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Rosie Price grew up in Gloucestershire and then read English at Cambridge. She worked for three years as an assistant at a literary agency before leaving to focus on her own writing. She lives in London.
Rosie’s first novel, What Red Was, explores the friendship of Kate Quaile and her charming best friend Max, who meet in university but share roots in Gloucestershire. Kate is equally drawn to Max’s privileged family, the Rippons, feeling they possess qualities she lacks. But when she becomes the victim of an unexpected attack, it changes her life – and her friendship with Max – forever.
Hannah Beckerman of the Guardian praised the book as ‘a brilliantly told tale of class, abuse and familial dysfunction’ which ‘marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in fiction.’
Matt Dicks interviewed Rosie shortly after her appearance at The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Festival of Literature.
MD: Rosie, I loved your novel, but it really made me think how often, in popular culture, we see sexual assault used simply as a plot device. It’s much rarer to see stories which, like yours, are actually concerned with the trauma of the victim, and the coping processes they come to develop. What was it like to write from this angle?
In many ways, narratives that contain the idea of a wrong being righted are comforting. But the reason I decided not to write from that angle is that it didn’t feel faithful to the true experience that most survivors of sexual assault have – especially when such a large number [of assaults] go unreported.
It’s a difficult thing to write. It’s quite a painful thing to sit in that space of irresolution, partly from a narrative point of view; you want cause and effect to be the main driver, and being in a place of unresolved trauma in really difficult. But the more I sat with it, the more it opened up – it became about Kate’s relationships, her daily life, getting a job, all the details that can get overlooked in a neater narrative.
Kate’s relationship with her friend Max is central to the book. Did you find their friendship drove much of the story as you were writing, or had you mapped out most of the plot in advance?
I knew where it was going; I knew their relationship was going to be the thing that was compromised. The key question I kept coming back to was: what does a person have to sacrifice, in terms of identity, in order to deal with their trauma?
For Kate, her relationship with Max isn’t just about their friendship; it’s about the world he opens her up to, the career she wants, his social ease and confidence, that comfortable entitlement which she’s never really experienced before…
I was building up all these things, knowing that was what was going to be sacrificed in order for Kate to move on and retain her sense of identity. In the end, everything she loves about Max, and all those possibilities and the potential he represents, is no longer tenable if she’s to preserve her integrity.
When I went back and edited the book, I felt really sad about having to take all this away from Kate after the rape, because it felt so hopeful to me. But I guess that’s the tragedy of it; she shouldn’t have had to sacrifice that.
Max and Kate meet in university. They soon discover that their families live in very close proximity in Gloucestershire, though it’s clear there’s a class divide between the two. Was class something you wanted to explore from the very beginning?
The kernel of the novel, actually, was a short story I’d written that contained a rape scene; from here I started to build relationships and social structures that would prevent this woman from speaking out. Why does this woman not say anything? Why does this man (who became the character of Lewis) feel entitled to do this thing?
Lewis is the main character in which this sense of entitlement manifests. He feels that he is entitled to more, which I don’t think many other characters in the Rippon family feel. It’s festered within him; he feels that he’s owed something, and also has a fear of that thing being taken away.
University is a place where, in theory, there’s a lot of social mobility; where people are valued based on their contributions and merits, their efforts and their intelligence. It’s supposed to be a leveller. But I do still feel there’s a certain conditioning that can create these really interesting imbalances.
Kate has a hunger to have more – not necessarily in a financial sense, but in cultural capital. She’s grown up feeling embarrassed of her mother, the way she dresses, her house. She sees an opportunity and that makes her vulnerable to wanting things that she hasn’t previously had – things that aren’t necessarily as valuable as she thinks they are.
Having grown up in Gloucestershire, I was always really struck by the beautiful countryside, the limestone houses and the aspirational feel. But there are a lot of places and postcodes where there isn’t a lot of money, or employment, and where people are really struggling.
My school had a wonderful mix of people connecting in this fairly level place. But, as I got older, I started thinking about the advantages and disadvantages that people had, and that was even more pronounced when I went to university.
It became interesting to dig back and see how your conditions can affect your character – whether you want them to or not.
Are there any books or authors that are in the DNA of What Red Was?
Somebody I really love is Edward St Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels. They are incredible in terms of detailing the effect trauma has on a person. But what I really love about his writing is the way he mixes comedy with tragedy, and how he uses comedy to show the gaps of understanding between people, and to enhance this sense of tremendous isolation that Patrick Melrose experiences. That was something I took a lot of inspiration from; how lightness allows you to go to darker places that you might not have had the stamina to go to before.
I think I was also reading Elena Ferrante at the time. She creates these two characters whose relationship is under constant threat by the violence they face from the world; it’s the pressure cooker of this setting that drives them apart. Looking at the harm that power imbalances and violence can do to that sort of relationship was something I really wanted to explore, in the context of sexual violence.
After leaving university, you worked as an assistant to a literary agent. What lessons did you learn about writing and publishing during that time?
I studied English Literature at university, where there’s a lot of focus on use of language and on images and meaning. But the thing they can neglect is how important story is.
Reading lots of submissions as an assistant, and seeing lots of unedited manuscripts, it quickly became clear to me that it was the stories that had a propulsive plot, that had characters driving the plot, making decisions that had consequences, that really stand out. Reading hundreds of pages really makes clear the importance of structure, and how important good characterization is to keeping a reader’s interest.
Obviously I learned a lot about the publishing industry, but it’s very different when you’re on the other side of it, as I have been for the last year and a half.
There was a five-way auction as publishers scrambled for the book. What did that feel like?
It felt amazing, actually. I felt really proud of what I’d done… just having somebody else believe in your story is amazing. Probably the best thing was finding an agent, because that’s the first person who is really committing to your story and is getting people to read it. Then you see the book jacket design and it becomes more and more surreal until your book actually arrives in the post. I still don’t believe it. [Laughs].
What Red Was is published by Harvill Secker.
From 12.30pm - 13.30pm on 10th November 2019, Rosie will participate in the event Made in Stroud at the Stroud Book Festival, where she’ll be sharing the spotlight with novelists Melanie Golding and Mandy Robotham. Please visit www.stroudbookfestival.org.uk/event/made-in-stroud to book tickets and to see more information.
This interview has been edited for length.
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