Book club webchat with Francesca Segal
Mumsnet book club was delighted to welcome award-winning author Francesca Segal, who answered a selection of your questions about her debut novel The Innocents, our April 2013 Book of the Month. She gave her (not always flattering!) views on her characters, shared writing tips, listed her favourite authors and told us about her next novel.
Winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Francesca was born in London. Brought up in the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh's College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer.
Q. SarahAndFuck: I was interested in Rachel very much. She was dismissed throughout the book as an only child, a spoilt child, a pampered child who had grown up to become a bit of a child-woman, in need of constant soothing and gentle handling, helpless, a perfect Jewish princess who relied on her parents and fiancé to continue the pampering and pandering so she didn't really have to grow up all that much.
Everyone in the book seemed to like her, but Adam swayed between adoration and annoyance. And she was annoying. But he seemed to view her as being so naive and self-involved and satisfied with her lot that it was only at the very end that she came across as being very shrewd and clever, and he suddenly came across as being incredibly naive about her.
I didn't like her very much as presented through Adam's eyes, I preferred Ellie, but Rachel right at the end was the one who seemed to come out of the book as the most complex person after all.
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes - I agree. Throughout the novel we are on Adam's shoulder, and he isn't always right. He feels hugely constrained by the community and by certain choices he's made, whilst remaining blind to the fact that other people have made entirely different life choices around him and the world didn't stop.
Similarly, while Rachel is sometimes incredibly annoying, Adam is so patronising about her - I would smack any man who tried to call me 'Pumpkin'! He underestimates her. He's a little pompous too, and a very conventional man at heart.
Q. cm22v077: Do you know people like Rachel? Were your characters based on people who you know or have observed?
A. FrancescaSegal: No, I didn't base the characters on real people. The book is very much fiction. But like you, I have also met quite a few girls like Rachel though, and I was always quite scared of them. They seemed absolutely certain that they knew what they wanted, and that anything else was out of the question. I know, a lot of people wish it had ended in precisely the opposite way. But if it had gone the other way though, do you think it would have lasted?
Q. SarahAndFuck: Was Adam trapped by a pregnancy though? I wondered that, because he certainly seems to be by the first one. But after Rachel loses the baby it seems to be him that wanted her to try again for the baby they have by the end of the book. And I wondered if he did that because he had realised her loved her and wanted a family with her, or because he felt guilty and to blame in some way. Or for some other reason. But he seems so happy to be a father.
I kind of hope that when we realised there was more to Rachel than Adam had led us to believe, Adam himself realised the same thing once he got over the shock of the pregnancy and realised that he loved this 'new' Rachel. And that perhaps the miscarriage, coming at the same time as the financial crisis her family were in, gave them the opportunity to be a married couple without the overwhelming outside help from family that Adam seemed to struggle so much with. They could finally be a couple relying on each other.
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes, I love this interpretation. Adam has hugely underestimated Rachel - but also she changes too. She's been lucky and sheltered and privileged, but by the end of the novel she's suffered. She's grown up.
Q. EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN: Adam had his own imaginary Ellie even before they'd met, didn't he? And given how wrong he was about Rachel, I'd guess he didn't really understand Ellie either. Also it was lovely to see a positive portrayal of a gay couple - thank you.
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes, he had constructed someone in his mind long before she came back to London. Thank you very much - I'm proud that Reform Judaism in particular has fantastic and integrated LGB community.
Q. Choccheesecake: Most of the stuff in the book implies that the main characters are orthodox (as in synagogue rather than observance) ie the sitting in the ladies' gallery and the various customs and rituals (tashlich) etc. But a couple of things didn't quite fit. Adam's sister was (I think) 13 when her father died and her bat mitzvah was looming - yet if she was orthodox it would have taken place at 12. Ditto the Hoop Lane crem stuff (ie orthodox/ traditional Jews are buried and not cremated).
Given Adam's father was the religious one of the family and most of the other characters so perfectly reflect the United synagogue-style community that I know from Hampstead Garden Suburb, I just wondered whether this was an error or done intentionally?
