Claire Daverley: Talking at Night

Claire Daverley’s debut Talking at Night is a modern, literary love story with two unforgettable leads, Will And Rosie, at its heart. Navigating complicated family ties, loss, disappointment and joy, Talking at Night was published on July 6 by Penguin Michael Joseph.

Hi Claire! Huge congratulations on the very recent publication of Talking at Night! How did you celebrate the big day, and what plans have you made to meet your readers and promote your novel?

Thank you so much! It was such a lovely, surreal day – I went to see the book on the shelf in my old local Waterstones, the bookshop I spent all my pocket money in as a little girl. Then I met my editor and agent for drinks, before the launch party at Waterstones Piccadilly. The room was filled with so many friends and old colleagues and my publishing team; it was such a special celebration (and an excellent excuse to wear a bright yellow dress to compliment the neon orange book cover, of course!). Mainly it was a wonderful opportunity to thank all the people who’ve worked so hard on publishing my debut. It’s one thing to write a novel, but it takes a whole host of brilliant people to transform it into the book we see on the shelves, and I wanted the team at Michael Joseph to know what a joy it’s been, working with them all.
Post-launch, I’ve got a few author events planned to meet readers all over the country – some in Herts, Cambridge, Scotland, Salisbury – and I’m also attending Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place Festival to talk about the book, after she chose Talking at Night for her book club, which is incredibly exciting. It’s quite a change from tapping quietly on my keyboard, to talking about the work to so many people. But a lovely and unexpected one, of course.

Where did the inspiration for Talking at Night come from?

I’ve been writing for a long time, ever since I was little, and my stories always percolate for some time, usually beginning with the characters. And Talking at Night was no exception. I had shadows of scenes with Will and Rosie in my head, years before I put pen to paper, and their voices became clearer and clearer the more I listened. I knew I wanted to write a story about people, and the things they say, and don’t say – and I knew I wanted to write a novel that traversed both light and dark, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure what that would look like until I began writing. I knew it would be a book about Will and Rosie. That their chemistry was the most important thing. And I was interested in the idea of ‘the one that got away’ – but what if they never actually got away? What if they remained close, in your heart and mind and even physically in your life? So I started with that question and just kept writing.

Talking at Night captures perfectly all the messiness and missed opportunities, waiting, watching and longing between Will and Rosie. Can you tell us a bit about how you built these two highly-relatable characters and their story?

I’m so glad that comes through, because you empathise with your own characters and can only hope that readers will, too. I don’t start with character maps or anything like that, although sometimes I wonder if that would be easier. I had a sense of these two people – Rosie, a perfectionist, someone striving for something she doesn’t quite understand, always wanting to ‘do the right thing’ – and Will, a troubled, seemingly aloof teenager who actually feels things very deeply, and is a good person despite having done bad things.

And I had the tone of the novel firmly in mind from the off, because a story for me always starts with the characters, or a certain feeling, or atmosphere. I had their voices in my head, the way they’d been for many years, and I put together a Talking at Night playlist to represent them (which is something I’ve done in the past, for other writing projects – it helps me sink into that ‘tone’ much more easily, and is also just really good fun). And the strange thing was that I found Will’s voice in music very easily. Rosie’s took a little longer to get right, but I finally found the perfect artist, only to discover soon after that this artist had covered one of Will’s songs, too – so I had the same song, in both Will’s and Rosie’s voices, purely coincidentally, as the backdrop to this novel! I think that helped wildly, with their chemistry, and also added to the magic of writing this time round.

From the start, I had a vague outline of the book that I wanted to stick to, but a lot of surprises happened along the way – I didn’t know whether they’d end up together, for example. That kept me guessing, the whole way, almost like the characters were guiding me, and I had nothing to do with it. It was all to play for, even though I had a sense of the major plot points and dramatic events. How I got there was up to Will and Rosie.

Talking at Night has been translated into at least 20 languages to date – for a novel that is so British in its setting, cultural references and humour, what do you think the appeal is for readers around the world?

It’s been such a surprise and delight to have so many territories wanting to publish it. I agree that it feels very British in terms of its setting, references and jokes, but I also think the themes of love, grief, heartbreak, hope – and the familiar events of funerals and weddings and school dances – are all so universal. We all know what it’s like to fall for someone at school, or to not say something you wish you’d said. We all know what it’s like to feel pressure from a friend or a parent, or get swept along by life, and for time to keep passing, no matter what happens. Hopefully that’s why it appeals to readers everywhere. Maybe it feels nostalgic and relatable because really it’s a book about being human, and making mistakes, and trying to find your way back from them.

