Marianne Cronin: The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot

Marianne Cronin’s warm and engaging debut, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, explores unconventional friendships which blossom in the most unexpected places. A timely study in kindness and candour, and delivered with disarming humour, it was published in February, 2021.

Marianne, many congratulations on the very recent publication of The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot! Now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, have you made plans to take your novel out on the road?

Thank you so much! At the moment, I’m still taking it all in – I have plans to visit my local bookshops and see Lenni and Margot on the shelves for the first time, which I’m very excited about! I’m also dreaming of travelling to see Lenni and Margot in the US and Europe when it’s safe to do so. So much of my journey as an author has happened over lockdown that it sometimes feels like it might have been a dream. Seeing the book in real bookshops is going to be such a big part of realising this is all real!

What - or who! - inspired you to write The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot? How easy did you find it to develop the very distinct voices of Lenni and Margot and the wonderful intergenerational relationship between them?
So many things inspired me to write Lenni and Margot. Many years ago, I saw a segment on This Morning about an art therapy room in a hospital and it always stayed with me – I thought it would be such an interesting place to set a story. Then, when I was 22, a routine doctor’s appointment found that my heart was beating way too fast and I started having tests to find out why. And while I was in the hospital, having all these electrical devices hooked up to me, I started to really panic about my own mortality. And it got me to thinking about what it might be like to know you are dying. Then finally, I’d been chatting with someone about combined ages and was struck with the idea of having two characters who have a combined age of 100. I actually googled ‘books about combined centuries’ when I started writing because I was sure someone would have already done it before me.

Lenni’s voice came first and was so natural to me. Now that most of my friends and family have read it, a lot of them have said they could hear me in Lenni’s voice, which I think is true to a certain extent, except that Lenni is like if you took my personality, multiplied by 100, added cheekiness and bravery and a stubborn streak that I definitely don’t have, and then added in a life spent feeling like an ‘outsider’. Once I had her voice, I knew exactly who she was and I wrote the first few chapters within a couple of days. Margot was a little harder. I think at first, even though I wanted her life to be long and winding and interesting, I was writing a character who was limited by both my desire for her to be the ‘calm’ to Lenni’s chaos and by ageism – my own limited internalised ideas of the life that an elderly woman might have lived. And the more I pushed myself to consider Margot as a whole person and not just as a ‘sweet old lady’, the more interesting she became. Margot is still the calm to Lenni’s chaos, but she also has a rebel spirit and has lived a full life on her own terms.
We loved the supporting cast, from Father Arthur and New Nurse to Humphrey and Meena, and your skilful use of humour to navigate even the most tragic of circumstances. Which was your favourite part of the novel to write, and why?

Thank you! I had so much fun creating the supporting cast for Lenni and Margot, I wanted to capture the feeling that the hospital is a living thing – full of people and potential new friends for Lenni. And Margot’s love interests Humphrey and Meena are both so different but both offer Margot something that she needs – Humphrey brings comfort, loyalty and stability and Meena brings freedom and change and challenge.

I think my favourite part to write was the scenes between Lenni and Father Arthur, primarily because they were the easiest. Lenni’s first meetings with Arthur were the first full chapters I wrote and it just poured out of me – I knew exactly how Lenni would try to push his buttons and how Father Arthur would respond. A lot of Lenni’s doubts were echoes of my own journey of emerging from a childhood spent in Catholicism and losing my faith. But I had so much fun with Lenni’s irreverence and her cheekiness and I ended up really loving Arthur for the way he allows Lenni to be Lenni and doesn’t try to change her beliefs. Their back-and-forth and their humorous exchanges was mostly me trying to make myself laugh when writing – I’ve always thought I have a weird sense of humour so being told that other people are finding bits humorous too has been a real joy.
Which aspects of getting published were the most challenging, and the most rewarding?

I think for me, the hardest thing was sending the book out to agents in search of representation. I’ve always been very secretive about my writing – very few people in my life knew I was writing a book and I think some of that comes from my fear of rejection. My background is in academia which is a world that turns on rejection. When you present a paper at a conference, you have to be prepared that anyone – senior academic or fellow PhD student - might ask a question that destroys everything you’re doing and so I got used to analysing everything I write from the perspective of "what can be criticised about this?", "in what way is this terrible?". And while that was useful for my academic career, it also meant that I had analysed Lenni and Margot from all the ways it could be criticised and so I had very little confidence that it could get published.