A. FrancescaSegal: You are very observant! In my head, Adam grew up in a Reform family, which explains Olivia's bat mitzvah etc - I grew up Reform, and I knew a lot of families who observed tashlich, even though they weren't orthodox. I didn't imagine the Crematorium - right across the road from it is the Hoop Lane Jewish cemetery, which is where Adam's father is buried.
But Rachel's family go to a United Synagogue - and of course, when Adam gets together with Rachel, it's Rachel's family traditions they take on, as a couple. Hence the women's gallery and hats (and contradictions).
Q. Lomaamina: Do you think that the real-life equivalents to your main protaganists are likely to recognise themselves in this picture; to be equally chafing at the narrowness of their (albeit supremely comfortable) lives? Or are they going to be identifying with Rachel through and through?
A. FrancescaSegal: I think, and as you note I've said elsewhere, that anyone who is part of any close community will relate to elements of this world. If you live in a small village you have the same experience of everyone knowing when you pop to the pharmacy ('Maybe she's pregnant!' etc); and anyone from a close family is familiar with the experience of wanting to please one's parents, while also wanting to make decisions for oneself.
I think people have interpreted the book in many ways, which is legitimate. Some people see only the claustrophobia and feel stifled by it - and I'm sure there are people in that world who find it challenging sometimes - but some people focus on the strengths that come with it: the support of the community, the strong moral values of family and responsibility and caring for one another. I appreciate both sides (but I do find Rachel very annoying). But people are people, in the end. It's a human story.
Q. Thisisaeuphemism: Has anyone you know seen themselves in the characters - whether they were based on them or not - and if so what were the repercussions?
A. FrancescaSegal: No, no one has recognised themselves because I haven't based any characters on real people. I wrote what I hope is an honest portrait of a world, but the characters themselves are created. I'm sure for all writers there are touches here and there that are inspired by whatever strange hybrids might form in the subconscious, though...
Q. TillyBookClub: I felt the book was grappling with ideas of freedom, and whether people really want freedom. Ellie has it and is quite unhappy. Rachel doesn't want it, and appears ignorant and intellectually unadventurous. There's that moment when they're in New York and the playwright is describing a sense of unbounded freedom in genetics, and Rachel just doesn't get it. But then you'd be mad to want total freedom. Total freedom would be absolute anarchy.
The family stability and support that rallies round during the crisis is almost like the hero of the book, charging in on its white horse. Freedom seems like the enemy at that point. Like the free market way the money has all been lost.
I think it is very interesting that even at the end, even after a certain maturity has set in, Adam doesn't choose freely, he is directed by the pregnancy. Do you think if Adam had truly made himself free, he would also have been happy? Or does freedom never lead to much happiness?
A. FrancescaSegal: I suppose it depends whether you see him as having chosen freely after the miscarriage, though - at that point it was his choice to try again for a baby.
I think as you say, one must balance between freedom and conformity, and that's precisely the dilemma at the core of the novel. Total freedom means a total lack of support or structure - and madness, as you say. No freedom at all is impossible. Navigating between social pressures and individual needs is one of the fundamental challenges of growing up.
Q. EmmaClarkLam: Do you think that Ellie (who seems to represents 'freedom') has not grown up yet, or has not yet reached maturity? Is lack of conformity a sign of immaturity? It seems that Adam does the mature or 'decent' thing in the end. Are we to think that pursuing your own selfish needs (like Ellie's dad) is not socially acceptable?
A. FrancescaSegal: Well, I certainly think that total conformity can be the result of immaturity too - one needs to think for oneself as an adult. But thinking, challenging, asking questions and then choosing to 'opt in' is just as legitimate as choosing the opposite.
I think Ellie's father is certainly selfish, although he has his reasons for being so, but Ellie making a choice to do things differently isn't necessarily immature. I think true maturity is being as honest as we can with ourselves about what we need to make us happy. And then, as far as possible, balancing that with the needs of those we love.
Q. EmmaClarkLam: What made you decide to look at the conflict between the needs of the community and the freedom of the individual? Also, how difficult was it to write the book from the point of view of a man?
A. FrancescaSegal: I think what drove me to explore it was the suspicion that it was a pretty universal conflict, but that I could use an example from a very specific world, and one that I know very well, to explore questions and dilemmas that face almost everyone, coming of age - independence versus security; one's own needs versus the needs of a community.
