A brilliant editor is very important. Maybe I’m not the only debut novelist who has had this slight arrogance, and optimism, maybe put it that way, to feel that you can sort of get it right the first time, and tinker round the edges to polish it up and there you go, there’s your novel. Writing Darling, I’ve found that you need these different periods of drafting and redrafting. That’s something I really learned on my first novel: that relationship and trust with an editor is incredibly important.
On race, gender and authorship
It’s getting better, but I used to feel a real fatigue with women writers trying to write nice. Characters being nice for the sake of being nice, particularly women characters. I found it hugely unsatisfying and I thought it was doing a disservice to a lot of women writers and to women actually, I thought it was limiting them and saying we had to be a certain way. I passionately thought that if I were ever to write, I’d write characters who were flawed and interesting and had wonderful aspects of them and weren’t just uniformly nice. It’s not just about being two-dimensional, I just feel that historically male authors haven’t felt limited in the same way, that need to be liked. I’m driven by the ideas and it’s my work and I don’t feel the need to tick lots of smiley boxes and make it all happy for people because I think that’s a cop-out. As much as I knew I’d have people thinking ‘ooh, I didn’t realise Rachel’s like that, I thought she was a nice person’, I am an author and this is what I’m writing, and that’s something different. Male authors are very rarely questioned along the lines of how much of it is really them, as if women only write from experience in that way, especially debut authors, especially actually women of colour. I think it’s supposed to be all your experience, but actually I’m as driven by ideas as white male authors. I also want to read books about ideas, that come out in different ways because I have my own idiosyncratic style, but writing nice is just not good enough.
It is infantilising, particularly to Black readership, to say ‘okay we don’t see many Black examples in literature so they all have to be good otherwise we’re projecting a negative image of ourselves, and let’s get really defensive and worried about that’. Well actually I don’t come from that school, I’ve read fairly widely over the years - in French, English and other languages, and I think it’s the ideas and characters that are complex and interesting and flawed that matter. Approaching it from the same standpoint as historically your male author might have looked at it, but taking it seriously, intellectually to me is more important than trying to create an easy, palatable character that everyone will like and feel comfortable with. The country’s changed so fast in the past few years, so I’m as aware as a I ever have been of race. But I didn’t get the inferiority memo, I really didn’t, I don’t feel that and I wasn’t raised that way. My father’s a surgeon and my mother’s a nurse, so we always worked hard and were like 'yes, educate yourself. Go out there and work harder', and that was what I got, and I’ve always loved academic challenges, I’ve always loved reading and the key - I don’t feel defensive because I have that.
I do feel the responsibility thing, I do. By the act of being a Black woman writing a book of ideas, that says something in itself, I hope and that is something that, writing on my own terms, that is more powerful than writing a slight caricature of a person who is just more palatable just for the sake of getting published. So that’s one approach and whether people think it’s right or not remains to be seen. My husband and I went to a dinner where this very sweet octogenarian man sat next to me and asked me what I do and I said ‘I’ve just published my debut novel’, and he said ‘Oh really, did you have much help with that?’ [laughs] and I couldn’t believe it! There’s that kind of perception that women, that Black women, have less of an interior life or intellectual life, and that idea to me is abhorrent.