally shaping up nicely after a little, er, shaky start when I decided I needed to go back to the drawing board after I’d written 40,000 words. I’m beginning to realize that writing a book isn’t ever going to be smooth sailing. There are so many things seem to challenge the creative process. Moving house, having a baby and a toddler, twitter, facebook, admin, life. And writing The First Last Kiss has taught me that I won’t always be writing straightforward, upbeat happy ever afters, like I thought I would. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have to draw from painful experiences and emotions or think about situations I’d prefer not to. With this third book I’ve also realized that I’m a perfectionist, I’m naturally hard on myself, and I won’t ever take the easy way out. I push myself because I want to get better and better at writing books. I want to keep surprising myself – and my readers. I think I’ve managed it with this book – and I really hope to keep doing so in the future!
You can read Cesca's review of The First Last Kiss here.
Ali Harris's Website