antonia hayes’ debut novel Relativity has already made a massive splash in the book world, and is already being touted as a future award-winner. antonia took some time out of her hectic publicity schedule to talk to CHRIS CURRIE about writing, bookselling and historical fiction written by thirteen year-olds…
Can you tell us a little about the process of Relativity‘s path to publication? How did it begin, and how did it feel to end up the subject of an auction among publishing houses?
Back in 2009, I attended the Faber Academy novel writing course in London. At the end of the course, everyone had extracts from their novels-in-progress published in an anthology. Karolina Sutton, who’s now my agent, read an extract of Relativity in that anthology and contacted me, asking to see the finished manuscript. I sent Karolina the first draft about six months later and she sent me a long list of problems with the book that I needed to fix. Around that time, I’d just moved back to Australia and the disruption of returning home (new job, new life etc) derailed rewriting the novel for almost three years. Eventually, I started working on it again, reshuffled the story and tried to fix the problems. By the time I was done with the next draft, four years had passed since I’d first sent it to Karolina. It still wasn’t ready yet, though! I worked on another draft with Karolina’s new suggestions and then she began submitting to publishers. Pippa Masson is my co-agent in Australia and she and Karolina did a fantastic job; we got six offers for Relativity before it went to auction. That was a very strange and surreal moment. Of course it was insanely exciting but I was so stressed I developed a giant rash!
The main narrative strand of book comes from a very personal place. Was this a story you always wanted to tell, and in this way?
Now that Relativity is written, it feels so far removed from the personal place where it began. The act of writing itself created a lot of distance between anything that had happened in real life and what eventually became the narrative. The characters took on a life of their own and the book’s story deviated from my story, turning in a totally different direction. So I guess I’d liken the personal place to a tiny seed that grew into a big tree. That was the starting point but by the end of the process, it was only a microscopic grain of sand compared to what the book had become.
I read this book aware it contained autobiographical elements, but was not privy to the narrative’s inciting incident (from which the story expands both forward and backwards). This made it, personally, so much more effective when it arose. Setting out on the publication trail, how are you balancing the book’s “reveal” against speaking about Relativity’s very important and personal issue to which the book pertains?
I’m cautious about saying the book has autobiographical elements, probably because I guess only I can know precisely how poles apart the plot and characters are from real events and people in my life. They’re basically on opposite sides of the galaxy. Relativity is very much a work of fiction and close to the entirety of the novel comes solely from my imagination. At the same time, there’s absolutely a real life parallel. So yes, I’m finding it extremely tricky to juggle speaking about that personal issue (which is important and interesting) without affecting the narrative for the reader. But I think they’re distinctly different enough that knowing about the real life background that inspired Relativity won’t spoil the experience of reading the novel.
How has your time in the book trade (as both a bookseller and a publicist) affected your expectations of what it means to have a book being published?
It’s been a bit of a double-edged sword! On one hand, I think working in the book trade really raised my idea of what’s expected of authors, from the quality of the writing to the work ethic, because I was working with lots of talented and professional authors who’d been writing for a long time. I knew that the standard I needed to try to reach if I was going to publish a book was high. On the other hand, working as a bookseller and a publicist also lowered my expectations of what it means to publish a book too, or at least aligned my publication aspirations with what was realistic. Which makes me sound like Eeyore, but it’s been quite lovely to be shocked when good things happen rather than disappointed if they don’t, if that makes sense? So far, everything that’s happened around Relativity‘s publication has been a wonderful surprise but the biggest surprise of all has been which part of the process I’ve enjoyed most. You always hear authors say stuff like ‘Writing is better than publishing, just enjoy that blah blah blah!’ and I’d always thought in the back of my mind it was easy for them to say, they have a book deal! But after having been through it now, damn it, they weren’t just being self-righteous jerks; they were right. Writing and editing have brought me far more joy and satisfaction than signing contracts or even holding the physical book in my hands.
I loved the $%@# out of doing the science research. Reading books about physics, astronomy and neuroscience was so much fun. The physics thread of the narrative actually came very early in the development of the book. Before I knew what was going to happen in the story, Ethan, one of the main characters, popped into my head and I knew almost straight away that he really loved physics. So the scientific background hum of the book came from his characterisation.
Has your son Julian (an accomplished writer in his own right) read the book? If so, did he have any notes for you?
Julian hasn’t read it yet. He asked if there was any sex in the novel, and I said maybe, then he said gross. I’m sure Julian’s editorial advice would be that Relativity doesn’t have enough ancient history in the story. If you like historical fiction written by thirteen-year-olds, you can read his debut novel Civil War, Rome.
We love book recommendations at Avid. What are the five books you think everyone should read in their life (after they’ve bought and read a copy of Relativity from their local indie bookseller, obviously)?
This is a really hard question! And my responses will generally change with the wind but this is what I’m thinking today:
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Sea, the Sea – Iris Murdoch
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
Finally, will we see you in Brisbane any time soon?
Yes! I’ll be in Brisbane in September.