I finally decided I was ready to send Lenni and Margot out to the slushpiles of the world in 2017 and after several agents rejected it with near-identical feedback, I concluded that these agents know the market better than anyone and as their feedback all had uncannily similar themes, I needed to wrestle the manuscript to the ground one last time. I went back to the very beginning and rewrote huge chunks of the book. Some of it was inspired by the agents’ notes, but other parts were just me diving deeper into the characters and being bolder. It took about two years to do that and I definitely lost some confidence mid-way through the rewrite process, when I’d taken it apart but not put it back together again. By 2019, I was ready to submit once more and my book was so much better for it.

One thing I did to lessen the sting of rejection was I had a ‘rejection reward scheme’ where each time the book was rejected, I was allowed to treat myself to a little something – a new book, a notebook, my favourite dessert (a krispy kreme doughnut), my favourite cocktail (pornstar martini) – something to reward myself for the bravery of sending out the thing I was most proud of to be judged. Which feels like cracking open your chest and letting someone look inside.

Rights to The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot have been snapped up throughout Europe, in the US and in China – how does it feel to know that your novel will be read around the world?

It’s so exciting and so very unexpected. When I began this journey, I knew nothing about the rights process – I thought that a book would be published in its original language and perhaps if it did well, might be translated into other languages a few years later, so to learn that rights are sold worldwide at the same time was a big surprise. The first offers on Lenni and Margot came in from Italy and France and I could hardly believe that someone in Italy or France had read my book, let alone wanted to publish it. I danced around my kitchen! I truly cannot wait to see Lenni and Margot on shelves around the world.

What was the most valuable piece of advice you were given as you began writing your first novel?

I have no idea who originally said it, but I love the quote “you are the only person who can write your book”. Lenni and Margot has some unusual elements that I worried would be a barrier to publication, such as very short chapters next to long chapters, characters whose names we never learn, a non-chronological structure, but they all made it into the book. The more I stopped worrying about whether my book was ‘normal’, the more fun I had with it.

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

I’ve enjoyed so many debuts recently – I adored Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams , I loved If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, I’m currently reading How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, which is her second book but first novel and it’s taken my breath away.

Honestly, the book that has influenced my writing the most is a non-fiction book called Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose by Mick Short. It’s a book from the linguistic subfield of stylistics that takes apart examples of literature to see how they are constructed – what makes them work. It shows you how language is used to create particular effects. It’s not designed to teach writing but it taught me how to write. I often find creative writing books frustratingly vague, but this book is so specific. For example, there’s a section on fictional dialogue that shows that powerful characters interrupt other characters, control the conversational topic, speak the most and speak for the longest time. And it’s changed how I write dialogue. I love characters who try to avoid topics (Lenni does this a lot because she doesn’t like talking about her illness) and I used rules like these and adapted them for Lenni and her conversational goals.

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot is to be adapted into a feature film – please tell us more!

It’s so surreal! At the moment, it is in the very early stages, so I don’t know any more than that there is a studio planning to adapt it for a feature film, but I can’t wait to see what happens! When I write, I see scenes between characters like a film in my mind and I wrote to a Lenni and Margot soundtrack of my own creation (I have certain songs that I play over and over while writing and editing particular scenes) so in some ways, it’s always been a film to me, but the idea that producers have seen value in something I’ve written and that one day I might see Lenni and Margot on a screen is just incredible.

You signed a two-book deal with Doubleday – can you tell us what we can look forward to in your next novel?

It’s such a privilege to be asked to write a second book! It has been quite a challenge writing during lockdown (I’m sure everyone is feeling the same) because all the usual things that inspire me – like people-watching, theatre, comedy, performing, spending time with friends and family, travelling – are all taken away, so it’s been much harder to spark ideas. Of course, in the wider context of the pandemic this is a completely insignificant struggle. I recently finished the first draft of book two but I’ll keep the pitch under my hat for now in case it turns out to be the unpublishable ramblings of a woman on lockdown! I will say I tend to lean into slightly dark themes, but with characters who have a little light.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

I would say go for it! It only takes a moment of courage to press ‘send’. Lenni and Margot could very easily have lain on my hard drive forever - who knows what gems of books are out there on other people’s laptops (not that I’m saying that Lenni and Margot is a gem – but if you’re reading this, you might have one!). I read a great article a few years ago by Kim Liao who said that she aims for 100 rejections a year and it totally reframed the way I think about rejection. Collect rejections and view them as evidence of your bravery. Or use my method and get yourself a doughnut and cocktail-based rewards system.

Best of luck to everyone who’ll be pressing ‘send’ this year!

Kim Liao article:
https://lithub.com/why-you-should-aim-for-100-rejections-a-year/

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