Matson Taylor: The Miseducation of Evie Epworth

Matson Taylor’s debut novel, The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is a light-hearted and affectionate comedy, set in 1960’s Yorkshire, about a young woman discovering her past, choosing her future and outwitting the looming prospect of an appalling stepmother. The Miseducation of Evie Epworth was published in July, 2020.

Hi Matson! Firstly, huge congratulations on the recent publication of your sparkling debut The Miseducation of Evie Epworth! Given the constraints surrounding the COVID-19 lockdown, how did you celebrate, and how have you been promoting your novel?

Thank you! I still can’t quite believe the book is out! The launch wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when we had a planning meeting back in February… It was a wonderful day, though. Celebrations started early with the arrival of flowers and chocolates and lots of good luck messages. Then in the afternoon we had a live Twitter Q&A event with the lovely Clare from the Years of Reading Selfishly book blog. This was my first Twitter Q&A, which was very obvious right from the start – I’m probably too chatty for Twitter (or too slow!) and was several questions behind everyone else all the way through. After that came a Zoom meeting with my editor and agent (lots of virtual back-slapping) and then I joined a couple of friends for pizza and champagne in their garden. It was all very nice indeed.
Promoting the novel in the middle of a global pandemic has been quite a strange experience. Lots of promotion has been done via social media. I was quite resistant to having Twitter and Instagram accounts at first but it’s actually been lovely and I’ve ‘met’ lots of really nice, friendly, supportive people – I’d definitely recommend all novelists-to-be get accounts and reach out to the book community there. We did a blog tour on Twitter and Instagram and that was brilliant – reviews, comments, and interviews every day with very experienced (and luckily very lovely) book bloggers. I really enjoyed both ‘tours’ and am looking forward to doing another one. But it hasn’t all been online – I’ve been getting out and talking to real booksellers too! I’ve absolutely loved this. Quite a few of the booksellers had read the book before I met them and it was so lovely to hear their comments and see their enthusiasm – one of them described Evie as the lovechild of Alan Bennett and Sue Townsend and I think it’s possibly the nicest thing anyone could ever say to me! It would have been nice to do some events in bookshops too but obviously that can’t happen at the moment – hopefully by the time I get to the second book, we might be able to have a room full of readers and warm wine again...

You have written The Miseducation of Evie Epworth from the point of view of Evie, a quirky, naïve and hilariously forthright 16-year-old girl – why did you choose this approach, and how easy did you find it?

I chose Evie’s age very carefully. I really wanted to capture the moment between being an adult and being a child – I can clearly remember being 16 and at times feeling very grown up and being quite ‘knowing’ (sometimes more than many of the adults around) but at the same time still feeling very young and naïve and not having much of an idea about what was going on. Plus I love that feeling of being right at the start of adulthood and seeing life laid out in front of you like an infinite galaxy of possibilities. It’s a bit like Thomas Heatherwick’s sculpture B of the Bang – I wanted Evie to capture all that energy and explode onto the page. And Evie’s voice just came to me – the first sentences in the book are the same ones that I sat down and wrote when I started. Evie must have been in my head waiting to spring out for years! And writing in the first person gives you such immediacy, it really brings the character to life for the reader, I think – plus it’s full of comic potential.
The Miseducation of Evie Epworth is packed full of strong female characters – the men definitely take a back seat! Which characters did you enjoy writing the most, and why?

That’s such a difficult question – it’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! I really loved the quieter, more emotional moments that Mrs Scott-Pym (Evie’s neighbour) brings to the book – I wanted the book to make people cry as well as make them laugh and I think Mrs Scott-Pym helped me bring in some lovely tender moments. Her daughter, Caroline, was also great to write. I think we all want to be Caroline or have her as a best friend and she allowed me to bring one of the main themes into the book – the arrival of the sixties in all its pop-culture glory (I wanted to explore the idea of when exactly the fifties stopped and the sixties started and it definitely wasn’t on 1st Jan 1960!). And of course, I loved writing Evie – she has such a strong, fresh, playful voice and I loved the way she sees the world. She’s funny and clever and her mind is sometimes like a big firework display of ideas and images all exploding at the same time (often in total contrast to what’s actually in front of her). Having said all this, I have to admit to really loving writing about Christine, the book’s villain – I think all readers will be able to tell the fun I had with her…

Your 1962 Yorkshire setting is brilliantly observed – the clothes! The décor! Fat Rascals from Bettys! How important was it to get the details right, and how did you achieve this?

I’m actually a design historian so writing about ‘things’ (clothes, interiors, food etc) is second nature to me. I wanted Yorkshire to be like a character in the book and for the reader to be able to see it, taste it, hear it, feel it. And the period details are important because, as I said, I wanted to show the reader the arrival of the sixties and ‘things’ are a very good way of doing this. Clothes, for example, are an excellent way of showing which characters embody the new decade and which ones are still living in the old – clothes are how we choose to show ourselves to the world and I think it’s important to remember this when writing characters.

And as for how I did it… lots of time in various archives! I love flicking through magazines to get a feel for a period – adverts are especially useful because they give a real sense of how life was lived. And I checked everything, every cleaning product, every hair lotion, every fusty blouse, every song – even down to what was on the 1962 Chemistry ‘O’ Level paper!
You must have had great fun writing some of the scenes, particularly those involving the almost irredeemably ghastly duo, Christine and Vera. Does writing comedy come easily to you, and how did you keep the comic aspects so fresh through redrafting?

