Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
Set in 1931 at St. Stephen’s Academy, a boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, it’s about teacher John Grieves (nicknamed Grievous) and his student Gray Riding. Gray begins a secret correspondence with John’s 13-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia, while John is in love with her mother. The action—at the Academy and across England and the Continent—includes love, betrayal, illness, grief, Quakers, morphine, theater, and second chances.
Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?
I probably had the most fun with Guilford Audsley, a young actor who enters in the second half. He’s not one of the point-of-view characters, so I didn’t get direct access to his mind, but I enjoyed the effect that he had—with his infectious energy and ideas, his generous sense of play—on my rather knotted-up main characters. It was also fun to think up the four theater productions he helps create.
I think Gray Riding may have given me the most trouble when all is said and done, which is odd because he’s the character that I’ve known the longest and the one that in some ways is closest to me. He first slouched across the page when I was seventeen, and he was, then, that author-surrogate which exists in everyone’s early creations. By the time I got around to writing Grievous, Gray’s no-perspective emotional intensity had become grating and too often sounded melodramatic, sentimental, or simply tedious. He had to grow up—not age-wise, but he had to become independent from the adolescent feelings (mine) that had sparked him and find his own edge, all without losing the sensitivity and rawness that make him a bright, bookish, and difficult fourteen-year-old boy.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Get your protagonist into trouble and keep him there. To that I’d add, Let the writing get out of control and keep it that way.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
The discovery for me was in how the events would unfold and be experienced, and in how the various points-of-view would mold the prose itself. There are eleven points-of-view in Grievous, and each character exerted his or her own control over the style. It was a constant surprise to watch these characters come to life, be independent from me and from my plans, and for them to think, speak, and behave stubbornly as themselves, refusing to fulfill the stereotypes from which they’d sprung.
How did you find the title of your book?
My original idea with these books about St. Stephen’s was that the titles would be the names of the main characters. So, the first book was called Wilberforce because its protagonist was Morgan Wilberforce. Grievous was harder to title because it was difficult to settle on a single main character (there are arguably two or three). John Grieves was the frontrunner, but everyone felt that Grieves was a real downer as a title. I had a working title, Age of Grace, which had the advantage of sounding attractive and hinting at the narrative sweep of the book. I was never comfortable with that title, though, and deep down I wanted the title to be a name. At the traditional editorial lunch, my editor said he had a title idea, but he was reluctant to tell me what it was because it seemed too eccentric. I made him say it and then laughed because calling the book after John’s ironic, semi-mocking nickname seemed so cheeky and, from a sales perspective, so perverse. We mulled it over for almost two months: the sales team preferred Age of Grace because it was more appealing and because they had already started populating catalogs with it and didn’t want to muddy the marketing; as the editing process came to a close, however, I lost my tolerance for that title. It was lofty, classic, pretty, and just so appropriate that I couldn’t take it; meantime, I was falling in love with how weird, unwise, funny, and right Grievous sounded. In the end, I kicked the good-girl title to the curb, and thanks to the support of my editor and of the President of FSG, Grievous it was, wisdom be damned.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?
Most of the food at the Academy is disgusting, but when they go out to the Cross Keys pub, they all order the steak and kidney pie. I don’t have a recipe—it’s probably a secret—but all the characters agree it’s great. They like the spotted dick for dessert.
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