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An Exclusive Q&A with Gail Honeyman

Posted on 4th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview, Gail Honeyman, author of our February Fiction Book of the Month, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, discusses loneliness in fiction, creating one of contemporary fiction's most likeable outsiders and whether she'd ever return to Eleanor's story.

You begin the book with a quote from Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City, with Laing’s insightful understanding that to move away from loneliness is ‘far easier said than done’. At a time where loneliness is on the increase, do you think there’s a tendency in society to stigmatise isolation, perhaps prejudicially seeing it as a self-inflicted? 

Thankfully, loneliness is an issue that’s being discussed more and more nowadays; we’re slowly gaining a better understanding of how pervasive it is, about what causes it and about the serious impact it can have on both individuals and society. The Jo Cox Commission reported the conclusions of its work into the subject last year and resulted, amongst other things, in the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. It’s really encouraging to see the subject being taken seriously. 

Your readers have particularly responded to the way in which you identify the importance of simple, small acts of kindness in this book. Are there books, works of fiction or non-fiction, which conjure up the same response for you as a reader? What has been the most striking or memorable response you’ve had to the book from a reader?

I guess the act of reading fiction is, in no small part, an exercise in empathy, and I couldn’t begin to list all the novels that have demonstrated that  for me here – there are so many! In terms of my own novel, I was very touched when readers said that they’d like to be Eleanor’s friend. She’s not the most immediately endearing or charming character, and it was wonderful to find out that the character had elicited this incredibly generous response. 

Although it’s in no way didactic, it’s impossible to read this novel, I think, and not find yourself considering how we judge and respond to other people around us in real life. Do you think fiction can and should be a way of guiding us towards being better, kinder people in some way? 

I’m not sure - as a reader, for me, part of the pleasure of reading lies in the personal interaction with story and character. As a writer, if you’re fortunate enough to have people read your work, I think you can trust them to draw their own conclusions. 

Some of the funniest – and also the most poignant – scenes in the book for me were the descriptions of Eleanor’s various attempts to transform her appearance (the description of her getting a bikini wax for example had me crying with laughter). Do you think Eleanor’s experience of feeling the need put on a face to the world put into focus the way in which we all present masks and versions of ourselves and perform our identity in public? Did writing about Eleanor’s attempts to transform herself make you think about the lengths we go to, perhaps particularly women, to make ourselves ‘fit in’?

I'm delighted to hear that it made you laugh - thank you! In those scenes, I tried to show that Eleanor deliberately and knowingly ‘plays the game’ in terms of making superficial changes to her outward appearance. Hopefully, the most important and significant transformation in the book is a much deeper, internal one. 

There’s a strength; a kind of core of steel, to Eleanor. It’s something that helps to ensure that whilst Eleanor is often very funny she is never a character who a reader laughs at. Was it important to you for a reader to be inside Eleanor’s experience of the world, to emphasise that we all see the world differently?

Absolutely - I didn't want Eleanor to be a figure of ridicule, and I tried very hard to make sure that any humour was never at the character's expense. That’s also partly why I decided to write the book in the first person. Having access to a character’s inner thoughts and feelings hopefully means that we come to understand and empathise with Eleanor – when her behaviour seems quite challenging or strange, as it sometimes does to other characters in the novel, we know that this is not her intention.  

I found Eleanor to be an extraordinarily brave character and found the novel really got to the heart of how difficult human interaction can be. Do you think we underestimate the courage it takes to connect with other people, the fact that we have to lay something of ourselves on the line to allow people to come to know us?

That’s an interesting question. One possible antidote to loneliness is meaningful human connection., but there’s often no easy shortcut to achieving this. In Eleanor’s case, I tried to show  that, although opening up to others requires her to be brave - it is very challenging for her, particularly as someone who’s been hurt in the past -  the rewards massively repay the risk, hopefully.

It would have been very easy to make Eleanor’s story one which emphasised or expanded on, the pathos and trauma of her early life. How important was it for you when writing this book that Eleanor’s story shouldn’t be primarily defined by the events of her past? 

I chose not to dwell on the details of Eleanor’s childhood in the book – that’s not the part of her story that I wanted to focus on. The important thing, for her, is that she comes to acknowledge what has happened in her past and begins to move on from it. Despite everything, she’s made a life for herself, she’s survived; the book focuses on how she learns how to really live. 

Do you think contemporary obsessions with self-promotion, particularly on social media, tempt us to place too much value on the need for our lives to be extraordinary to have meaning? Was it important to you to write a book that explores and recognises that the experiences that make everyday lives meaningful and valuable are made up of a very different, much more ordinary kind of wonder? 

That’s another interesting question! In the novel, I just tried to show, for these characters, how transformative small, everyday acts of kindness can be, and to highlight the importance of friendship. 

Eleanor is clearly a character who readers have fallen in love with, do you think you’ll ever return to her story?

It’s a huge compliment if people say that they are interested in reading more about her! I’m happy to say goodbye to Eleanor and Raymond where we do, on the cusp of a much more positive future, and leave it to readers to imagine what might happen next, I think.  

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