Bea Setton: Berlin

Things are not all that they seem in Bea Setton’s vibrant, dark Berlin. At the heart of this compelling debut is Daphne, a complex millennial and beguiling, unreliable narrator who is hoping for a fresh start in a new city. Berlin was published by Doubleday in July, 2022.

Welcome Bea! Many congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut novel Berlin! How did you celebrate your big day, and what plans do you have to promote your novel and meet your readers?

Thank you so much for having me! I celebrated by throwing a party for my friends and family – so many of whom I have not seen since the pandemic. In terms of plans to promote and meet my readers: I recently got Instagram because I am a social-media luddite and it has been such fun to connect with people who’ve enjoyed Berlin! Other people have so much more insight into what is good (and bad) about the novel than I do. The fact that some people have enjoyed it is so heart-warming. I hope I will meet readers at a few events I have planned in bookshops. But if anyone wants to talk about the book, please reach out to me! It is so fun to meet readers.
Where did the inspiration come from for Berlin, and what came first for you – characters, setting, plot or something entirely different?

The setting came first – it was inspired by my love of Berlin. My experience of the place is probably the closest thing I’ve come to a great romance; I loved it, hated it, obsessed about what it was up to while I was away. I left it, pined after it, returned, and left again. There are wonderful things about the city. So many layers and sediments of recent history all around you all the time – it’s a unique feeling to notice the Stolpersteine memorials to victims of the Holocaust scattered on the pavement outside a gay bar: a special kind of victory.

Berlin is also extremely easy to satirise because there are so many people there who are going for a look, trying hard to seem like they aren’t trying at all to be cool. Some of them are breathtakingly cool but most of them – like me – are laughably contrived. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way – there’s always something touching and tender about young adults trying to become themselves, but it often involves a lot of navel-gazing and obsessive introspection, and that is often good material for comedy.

Let’s talk about Daphne, around whom all the action unfolds. She’s complex, self-aware, bright and has a history of running away from her problems. How did you create and develop this intriguing character?

For me, Daphne is a kind of Catcher in the Rye character. She has great expectations of the world, and for her life to have an important purpose, and is disappointed by the mundanity of how things really are. She does not handle this disappointment with grace and instead she looks down on the very people who would have saved her from isolation and self-destructive tendencies. I studied philosophy at university and so I was surrounded by plenty of angsty, clever Daphne types.

Women’s coming-of-age stories in literature and life are not often granted the gravitas of stories led by male protagonists. Women’s issues are often subsumed under the ‘sad girl’ or ‘messy millennial’ trope, and the existential profundity of the female experience is ignored. We don’t call Thomas Mann’s or Jack Kerouac’s or J.D. Salinger’s characters ‘sad boys’ and ‘hot messes’! I wanted to tap into the tradition of these kinds of narratives for a very contemporary character. For me, Daphne was someone who is narcissistic, self-obsessed, true – but also a deep thinker, someone struggling with nihilism and existential angst all while being anchored in the current context, trying to navigate dating apps and apartment sublets – to show these things do matter and are not silly, sad girl problems.
As Berlin progresses, we discover that Daphne is an unreliable witness with little insight into what impact her actions will have on other people. How did you go about plotting this particular thread with all its unsettling forewarnings, and is the final version of your novel what you envisaged when you began writing it?

I’ve always been an anxious person, so creating an unsettling sense of dread was quite easy for me; it reflects much of how I felt when I was growing up. I was frightened of rain as a child! If you’re frightened of the rain you will live a life of constant agonising suspense. I fed this into Daphne’s obsessive paranoia. However, when I started writing Berlin, I had a good sense of dread, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was that Daphne dreaded: this only came out in the edits. It is really thanks to my agent Charlotte Seymour and my editor Alice Youell that these threads were tied up in a real resolution and ending.

You bring Daphne’s world in Berlin to life in great detail – the heat, the disorientation, the smells – why did you choose to set your novel here?
I set it there because I was living there when I began to write. I’ve always really loved reading novels with an intense sense of place and I was keen to give people a good impression of the texture of life in Berlin. I spent a lot of time smelling things and trying to pin the atmosphere to the page.

