In her FIRST interview, Phoebe Wynne discusses her writing influences, writing practice and her journey to being published with Liz Bolton.
Her novel “Madam” will be published in February 2021.
After a gap of many years, I recently met up again with Phoebe at a London film premiere. Now in her mid-thirties, I was delighted to learn that not only had her first novel been enthusiastically snatched up by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, but she had also been commissioned to write a second. As the recipient of high praise from her agent and publishers, Phoebe admitted to “imposter syndrome” but agreed to allow me to interview her for MIRonline.
Can you describe ‘Madam’ in a few words?
A young teacher takes a new job at a prestigious girls’ boarding school and discovers that things are not as they seem. She refuses to succumb to the overbearing enemy within the school and looks to the girls around her to bring about its defeat.
How long did it take to write and how many drafts did it go through?
They say that no publisher will take on a novel over 100k words so ‘Madam’ is a few words under! My first draft took about three months, because I had the time and space, and I was armed with everything I’d learned from my writing courses. My agent read my third draft, but since then there have been many, getting it ready to send out to publishers. Cutting and editing was the worst stage for me, I hated to lose any words at all, but it’s all good practice.
What is it about the feminist-gothic genre that particularly appeals to you?
I love gothic novels, in films as well as books. I have a tendency towards the romantic, tragic and melodramatic. I’m also a solid feminist, and have a general outrage about modern injustices, so I suppose it’s natural that this would be what I write about. I would love to write about happy things, but that’s not the side of life that my curiosity and I tend to pay attention to. I think Toni Morrison said to write the book you want to read, and I have done that with ‘Madam’.
Did you mould your work to appeal to a particular audience?
I don’t think I could mould anything deliberately. As the saying goes, I wrote what I knew, with a bit of drama and craft thrown in, and saw what came out naturally. In Los Angeles I attended a writing class (LA Writers Group) of eight students where we were given a prompt, wrote for 15 minutes, then read aloud our writing. It was thrilling and horrible, but gradually, over the weeks and months, I found my characters and my writing voice. Within those, ‘Madam’ germinated. The story then established itself in other LA workshops and later in my London classes (Citylit and Central St.Martins).
To be compared to Donna Tartt and Naomi Alderman is praise indeed. Do you feel your writing justifies it?
I’m honoured to be compared to such great writers; I adore Donna Tartt’s writing and ‘The Secret History’ is a favourite among my Classicist peers. In such a way I think that the comparison comes from the themes, since ‘Madam’ leans on many classical references, and favours the ancient Greek darkness that ‘The Secret History’ borrows. My novel also has a punchy feminist theme, which links it to ‘The Power’, perhaps. Both comparisons are a huge compliment.
Did you expect to receive such positive reactions to your first attempt at writing a novel?
Technically this is my third attempt at a novel; the first two were written during my 20s and I’m happy to dismiss them as ‘word vomit’. This novel was birthed after I quit teaching and gave myself a year to focus on my writing. That year was a very steep learning curve, which entailed many months of studying the craft in writing classes, reading, experimenting – generally trying to find my voice and work out what I wanted to say. At the end of it, I didn’t expect such positive responses; but since I poured so much of myself into this novel, I hoped that someone else might identify with it, too.
You give your agent a great deal of credit. Did you strike lucky or do you believe that any good agent would have taken such an active interest in your work?
I really do believe I got lucky with Nelle. I think she saw something in the novel and grabbed hold of it with both hands – the novel spoke to her in a way that it might not have done to others. Her enthusiasm for it has really boosted my confidence, too.
How did you find her?
I read through the Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook, then attended a seminar on ‘How to Find an Agent’ in London in September 2018. There was excellent general advice but I couldn’t help feeling deflated after constant talk of finding the ‘next best thing’ and the ongoing trend for ‘uplit’ – which my writing does not conform to at all. Instead, after some encouragement from family and friends, I made a list of my top three agents and followed them on social media. I redrafted my novel in preparation for sending out. Then, I saw that Nelle Andrew, top of my list, had tweeted that she was looking for a dark narrative with a female lead, and I thought – go for it. Within days she requested the full manuscript and we met about two weeks later. As you can imagine I’m thrilled to have her by my side.
Was it your agent’s connections with Quercus (of Hachette) that led to an American (St. Martin’s Press of Macmillan) as well as English deal or was this a publishing collaboration?
The US deal happened first, it was a ‘pre-empt’, they were really excited about it. The UK deal happened a week or so later. The timing didn’t really matter as both the US and UK houses didn’t blink twice before they offered their deals. I think every agent has their connections, but it’s always down to the publishing houses as to whether they want to buy a novel or not.
Did the reactions of the English publisher vary from the American?
Both editors love and champion the novel equally, but I do think there’s a difference in reaction between the US and UK. I think that Americans tend to enjoy a narrative about an English boarding school objectively, whereas us Brits are more familiar with the concept, and therefore more subjective. I saw this reaction echoed in my writing classes: in LA my peers were fascinated by the concept, the setting, and my writing – whereas in London they found the story quite risky and unconventional.