As for writing from a man's perspective, in the end it came very naturally. It felt like the right way to tell the story.
Q. SarahAndFuck: I suppose we would all like to know if you were rooting for Rachel or Ellie throughout the book, and which of them you wanted Adam to choose? But did you know who Adam would choose when you started the book, or did his choice only become clear to you as you wrote?
And did you like Adam? I found myself liking Ellie far more than I liked Rachel, but by the end I thought Rachel was far more complex than anyone gave her credit for, including Adam. I think when I reread the book, I may have different loyalties second time around.
A. FrancescaSegal: I didn't know at the beginning what would happen - even though I had The Age of Innocence as a model, I was very open to it going in almost any direction that felt right to my own, 21st-century characters. But by the time I reached the end, I just knew what would happen, which was quite different from what I wanted to happen. It wasn't up to me!
I didn't always like Adam. I found him pompous and deeply conventional, although there were times when I pitied him. He's hardly my dream man, put it that way!
Q. EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN: I didn't find any of the characters that sympathetic, which was really refreshing in a way because it made them much more real and meant that even though the book was through Adam's eyes I didn't feel manipulated into being on his side (or anyone else's!). What did you think of the ending? Did you secretly wish that Adam had been free to go off with Ellie?
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes, sometimes they aren't sympathetic. Adam is self-satisfied and Rachel can be an enormous pain in the backside. But he's such a conventional man at heart, however he might have liked to envisage himself, I'm not sure it ever would have lasted if he'd run off into the sunset with Ellie...
Q. minimuffin: I was just wondering about your writing process today - did you write or consider writing a different ending where Adam took the plunge and left Rachel for Ellie? Or was it always clear to you that his character would never do this?
Did you include the bit about the miscarriage at the end to show that Adam hadn't felt trapped by Rachel's pregnancy, but had, in effect, re-committed to her and his marriage by trying for another baby? To me (because it all happened so quickly after Ellie's departure) it seemed that fatherhood gives him a clear focus and purpose, an anchor, yet another reason to do the right thing, so he is glad to try for another baby as soon as possible, it saves him as well as his marriage.
You portray your own community really positively and realistically in this novel, I think, and the portrayal is an affectionate one. Has the reaction to it in NW London been positive?
A. FrancescaSegal: The ending was the main thing I struggled with in this book - when I was planning it at the beginning, when I was first getting to know my characters, I really considered almost every single permutation possible. But the better I understood Adam, the more clearly I could see what he would do - it didn't feel as if I was deciding for him. I just understood. Yes - the miscarriage offered precisely what you describe - a moment in which he chooses fatherhood, and chooses without hesitation to stay.
The reaction has been very positive, in general. You can't please everyone and so one or two people will always be a little offended. But the truth is - human beings are all the same. Every single community in the world has elements of the ridiculous about them, and as you say, I wrote with affection about a world that has a huge number of strengths. No one is perfect, but there's also a lot to be proud of.
Q. platanos: Will Adam and Rachel be happy together? I can't decide...
A. FrancescaSegal: Will they be happy together? Ah, I can't tell you, but I'd love to know what you all think!
Q. SarahAndFuck: Any chance of a sequel?
A. FrancescaSegal: Ah, I would love to but I think probably not. I absolutely adored living in their lives with them and I also would love to know what happens further down the line, if that doesn't sound odd, but I think I should leave them alone for a bit. I have tormented them enough!
Q. EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN: I think Ellie might have found Adam stifling if they had ended up together. I'm intrigued by your comment that the ending didn't go the way you wanted - what would you have liked to happen?
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes - he'd probably have driven her mad, expecting her to react to the world like Rachel. I'm not sure what I wanted was relevant in the end, I think the right thing happened, and they didn't give me much of a choice in the end - I just foresaw it as it would be. I feel sad for Ellie, but I think, as you said, that Adam wasn't the right man to make her happy.
Q. codswallopandchips: What would you ask readers about the book? How would you like a bookclub discussion to kick off?
A. FrancescaSegal: I'm always interested to know how readers feel about the ending - without saying what happens, I am always interested in knowing whether readers think that everything ended up as it should, or not.
