As I packed my bags to move to Paris, Grace Atherton, the protagonist in Anstey Harris’ debut novel, Goodbye, Paris, walked along the cobblestone streets to say au revoir to a city we all love. In the story, a classical date night nearby the Parc La Villette (seen above) quickly spiralled into international news when her lover helps a woman who has fallen into the metro tracks. His heroic act sheds a spotlight into his personal life, exposing their affair. However, as the legendary Beatles song goes, she gets by with a little help from her friends, confronting her own fears and building a truly beautiful future. I had the chance to interview Anstey Harris a few months ago about her writing process, her creative methods on developing characters and her approaches to find a captivating book she will actually read.
Readers will quickly note that the story is not about falling in love, but instead one focused on self-discovery. What advice do you have in writing a well-rounded female character?
I think it’s the same as the advice for a male character: a character develops by reaction. There is action (in the story) and the character reacts, thus showing us who they are. In early drafts of this book, I think I tended to make Grace too emotional and, thus, difficult to spend time with. As readers, we have to like the people we’re with – even if it’s only because they’re good at being bad – but they have to be bearable. I think I take Grace to the edge of that in the first half.
How do you think the #MeToo movement change how we write about women?
I have been fascinated FOREVER with the way society depicts women in literature (and art) – where you can be the Madonna or Lady Macbeth and rarely anything in between. I wanted to write something that tilted our perceptions of women and their societal roles.
I think the #MeToo movement will squeeze this assumption from both sides – making people more aware that women are both powerful and vulnerable and, generally, both at once. I wanted to write about the power of kindness and the fact that we don’t know ANYONE until we’ve walked in their shoes. People are rarely who you think on first meeting them and for women, with their experience of society and their different roles within different relationships, I think that is even more true. Someone once told me that women’s lives are narrative and men’s are contingent: I think that’s completely true and women – all women carve significant stories as we pass through the world.
What was your inspiration for Grace’s friends, Nadia and Mr. Williams? I adored Nadia by the way! I loved how you captured both soft and hard features of her personality.
When I first started writing this book, my daughters and step-daughter were all teenagers. I love the bounce-bility of teenagers: the way that they can rage one moment and be pussy cats the next. They have such energy and bravery.
I had nothing to do with Mr Williams or what he was doing in my book. One day, while I was writing, he just knocked on the door of Grace’s shop and introduced himself. He is entirely created out of, and by, the story-world. There is something amazing about the subconscious part of writing. This was a prime example of how my story knew it needed this third wheel, this wise character, even though I didn’t.
You are at your local bookshop, browsing for a new book. How do you choose a book you will definitely read?
I am incredibly lucky with my local bookshop – the staff are knowledgeable, interested, and very well-read. They also take time to get to know their customers and what kind of thing works for them.
For me, a book has to ‘move’ me. If I can laugh and cry in the same book, I feel I got value for money. I LOVE a good cry in a book. I guess a good book is something that stays with you, that makes you feel more human (whether that’s in terms of art and aesthetic or your relationship with the world and its occupants).
This year, I have particularly enjoyed Heft by Liz Moore, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
If you have not yet read her book, be sure to check out Goodbye, Paris by Anstey Harris! For music lovers near or traveling to the Paris area, I would highly recommend spending an evening hearing the symphony orchestra at the Philharmonie de Paris.