I'm thrilled to welcome Gail Honeyman. Gail is the author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which is her debut novel. A graduate of the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, she currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland. Her book has sold to thirty territories worldwide, was a number one New York Times bestseller, and has won many notable literary prizes including the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize back when it was still a work-in-progress. Please join me in welcoming Gail Honeyman.
Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Gail Honeyman: My pleasure.
Zibby: For any listeners out there who haven't read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which by the way I am obsessed with and I thought it was the best book ever, can you give them a quick synopsis of what your book is about?
Gail: Sure. Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She is twenty-nine years old. She lives in Glasgow, in Scotland. She has an apartment and a dog. She lives a very regimented life. She likes her tea. She's quite a strange character. She's quite a confounding character. The best way to sum it up is that she's someone who has learned how to survive but not really how to live, if that makes sense.
Zibby: I love that. That's a great description. I guess you had time to practice, but it was really good. I liked it. This was your first novel. It’s incredible. I thought that wasn’t supposed to happen with first novels, that you knock it out of the park like this. How did you end up writing this amazing book?
Gail: I've just been incredibly lucky for a debut novel. Some of the things that have happened, I've been pinching myself. I always wanted to write. I kept putting it off and thinking, “One day, one day.” It was approaching that it was my fortieth birthday. Birthdays sometimes focus your mind on things that you haven't done yet and might want to do. I said to myself, “If you think you might want to try and do this, why don't you just get started?” I did. It took about two and a half years because I had a full-time job. I was writing on my lunch break mostly and just writing [indiscernible]. My main goal was just to prove to myself whether or not I could write a novel over eighty thousand words, ninety thousand words, tell a story with that size of canvas. I didn't expect anyone to publish it or any of things that have subsequently happened.
Zibby: Had you written short stories or shorter essays?
Gail: Yeah. When I decided to start writing, I started with short stories. They're not any easier. In many ways, short fiction is more difficult to write or just as difficult to write. It felt more achievable. You can start and finish a piece of short fiction over a period of weeks. That's three thousand words or five thousand words, whereas ninety thousand words is a bit more dauting prospect. As I said, I wanted to prove to myself whether or not I could grapple with that size of canvas.
Zibby: Why this particular story? What gave you the idea?
Gail: It was a newspaper article I read about loneliness. It was a few years ago now. I don't know how things are in the US. In the UK, loneliness at that time wasn’t discussed very much at all in the media. It’s so much better now. A few years ago, you didn't see it discussed much at all. If it was, it was usually in the context of older people. That's obviously an issue too, a big issue. This particular article had an interview with a young person, a woman in her twenties. She lived in a big city. She had a job and an apartment. She said to the interviewer, “I leave work on a Friday at 5PM. I don't speak to another human being or see another human being until I go back to work again on Monday morning back in the office.”
I was really struck by that because it was so unusual to hear a young person articulate that experience of loneliness. It was very different to how the lives of twenty-somethings are portrayed in the media like life is one big party. I'm sure it’s like that for a lot of people. It’s not, obviously, like that for lots of people too and it’s not by choice and not by your own fault. I started to think about how people might find themselves living that kind of life. It was more difficult to come up with lots of different routes. From there, that was the seed that the story and the characters eventually grew from.
Zibby: Interesting. I don't know about you. I feel like some of the loneliest moments in my life actually were when I was younger. There's something about everybody being out and about and sitting at outdoor cafés and eating dinner. If you just have a minute where you're not with someone else, that can feel worse than later in life. Did you feel like that at all yourself? Was it just me and the woman?
Gail: [laughs] I think it’s a fairly universal experience. I've been talking with [indiscernible]. Certainly people of all ages have said that. It’s by no means an unusual experience. Hopefully it’s not, for most people, a prolonged experience as it is for Eleanor and not for the reasons that Eleanor has. It’s the actual experience of loneliness itself is a universal one.
Zibby: You did such a nice job of it. Although I have to say, Eleanor didn't seem to be bothered by it that much. You mentioned she had gone, like the woman in the article, the whole weekend. She didn't really seem to mind. She was just like, “Oh, look at that. I don't think I've spoken in a few days.” Do you think it bothered her? Do you think it only bothers some people? Most people? What do you think?