Can you tell us a bit about how you found your agent, Ariella Feiner? What have you found to be the most rewarding, and most challenging, aspects of getting your novel published?

Of course! Finding an agent, in my experience, was the hardest part about getting published. I spent years sending out cover letters and had a few requests for my manuscripts, and while the rejections were always very nice and encouraged me to keep going, they weren’t quite getting me there! I was hungry to improve, and just loved learning about writing, so I decided after years of going it alone that I needed to know more about the craft. I applied for the Write A Novel course at Faber Academy, which was truly wonderful, and while I’m not sure it taught me to write any differently, it definitely taught me to be a more ruthless editor, and built my confidence up from the ground.
At the end of that course, an anthology goes out to agents with a sample of your writing. Off the back of that, a few agents asked to read the novel I’d written whilst at Faber, which again, received some lovely feedback, but no offers of representation. Ariella was one of those agents. She phoned me, rather than sending an email – which in itself felt like a huge moment – and was really honest and helpful, giving me a good hour of her time. She explained that she loved my writing, but that it was going to be a hard novel to pitch, as she wasn’t sure where it would sit in the market, and that she’d gone back and forth but decided not to offer representation at this time because she thought I could do better – and in her words, you only get a debut once. This was hard to hear, but I was so grateful to her, for being open, and so clear. It clarified things for me. I knew I had to move on and write something else, if I wanted to make any progress with publication; that the novel I’d laboured over (and still loved!) might be better left behind.

Anyway, long story short, Ariella told me to keep in touch, and asked what I was writing next. I told her about my new project: a love story, which I had started only a month before. That story was Talking at Night, and I sent her an outline and the opening 50 pages once they were ready. In a mad turn of events, she signed me after reading only those 50 pages – which was not what I’d expected, at all!
I think because she’d seen and enjoyed my previous novel, and she believed in Talking at Night as a concept, she was happy to take the risk. So I went away and finished it, knowing I had her trust in me, which was such a wonderful motivator after years of writing with no sense of where it might lead.

This goes to show that no failed book is ever a waste of time – I do believe that without those previous projects, I’d never have met my agent in the first place – and they all led me to landing the right agent for me! Ariella is truly the perfect gatekeeper for my writing, the right mix of strategic edge, editorial eye and gut instinct. Plus she truly loved Will and Rosie, and the excitement in her voice over the phone that day told me all I needed to know! I couldn’t have written Talking at Night without all the projects that came before it. Every word and every rejection letter was worth it.

What does a typical writing day look like for you – if there is such a thing! – and would you describe yourself as a disciplined writer?

It does differ depending on where I am or what I’m doing, but the average day will start with me waking early, with the sunrise or just because I’ve set an early alarm! I’ll leave my husband sleeping and sit down at my desk and write, without tea or coffee, or looking at my phone – I have to get straight into the story. I might read a little of what I wrote the previous day, to get back into the scene, and then I’ll spend an hour or so writing the next chunk before my husband’s alarm goes off and I hear him padding around. He’ll let my spaniel out of her crate, and she’ll immediately bounce up the stairs, push open my door and essentially demand attention – that means it’s time for breakfast, and my quiet writing hour is over!

I’ll often spend a few more hours writing or editing in the morning, or at the end of the day just before dinner. I’ll fill the rest of the day with other things – publicity, or planning, or replying to emails, or non-work activities like walking the dog or going for a run. I love wild swimming, and reading, of course; reading is vital. I probably only write about three hours a day, on average – anything more than that and it dries up or seems forced. I think because I used to snatch time to write, back when I worked in an office, it’s almost a learned behaviour that I write best in broken chunks of time.

I love the word 'disciplined' – I think it’s fair to say I probably am, because writing around a full-time job required it. I feel less disciplined now I write full-time, purely because I have so much more time to do it – and sometimes feel like if I’m not spending 9-5 at my desk then I’m not making the most of my time! So the idea of discipline can also come with its own trouble, and a lot of guilt! But I’m learning that sometimes a bit of flex in that sense of discipline is necessary. If I have a week that’s full on with travel, or family time, or events, I’ve had to learn that it’s okay not to write the same number of words that week. I tried to set word counts for a while and hit them quite easily, but reading back, none of it was worth keeping. So I stopped that practice, in the end. I think the quality is far better if I let myself write only when it feels right, and churning out thousands of words every day just isn’t the way I work, even though it works brilliantly for others. Good writing is like a baby deer, I’ve found. You have to let it come to you.
What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing your novel?

