The Beatrice Interview

Anna Maxted

"You have to be honest with readers... They know when they're being patronized.

interviewed by Ron Hogan

When I meet Anna Maxted in the lobby of the Omni Berkshire, she's on the last leg of a wildly successful U.S. reading tour. While her husband wanders around midtown Manhattan looking for a drug store to pick up some makeup items she needs, we head over to the hotel bar to chat about her debut novel, Getting Over It. It's about a young woman much like herself, a rising professional in the magazine business whose life is upended by the sudden death of her father...although Maxted had already found the man for her by then, while Helen is just about to embark on a path to romance that is anything but blissful.

RH: You were hounded by the publishing industry into becoming a novelist, weren't you?

AM: (laughs) That's a nice way of putting it. I did get a lot of encouragement. The hardest thing to do is to start. I think very few people want to start because we're so scared of failing. I was very fortunate in that I had a lot of people harrassing me to get going.

I wrote some very lighthearted self-help books for the publishers of British Cosmopolitan, and the woman who edited the manuscripts kept telling me that I should write a novel. Without my asking her, she called a publisher friend of hers, who called me and suggested that we should meet. Even though I had nothing to show him, I thought that I couldn't let this chance go. So I took a week and scribbled down a load of rubbish about a girl whose father died, because that's the subject I knew and that I wanted to write about.

He offered me a modest deal, but I didn't know if I could afford to take it. So I spoke to some of my writer friends, one of whom put me in touch with a literary agent, and he told me, "Look, you haven't got a plot. Go away and come back when you've got something proper." I went away stunned, and now I had to decide whether I wanted to take the first deal or try to do better. And I decided to try to do better. I spent a month trying to figure out a plot, and when I went back to the agent, this time he liked it, and it all went from there.

I didn't start writing the book until about two years after my father died, when I was very nearly thirty. I was nervous, because I'd told people I was writing a novel, and there's nothing worse than doing that, because everyone is writing a novel. It just sounds like a conceit.

RH: Plus you set yourself up for all those rounds of "How's the novel going?"

AM: Yeah, yeah, and they're still asking you ten years later. (laughs) So that was scary, but the thing was that I did work very hard on it. And when I sent out those first three chapters, I do remember feeling very happy. I thought, "OK, if nobody wants to buy that, I give up. That's the best I can do." I sent it off on a Monday morning, then went out for a coffee with my mom. And I said to myself, "It's the middle of the day, and I'm not working. This is very friviolous, but I still feel great."

RH: Many first-time novelists are very cagey about the relationship between their lives and the plots of their books, but you've been very upfront about writing what you know.

AM: I did do a lot of research, though. I nterviewed bereavement counselors, and interviewed people about their relationships with their fathers. I talked to a lot of people, because I didn't want the book to be just about my own experiences. However, I don't think that bereavement is something that's easy to write about unless you've been through it. It's unlike anything you can possibly imagine, at least that's how it was for me. And even if it does happen to you, three years later, you forget what it's like. I remember somebody talking to me about a relation who had died, and I found myself nearly asking how old he was. As if that mattered. It doesn't matter if somebody lives to be 150 years old, you'll still feel, "How dare they die? It's not right." But those are the kinds of things people ask, and it's insulting to the grieving person, because it's as if you're trying to make it better. "Oh, well, he had a good innings. Look on the bright side." There's no bright side. He's dead. I loved him. It feels awful.

For that reason, it was important that I went through what I'm writing about. I just think whatever a person writes, their view of the world always seeps into the book. So whether an author professes that nothing in the book is related to their real life, or a half of it, or whatever, a book is the most personal art form there is.

RH: It's a romantic comedy, but you also tackle some very serious subject matter, in addition to the bereavement at the book's center.

AM: One of the issues I wanted to tackle was domestic violence. Even though this is a romantic comedy, and I wanted it to be lighthearted in many ways, I didn't want the message of the book to be "find a man and everything will be okay." Certainly a lot of women are brought up to believe that that's the case, and it's really hard to learn that nobody is going to rescue you, you have to rescue yourself.

That's what Helen has to do. That's what Tina has to do. Adrian, Tina's abusive lover, is the only truly evil person in the book, I think. The others are all very flawed, and they're not all pleasant, but he's evil. I wanted to...not shock people, but maybe rattle them a bit. I did have an agenda. I wanted to make a few things plain. But I didn't want to lecture people.

RH: Instead of a cute book about the foibles of finding the man of your dreams, you've managed to write an emotionally substantial story.

AM: I wanted to write a book that worked on different levels. So if somebody wants a romantic comedy for a beach read, they have that. But I also wanted it to be substantial, I didn't want to write a throwaway book. You have to write what you're passionate about if you're going to write an engaging book. You have to be honest with the reader. If you're just doing it for ulterior motives...people aren't stupid. They know when they're being patronized. And this is a book from the heart. I hope that comes across.

RH: There's been a boom in the last few years of fiction written by and for younger women. So there's a unique set of challenges in writing a book that will be compared against the genre, while distinguishing it as your own, as something to value on its own merits.

AM: It is very hard. Of course everybody wants to stand alone. But then I can't protest too much. A large portion of the book is the young woman, the foibles, the job, the dating. But these are things I can relate to, and I can imagine my friends and other young women relating to them. That's what I want to write about, so why shouldn't I?

There is enough room for all these books. I always get stuck on this question, because I just wrote the book I wanted to write. It can be galling when somebody compares it to Bridget Jones' Diary, but then what a great thing, to be compared to such a successful book. That said, the critics have been fair. They'll draw the comparison, but then say, "However," and that's gratifying. I feel that I've been judged fairly.

RH: You signed a two-book deal with your publisher. So...are you ready?

AM: I'm about three-fifths through the second book. It was hard at first. About halfway through Getting Over It, I did start thinking about what the next book would be about. The first novel was swilling around in my head for two or three years, so once I had the plot down, it flowed quite easily. With the second book, I've had to think a lot harder to get the plot together, and to get the voice. I start off with an idea for a character, and the character grows as I write. As I write, I get to know the character, and it takes on a life of its own, until you start noticing things in the real world and thinking, "Oh, that's something Helen would say," or "That's the sort of thing Luke would wear." The characters become real to me in that sense, and they have to for the book to work. If you don't believe in your characters, why should the reader?

It took a while, in the second book, for me to get to grips with the character, and I went through moments where I wondered what I was doing, convinced I was out of my depth. Thank goodness the character has evolved, and I'm really happy with how the book's doing, and my agent is really excited by what he's seen so far.

It's a very different book, with a very different character. It's about a young woman whose best friend gets married, so now she feels left behind. As the story progresses, you realize that she has bigger problems she isn't admitting to. It's about friendship and the pressures on women to be and look a certain way. There's serious subjects in there, but again I hope to treat them with some humor.

RH: Will you still work in journalism?

AM: As much as I can. I have a column for Esquire that I'll bring to an end, then work freelance for them, as I do for Cosmopolitan. The editors there have been very patient with me, letting me do as much or as little as I have time to do. And I do the occasional piece for newspapers. It's nice to be able to pick and choose, but I don't want to do too much, because my job now is being a novelist, and I can't get too distracted from that.

I'm not pretending that I'm digging ditches, but this job is quite draining. You put quite a bit of yourself into it, and it takes up so much time. But I love it. It's a privilege, really, to enjoy my job. It's an opportunity, and I do feel grateful, thankful that I'm in this position. There are thousands of really good writers who don't get the chance I got, so I want to make the most of it.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Molly Jong-Fast | Complete Interview Index | Elissa Schappell

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan