I wrote Forty One because it was the kind of book I wanted to read but was having trouble finding at the time. In 2009 I also found that I finally had the time (and money and room of one’s own, as so famously prescribed by Virginia Woolf) to embark on an epic novel-writing journey. I had dabbled with various forms of creative writing since childhood, and as a journalist, had written a lot but in prescribed forms. So I wanted to seize the moment to tackle a novel, knowing I wanted to create fiction immersed in real life but also keen to experiment with form and style.
The story of Forty One emerged accidentally from a real argument that turned into a somewhat therapeutic five page writing rant, after which I wondered – what if it wasn’t me but someone else? What would the history be? How would things turn out? I didn't know the answers myself and ended up writing for nine months with no particular plan, or much thought to plot. Of course that only made the main character’s struggle with ‘the Plan’ more satisfying – because it begged the question: can we ever stick to a plan in life, even if we have one? How can we meet our own expectations and that of others (and in the case of writers, the expectations of unknown readers or critics) – if we ourselves remain in the dark about our motives, goals and sometimes even what’s good and bad?
As the writing grew organically – a series of questions I was posing for myself and the protagonist for herself – it became clear that the essence of Forty One would always be this double experiment: my writing journey and doubts, and the main character’s search for meaning. I enjoyed playing with pace and subtly communicating to the reader my ideas on where the novel was going, though by no means was that ploy meant to be more important than keeping the reader interested in the writing and story itself. I simply couldn’t help melding the voice of protagonist and writer into one, using the second person ‘you,’ so that purposefully it became hard to tell if the protagonist was talking to herself, or I to the reader (actually, both). So the mention of an ‘experiment’ definitely remains a double entendre, and in many places words have double meanings.
By the end of the project – five years of writing, re-working and editing – I felt sure that I had succeeded in creating something metaphorically bigger than the story itself. It took that long anyway just to weave seamlessly various themes and metaphors and ideas ranging from politics and economics to philosophy and religion. So Forty One is very much meant to be this gem, each turn revealing something new depending on the light: what you bring to it and those mental ah-ha connections often made later. Because language is at the very centre of the experiment (Just say the word, le mot juste, the biblical Word, just to cite one example), every reading unveils more about word choice and meaning, hopefully giving yet another, richer experience.
In the process of writing and editing, I was well aware of the risks I was taking: of even the slightest hint of self-aware or meta-fiction, of what critics might say, that I’d taken on too much, etc. But I was committed to the idea of a ‘big’ novel because I admire the way the great writers like Tolstoy and Greene weave complex characters and plots into broader societal, moral and philosophical queries. I wanted to reflect that in a contemporary sense: an immersion into the way real people act, problems faced and how they are argued, but also to retain that contemplative space and distance that allows some kind of hope and resolution. I was keen to include the ‘grit’ of today’s world — taxes, immigration, schools policies, childcare debates, the eternal question of how much is enough – and the book is hugely topical from the point of view of the Polish presence in Britain, the fifty percent and mansion taxes, the banking crisis and recession. But characters are also wrestling with personal inner problems – their individual pasts, family conflicts, identity issues, current relationships. I was keen for all of these conflicts, macro and micro, to happen at the same time. Because that’s how real life is: complex and not easily teased apart into strands, even if you can identify them separately.
I’ve been told Forty One is an ambitious book, and I agree. But I think that’s an amazing thing and maybe its strongest selling point! I constantly find people who want a book they can really sink their teeth into, who report to me what I often feel too: so many highly marketed or lauded books fall flat. So Forty One is that book that’s meant to be enjoyable and engaging but one that also makes you think and wonder. A wow book.
On that note, I admit Forty One is an attempt to bridge the gap between literary and commercial women’s fiction. I’ve joked before that Forty One should have its own new category: ‘intelligent fiction, with sex’ or ‘accessible literary fiction.’ Because if you’re writing about real life, sex ought to be there; but equally, literary fiction ought to be challenging without necessarily requiring readers to be well versed in obscure references. So as I edited I challenged myself to make Forty One have that broader appeal: to women, their partners, stay-home or working mothers, anyone who’s interested in literature, philosophy and religion, not just people with advanced degrees. In other words, I wanted Forty One to be great on every level: great if you’ve read Sartre, flip through The Economist and know what meta-fiction is, but also great if you don’t. With Forty One, I admit my ambition, and it’s a great ambition, not because I need fame but because someone ought to prove it can be done: why not an indie that’s a best-seller and a Booker prize winner?