Elaine Mary Stabler interviews Louise Hare to discuss her debut novel “This Lovely City.”
I arrive at the agreed meeting place (a coffee house on St John’s Road) with just over an hour to spare. A quirky, and surprisingly loud place with portraits of John Lennon, The Beatles and the like, hanging on the exposed brick walls. Behind the counter, mason jars of mixed tea leaves with names like ‘Lover’s Leap’ and ‘Margaret’s Hope’ decorate the shelves. The entire place looks as though it had been overlaid with a sepia filter. The smell of coffee and meliorism is palpable.
My coffee date (or more appropriately, interviewee) for the afternoon is Louise Hare, a London-based writer and travel expert. She arrives promptly at 4:25, in a canary yellow coat and a scarf that looks as though it has been cut from the same cloth as Santa’s own suit. I introduce myself and shake her hand. She smiles warmly, in spite of the cold, drizzly grey London day.
At our table, I ask if she’d like to get a coffee. ‘I’m alright’ she says, removing the coat and scarf combination to reveal a bright pink jumper, ‘I’ve drunk a lot of coffee today, I think I’ll pass’. ‘Fair enough’ I laugh, ‘it’s a cliché isn’t it?’ The impetus of the creative writer, or creative writing student: coffee. Hare, who recently completed her MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London, will be graduating this year with a distinction. ‘Only just’ she jokes.
Hare’s decision to pursue the MA came after she completed her first novel. ‘I got so many rejections’ she tells me, ‘like fifty in total. It was a lot. I knew I needed to refine my skills’. She had a friend who was studying the creative writing (crime fiction) MA at University of East Anglia at the time. But UEA was far away and only offered compartmentalised creative writing courses, split by form and/or genre. Birkbeck was much more suited to her aspirations. Plus, it also offered the option to study part-time, ‘I guess I wanted to feel like I would get my money’s worth’ she jests.
Creative writing as academic practice and field of study is still underpinned by a growing body of research and pedagogical thinking, and increasingly that research is including the topics of migration, belonging and culture production. Birkbeck is taking a special focus on this recently with the latest episode in their Birkbeck Big Ideas lecture series.
As for Hare’s thoughts on the MA generally, ‘my process definitely changed. The workshop element was definitely beneficial’. Though perhaps not always, I gather, as she launches into a story about a past workshop she had whilst on the course. ‘Yeah it’s better now, like now, nobody’s going to turn up and say it’s just shit’. What Hare is referring to now of course, is the literary community and monthly workshops that have grown out of the MA, organised and led collaboratively by a group of her peers. ‘We meet regularly, like once a month. It’s a safe space’. When I ask how else the MA benefited her process, she says ‘I try to be quite regimented, writing an hour before I go to work. And I try and write on my lunch break. I have five notebooks on the go at any time, all for different things, making connections between ideas. I try and write every day, but I don’t. Sometimes you can’t force it’.
Hare was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017. And her short story The Odyssey of Dee Lennox was shortlisted for the 2016 Just Write Creative Writing Competition (in association with Writing Magazine and John Murray Press). Now, with the announcement of her debut novel, This Lovely City (which can also be seen to expound the topics of migration and belonging, and has been described by her publishers HQ as ‘a timely and powerful novel that shines a light on cultural tensions in the 20th and 21st century’) I’m curious how it might have been influenced or shaped by the MA. ‘Oh’ she says, ‘this novel was born out of a panic led short story I had given myself only one week to write’.
This Lovely City is a murder mystery, set in 1950s London and follows the character of Lawrie, who left the Caribbean on board the Windrush. In London, Lawrie makes his way by touring Soho’s music halls as a musician by night and walking the streets of Brixton as a postman by morning. When one such misty morning he makes a terrible discovery: a black baby, face-down and stone-cold to the touch, in a pond. As police pursue the case and the story unravels, dark secrets threaten the city and the people who live there – particularly its latest residents.
The ‘Windrush Scandal’ broke earlier this year, when many immigrants who arrived from the Commonwealth decades ago as mere children, were told they were living illegally in the UK. ‘I started writing this, 18 months before the whole Windrush scandal’ says Hare. ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen. I’ve always known about Windrush. It’s so difficult to explain to people [who don’t]’. At this point she rolls her eyes thoughtfully around the room.
