It’s Christmas, and the Birch family is gathering for the first time in years. Emma is elated at having everybody under one roof, but her eldest child, Olivia is only home because she has nowhere else to go. She’s just returned from treating an epidemic abroad and must stay in quarantine for a week – and so too should her family. For the next seven days no-one can leave the house and no-one can enter. It doesn’t sound too hard. But a week with our nearest and dearest can feel like an eternity, especially when they’re all harbouring secrets. One of whom is about to come knocking at the door…
Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “A cool narrative despite the searing emotional element and a crisp, dry writing style counter any more tearful tendencies. A plot which begins, flourishes from improbable coincidence, finishes seemingly by naturalistic design. The Birches in turmoil, thrashing one another with their angst and fret, at first-sight roundly flawed, acutely dislikeable, transform on deeper acquaintance – on the opening of their emotive passports, date-stamped and poignantly detailed. By sleight of hand and sly wit, Hornak charms winning individuality from mass dysfunction, sweetly blended kinship from acerbic friction. Just as she conjures mesmerising drama from detonating scenes of crisis, to the accompaniment of cracking dialogue. All of which produces, in this house, with this cast, a performance to be swapped for many a Christmas.”
Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?
A friend of mine went to treat Ebola in Sierra Leone, and when she got back she had to spend a month in quarantine at home. As soon as she told me, I started thinking about two fictional siblings in quarantine, and how being housebound would amplify the innate claustrophobia of a family Christmas.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
I feel extremely honoured, and completely delighted. It’s surreal to think of the document I saved as First_Pancake.doc ending up on such a distinguished list.
What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
Having my second baby halfway through the process. Writing around a newborn and toddler was gruelling, but it did force me to focus in the short windows I had to myself. In some ways that was easier than finding the discipline to write around another job.
What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Pick a place without Wi-Fi to write.
What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
Probably Jane Eyre, for drama. I also love Margaret Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman. It’s very original and funny.