Gillian Harvey always dreamed of being a writer, but it took a while for that dream to come true. She started her career as an English teacher, before moving to France in 2009 with her husband Ray.
In 2012, she started freelance writing for magazines and newspapers, and in 2018 she signed a book deal with Orion for her first novel Everything is Fine which was published in May 2020.
Everything is Fine was longlisted for the Guardian's 'Not the Booker' prize in 2020. Gillian's second novel Perfect on Paper is published by Orion on 13 May and is also available from Suffolk Libraries.
- Who were your literary heroes as you were growing up and when did you first realise that you wanted to write?
I first realised I wanted to be a published writer at 5 years old when I found out my favourite books ‘The Garden Gang’ had been written by 9-year-old Jayne Fisher – the youngest ever Ladybird book author. If she could do it, then so can I! I thought. It took another 37 years, and a drawer full of unpublished manuscripts, but I got there in the end.
- Your first book was Everything is Fine (2020). How was that to write and how did it feel to see your work in print for the first time?
I started writing Everything is Fine in 2016 in a fog of tiredness. At the time, I had five children under 6, and felt like I’d lost my way. I negotiated an hour each evening where my husband would be ‘on duty’ and used it to write. Eventually, after a couple of rewrites, I sent it to an agent in 2018 – and (to my complete surprise) she snapped it up.
When I got my offer from Orion it was an incredible feeling, and I spent a year looking forward to its publication in May 2020. Then Covid19 came along and everything changed.
Despite this, seeing my book in print was an incredible experience – something I’d only really imagined in my wildest dreams, so I feel very lucky.
- What is the view from your window? Do you have a desk with a view?
I live in rural France in a small house with an enormous garden, and my office window looks out over our back lawn and to the trees and forest beyond. For a while, I moved rooms when we needed more space and ended up in a little wooden-clad attic room that we don’t often use. Whenever I did a Zoom call from there, people asked if I was sitting in a sauna!
In the end, I moved back to my original room and we reshuffled the kids to make it work. I hadn’t realised how important the light and the view were until they were taken away.
- As a new writer is there anything you wish you had known before you got published? (I'm guessing you missed out on the promotional circuit due to the pandemic?)
I expected confetti to rain from the skies, and champagne corks to pop and to feel completely different when my book was published. It actually feels a bit like a birthday – you know it’s a special day, but you’re still you and for the most part it feels oddly ordinary. That said, my big bookshop ‘do’ in London was cancelled (thanks Covid) and I ended up launching my book on Facebook – so that may have had something to do with it.
One thing that has surprised me is the number of readers who reach out directly to me – and how much it means. It’s something I’ve never done myself personally – I’ve always assumed an author would be far too busy to want to hear from me! But it’s those little moments, when you find out you’ve really connected with someone that make all the difference. An email or a thoughtful review can really make your day.
- Your new book Perfect on Paper is published in May. Can you give Suffolk readers a flavour of that?
The novel was inspired by my children… Or the fact that they barely pay any attention to anything I do or say! As anyone with tweenagers will know, you become far less interesting to your kids as they age – and if you’re fighting with a screen for their attention you are never going to win.
It made me think about so-called ‘midlife invisibility’ – how women often complain that they get overlooked. I decided to have some fun with this theme – writing about a woman who does something drastic to fight back and get herself noticed!
- How did the character of Clare Bailey take shape?
Clare is in her late 30s, and I often see women in this age depicted as ‘Bridget Jones’ type characters. I LOVED Bridget Jones, but I do think this idea of a hapless, 30-something who seems unable to cope with any area of her life is now a bit outdated.
I wanted to write about someone who had ticked all the boxes – she has a good job, a loving husband, two kids (albeit glued to their screens). She’s not fighting against herself, or trying to make self-improvements. She just wants to be seen – and if anything she ends up overachieving in this area!
- Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
I’m very excited about the book I’m working on at the moment. It’s a little bit of a side-step for me – a humorous novel but with a more serious theme. It’s something I hope will touch a lot of readers, and I hope to have some news about it soon!
- What is the best book you have read in the last year and why? Do you have any favourite authors?
I’ve recently started to help out with an online reading group, and taking on this role has really helped me to step outside of my reading comfort zone. I have favourite authors – I’ve been gobbling up Nick Hornby and David Nicholls books for years – but I’ve found some brilliant new voices I may never have discovered without my book group.
One book that really stayed with me was Tim Ewins novel We Are Animals which is quirky and thought-provoking. And I’d recommend everyone picks up a copy of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession. I’ve also been lucky enough to be sent some advance copies of upcoming books and recently devoured Everyone in this Room Will Someday be Dead by Emily Austin, which is out in July.
Finally, I’m friends with lots of 2020 authors who, like me, released their debut novels during the pandemic. I’m determined to read all their books. One that really touched me recently was PSML by Luce Brett – a funny, frank and honest book about incontinence. And keep an eye out for Poppy Cooper’s new release The Post Office Girls.
- Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
I’m very shy! When I was a child, I barely spoke and used to blush whenever anyone from outside my (tiny) friendship group talked to me. I managed to project confidence during my years as a teacher (which is very much like playing a role), but still feel incredibly shy inside most of the time.
That’s probably one of the reasons I hide behind my keyboard and pour my personality and humour into books instead.