Last year, I was on holiday with my family and my father told us the story of ‘The Fox’, who operated not far from where he grew up in Berkhamsted. He remembers a feeling that everyone was understandably on edge, and even on one occasion, when my grandparents were out, he pretended that he’d fallen asleep in the kitchen whilst studying so he didn’t have to go upstairs in the rambling, creaky house that he grew up in. As he told us a little more about the Fox, and what he did, my then-sixteen year old brother said furiously ‘You expect us to go to sleep after this?’ And indeed, we were staying in quite an isolated and not hugely secure house at the time… Malcolm Fairley was eventually arrested and jailed for his crimes. He was released under a new identity in 2012.
So when I received We All Begin As Strangers, I assumed I’d be reading a fictionalised version of the true events. But it quickly becomes apparent that what interests debut novelist Harriet Cummings more, rather than Fairley’s violent attacks on people, are reports that sometimes he would do no more than flick through people’s photo albums, build dens for himself in their houses, or even simply watch them in their sleep, before slipping away soundlessly.
Reminiscent of Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, We All Begin As Strangers is the story of a village filled wth secrets that its inhabitants are desperate to protect. But unlike Goats and Sheep, in which the residents come together to protect a terrible crime from being revealed, Harriet Cummings’ carefully drawn debut explores the secrets that the residents are desperate to keep hidden from each other, even their nearest and dearest.
In the stiflingly hot summer of 1984 in the village of Heathcote, a mysterious figure called the Fox is creeping into people’s homes through backdoors, open windows, and moving things around, or leaving curious objects with them. He seems to know all their secrets, and is happy to let them know it.
The novel opens with Deloris, a Londoner who has moved to Heathcote to marry the rich and obnoxious Harvey. Stifled not only by the heat, but by the expectations of married life, and finding only escape in the soaps she watches obsessively, she almost welcomes the gossip around the Fox as a sign of some sort of excitement. Until the kind-hearted Anna, loved by all, goes missing. It is clear that the Fox is responsible. The villagers alternately rally together or turn against one another – for if the Fox can take Anna, he could too reveal all the secrets they the villagers have been harbouring. And he could be any one of them.
Harriet Cummings has built a cast of completely believable characters, all of whom are keeping often painful secrets which the Fox is trying to tease into plain view. It is here, for me, where this novel works best, in its representation of people, in all their weaknesses, follies, and small kindnesses. From Jim, the vicar desperately seeking redemption, to Stan who wants nothing more than acceptance from the rest of his village, and Brian the young copper, always wondering what could have been – all are incredibly, believably human. I also loved the 1980s setting building, from the references to Dallas (‘Oh J.R., how could you?‘), to the food (at a dinner party, Deloris serves vol au vents and blacmange, amongst other things.)
I enjoyed this surprisingly gentle, thoughtful debut, and I can’t help but wonder what people who lived through that tense time in Leighton Buzzard, Tring, Berkhamsted, will make of it…
And now, Harriet Cummings has very kindly joined me at Back to the Books Blog, to tell us a bit about the publishing process as part of her blog tour!
How did you find an agent?
I did a novel writing course with Faber Academy which culminated in an event where all the students read extracts of their work-in-progress to a room full of agents. A terrifying experience! But I got my wonderful agent off the back of this and we’ve worked together since.
What was your writing process like for this book?
I’d previously ditched another novel because I couldn’t work out a satisfying ending. With this one I came up with a plan first – nothing too detailed, just a couple of pages that included the key turning points in the story and, importantly, an ending I was excited about. This approach gave me a great sense of direction which meant I could really build up momentum in my writing.
I was fortunate to be able to devote three months to simply writing this book (I’m a freelance copywriter and able to juggle my time like this). Throwing myself into the writing meant I could become really absorbed in it without distractions of other work. I realise I was incredibly lucky this way!
Are you part of a writing group?
Yes, I’m part of a group with seven others. We take it in turns to share short stories or chapters of novels we’re working on, then get written notes and feedback from the others. I’ve found this process really useful and don’t think I’d have gotten a publishing deal without it. Apart from receiving lots of pointers, it’s gotten me used to sharing work and overcoming the fear of exposure. Having said all this I wouldn’t say it’s essential to always share work with others. Writing is incredibly subjective and arguably the best stories are not decided by a committee! I’d say people should do whatever feels right to them, even if that’s showing no one your work until you submit it to an agent or publisher.
Any surprises about the publishing industry?
Lots because I was fairly clueless to begin with! Before getting a book deal I didn’t really allow myself to think about what it’d be like, as if this would be tempting fate. There were then various things to learn about, say, the editorial process and how to go about generating publicity. (I used Twitter before but was nervous about shouting too much about my book, knowing this wasn’t the best approach.) But everyone has been very encouraging and supportive, not brusque or business-like in the slightest. One thing that has surprised me is how many people are involved in publishing a book – not just the editors and proofreader of the editorial team but also design, marketing, publicity and sales teams.
What advice would you give to other writers?
Write the book that makes you feel excited. The one you’d want to pull off a bookshelf. It’s so tempting to try and guess what the market will like and want. As writers of course we want to please others and to sell books. But the trouble is no one knows exactly what people will want after the months or years it can take to write and publish a book. More to the point, arguably you can only best write the books you personally believe in. The characters and settings you create can only be created by you. We need to each embrace our own individuality or else we’ll just create cultural litter.
We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings is published by Orion on 20 April in hardback and eBook
Thanks so much to Virginia Woolstencroft, who has possibly the most enviable name in all of publishing, for the review copy and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.