Writer’s Block with Beth O’Leary

Sophie Grenham speaks to author BETH O’LEARY about her debut novel The Flatshare

Photograph by Tom Medwell

Beth O’Leary is the debut author of The Flatshare, one of popular fiction’s most anticipated releases this year. Prior to landing an impressive six-figure two-book deal, the Englishwoman was a children’s book editor with Penguin Random House. O’Leary’s uplifting and innovative writing style has already garnered comparisons to JoJo Moyes and Helen Fielding. So far, rights to The Flatshare have sold in 30 territories and a television deal is in pre-production.

The Flatshare is certainly a work that speaks to a generation, as we meet two financially challenged strangers. Leon Twomey and Tiffy Moore are flatmates with a difference: they agree to share a bed when they have never actually met. Leon is a nocturnal nurse who works at a hospice and only needs the bed during office hours. Tiffy is a book editor whose quirky commissions include a best-seller about crochet: she has custody of the flat the rest of the time. Literally two ships in the night, the pair quickly take to communicating via Post-it notes and leaving out meal offerings for each other.

O’Leary’s prose has a compulsive quality, as she plays with the key characters’ opposite personalities, carefully balancing darkness and light. One of the best aspects of this book is the mirth of Leon’s minimalism versus Tiffy’s very pronounced maximalism, not to mention the many witty zingers that catch the reader off-guard. What started as a relationship of convenience soon brings the pair on a journey they never expected. Tiffy and Leon’s situation will no doubt resonate with young people who are trying (and failing) to get onto the property ladder. While most unorthodox tales of communal living are unlikely to result in romance, one can hope they eventually become amusing anecdotes. Mike Gayle has called The Flatshare, “A fresh, funny feelgood read with real heart. Tiffy and Leon are characters you’re going to be rooting for from the moment you meet them.”

Beth O’Leary lives in Winchester, England with her boyfriend. She is currently working on her second novel.

The Flatshare (€14.99) is published by Quercus and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in the south of England with my boyfriend and our golden retriever puppy. Our house is on the edge of Winchester, which is a gorgeous historic city, but we rarely go into town. We’re more likely to be found walking the dog through the fields in the other direction (I’m a country girl, really). I grew up in Winchester, and decided to come back here after a spell living in London, where I never quite felt at home. I love the area where we’ve settled. Our local pub is in a nearby village, a forty-minute walk through rolling fields of grass and rapeseed, but walk five minutes the other way from our house and there’s a supermarket and a post office. It feels like the best of both worlds.

On roots

I have four brothers and a sister; my childhood home was full of bustle and noise and love and squabbles. All my siblings are a fair bit older than me, and I was very much the baby of the family. When I think back to that time, I remember my brothers as double my height, gangly teenage boys who would lift me up and mess up my hair when they got back from school. All the pots and pans we’d cook with were enormous because my parents were always catering for eight – my grandma once said it looked like everything was made for a giant. But those noisy meals around the kitchen table have stayed with me, and I love being part of a big family.

On early reading

My dad used to commute to London and often got home from work late in the evening. He’d change out of his suit, and then he’d come and read me a bedtime story. Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg was a favourite, and I loved poring over the pictures in the Brambly Hedge books. I vividly remember the sight of my dad’s feet crossed at the ankles at the end of the bed as the two of us flicked through the pages together. My mum read to me lots too, and I’m sure my parents’ love of books is a huge part of why I’m a writer. As a child I read whenever I could, squirrelling books into my school bag, propping them open behind the taps as I brushed my teeth. I even tried reading while walking to school…but reading while walking is very tricky.

On Ireland

I have Irish blood, but it’s a few generations back now. My grandparents lived in Wales and that’s where my father grew up, too. We suspect our Irish family moved from Cork to Cardiff to work on the docks there when they were first being built, but we don’t know much, and I’d really like to find out more about that part of my family’s history. I haven’t had much of a chance to visit Ireland, but I loved exploring Dublin earlier this year when I was there visiting bookshops. It’s such a vibrant city – I would love to go back.

