Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel Harmless Like You is shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the 2017 Betty Trask Prize. We spoke to her about the inspiration behind her novel and her journey to getting published.
How did the idea for your debut originate?
I’d been working on a different novel. Then my mother got sick an ocean away from me. I started to think, who would I be without her? So much of who I was came from being raised by her. And yet I knew there were things that raising me had stopped her from being able to accomplish.
After I found out she had recovered I started to imagine a different family, one where the mother left. I began to ask myself—how do you go from being a child, to having a child, to leaving a child? If Philip Larkin is right and “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do,” how do you handle that? How do you cope when it is your turn to become a parent?
What did you learn from the process of writing your debut?
I’d written short stories before, but I didn’t know if I could write something novel-length. Writing Harmless Like You was an exercise in stamina. I didn’t know if I could sustain a voice and a character over that many pages. Over the three and a half years of writing it, I learned to pace myself.
Both writing short stories and my novel, I learned how important it is to be deeply emotionally invested in the work. I now have a tiny manifesto—write the story you’ve needed to read.
Tell us about your journey to publication.
Journey implies a straight line between beginning to write and a book appearing. It felt more like hoping a cactus will flower. You feed your plant, you wait, you put it in the sun, but you never really know when or if it will happen.
While writing the novel, I moved three times. I fell in love and watched the love crack up. My oven set my hair on fire. I got a tattoo. I learned to make dumplings. I bought and gave away a bicycle. Lightning hit the barn I was temporarily living in. Life just keeps happening and you keep writing and hoping.
What advice would you give to writers looking to find a literary agent?
Look for the agents who represent writers you love. There’s a decent chance that you and they share taste. In your query, mention these writers. You’re complimenting the agent’s selection skills and it shows you aren’t just papering the streets. Various organisations periodically run agent events. Word Factory and Spread the Word are two that come to mind. Attend these, listen to their advice, and say ‘hi’ at the end. When you write to that agent, mention that you’ve met them.
Be prepared not to hear back. It is not a damning of your talent. Agents are busy people. Think about how many books you read a week, then imagine ten times that many manuscripts arriving on your doorstep. Before Lucy Luck adopted me, I met a different agent at a party. I’d sent her my manuscript but didn’t mention it. She remembered my name and apologised. She hadn’t read anything in months—she was working through some intense romantic relationship issues. Afterwards I laughed at myself. I’d twisted myself into knots of self-doubt, but the reason I hadn’t heard back wasn’t about me at all.
What was the best piece of advice you were given?
The second best bit of advice was—if you don’t love your characters, no one else will. I adore flawed characters. Mine mess up frequently, but so do the people I care about most in the world.
How did you celebrate the publication of your debut?
For years I told myself I could get a tattoo if my novel made it to publication. A month before my agent found me, I got a tattoo of a rowan tree flower on my left wrist. It was a decision I made to convince myself that I’d be okay, whether or not my novel was published. So when Harmless Like You came out, I felt like I’d already made my big gesture. But I did eat a very jammy scone on the day.
Was there anything that surprised you about having your debut novel published?
The kindness of writers and publishers. Since publication, I’ve met so many generous, gentle people.
What are you working on now – and how different is the experience from writing your debut novel?
I’m working on a second novel. In some ways, it feels very different. I have an agent and a publisher. I know that whatever I write will exist in conversation with my first book. But at the same time, it also feels very familiar. I still don’t know all the answers. I’m still writing into the void. I’m still trying to find the words that describe this strange and fragile feeling of existing in this world.