On Wednesday, I was one of thirty members of Virago’s Book Club lucky enough to attend their first live event: an evening with Linda Grant discussing her most recent book and the first Book Club title, We Had It So Good. I knew it was bound to be an interesting evening for me as, although it was well-written and interesting, I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the book when I read it earlier this year (two entirely different things: there are books which are perfectly written which just don’t click for me and stuff which is horrible literature that I devour avidly) and it certainly proved to be so. I came away from the evening with a much greater appreciation for the novel and why it does what it does, including the aspects that I personally didn’t like.
We Had It So Good is the only book of Linda Grant’s that I’ve read, and so it was difficult to try to guess what she might be like from just this one experience; it turns out that she is warm, lively, very entertaining to hear speak and the owner of some eminently covetable shoes. The evening started with Linda passing around a photograph of herself and some friends in Venice in the 1970′s and reading some letters that she had written to a friend around that time (rather brave considering how frank they were) to provide some context for Stephen and Andrea, the book’s main characters. After we’d all had a chuckle at the 70′s fashions, music and attitudes that the letters and picture recalled (and a small detour regarding The Archers’ book club), we settled down to listen to Linda answering questions from her editor, Lennie Goodings, with frequent interjections from the enthusiastic audience members. It was a lovely, friendly informal occasion and I learned a lot.
Linda started by explaining what inspired the book which, appropriately enough for this book, was a combination of personal and political factors. On the one hand, a chance meeting with an old hippie acquaintance who now runs a million pound advertising business made her curious as to how someone got from a to b like that, and on the other the incidents of September 11th caused her to look back at her generation and think, as the title says, we had it so good. She went on to talk about the characters (Max was our universal favourite) and expressed her concerns that a lot of reviews (my own included, to a certain extent) were overly concerned about whether the characters were likeable or not, an issue which is really besides the point of the novel. I think we all like to like the people we read about (if you’ll pardon the overuse of ‘like’ there) but would agree that it’s not necessarily an issue as long as they are interesting in their unlikeability. Besides, the point was made that the novel takes place over such a long period that you would never like a person continually or agree with all their choices over an equivalent time period in real life, so why should we expect to in a book? The main point is that characters should be credible, engage the reader and provoke a reaction.
The most interesting part of the evening was definitely learning about the writing process and the decisions that Linda had made when writing and revising the book. Apparently the chapter which holds the key to understanding the outspoken, unlikeable Grace (ah, I’m back to liking again) was originally Grace’s first chapter, rather than placed at the end as a shocking revelation as it is in the published edition. It was moved to the end for greater impact, but she says that even now she isn’t sure which placement works best and that the chapter could go in either place. Also fascinating was her decision not to have the novel follow quite the trajectory that she had initially intended, with Max or Marianne being killed or wounded in the September 11th attacks. This was a change that she made after the child of a close friend was seriously injured in a similar attack, and she felt that to write about it with the insider knowledge that she shouldn’t have would be exploitative and wrong, so instead tragedy happens off to the side and is not the main focus of the novel. It was wonderful to learn of such a sensitive decision full of integrity, even if it does mean that We Had It So Good is, in her opinion, not the book it would have been had her original idea been followed through.
In true book club fashion the evening began and ended with copious quantities of cake, possibly more than the people at Virago had intended after someone who had been unable to attend the event dropped off a very impressive cake in the shape of Linda’s book! I left having had a thoroughly good time, with a greater understanding of We Had It So Good, a desire to read another of Linda Grant’s books (probably The Clothes on Their Backs which was mentioned quite a lot and sounds rather good), and a canvas bag containing a proof copy of an upcoming book (particularly welcome given the current embargo on book buying). For pictures from the evening, take a look at Virago’s blog post. Thanks very much to the Virago team for organising such an interesting event and for inviting me along.