I think that, practically speaking, Daphne’s life would have been impossible in any other city. Berlin is a novel that takes place almost entirely in idle time, and in the other cities I’m familiar with, there is no idleness; people have to work too hard, to commute too far. Berlin is becoming more expensive, but my friends there do not have to sacrifice their entire life to secure a decent standard of living as is the case in London, where my family lives, or Paris, where I grew up.

Which aspects of getting published did you find the most challenging, and the most rewarding, and can you tell us how you secured your agent, Charlotte Seymour?

In all honesty I did not find the process challenging – not because it was easy but because I had no expectations I’d find an agent or a publisher. Finishing the novel felt like an achievement in itself, I put no additional pressure on myself, and so everything since has been a mad, brilliant bonus. I’d hoped to print and bind a few copies and get my friends to illustrate it. I think it’s a good idea for writers to set goals over which they have some control; if you pin your hopes too highly on immediate publication, it is so easy and natural to become discouraged.

Once I’d finished the novel, I started sending it to agents. I did not write particularly thoughtful cover letters – I just sent it off to people who seemed like they might enjoy it. I think I sent it to about 40 agents. Every time I got a rejection, I sent it out anew – like a very, very slow game of ping pong. I’ve been rejected loads of times by various universities and jobs and men and so I think that taught me not to take the rejections too badly. Also, in my experience most agents don’t bother to actually tell you they’ve rejected you, you’re met with a gaping silence. Finally, after four months or so I received an answer from Charlotte and one other agent! So that is a 2/40 success rate – but you only need one yes.

What was the best – and worst! – piece of advice you were given as you embarked on writing Berlin?

I didn’t really embark on Berlin as a book project; I started writing because I was feeling unhappy and disconnected – much like Daphne – and writing was a soothing balm. So I didn’t really ask for much advice, only for encouragement. I think the most positive thing was that I got a lot of good feedback from my girlfriends and my mum. I’d send them paragraphs I was proud of and get a lot of hearts and thumbs-up emojis in return. From this I’ve learnt that sharing my writing and getting positive feedback is really important, especially at the start. It gave me confidence and the motivation to keep going. Plenty of time for criticism later.

The worst piece of advice I was given: I met an author and fellow at my university and I told her my dream was to publish a novel, to which she replied, “Well, I’d like money to grow on trees and that isn’t going to happen either.” I have a healthily-developed vindictive side, so I’ve enjoyed feeling that I’ve proved her wrong. Of course, she was right in a sense: there are many, many more talented writers than there are books published, but I don’t believe in checking people’s ambition for them. The world is tough enough as it is. They’ll find out for themselves that money does not grow on trees.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and which debut novels have you enjoyed recently?

I can’t flatter myself and say there are traces of these writers in my work, but I love Dickens, the Brontes, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Toni Morrison, Donna Tartt, Ottessa Moshfegh, Lisa Taddeo. My favourite recent debuts have been Real Life by Brandon Taylor, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, Luster by Raven Leilani.

You signed a two-book deal with Doubleday – what can we look forward to from you next?

I’m still very interested in character but now am really keen to explore morality. I was quite taken aback at how people reacted to Daphne’s lying – as if her self-deception and manipulation of others was remarkable. In my experience, people are incredibly flawed, even as they are wonderful. It is so hard for anyone to see themselves clearly, to have a true sense of their own worst flaws. I’m interested in moral torment, in pushing the bounds of moral censure: what’s the worst thing I can get a character to do and hang on to the reader’s empathy?

And finally, what encouragement would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2023?

Make sure the process of writing is enjoyable and an intrinsic pleasure in your life: write the story because you love it, celebrate the fact that you’ve completed it – this in itself ought to be appreciated as a great success – and then send it everywhere and enter it into all competitions (especially the Caledonia Novel Award!). I never thought of myself as a writer: I knew people who did and they seemed so professional and intimidating. Don’t let that image of the writer put you off – just go for it.
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