Hot off the back of his brilliant performance at another successful Margate Bookie, I caught up with author Philip Whiteley, whose third novel, A Love of Two Halves, published by Unbound, is now on sale.
Where did the idea of the story in A Love of Two Halves come from?
I’m from a Leeds United supporting family, mostly grown up in the south, and my sisters have done quite well for themselves. One weekend my brother in law took my sister to a game and parked his Mercedes outside a terraced home in Beeston, Leeds, near the stadium. It’s a low-income area. I imagined being challenged to write a story based on that image. I wondered if the car was worth more than the house it was parked outside; I checked online and it was. So I had the idea of a love story across the social divides. I had to point out to my brother-in-law David that the main character is not based on him!
The novel moves between the viewpoints of George and Karen, which enables the reader to get both sides of the story. Did you find it easier writing as one or the other?
I found it easier as George, as you might expect. I found the female lead role straightforward in some ways, and almost infinitely tricky in others. I think I was authentic in Karen’s desires and decisions, but getting the voice consistent, and getting details right on being a single mum, required advice. I had a brilliant beta reader Shannon Kyle, who’s a gifted author in her own right and has been a single mum; and my development editor at Unbound was brilliant – like being on a free editing course.
Novels about relationships are often dismissed as rom coms or chick lit, but it strikes me that relationships are the fabric of life and so should be of our novels too. What makes relationships your focus?
As I sometimes say when I give talks, I think it’s an absurd prejudice to regard war, violence, grief and despair as more weighty than love and romance; it’s all life. I’m out and proud as a writer of romcoms; others who have written in the genre include Mario Vargas Llosa and Jane Austen. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell has funny moments and a genuine love affair. A relationship involves feelings of great depth, high emotional peril and complexity – so, great dramatic potential. In my books there are no baddies or corpses, but I would argue that there is considerable reflection and depth. That said, I enjoy a good thriller sometimes, too.
Your novels are set in Leeds. Is it important to you to write about a place that you know?
My first novel Close of Play is set in Sussex, then I switched to Leeds partly out of nostalgia for the region I’m originally from, but partly also for commercial reasons, as it’s easier to focus your marketing on a particular city or region. Yes, I very much place my dramas in places that I know intimately. I like to draw on first-hand experience when bringing a scene to life.
In A Love of Two Halves you look at social issues, such as the role of companies in the lives of their employees, the difficulties of surviving on low income jobs and benefits, and inequalities. What role do you think literature has in making us think about these things?
I think it’s very important that a novel shows social reality without preaching or proselytising. In A Love of Two Halves I sought always to keep the relationships and the drama central to the story arc. I do have unique insights, based on many years of journalism, both into social problems, and into how businesses are run and the impact they have. In my experience, conventional political movements do not base their policies on an understanding of actual human behaviour or social realities. I like to think I show some social and economic complexities in A Love of Two Halves – but, as I say, the story of Karen and George is the main thing.
Your performances to support the book bring together readings, commentary, and music, in quite an immersive experience that echoes the book. Music plays a big role in the novel. Are you a fan?
I like to be a bit multi-media as it were, at an event, so that it’s not just an old man talking about his books. I enjoyed bringing in the singer and guitarist Nigel Girling. When I was young I always followed bands, and I wanted to bring characters to life who are in a non-professional band and who write songs. This features in Marching on Together. A song can have lasting emotional impact – in the case of Johnny in that book, one Beatles song will forever remind him of The One Who Got Away. So, powerful dramatic potential.
It’s only in the last few years that you’ve been publishing novels. Have you always written creatively? What changed for you and made you want to do it?
I’ve written creatively for over 20 years. I’ve only been published recently because, for me, it was a long apprenticeship. It didn’t come naturally and I had to learn the craft very patiently. The main catalyst that accelerated my learning and led to being published was joining a writing group, getting honest feedback, and realising that writing doesn’t have to be a lonely experience.
What’s next for you?
I have begun work on a fourth novel, with the working title No Traveller Returns. The theme is one of redemption for a man in his 40s who led a high, criminal life as a young adult and wants to atone. Central to his quest is to thank the supermum who lived next door when he was a teenager and tried to save him, but he discovers she’s died. But she has a daughter, and the two of them had some chemistry as teenagers…