Gail: It’s interesting to think about solitude and loneliness as two different things. Eleanor’s inclination is a solitary person. Solitude is something that people choose and enjoy. Lots of people like spending some time on their own and find that energizing and enjoyable. Loneliness is not something that you choose. It’s something that's imposed upon you. As I say, Eleanor as a character, she's quite solitary by nature, but she doesn't realize that she's also incredibly lonely. Those are two different things. One is just a part of your personality and is an enjoyable thing. The other is something that's imposed upon you that you don't want and is not a thing that you enjoy experiencing. When she starts to make connections, slowly and in small steps, it’s only when she starts to make connections that I think then she has the context to realize that she's lonely. She realizes what she's been missing. Does that make sense?
Zibby: Totally. Yes. That totally makes sense. You said you were writing it at your lunch break. Now, I'm picturing you in Eleanor Oliphant’s work office. Was that what it was like?
Gail: It’s absolutely not autobiographical in any way.
Zibby: No IT guy for you?
Gail: [laughs] For me, part of the challenge and the enjoyment of writing is to write something different, characters who are totally different than you, and experiences that are different to the ones that you have. That's part of the whole challenge of it is to try and see the world through completely different eyes.
Zibby: What kind of job were you doing when you were writing the book?
Gail: I was working in higher education. It was in an office. There was that in common. Lots of people work in an office environment. You don't tend to read about them very often. There isn't much fiction set in office.
Zibby: You were so funny about the planning of the holiday party. It was awesome. I loved that. You're like, “I guess people want to get together and have fun here.” It was so funny. Your book could be how to make personal grooming into the funniest things in the entire world. The bikini wax, the manicure, the haircut, the makeover, the personal shopping, you showed the readers all these things that we as women do all the time in this whole new, hilarious way. We do these crazy things. It is all just crazy. I loved how at the manicure when she asks the nail technician if she always wanted that job, the technician said that she’d been debating between working with animals or being a nail technician. Her mother had told her she should do nails.
Eleanor asks, “Is your mother an economist or a qualified careers advisor? Because if not, then I'm not sure that her advice was necessarily informed by the latest data on earnings projections and labor market demand.” You said, “The thought did strike me as she painted on various coats of various varnishes that she could have perhaps combined the two professions by becoming a dog groomer. However, I likened to keep my counsel on the matters. Sometimes when you try to help with suggestions, it could lead to misunderstandings, not all of them entirely unpleasant.” I loved that. Eleanor, I found in your book, she often says and does these things totally unexpected, unfiltered. Some people respond, a lot of them by laughing, and a lot of them in different ways. How do you think Eleanor reacts to those reactions?
Gail: That's a good question. That's an interesting question. I suspect she is equally puzzled by both sets of reactions. When we first meet her, she's so enclosed in her own world, in her own little life, her own bubble. I’m not sure if she even spends much time thinking about other people's reactions to her. That’s something that she learns to do more of as she starts to grow and develop as a character, to be more aware of herself and more aware of the impact of her interactions with other people and to care about them more as well.
Zibby: I definitely think empathy is something that a lot of people need to work on, putting themselves in other’s shoes. This is just a particularly striking example. I think it illustrates, a lot of people, how they may unfortunately sometimes be feeling.
The other line I thought was so funny was after she got her Bobby Brown makeover when she's convinced that the makeup person is actually Bobby Brown, which was also funny, you said, “I look like a small Madagascan primate or perhaps a North American racoon. It’s charming.” She just says that to the woman. It’s so funny. Now, every time I'm putting on my eye makeup, I'm thinking about this line of yours. You're now haunting me in my mirror.
Gail: It was so fun to write her in all kinds of ways, but in those examples that you cited, the everyday things that lots of people experience and don't really think about. Although she's twenty-nine and she's very intelligent and she's very well educated, it’s almost as though she's hatched out of an egg as a very intelligent, educated, newly hatched person. Try to look at these everyday things with completely fresh eyes and think, “What would Eleanor actually make of this never having encountered it before and having no preconceived ideas about it?” I'm glad it made you laugh because I made myself laugh when I was writing it. Good to know that it made you laugh as well.