Love this question! The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given, I think, is to write from your stomach. Because an idea that feels great in your head, or even sparks something in your heart, is great, but probably won’t last – it’ll likely fizzle out by the first 10,000 words. And I really related to that. The truest, most enduring stories are the ones that you feel in your gut – that you have the stomach to stick with, that can draw you through from beginning to end. If an idea or a scene isn’t being written from deep in your stomach, then it’s probably got no business being on the page. Sounds mad, but it really helps me to distinguish what parts of my writing should stay, and what needs to go. Don’t write what you think you should write, what jumps into your head, or what you think people want to see – write from somewhere deep inside yourself. I think that’s what that piece of advice really means.

And the worst piece of writing advice I ever got was fairly reasonable, but at the same time, very frustrating! Just write, I was told, more than once. Actually write; get a novel written, and you’ll be ahead of so many others. Which I understand, in principle, but I was writing, all the time. 
I had several finished novels, in the drawer. And I had no choice but to keep going; I loved it, it was a compulsion, and just finishing something didn’t seem to be getting me any closer to publication. I think a lot of published writers assume aspiring writers like the idea of being writers, but perhaps aren’t actually grafting and getting the words down. But I was, so the advice to ‘just write’ was always radically unhelpful, because it made me feel as though what I was doing wasn’t enough.

I suppose what I’d say to those aspiring writers who are hoping to land an agent, or a publisher, who are putting the time in, who are finishing those manuscripts, is just don’t lose the faith. If you’re writing because you have to – not because you want to get published, as validating as that is – you are doing the right thing. I knew I’d be writing my whole life, even if I never got a book deal. So if that’s the case for you, don’t forget it. It means you’re doing it for the love of it, and not the book deal. So keep the faith, and trust in the process, and just remember that you’re writing because you’re a writer. You’re already winning.

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

Ah, so many! Books were my first love, and there are so many writers whose prose just astonishes me, every time; I wish I could bottle their words, and carry them around in my pocket. Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourites – the way she uses setting, and sunlight, and everyday occurrences as vessels for such powerful emotion. Sally Rooney, of course, with her clean prose and contemporary portrayals of raw, difficult love, and David Nicholls, with all his heart and humour and messy, complicated relationships, has been a writing hero of mine for years. I love the lyricism of Evie Wyld and Jessica Andrews, but my favourite novelist of all time has to be Miriam Toews, who is so funny, so poetic, and so unpredictable in terms of where her stories take you. I could go on, but that’s probably plenty for now!

I adored We All Want Impossible Things, a gorgeous novel by Catherine Newman that is somehow about death but also life, and all the sadness and undeniable joy that goes with it. I’m not a big crier, but I sobbed while reading that one, in the bath, no less! I also loved Coco Mellors’ Cleopatra and Frankenstein, the cool, edgy romance novel that sparkles with wit, beautiful sentences and an unforgettable side character who became, for me, the star of the show. And the sugar baby! Oh, it took my breath away.

And looking ahead, what can we look forward to from you next?

I’m writing another novel - not a sequel to Talking at Night, but a standalone story. It’s contemporary fiction, about three people – a love triangle, you might say – told through the eyes of Clementine, a 30-year-old woman who has lost touch with her best childhood friend. It’s been 13 years since she last saw him, but then he walks back into her life, on the night of her engagement party, no less.

It’s a book about loyalty, and family secrets, and complex desire – all the stuff I love to get my teeth into! I wanted to write a book about that period of life, our early 30s, which seem to be a new chapter for so many people, where everyone seems to be settling down or having kids or getting married. But what happens if you don’t do those things? What if you’re not certain it’s what you want? It’s early days with it, but I’m really loving being in the thick of writing again.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2024?

My advice is to do it! If your work is ready, if you are happy with it – if it’s the best you think you can get it – then now is the time. Putting your work out there is so brave, but someone has to win, and it could be you – and also, any sort of feedback, positive or constructive, can lead you to the next step in your writing journey. Make sure it’s edited, revised, without any typos, and once you’ve sent it, try to forget about it. Carry on writing. Don’t drive yourself mad refreshing your inbox. Get back to the writing itself; maybe read something really brilliant, that’ll inspire you to keep going; then get back to work. All the rest is just noise, or nice-to-haves. But also excellent motivators!
(Author photo by Emma Shaw)
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