Literary Sisters: interview with Antonia Honeywell

I’ve interviewed several writers on this blog over the years, but today’s interview is particularly significant for me.  Antonia Honeywell and I met on the MA in Novel Writing course in Manchester over ten years ago.  We’ve remained friends and writing partners ever since.  We’ve kept each other going by being mutual cheerleaders, critique partners and – when need be – emergency editors (you can read a piece about our collaboration here).  And tomorrow is the launch day for Antonia’s debut novel, The Ship.  She has been described by Maggie Gee as ‘a strikingly original new talent’ and has endorsements from Helen Dunmore, Laline Paull and M R Carey.  I couldn’t be more proud.

the shipPublished by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, The Ship has been described as ‘a rite of passage novel, a high concept thriller and a love story’.  Here, Antonia answers some questions about the novel and her writing process more broadly.


The Ship has such an original premise.  Tell us where the idea came from and how the novel began to take shape in your mind.

Antonia: Initially, the idea was nothing more than an image of a child living in perfect safety. It felt so positive, so desirable, but as I began to explore the image, I realised that perfect safety is unattainable. Children who climb trees might fall out of them. And the more I thought, the more I realised that a concern for safety can act as a smokescreen for a desire for control.

The Ship is set in the near future and, as such, inhabits a world which is unfamiliar to us.  How did you go about building up the detail of the story world?

Antonia: I don’t think of the world of The Ship as unfamiliar. I didn’t make it up. I just took the things we already know – fossils fuels are finite, financial systems fragile, governments (at least our current one) composed of mostly white men from mostly public school and privileged backgrounds – and pushed them. I didn’t even have to push them very far. You only have to walk through the City of London to see a bailed-out banker walk past a homeless person in a doorway.

In a sense, The Ship is a meditation on storytelling itself.  Lalla is privy to the stories of the other inmates on the ship, and she also assumes the agency for her own story.  Where do you think this desire to write about storytelling comes from?

I think it comes from an intense desire to write my own story – not in the sense of writing a novel, but the story of my own life. I remember sitting in my primary school classroom – I must have been eight or nine – when two girls who’d gone on to secondary school the previous year came back to visit. They can only have been eleven or twelve, but I looked at them and thought, one day, I’m going to be as old as they are. And the sense of being part of an inexorable forward march never quite left me. That’s what a story is – a process of moving forward, of examining the impact of actions, decisions, character on outcome. And that’s my life too. I want to believe we have agency in the stories of our own lives.

I’m fascinated by the writing process, and how that can be so different for each writer.  Can you talk us through your process – from initial inception right through to the editing phase? 

My writing process is rather chaotic, but that’s by necessity rather than design. I started writing when I was teaching full time, and carried on through the births of my children, part time teaching and everything else life’s thrown into the mix. For example discovering that the back of our house was about to fall down, or that the cellar light well pump is irresistible to toads. In an ideal world, I’d have a certain amount of protected time. But as it is, I bash out the first draft as quickly as I can. I need to do that to find out what the story is. Then I go back and redraft, knowing what’s going to happen to whom. At that stage, characters begin to emerge and make their demands. After that, I have a good sense of who everyone is and how everything hangs together, so I redraft again. At that point, the redrafting becomes a question of logistics – a little like I imagine the work of a film continuity editor to be. And then I bring it to you, Rachel, and you read it, and the whole thing goes on from there.antonia honeywell (2)

I remember visiting years ago when your eldest child was a baby and being in awe at you had the laptop open on the kitchen table in order to snatch every available minute to write.  Now you have four children (aged 9, 8, 6 and 5), I’m even more amazed at how you manage it.  Tell us a bit about how your strategies for juggling writing with parenting, domestic duties and everything else.

Well, you wouldn’t know it from the way my home looks, but I am very, very organised. I’ve lost too much time to mislaid school shoes, forgotten homework, last minute information about snacks/nativity costumes/you name it to be cavalier about where things go. And I cook. I cook a lot. In fact, quite a bit of my writing time comes thanks to Internet supermarket shopping, the slow oven and my chest freezer. We eat lots of casseroles, because I can get one together while I’m doing the breakfast and then leave it to itself in the slow oven all day. But I prioritise, too. If the school uniforms are all ready and dinner’s in the oven, I don’t go on to dust or tidy the toys before the school run. So the place is a tip.

What has been the single most useful thing you’ve learned on your writing journey so far?

That the only thing you can control about your writing journey is the writing part. You can’t control whether an agent will take you on, or whether you’ll get a book deal, or what that deal will look like. But you can control whether you sit down and write. And if you write something and think, ‘I can probably get away with that,’ the chances are you can’t. And (finally, I promise) if you let all the uncertainty and unpredictability and injustice of the publishing world get to you, you won’t be able to write at all, and then you’ve scuppered the one chance of becoming part of it that you have. Write. That’s all.

The Ship has been recorded as an audio book.  Tell us about your experience of that.

The rights for the audiobook of The Ship were sold in September 2014 and the recording took place in December. In Leicester. The week before Christmas. It wasn’t an easy one, but I wriggled away and put Christmas preparations on hold so that I could go and see some of the recording. Seeing the printed proof of The Ship was a moment, but sitting in the studio hearing words I’d written over a year previously was the first time I truly understood that The Ship existed as something outside of, and beyond, my own imagination. The actor, Melody Grove, was perfectly cast – she brought Lalla’s youth, uncertainty and ultimate conviction to life with invisible authority. And the unfamiliarity of the environment – the soundproofed studios, desks that looked like something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the care that was taken in showing me around and making me feel welcome – all spoke together and, for the first time, I believed, rather than knew, that my publication contract wasn’t just a dream.

What’s your favourite aspect of the marketing and promotion side of bringing out a book?  And the worst thing?

I love meeting other authors. And I’m really looking forward to contact with readers. I’m thrilled that a book I’ve written is going out there to be part of all the debate and discussion and excitement that goes on around books and reading. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I also get an extraordinary kick from advance proof copies – for example, I share an agent with David Mitchell and was able to read The Bone Clocks in advance of publication, which I loved. The worst thing is the paranoia marketing and promotion engenders. Why was that writer included in that list and not me? Why did so-and-so recommend that book and not mine? What if no-one ever reads my book because they’re all so busy giving the latest ‘must-read’ a go? It’s inevitable and ridiculous and I try and keep it under control, partly because it’s exhausting but mostly because it induces insanity.

Name your favourite time-off activity.

Singing. And practising scales on the piano. I’m very, very popular at home.

Tell us a little about your next creative project.

I can’t. I’m not brave enough. Suppose I finish it and no one wants to publish it?

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?  And in ten years?

I’d like to have come to a place where I’ve established a writing routine and can stick to it. It sounds simple, but in order to be realised, three things need to happen. My children all need to be settled and happy in full time school (that’s on the horizon – my youngest is now four). My husband’s health needs to stabilise and improve. And The Ship needs to do well enough for my publishers to commission a second novel. As for ten years – well, if I get the option to extend my five year plan by another five years, that would do nicely.

If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?

She had a horrible time; I wouldn’t want to burden her with advice. But I’d give a great deal to be able to put my arms around her and say, ‘I’m proud of you, lovely girl, and it’s going to be ok.’

The Ship sets sail on 19 February, and is available from Amazon and – of course – all good independent bookshops.  Click here to read Antonia’s website and blog, and you can follow her on Twitter here (@antonia_writes) 




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