Q&A with Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail HoneymanWe spoke to Gail Honeyman about her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “A coming to life rather than a coming of age, this neat twist on a classic novel form. Miss Oliphant, an admirer, would be proud to find such as Miss Austen among her forebears; indeed, Eleanor turns out to be quite the beacon for moral and spiritual transformation in the manner of Emma Woodhouse. Her charms may emerge less gracefully, by Velcro’ed brogue not barouche-landau, but are no less enduring. Honeyman resists the temptation to make over her heroine. She realises, as we do, that Eleanor is already fledged. All she has to do is realise it fully. A woman badly done by whom we learn to like supremely well.”

Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?
The idea came from a newspaper article about loneliness that I came across a few years ago. Unusually, it included an interview with a young professional in her twenties. She lived in a city, and said that she’d often leave the office on Friday night and not speak to another human being until she returned on Monday morning. Often, when loneliness is discussed in the media, it’s in the context of older people, and I so was struck by hearing a younger person’s experience. 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.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
It was the most wonderful surprise, and it’s such an honour to be longlisted alongside these incredibly talented writers

What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
Apart from finding the time to write, it was making myself keep going when my confidence flagged. I began writing short fiction and, while the short story form is just as challenging – in some ways perhaps more challenging – it somehow felt slightly less intimidating than writing a novel, simply because I was able complete a short story in a reasonable time frame. Moving from that to a novel was daunting.

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
I hesitate to give advice, because writing is such a personal thing and there really is no right or wrong way to go about it. That said, one of the most frequently cited pieces of advice I’ve come across is to read a lot and to read widely, and I think that’s incredibly important. When you read – whatever you read – you’re absorbing so much about how to tell (and how not to tell) a story, about how to create living, breathing characters, and about what engages a reader.

What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
It’s so difficult to choose only one! I think it might be Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Kate Atkinson is a wonderful writer – funny, clever, wise and generous. I first read this soon after it was published, in one gulp. It was during a very long train journey, and I didn’t look up for five hours.