Zibby: I'm sure I'm not the only one, which is why it’s so popular. My husband kept looking over at me as I burst out laughing. This is the first book that I read in the car with my kids as an audiobook. I was dying to read it. I had all these long drives to and from pickup at camp. I would put it on and tell them what was going on in the story. They got really into it. The other day my daughter was like, “Hey. Whatever happened to that book, that really funny book?” The accent was funny to her. She's five years old. I combined the audiobook with the reading of the book. It was really awesome. The whole family was very excited that I was talking to you today.
Gail: The accents, Cathleen McCarron, who read the audiobook, did a fantastic job as well. She was a great narrator.
Zibby: That was really fantastic. Eleanor’s relationship with alcohol is another big part of the story. It ends up not serving her very well. You write a lot about her buying it and drinking it. You had this funny passage where she tried to buy vodka before ten and said, “Annoyingly, it meant that I would have to go out again later to get my vodka. Why couldn't you just purchase it in the same way you bought, say, milk, at any shop at any time that it was open? Ridiculous. It was an illogical law, really. What was the difference between buying vodka at ten past nine in the morning and ten past ten? Vodka is for me merely a household necessity like a loaf of bread or a packet of tea.” Tell me about why you put this part of her response to the rest of her life -- tell me more about the alcohol part please.
Gail: It goes back to her being someone who survives rather than fully lives. She doesn't socialize. She has no social life. There's no social enjoyment of it for her. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s part of her survival techniques and something -- I don't want to give away the plot -- something that can be developed as she develops. Her relationship with that can change too. Does that make sense? Sorry, [indiscernible] thinking about. I don't want to --
Zibby: -- No, I don't want to ruin the plot either. That's a good answer. I’ll take it. Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond is her first normal, healthy relationship with an adult male. It happens by accident at the very beginning and leads to this whole string of life-changing events in the book. You referenced her past relationship -- I don't know how much to give away here -- and how she eventually ends up telling Raymond about the issues she had with her other relationship.
How did you decide to have her interact with men in this way, the previous one and then this one, without giving anything away?
Gail: She had a whole path leading up to that point, which we won't go into but which we do find out over the course of the novel, that has helped to shape her to become to person that she is when we first meet her in the scene. Not giving too much away, it ends up being pretty challenging to say the least. My hope for Raymond as a character when I wrote him was -- I think there are a lot of Raymonds in the world. He's a decent, kind, thoughtful, gentle, intelligent, just a really nice man. I think there are lots of Raymonds in the world, but they don't tend to feature in fiction very often for some reason. I really wanted to include a character like that.
I really wanted to explore platonic friendship between men and women in the context of Eleanor and Raymond. Again, that's something that’s quite common in real life, but it’s not something that's featured in fiction very often. He shows very small kindnesses to Eleanor at the start of their relationship even though she's actually pretty rude to him when she firsts meets him. His very small kindnesses have disproportionately enormous ramifications in terms of Eleanor’s development as a person, as a human, if that doesn't sound too grandiose. I wanted to explore that in particular, that interaction between the two of them as a platonic friendship. Does that make sense?
Zibby: Yeah, that makes sense. I like it. I can't go into all the other stuff because then I'd give more away.
Gail: It’s quite difficult to talk about this book without giving things away.
Zibby: It is. I wanted to talk about Eleanor’s, the weekly conversations that she has with her mom and how you use them to slowly show more of these changes with her. I'm asking from a process of the writing perspective. Did you know this whole story from the beginning? Did you know when you started the weekly calls where the whole plot would end up? Some writers are like, “My characters took on a life of their own.” Did you have it all outlined? How did you go about doing it?
Gail: That's an interesting question. There's a huge piece of information that's revealed right at the very end of the book. I knew that piece of information. I knew nothing about how I would get from Eleanor on page one to that piece of information becoming apparent on page two hundred and whatever. It was not [indiscernible] in detail in the way that you describe some writers do. It was very much just I had the characters and I spent a lot of time developing the character and the voice of the character. I let that guide me to get to this piece of information that's revealed in the end. It’s probably not the most efficient way to write a novel. It might be more efficient to plot every chapter in detail, but that's not how I do it. I like to let the characters [indiscernible]. The great thing about writing is there's no right or wrong way to do it. Whatever works for each individual person is great for them.