You studied Classics at University. Do you feel that this grounding was invaluable? Iris Murdoch once advised “Don’t study English, study Classics and you will know how to use words”.
Absolutely. I’ve studied Latin since I was a child, and the ancient literature and civilisation comes with it. Many of the ancient questions are still being asked today. I’ve always loved the stories, the Greeks particularly liked to examine the human condition, which really fascinates me. I believe they had it right when they understood that we are hardwired for struggle, and it’s our job to endure. I try to examine some of that in my writing. There’s a lot of Classics in my novel: the protagonist is a Classics teacher, and I’ve borrowed a lot from Greek tragedy in the moulding of the story. I couldn’t get away from Classics if I tried!
How much of the book is based on your own experiences as a teacher at girls’ boarding schools?
I’ve borrowed much from the three schools I’ve taught in, but nothing reprehensible. I’ve also used experiences from my own schooling within the UK private school system. Life isn’t generally as exciting as literature so of course, I’ve had to build a compelling new world, and craft an interesting story within that. It’s been fun to take all sorts of moments and settings, throwing them all together towards something new.
How much of yourself is written into the characters?
I think I write characters that I’d like to be. I write things I’d like to say and do, so perhaps there are a few braver versions of myself running around and across the pages. The baddies, though, aren’t me at all! They’re probably versions of people I’d like to challenge or destroy – I find a lot of catharsis in writing.
Describe your writing practice if you have one. How long have you been writing?
I’ve always written, but I attempted my first novel when I was 19. I have to plot out the novel before I write a single word. With ‘Madam’ I saw the ending before anything else, and then the characters appeared. I had to go back to work out how they got to the end. In terms of every day, I have an unusual and very self-indulgent writing practice: I need a room or place alone, I make large vision boards, I listen to classical music, and I sort of enter a state of prayer. Because of this practice, I don’t write everyday, I go through long phases then I stop for a bit, usually for research or more reading. I am lucky in that I don’t have any dependents that need my attention, so I am able to work like this. This is also why I left the classroom to concentrate on writing.
Which writers do you read and which writers, inspired you?
I’m quite old-fashioned in that I love to reread the classic writers like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. I adore the Bronte sisters and even visited their home in Yorkshire while I was writing ‘Madam’. ‘Jane Eyre’ is a favourite as one of the great original gothic novels. In terms of more recent writers I love Edna O’Brien, and I think Kazuo Ishiguro is a genius, ‘The Remains of the Day’ is a literary masterpiece. My main writing influence, however, is Daphne du Maurier, who managed to write real literature that appealed to the masses and was thereby infinitely accessible. Her work is stylish, sensational, full of tension, and beautifully written.
Many of your family work in the film industry. How much are you influenced by film and TV?
We are a creative family and I’ve been lucky to have their support and encouragement, particularly from my much-older sister who writes and directs films. In this way, I was always exposed to a wide range of films from a young age, and many of them have stayed with me. I think ‘Madam’ is written in a cinematic way – the Scottish rocky peninsula and the bashing sea could be main characters in the novel. One of my main filmic influences in ‘Madam’ is ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, which bothered me intensely when I first saw it as a teenager, and then ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, which uses the well-known teacher-student model, as well as ‘Dead Poets Society’. With regard to TV, I adore everything Sally Wainwright does, and the bleakness of ‘Happy Valley’ is right up my street.
I know you’ve been commissioned to write a second book. Will this be a continuation or something completely different?
It is a very different story but the themes will be similar, the setting just as rich, and the ending probably just as Greek. It will be set in the south of France during a summer holiday, the protagonist will be a young girl. It will deal with class issues, gender issues, cruelty, and its world will be tighter, perhaps more of an ensemble piece. I like the idea of turning the gothic genre on its head, and moving the large building towards a chateau, and instead of cold use the heat of the summer, perhaps.
And is it daunting to be commissioned for a second book before your first has received public recognition?
The idea for the second book has been lodged in my brain for over a year so no, I’m happy to get on with it. It will be written before ‘Madam’ comes out in February 2021, which is probably a good thing. Public recognition feels like something very far away! I don’t know if I’ll read any reviews, the advice I’ve been given by other writers is not to, as it can affect future writing.
Has anything else you have written been published?
No, I entered a few short story competitions and won an Honourable Mention with Glitter Train Press in the US, but nothing else.
Where do you go from here?
Final edits on ‘Madam’ and then, onto number two. I haven’t had a solid idea for number three yet, but my brain works slowly so any seeds will need time to germinate.
Any thoughts for aspiring writers?
I’m still learning myself! Every writer has their own approach. For me, writing sometimes feels like torture, so I’d say only do it if you really have to do it. Every word you write won’t be amazing – it’s important to be humble and realise that you need critique from others to get better, and your reader deserves the best, crafted version of your writing.
Phoebe Wynne is represented by Nelle Andrew at PFD