Q. TheOldestCat: How much of the story for you revolves around fatherhood (parenthood)? It's interesting Adam and Ellie have both lost parents, Lawrence is the father figure for Adam, Rachel's son at the end. No time or brain space to devote to now, but it's the theme that intrigues me.
A. FrancescaSegal: Both parenthood and grief are central themes in the novel. As in life, I suppose.
Q.TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give to someone attempting to write fiction?
A. FrancescaSegal: The first is absolutely fundamental - to read everything you can lay your hands on. All writers are passionate readers; it's how one learns the craft. The more one stuffs into one's brain, the more likely it is that several completely discrete facts, or thoughts, or stories, will fuse into something new and inspire you. I am always surprised when writers say they don't read fiction when they're writing as they want to keep 'their' voice - I think the more voices you've heard, the more likely you are to be able to know your own.
And the second is to try not to be self-conscious. No one need read a word you've written until you're ready to show them so until then write entirely for yourself, and try your utmost to ignore those invisible eyes looking over your shoulder at the page. (As they say, dance like no one's watching etc.)
For anyone who wants to write, I think Stephen King's little slip of a book, On Writing' is fantastic. I've not yet read any of his fiction (I get very easily scared!) But it is a generous, wise, honest account, and a practical guide to writing. He compares it to laying pipe, which I think is an excellent analogy.
Q. nzbabies: Is this your first novel? How long did it take to write, what was your daily writing process, and what writing did you do before you wrote the novel?
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes, it's my first published novel, but I did write another one first that I decided was best put under the bed. It was a fantastic exercise in discipline, but I wasn't ready then.
This novel took me about two years, working extremely intensely on it. I'd been a journalist for 10 years, so I had a lot of writing experience, and I suppose also experience with deadlines, and with responding to edits without tearing my hair out. But I hadn't written fiction until this book.
My daily process involves at least two to three hours of good, solid self-loathing, procrastination, and visiting the fridge to see if anything interesting might have arrived in it in the 10 minutes since I last checked. In between those vital hours, I try to write about 500 words a day, mostly in the morning, and to read as much as humanly possibly in the other waking hours. I'm inspired by other writers.
Q. EmmaClarkLam: How do you develop your plots? Do you map it all out beforehand, or does the story evolve as you begin writing (from a basic framework)? You said earlier that the ending wrote itself - is this because the plot grows out of the characters, ie once you define the character and her or his choices, the plot is forged? I am wondering what comes first: plot or character? Chicken or egg?
A. FrancescaSegal: I think it is a combination of the two. In this case, because I had the matrix of The Age of Innocence from which to work, I began with a framework, but I was very much open to the story deviating a great deal from that original inspiration, so while I had a map, it did evolve as I wrote.
Now with the second novel, I'm also building a framework first. I like to have a sense of where I'm going - I don't want to risk writing myself down a dead end. But at the same time, as you write you get to know your characters better and better, and they begin to do what they want, sometimes even if it isn't quite what you intended for them. If they veer away from the map at that point, it is because they have a very clear idea of where they're going, and you just have to follow them to find out.
Q. TillyBookClub: Did your time writing the Debut Fiction column on the Observer make you particularly nervous about doing it yourself? And how did the inspiration to do a modern Age of Innocence happen?
A. FrancescaSegal: I wrote a monthly column on Debut Fiction for three years, during which time I read innumerable first novels. I think the most important lesson it taught me was just how many there are out there - the world didn't need me contributing another first book. So I really wanted to wait until I had something to say, and a novel I couldn't not write. But yes, it made me incredibly nervous. I probably waited longer than I would have done, but that's no bad thing.
Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
A. FrancescaSegal: Several, at different stages. The books I remember devouring in early childhood were Richmal Crompton's Just William series, and then when I was about 12 being absolutely captivated by anything John Wyndham had written. But the book that first stopped my heart was Wuthering Heights. I think it's still, secretly, my template for true romance!
Q. Thisisaeuphemism: When I first started reading, I thought - this is similar to Naomi Alderman's Disobedience' - that is, the arrival from New York of an ex-insider who is going to cause ripples among the insiders and have an affair.
As it transpired the books are very different and I did love them both. I thought the second half of yours was terrific with great momentum. I wanted to ask though, if, when you first heard about Disobedience, did your heart fall or did you understand immediately that there is 'room' for all?