Zibby: I don't think writing is necessarily about efficiency a lot of the time. Creative pursuits, sometimes it’s about the process.
Gail: It’s such an individual thing for each individual person. Whatever works for you is the way to go. I really enjoyed the process of working out in real time with the characters, how do we get to this piece of information we know at the end?
Zibby: Now that this book has really taken off, what has this been like for you? Tell me about some of these moments where you found out it was number one on the bestseller list. What was that like? Do you tell your friends? Who are you in this with? Paint a picture for me.
Gail: I don't know when. It was all the same [indiscernible] actually. It’s going to take a while because I had no expectation any of this would happen. It’s been the most wonderful set of surprises and experiences.
Zibby: Any screaming? Any jumping up and down? Any high fives? Nothing like that? No?
Gail: Just having to have things repeated quite a few times to say, “Did I imagine? What did you say? Did I read that right?” It feels quite unbelievable. The other thing is writing’s a very solitary business, but being published is more of a team effort. You've got all the people involved in bringing a manuscript to a finished book on a shelf. It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate. If a book does well, it’s a whole team of people with the publisher involved making that happen too. That's really nice to be able to share that with them too.
Zibby: Are you one of those people who gets energy more from being alone, more introverted? Do you enjoy being out and talking to everybody and doing the publicity and all that stuff?
Gail: It’s quite an odd mixture, quite an odd skill set. You have to actively enjoy spending lots of time alone -- when you're writing, that's the only thing you can do, really --inside your own head. Also, you have to be out in the world to interact with the world and people and to get ideas and be inspired. It’s an odd mix of being along and enjoying interacting. I don't know if there's a word for that.
Zibby: I was chatting with a girlfriend at this event last night. She told me how she had just gotten back from a two-day meditative retreat where you had to be silent the whole time. I was thinking to myself, “Oh, my god. I could never do that.” I was like, “That's amazing you did that, but I could not not talk for two days.” Then I said to her, “…unless I was writing.” If I'm writing, it’s sort of like I'm talking. It’s just there's nobody listening exactly right then.
Gail: It’s true. You have a whole interior life. Exactly. Your interior life is really busy with characters and voices when you're writing.
Zibby: All of us crazy people here. I understand Reese Witherspoon is making this into a movie? Is that right?
Gail: Yes, very exciting.
Zibby: That's so awesome. I'm actually sitting here wearing a Draper James shirt dress of Reese Witherspoon’s. I'm obsessed with her clothing company. Do you have a wish list of who you see as playing Eleanor Oliphant? She's so real to me. I can't even put an actress into this role.
Gail: It’s really strange because I know my characters so intimately. I know everything about them, how long her toenails are and what brand of shampoo they use and what kind of laundry products they use and every little detail. I don't see a face when I write them. That's not the way that I picture them. I've genuinely got a completely open mind about who might be cast in the various roles. It'll be so interesting and so exciting to see that happen.
Zibby: Totally. That's exciting. Do you have any more books you're thinking of writing? Are you going to coast on this one for a while, which would be justified?
Gail: I'm working on a new book right now. I'm right in the middle of it. I loved writing Eleanor Oliphant and the characters and the voice in that book. I'm really enjoying working on something new and different right now. Watch [indiscernible] I guess.
Zibby: I will. I absolutely will. For any aspiring novelists who are sitting at their computers at their lunch break debating if they should try to write the next great American novel, what advice would you give them?
Gail: Gosh, that's so difficult. This is hardly a new piece of advice. It’s very secretly [indiscernible]. Personally, I think the best thing is to read as much as you can and to read as widely as you can. When you're reading other people's work, regardless of what genre it is -- don't stay in your own genre. Read very widely. Whatever you read, you're subconsciously absorbing how to do things well. When things don't work, why aren’t they working? Sorry, it’s not a new piece of advice. It’s tried and tested. It’s [indiscernible] for a reason. Really wide reading as well is one of the best things that you can do.
Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much for all your time today. I really, really appreciate it. I feel like I'm talking to a major celebrity. I thought your book was so amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me and for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Gail: My absolute pleasure. Lovely to talk to you too, Zibby.
Zibby: Take care. Thanks so much.
Gail: Thank you. Buh-bye.