There’s a scene in Anna Hope’s new novel, where Lissa, an actress auditioning for a TV advertisement, is told to flirt with a plate of chocolate cookies in front of a roomful of men. It’s humiliating for her, and feels utterly authentic. And that’s because the author lifted the incident directly from her own life.
This was fifteen years ago when Anna was 32 – long before the ‘Me too’ movement gave women the impetus to speak out.
“We hadn’t really framed questions around sexism in the acting industry,” she says, on the phone from England. “But I came away from that casting and thought, what the hell is going on here? I started looking at feminism with my friends, and asking, ‘what have we done with what we have been given by our mother’s generation – that second wave of feminism.”
That’s the question that permeates Expectation, Anna’s wonderful third novel, and the first set in the recent past. It also marked the moment that Anna decided that acting was not for her. On paper, she’d had a successful career since leaving Oxford University and then RADA. Best known for Novice Hame in Dr Who, she had a raft of roles, but says she was only working for a maximum 3 months in a year. And even success, she feels, can be frustrating.
“I remember as an actor constantly feeling thwarted. Even when you get a good role you have such a small input to the whole. You’re always serving someone else’s vision and that’s simply not satisfying.”
And so she turned to writing – a career she finds all consuming.
“As a writer you get to be all the leading actors, and the secondary actors, and you get to be the lighting director, the sound director, and the cinematographer. It is so liberating!”
Her debut, Wake, set in 1920, followed the body of the Unknown Warrior from the battlefield to its resting place in Westminster Abbey. Astonishing assured, it focused on three women, all, in their own ways, deeply damaged by the war. A study of grief, it was lauded by the critics. At the time she wrote it, Anna was battling infertility – losing pregnancy after pregnancy.
“Writing about the first world war, I was steeping myself in grief while going through this seven-year cycle of grief. But it was only after I had written the book and moved on that I realised what I’d been doing.”
By the time her second novel, The Ballroom appeared, Anna was eight months pregnant.
“And when I started planning my third, I was struggling with new motherhood. Bridie was about four months old.”
The Ballroom, set in 1911, in an asylum in Yorkshire was inspired by the life of Anna’s great grandfather.
“He’d come from County Mayo to look for work, and was sent mad by poverty. He died in the asylum, and when I was researching his life, I saw pictures of the building. It was a beautiful place with a ballroom at its centre.
“I learned that the inmates were kept apart during the week, but came together every Friday to dance. I wrote a love story, but also talked about the eugenics movement so it was a social as well as a family history.”
She’d planned to stick to historical fiction, and pitched a 17th Century tragedy to her publishers, but they turned it down; something she is now profoundly grateful for. When she suggested writing about women in their thirties, undergoing infertility, career problems and new motherhood, they were more enthusiastic.
“It’s an interesting age for a woman,” she says, “because it’s a time when consequences start to tell. We’re forced to take stock. And friendships can be tested in ways we don’t imagine.”
The novel takes three women; Cate and Hannah, friends from childhood, who get separated when Hannah fails to get into Oxford University, and the beautiful Lissa, who befriends Hannah at Manchester University.
The novel is set mainly in 2010, when Cate, struggling with a new baby is questioning all her life decisions, whist Hannah, on her third course of IVF, cannot focus on anything else. Meanwhile Lissa’s acting career seems to be going nowhere fast. The novel dips backwards in time, so we get a full picture of the women’s friendship – of their loyalty to each other, but also their jealousies and betrayals.
“There was a period for me, in my thirties, where I had a sense of my own happiness being indexed to my friend’s achievements. For a time that felt really acute.”
Whilst not being autobiographical, a lot of the novel is drawn from Anna’s experience.
“I think all the characters are based, in part, on me. But my oldest friend has just read the book in two sittings, and she was pointing out the ways in which one of the characters was taken from her life. She said, ‘I did say that to you in 1997,’and I thought, Oh God you did! I think when we have close friendships we can believe aspects of our friends are our own. There are only minor things, but I had to concede that there were details of her life in it. Happily, she was okay with that.”
We talk about friendship, and of how few writers have written literary books based on the subject. There’s Margaret Drabble – a writer Anna came across when she was growing up – and there’s Sally Rooney, a writer critics have compared with Anna.
“I admire her so much.”
A native of Manchester, Anna spent many years in East London, but has recently moved to a village in the Ashdown Forest and has found a wonderful community there. Recently, researching climate change, becoming paralysed by fear, Anna joined the Extinction Rebellion movement. She’s currently helping to edit an anthology called Letters to the Earth.
“Writing the book, I was looking at activism, and at my mother, who was involved in CND and Greenham, and I asked questions about myself and my generation. What had we done? All those times I was going off on my cheap flights. What was that?
“It feels as if we’re in the middle of a vast unmooring and its not just Britain. Boris Johnson is terrible, and Trump is terrible but they’re just a symptom. The problem feels systemic, but there are conversations happening which had needed to happen for thousands of years about who owns the land. And the root of the problem is in colonialism. Part of me has a glimmer of hope that these conversations are flourishing.”
Anna plans a long essay next; and then she’s off to Mexico, the country where she met her husband twenty years ago.
“I want to set my next novel there and its going to deal with all the themes we’ve been talking about and speak about this particular moment that we’re in. It feels important not to write explicitly about Britain, but I want to look at the long arc of history and how we got here.” She laughs. “That sounds incredibly pompous, but I really want to write it.”
When Anna left Oxford University, she felt desperate literary anxiety. Has that now eased?
“I think it has. This book is a reclamation of that, because I’ve been able to write about the domestic and still allow the novel to be political, and hopefully be seen as important. There’s been a wonderful review in The Observer, which was saying absolutely that, and Marian Keyes tweeted about it, saying it’s a brilliant read. I really hope it’s a book that works on all of those levels.”
Expectation by Anna Hope is published by Penguin. €14.99 Kindle: €9.57.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 2nd November.
© Sue J Leonard. 2019.