Charlotte Levin: If I Can't Have You

Today sees the publication of Charlotte’s Levin’s compelling debut novel, If I Can’t Have You. Narrated by the unique and unpredictable Constance Little, it’s an unforgettable tale of desire, betrayal and obsession.

Hello Charlotte! Huge congratulations on the publication of your first novel, If I Can’t Have You! Tell us how you are planning to celebrate.

Thank you! Well, due to the current circumstances, I can’t have the launch party I’d planned, so I’m going to have an online event instead. I’ll be chatting to my lovely writing mentor, author Ali Harper, and answering some questions. It’s going to be open to anyone who would like to join. Then when that’s all over, I’ll just be hanging out with my cats!

What inspired you to write If I Can’t Have You, and what does a typical writing day look like for you?

I’ve always been interested in psychology. And within that, I’m fascinated as to what makes good people do bad things. I’ve had my heart broken as most people have, and it’s awful. We feel out
mad talking about it, but generally, it doesn’t go further than that. But I was interested in the idea of that happening to someone so damaged and suffering so much loss that they cross lines the average person wouldn’t. I wanted it to feel realistic. Constance isn’t your standard psycho stalker. She needed not to be for the book to work. And ideally, I wanted the reader to root for someone that, based on their actions, they probably shouldn’t.

You have been very candid about your journey to publication, and your message to despondent writers – “If you really believe in what you’re doing, I advise stick with it” – will strike a chord with many. Can you tell us about how you came to find your agent Jo Williamson at Antony Harwood Ltd, and how you found the process from pitching to publication?

There were early indications I was on to something with the concept. I won a couple of pitch competitions, and an editor I met at a festival was interested in reading the manuscript when complete (though I still haven’t heard back from her five years on!). But when it came to submitting, although I did get quite a few requests for a full manuscript, and some confidence-boosting comments on my writing, they all led to rejections. The common theme was that it didn’t fit a specific genre. Or that there weren’t enough twists and turns for a psychological thriller. When writing the book, I didn’t fully consider the genre. This was a rookie mistake, but one I’m now glad I made. Like the agents, I was uncertain what the genre was. I did know it wasn’t a traditional psychological thriller, and I refused to force it into being that for the market. I was determined to remain true to my vision even if it looked like placing it would be hard.

After nearly 30 rejections, I spent another six months working day and night on the manuscript. I took every criticism on board and made use of any feedback I had. This time I could tell it was so much better. I re-sent it to a couple of agents who were interested in seeing the revised version, but it was still a no. However, I did get a few other full requests within days, which I posted about on Twitter. Jo saw the tweet and sent me a DM asking if she could have a read. She liked it, we got on really well and she made an offer. Once again, I followed my gut and told the remaining agents that I had accepted representation elsewhere.
We loved being immersed in the dark and unpredictable world of your protagonist Constance Little. How did you go about creating her, and did you miss her once you’d finished writing If I Can’t Have You?

Thank you. I started with very basic knowledge about her, such as her age and that she was originally from Manchester, and a bit about her background circumstances. Constance, like all my characters, just came as I wrote. I did little work beforehand. I kind of method wrote her (if that’s even a thing!), placing myself firmly in her head, viewing the world from her perspective with her wants, needs, justifications. It frightens me how organic it was because it makes me feel like I won’t be able to do it again!

As for missing her, I really do. I keep wondering if I could write a sequel. I need Netflix on board, so I’d have to write another one for season two!

Constance herself is honest and flawed and is surrounded by a wealth of vividly-drawn characters. These range from Dale, her repellent housemate, to Samuel, the handsome doctor
and object of her obsession. Which characters did you enjoy writing the most, and why?

I enjoyed writing all the characters, though Constance was my favourite. It was also fun hating on Samuel as I wrote him, and I loved Edward. They all became real people to me. I suppose my least favourite was Dale, purely because he’d sometimes make me squirm!

You have been widely praised and shortlisted for your short stories. Which comes easiest to you – writing short stories or a novel – and which aspects do you find most satisfying?

Thank you, though I wouldn’t say widely! In truth, I’ve only ever written a handful of short stories and was lucky enough to get one of them shortlisted for Mslexia. I’m not sure they’re my forte. I find them easier purely based on novels being so vast, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any good!

My favourite thing is creating characters. I also really enjoy writing dialogue and editing. I hate first drafts. The blank page fills me with dread. But if I have something to work with, then I’m happy. You’d think I’d make life easier for myself by just getting a quick first draft down, but no.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what do you enjoy reading in your spare time?

I know this is unusual with authors, but I came to reading novels later in my life. I didn’t grow up surrounded by books, and I was never into reading as a child. But as a teen I was desperate to be an actress and devoured plays. I’d read them as if they were novels. So, if I’ve been influenced by anyone, it would be playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, Willy Russell and loads of others. I was always drawn to sad but funny characters. I also started out wanting to write plays, not prose. I suppose that’s where my love of creating characters came from, and how I learnt what makes drama and formulates scenes. As well as the importance of the unsaid. Things going on between the lines is prevalent in If I Can’t Have You. There are so many conversations about tea and coffee that are not about that at all. But when I did get into reading novels, I steered more towards literary fiction. Now I’ll read all sorts of genres but still prefer something that I continue to think about after closing the book for the last time.

What was the most memorable piece of advice you were given when you embarked upon writing your first novel?

That would be the most annoying advice in existence, which is that you just have to actually write it.

Have you started your next project? Can we hope for another novel, or are you planning something completely different?

I’m starting out on book two which I don’t want to say too much about but it will again be character driven. It has the similar theme of good people doing bad things like If I Can’t Have You, but will be less of a thriller. I’d also love to write a TV script at some point, but I’m shelving that for the moment.

And finally, have you any tips for anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?

Firstly, just do it. Whatever happens, it’s all good practice, for both getting something ready for submission, the possibility of rejection, and the possibility of doors opening! Everyone’s path to getting published is different. But it’s good to attempt to walk through as many doors as possible. If you get somewhere, amazing! If you don’t, that’s fine too. I entered some and didn’t get anywhere. But it’s good to put yourself out there and try all avenues. This may be your door.
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