‘When the scandal broke, I was at work and lots of people didn’t know what the Windrush was. And I was like, really? You’ve grown up in London? And I know people who have walked past Windrush Square, and I say why do you think it’s called Windrush square, and they say, ‘oh I didn’t really notice’ and I’m like wow, ok.’
As for her thoughts on the novel as a work of crime fiction, she says ‘I didn’t really do it on purpose, it’s all kind of been like little accidents […] It’s sort of a crime novel, but a lot of it is about community, and it’s about Lawrie and Evie. I mean it’s obviously crime, but it’s less who done it, it’s more why done it [and] it looks at racist attitudes. There’s a lot going on’.
Hare herself is originally from Warrington. But the inspiration for the novel came from her interest in London and its history. ‘I’ve always been interested in writing about locations. I like reading books where the setting is almost a character in its own right’.
‘You can do these hidden London tours where you visit old underground stations [and] air raid shelter[s]. They put Windrush passengers down there. I’d never known that until I was down there, and they showed you pictures of all these young men who’d just arrived, and I found that really bizarre. We don’t know what to do with them let’s just put them basically under a tube station’.
‘London now, it’s very multicultural’. She leans back in her chair as if to gesture to the room around her, it is bustling. Despite the thrum, the traffic, and the sound of artisan coffee being ground in the background, I can pick out dialects from numerous creeds and cultures. It is eclectic. Hare is nodding, ‘And it was multicultural [in the 50s] then, but in different ways’.
HQ has pre-empted this debut novel about the Windrush community in a “significant” six-figure pre-empt. But as for Hare’s feelings towards the description by HQ as ‘timely and powerful’, she laughs. ‘It was really weird because it was a complete accident, I didn’t know it was going to be so timely! It’s kind of a double-edged benefit, because you’d rather the scandal hadn’t happened, but I think it proves the points I make in the novel. These different issues still exist, and things haven’t changed. That’s why I like historical fiction, because you can write something set 50, 100, 200 years ago and actually, it might be historical, but it has themes that are still relevant now, it’s just using a different time period to illustrate them’.
I ask her why she decided to make Lawrie a postman, to which she says, ‘I chose postman because it was a job you could get’. At this point I note, when Sam Beaver King, the first black mayor of Southwark, first came to the U.K. on the Windrush, he took a job as a postman. ‘Normally, and mostly, people would have to have been a part of the armed forces […] if you were in the forces, you were deemed trustworthy. You wouldn’t get management, but you could work’.
‘I wanted to capture not only that idea of landing somewhere really different, but also the idea you might not like it’ says Hare. ‘I think he [Lawrie] wanted to. I think he’s disappointed [or] disillusioned’.
I am curious as to whether Hare’s own cultural reference points and/or background influenced the novel. She pauses before responding, ‘When I was a kid, I knew every black person in town. In a town of 1,000, there were only like 6 of us. You’d walk through town, and if you saw them, you might not even know their name, but you’d just sort of wave to them because you were the only ones. I was always the only black kid in my class’.
‘What I quite liked about writing this [was] Evie. That would have been her experience, always being the odd one out. Nobody wanted to make friends with her, because Evie was sort of weird and nobody wanted to go near her’.
After Louise leaves me, I open my laptop to begin typing up my notes. But I take a moment to look around the room. The place has quietened now, it feels emptier without the thrum and bustle of before. At the table next to me, a gentleman puts down his paper and begins to gather his things, I have to stop myself from laughing out loud when I watch him pull on a Royal Mail fleece cap. He shoots me a queer look.
I order a cup of ‘Margaret’s Hope’ and begin to write.
Hare was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017. The annual Fiction Prize provides a unique opportunity for unpublished female authors, aged 21 and over, to launch their literary careers.
Judges seek writers who combine literary merit with ‘unputdownability’ and the Prize has developed a formidable reputation for attracting first-class writing talent. Hare claims they have been extremely supportive throughout her career as a writer, ‘making the shortlist of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize has literally changed my life. Being signed by Nelle Andrew, who believed in the book even when it was an unfinished manuscript, was incredible, and now I have a dream publishing deal with Clio and the HQ team’.