Second novel series: Louise Beech

As promised, as part of my ‘difficult second novel’ series, Louise Beech is joining me today to talk about writing her second book, The Mountain in my Shoe. Her brilliant first novel How to be Brave, is a gripping exploration of love and bravery and the transformative power of story-telling – one of those books that stays with you long after you turn the final page. I can’t wait to read her second, and here she is to tell you all about it.

When did you have the idea for your second novel, and was writing it part of your book deal? 

I wrote the first draft to my second novel four years ago.  It was the third novel I wrote as an adult.  (Perhaps the fourth or fifth if you include the terrible efforts in my twenties.)  Sound complicated?  I need to lie down with a large gin.  What I mean, really, is that I wrote the novel that’s being released as a follow up to How to be Brave in 2012.  But I’ve been editing and rewriting and improving it for the last year or two, especially using my experience of the edits done to my debut.  I learned so much doing that.

The idea for The Mountain in my Shoe came because I’d been doing voluntary work with children in the care system, and was fascinated by their lifebooks.  These are a book in which all the carers and social workers – and anyone in contact with these kids – write up what has happened during their childhood.  It means they have a history when they grow up.  So they know what went on, who they are.  I was so inspired by how interesting a way it was to basically tell a story.  I also wanted to write about a child going through something like that.  At the same time, I kept getting this ‘what if’ question in my head – what if there was a woman who had finally found the courage to leave an abusive husband, and on that very night he didn’t come home?  All of these ideas merged into the novel that is The Mountain in my Shoe.

A second book was not part of my initial book deal for How to be Brave.  So it only makes me more proud and immensely flattered that Orenda Books have signed me again, for another.

How does the style and subject matter compare to your first novel?

I think style-wise the two books are similar.  If only because we cannot escape our natural style, no matter how hard we try.  It’s like DNA.  We’re stamped with it.  There are some common themes, I suppose.  There’s a child at the heart of each, one who has to be pretty brave.  Also storytelling plays a large role in both – how it matters to us, rescues us, records all that we are.  But I think the novels are essentially different.  They felt very different to write.  Mountain I think is more complicated, weaving together Bernadette’s story, with a ten-year-old boy’s, and the pages of a lifebook.  But then just when I argue for how different they are, I see yet another similarity.  So maybe not.

How long did it take you to write?

It took me five months to write the first draft.  I seem to average between five and six months for my first drafts.  To manage that I have to write for at least four or five solid hours every day.  Hard, but then no one said this is easy.  I left Mountain to ‘settle’ for a month, and then had another look, and a bloody good edit.

Was your second novel harder than your first, or do you think that the  ‘difficult second novel’ concept is a myth?

The ‘difficult second novel’ concept is a strange one for me to analyse because I’ve been writing novels for a while – it just took forever to meet the right publisher, one who could love my genre-less, hard-to-define work, as I was repeatedly told my books were in rejections.  I understand it’s really about how hard it is to write something following the success of a debut; the inevitable pressure.  That I can understand.  I’m nervous about following How to be Brave after the incredibly kind and wonderful things people have said.  It makes me read The Mountain in my Shoe again and again, checking it for mistakes, making sure it’s absolutely the best it can be.  In that way, it is harder.  But then I’m still beyond excited and pinch myself every day, which I shouldn’t because I bruise like a peach.

How did the experience of writing it compare to your first novel?

Writing Mountain, I loved ‘being’ ten-year-old Conor, and telling his story.  He’s a complex, damaged, emotionally young but incredibly intelligent kid.  Heart-breaking, really.  I suppose I wanted to give a voice to all the children who spend their early years away from their real parents, for whatever reasons.  To explore what it must really be like moving from home to home, person to person, never knowing where you’ll end up.  I just hope I did justice to the topic.

What did you love/hate most while writing it? What went well/badly?

There really wasn’t anything I hated/disliked when writing the second book.  But I’ve yet to feel that way about anything I’ve written.  Some of it may be challenging, harder than other themes, tiring even.  But I’m in the happiest, best and safest place possible when writing.  Always.

Thanks to Louise for answering my questions and you can find links to her books here:

How to be Brave (out now) –

The Mountain in my Shoe (out this summer on Kindle, and this September in paperback) –