I really enjoyed writing the book – I had enormous fun! The whole thing was a joy to write. The scenes with Christine and Vera were especially enjoyable, though – they are characters who lend themselves brilliantly to comedy. I think it’s their absolute certainty of always being right combined with their utter lack of self-awareness. Plus they’re not ones to hold back when it comes to being blunt or rude.

And I’m glad you found the comic aspects fresh! I did two big redrafts on my own and then another couple with Chris, my editor at Scribner. Most of the editing was honing the sentences down – getting the comedy down to its most essential element rather than over-egging it. Even just changing the position of a word in a sentence can help. An important part of editing, at least for me, is to leave the book untouched for a good month or so before you go back to it – this should help you read it as a reader as well as a writer and you’ll be able to ‘smell’ if something doesn’t work. And if something doesn’t make you smile even after you’ve read it a few times, it probably isn’t that funny!
Initially I definitely found the comedic parts of the book easier to write than the more emotional parts. I think that might be because I’m a typical phlegmatic Yorkshireman who finds talking about emotions quite hard so I fell back on humour. But as the writing went on, it’s the quieter, more tender scenes that I really loved writing – getting the rhythm right and making them emotionally honest and just sentimental enough without being mawkish.

What does a typical writing day look like for you – if there is such a thing! – and can you tell us about how you secured your agent, Alice Lutyens?

When I’m in the ‘writing zone’ I like to do nothing other than write and eat (lots of eating, in fact). I try and be at my desk by 6am, reading and editing what I wrote the day before. Before I start writing new sections, I’ll make a pot of tea and some toast and write down a few notes. And then write. And stare out of the window. And check something on the internet and get distracted by the Guardian. And write some more. And notice that the shelves need dusting. And make another cup of tea. And then write some more. Have a quick lunch followed by a quick siesta. Followed by more writing. More staring. More eating. And so on and so on, often until 10.30 or 11 at night. It might sound horrible but I absolutely love it.

Getting an agent was a very interesting experience. I knew that it would be something that took time and lots of patience so I didn’t really do anything about it until I’d finished the second big edit. I did my homework and made a list of agents I thought might like Evie (every agent says online what kind of books he/she is looking for – there’s no point sending a book about a Tudor princess to an agent who’s looking for dystopian sci-fi). I had a list of about 35 agents and thought the best thing to do would be to approach five agents at a time, leaving a month or so between submissions. So I sent Evie off to the first five agents on a Monday afternoon and then thought “right, I’d better just try and forget about it for a few weeks” so that I didn’t go mad. The next morning, one agent got back to me and requested the full m/s. And then as the day progressed, the other four agents got back to me, too, asking for the whole book. It was a complete shock – all very surreal and quite overwhelming to be honest – not at all what I’d expected. Alice, one of the five, live emailed as she read through! I’d come out of a class (I teach at uni) and find emails saying such and such about chapter 4 or saying how much she’d enjoyed a certain thing in chapter 6 etc. I’d lined up meetings with all five agents – but Alice was the first I met and she so completely won me over with her enthusiasm for Evie that I ended up cancelling the other meetings and signing up with her.

Which novelists inspired you to write comedy, and which novels have made you laugh?

I was brought up on Adrian Mole and Sue Townsend has been a huge inspiration. I love how the books combine humour with moments of real poignancy. For me, the greatest unfinished work of art isn’t Mahler 10 or Schubert 7 but Mole 9. I also love Alan Bennett, of course – there’s such subtle, gentle, clever humour in everything he writes. Another big inspiration is Kate Atkinson. She’s not a comic writer as such but her books are very funny. And very dark. And very serious. And poetic and beautiful and powerful. I think she’s brilliant and she’s the writer that I’ve learnt the most from.

As well as books by the writers above, the book that I return to most often and the one that is always guaranteed to make me laugh is The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield. I’d seen the book in bookshops for years but was always (stupidly) put off by its title. Then I heard a clip of it on the radio one evening and had to stop what I was doing because it was so funny. If you haven’t read the book, go and find a copy immediately. It’s a domestic comedy written by a woman but if it were a non-domestic comedy written by a man it would be the most famous funny book in the world. Ever.

What advice were you given as an aspiring writer of comedy that has stuck with you?

“Cut, cut, cut till it bleeds.” Very good advice given to me by a friend who claims Gore Vidal said it to her when she met him in Italy. He was talking about paragraphs, of course, not porchetta.

And looking ahead, what can we look forward to next from you? Further adventures of Evie Epworth, perhaps?

Yes, I’m currently writing Evie 2, or rather I currently should be writing Evie 2. Life’s full of promotional work at the moment – book signings, Zoom meetings with bookshops etc – and I haven’t been able to get any writing done for a couple of months. I’m really looking forward to getting back to Evie though – I’ve already written three chapters and it was great to be with the characters again. Hopefully, Evie is a trilogy, with each book set 10 years apart. That means I’m currently in 1972 and, I have to say, I’m having a lot of fun there.

Finally, what words of encouragement would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award 2021 entrants?

Two things… First, keep at it – writing a novel takes AGES! Don’t rush it. I think the first draft is just you telling yourself the story. The second draft is when you turn the story into a novel. And don’t just keep adding – remember to take things away too (just as important)! So if you think the novel is taking a long time to write, don’t worry – that’s probably a very good thing! And the second thing is to get a writing buddy. Writing can be a pretty lonely job and it’s important to have someone to bounce ideas off and be there for you when you need a good moan. A good writing buddy will fire you up, dust you down, bounce you along, and get you over just about anything.
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