On creating

The first thing I did when I started writing full-time was create a work space for myself: an old wooden desk in front of a window looking out on to the street outside. There’s a large screen linked up to my laptop, and just a few ornaments: a handmade pot from my friend Maddy, with a few pens in there; a map of the area where the book I’m writing is set; and a rather shameful little heap of receipts which I’m supposed to file for my VAT returns! But when I started work on my second book I was feeling the pressure – the classic second album problem – and I found myself avoiding my “official” writing spot. I felt more comfortable writing on the sofa with the puppy curled up next to me.

On bookshops

I love P&G Wells in Winchester. I have a very vivid memory of my mum taking me to the children’s section upstairs and letting me choose any book I liked, all on my own. I chose Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, much to my mother’s alarm. I was always reading more grown-up books than I should be, and I think the title made this one seem particularly risqué…The children’s section at P&G Wells is so beautiful. It’s full of light and feels more like a playroom than a bookshop, with a paisley rug and patterned wallpaper.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m dying to get started on Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton, which has been recommended to me more times than I can count. I’m also looking forward to Sophie Kinsella’s latest book, I Owe You One, and Mhairi McFarlane’s Don’t You Forget About Me. They are both instant-buy authors for me: I know they’ll write something that will make me laugh out loud. I am also lucky enough to be sent early reading copies by publishers from time to time (still a huge novelty for me!) and I’m just about to start After the End by Clare Mackintosh, a story of a couple who are forced to make a terrible decision and don’t agree on what they should do. It’s out in June, and I have the feeling it’s going to make me cry a lot (in a good way).

On escapes

Every year, my family go to a villa in Provence in France together. We generally don’t do a lot – we read, we catch up, we lie in the sunshine (or, in my case, the shade – I’m so pale I burn at the slightest hint of sun!). We even go to the same villa every year, just because that makes it so much easier: we know where to get the best croissants in the nearby village, we know that there are inflatables for my nieces to play with in the pool. But we do alternate who stays in which room, because one bedroom is very grand and has a bath that looks out over the sunset, so you only get to stay in that one every four years on rotation!

On The Flatshare

The concept for The Flatshare grew from my own living situation. I moved in with my boyfriend, who is a junior doctor and was working lots of night shifts, and we would pass like ships in the night – when he was out, I was in, and vice versa. It got me wondering what would happen if two strangers lived that way. I wrote the novel on my commute to work, which had its upsides – two clear hours a day for writing – but had its downsides, too. It wasn’t always easy to switch off after work and step into the world of The Flatshare, and sometimes I felt like screaming at people having loud phone conversations on the train during my precious writing time! But it showed me that I write best in short bursts of a fixed time, and even now I’m a full-time author, I still work in this way.

Before I moved in with my boyfriend, I lived with a friend in London. Our flat resembled the many dodgy places that Tiffy looks round at the start of The Flatshare. There was sewage from the upstairs flat leaking through the bedroom wall and mice living in the ceiling. The water would periodically run freezing cold, usually just when you’d applied a liberal amount of shampoo. I once locked my friend in the flat by accident as I left for work – one of the many quirks of our apartment was the fact that her key couldn’t unlock the door from the inside. She had to call work and explain that she couldn’t come in until I could come back at lunchtime and let her out! We laugh about it now, but at the time she was not quite so amused…

On what’s next

At the moment I am working on my second novel, The Switch Up, about a grandmother and granddaughter who swap lives for two months. I’m at the first formal edits stage, meaning my editors have given their feedback and I’m digging back in to the story to rework it after their comments. It’s really amazing having external input at this point – I can never see the wood for the trees at this stage of writing a novel! And alongside work on book two, there’s lots of exciting stuff on the horizon for The Flatshare: trips to bookshops around the UK, speaking at festivals… It’s all very new and exciting for me.

@SophieGrenham

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