Welcome to the next in our series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts, these blogs include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides.
Curtis Brown 120 is all about celebrating the extraordinary debuts which have come out of the agency. So we’re over the moon to have got the chance to talk to Elisa Lodato, whose haunting debut, An Unremarkable Body, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2018, and has been compared to the likes of Elizabeth Strout and Louise Doughty. Here Elisa talks writing routines, favourite novels – and tells us how she found representation with Curtis Brown’s Alice Lutyens…
How did you get your debut published? Did you have an agent?
I had the idea for An Unremarkable Body a long time before I finally wrote it. It had been on my mind and the tip of my tongue – everywhere except the page – for almost ten years. After my second child was born I decided that waiting for life to be less busy was pointless, it was never going to happen, I had to just make the time to write. So I did. I wrote An Unremarkable Body up as a series of vignettes and then, naïve as I was, sent it off to an agent far too early. At just 43,000 words, it wasn’t really a novel at all. Unsurprisingly it/I was rejected. But the rejection email was kind and encouraging so several months later, following an extensive re-write, I found Alice Lutyens’ profile and emailed her. Alice was on maternity leave at the time but she was happy to read the manuscript and then invited me to meet her at home. I explained that I had very few childcare options but she told me that was no problem, that I should bring my children with me. It was the most delightful afternoon: the sun was shining, our children were playing in the garden together and we sat discussing ideas for An Unremarkable Body. When she offered representation, I accepted because it was absolutely evident that she was the right agent for me.
What’s your favourite debut novel?
My favourite debut novel of all time is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I read it on a coach whilst visiting Kochi on the island of Shikoku in Japan and I was so transported by Roy’s writing, by the vivid setting of Kerala that I remember feeling disorientated – and a little confused – when I arrived at a beach with sudden, uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean. Being absorbed by a book like that is intoxicating and I’m always looking for the next fix.
How do you start your writing day?
My writing day is essentially the school day so it all begins the moment I walk in the door after the school run. I love pulling my boots off and boiling the kettle, all the while contemplating what strand of the story I’ll work on that day. I put a wash on, set the dishwasher going and try to make sure I’m sitting at my desk with a cup of tea and my work-in-progress open by nine-thirty.
If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would try to explain that the story already exists. It’s easily the most bizarre thing I’ve learned since writing my first book but it’s true and I’ve heard other authors say it too. I believe that the stories are curled up inside and it takes only the right combination of words to unfurl a vision that is unique to the writer.
What tips would you give to aspiring writers?
Probably something I learned myself which is not to rush towards the milestones. Securing an agent, getting a publishing deal, working with an editor – don’t get me wrong, all of them are important and feel monumental at the time but the seed, the story, the integrity of the writing is crucial and should come first. So my advice would be to take the time and make sure your book reflects you as a writer. That you know what you want to say before the world starts listening.
Which book do you always recommend to others?
There are so many… my vintage recommendations are The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch and anything by Jhumpa Lahiri but my most recent recommendation is Educated by Tara Westover. It just made me want to read everything, learn again, master something difficult.
How do you relax when you are not writing?
My husband and children consume my time when I’m not writing. It’s an intense existence: I’m either living in the fictional world of my characters or I’m a full-time mum and doing all that running a household involves. But when the kids are in bed, I like to sit down with a novel, have a bath or watch an episode of something with my husband. I just love being at home.
Who is your favourite fictional hero/heroine?
Anna Karenina is my all-time favourite novel and when I first read it, I was so taken by Anna and Vronsky’s story, so invested in their love and devastated by its conclusion that I felt the Levin sections of the novel were a bit of a less-interesting interlude. But now I’m older and I’ve had my own family, it’s the Levin/Kitty sections I enjoy the most. Anna Karenina is the sort of novel you can grow old to.
What was the last book you read?
I’ve just finished Clock Dance by Anne Tyler. It’s the eleventh novel I’ve read by her and each time I pick up a new one I think it can’t possibly be as good as the last one. And yet it always is. So now I need to slow down and ration the remaining novels.
What book is totally overrated in your view?
I might have answered that question before I became an author but not now. Not now I’ve written my own books and endured the punch to the stomach that is a one-star review on Amazon. I view the whole enterprise differently: I see how many hours that author has spent working on something, the to-ing and fro-ing with their editor and while I may not have enjoyed their book, I would never say I think the praise they’ve received is undeserved. It’s just that the reviewer felt differently to me. And that’s ok.
Do you have any writing rituals– and can you tell us what they are?
I build playlists of songs for each book and listen to the same round of music over-and-over again. It really helps with editing because I can steep myself in the feeling and mood of that particular book when I have to return to it. I wrote most of The Necessary Marriage to a band called London Grammar and I still can’t listen to one of those songs without thinking of Leonard and Jane. It’s nice. They’re like my own personal love songs. I listen to a lot of Eminem when I’m writing angry scenes and classical music when I really need to concentrate and tease out a truth.
What’s your guilty reading pleasure?
It’s not really a guilty reading pleasure because he’s a wonderful writer but I read Alan Bennett on my kindle at night as I fall asleep. I’ve read Keeping On Keeping On and I’m half-way through Writing Home. I like that I can dip in and out, that there is no continuous narrative to keep track of and I just find his reflections on English life immensely soothing. It’s a very nice way to fall asleep.
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