A. FrancescaSegal: I very much think there's room for all. I am a huge fan of Naomi and her writing, and I think the worlds and the dilemmas that we describe are different enough that I didn't need to feel threatened by the existence of the novel. If anything, I think the fact that she had written a novel set in (a very different part of) Jewish north London that had gone on to win a prize strengthened my belief that there might also be an audience for mine.
Q. EmpressOfThe7OceansLovesMN: Does anyone else see parallels with Gone Girl? Both heroines far more manipulative than they appear to be on the surface, both men unfaithful and on the verge of leaving them but then at the last moment trapped by a pregnancy. OK, it becomes clear that Amy Dunne is an outright sociopath but she practically tells us that herself. We never hear Rachel's voice, we only ever see her through Adam's eyes, and it's clear by the end that he doesn't know her very well at all.
A. FrancescaSegal: I'm desperate to read that book! Yes - we learn that Adam's often wrong about lots of things, Rachel included.
Q. amazingface: Can I ask you to say a bit about your favourite female writers, please?
A. FrancescaSegal: Of course! There are almost too many to name, but I adore Jane Gardam, AS Byatt, AM Homes, Penelope Fitzgerald, Hilary Mantel, and I am beginning a new relationship with Iris Murdoch, who I'm ashamed to say I've not yet read much.
Q. oldmacdonaldhadafarm: Chatting about the book with a friend (I loved it btw) and she said that you are Eric Segal's daughter. Is this true? How did I not know this? I looooove his books and have read them all over and over. If it is true, did that put a lot of pressure on you to succeed in the same field?
A. FrancescaSegal: Thank you. It's true! You didn't know it because I did as much as was humanly possible to keep it quiet. I am so immensely and deeply proud of my father, and I know he would have been equally proud of me now my book is published, but I wanted to be my own writer, and I wanted the space to succeed or fail on my own terms.
And yes, to answer your second question, it would have put immense pressure on me if this book had come out with ERICH SEGAL'S DAUGHTER WRITES NOVEL plastered all over it, which is why I didn't tell anyone!
Q. aristocat: My question to Francesca is simply, what's next please?
A. FrancescaSegal: I am beginning the next novel, which is also a contemporary novel, set between London and Boston (which gives me an excellent excuse to go to America for 'research').
Q. TillyBookClub: Exciting to hear about your next project, and that it's set partly in Boston.
I liked the way you inverted the countries from Age of Innocence - I remember that in Wharton's book the New York society is stiff and formal, and in comes this shocking beauty who has been in Europe, where all is much more permissive. But in your book, America is the land of the free (though I loved your portrait of the overly English expat with the monogrammed hankie).
Do you feel different in America? Have you always spent a lot of time there?
A. FrancescaSegal: Yes, in the 1870s of Wharton's novel it is Europe that offers both freedom and potential moral corruption with its permissive values.
My father was American, so I spent a lot of time in America growing up, and as an adult I lived in New York for a while and in Boston for two years. I suppose I do feel a little different there. I think I sometimes feel more English in America, and more American in London. The problem with belonging two places is that you're always a little homesick everywhere...
Q. TillyBookClub: There's a regular 'who-would-play-which-character-in-the-movie' debate in our bookclub discussion nights, so I'm putting it to the floor.
I can't name ones for Adam and Rachel, but Ellie is Cara Delevigne in my head (not sure if she will be an actress one day but that's how I saw her).
Francesca, do you have actors in your head that you can imagine playing the roles? (And did the ghost of Daniel Day Lewis haunt you at all?)
A. FrancescaSegal: As lovely as it would have been to be haunted by Daniel Day Lewis, I hadn't seen the film when I wrote the book and if I had I think it would have been a disaster. He doesn't look like Adam in my head at all, and it would have been terribly confusing. By the time I actually sat down to write my novel I had put the Wharton novel aside months before and endeavoured to forget it, so that my characters could have a little breathing space.
I am always fascinated by other people's suggestions - I'm not very good at it. People Magazine said in their review that they thought Keira Knightley should be Ellie, but they didn't suggest anyone else for the other characters. If anyone has any good suggestions I'd love to hear them...
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