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Introducing our 10 best debut novelists of 2022

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Show caption Clockwise from top left: Bonnie Garmus, Rosie Andrews, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Daniel Wiles, Emilie Pine, Lauren John Joseph, Louise Kennedy, Jo Browning Wroe, Moses McKenzie, Sheena Patel. Photographs by Antonio Olmos and Patrick Bolger for the Observer. Fiction Introducing our 10 best debut novelists of 2022 We talk to the authors of the most exciting first-time novels of the year, exploring everything from the English civil war to Instagram, TV chefs to knife crime Sun 16 Jan 2022 10.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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This is the ninth year in which the Observer’s writers and editors spent the busy weeks before Christmas with our heads down in dozens of forthcoming debut novels, written by authors who live in the UK and Ireland, in order to give you a heads-up on 2022’s 10 best.

The result, we think, always merits attention. We told you how good Douglas Stuart was, long before he won the Booker for Shuggie Bain; ditto Caleb Azumah Nelson, winner of this year’s Costa first novel prize. We told you about Gail Honeyman before Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine sold millions of copies around the world; we even told you about Sally Rooney before she became Sally Rooney.

We’re as excited as ever about this year’s selection. The class of 2022 reminds us that the novel is a form without limits or rules. From a hard-hitting depiction of the aftermath of knife crime to the comic travails of a reluctant TV chef; from historical novels set during the Industrial Revolution and the English civil war to an Instagram stalker’s splenetic monologue; from stories set over a single day, a year or a century; from works of lapel-grabbing sexual candour to otherworldly tales of a supernatural tint, there’s a novel here to thrill everyone.

Happy reading.

Anthony Cummins

* * *

Sheena Patel

I’m a Fan (Rough Trade Books, 5 May)

I like novels where attraction isn’t just sex: it can be domination, obliteration

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

“I didn’t want to completely break you. I hope it’s funny as well,” says Sheena Patel, of her first novel, I’m a Fan, a twisted romance blazing with angry verve. Its unnamed narrator, a vengeful young Londoner of Gujarati heritage, is seething about “the man I want to be with” – an older artist stringing her along with multiple other lovers, not least “the woman I’m obsessed with”, a white American whose online presence the narrator avidly hate-scrolls.

Luring us into its ugliest depths with killer comic timing, the fractured narrative unfolds as a series of vitriolic salvos on sex, race and the internet.

“The only stories we’re allowed to tell are like, oh, this poor bitch, this man is being horrible to her,” Patel explains. “I wanted my narrator to be bad. She became this monster. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it while I was writing because I had to stay in this space of what I’d say if I had no filter. I was like, what would you do if you were completely unbridled and didn’t sign up to the contract of being a good person? And it was such a hungry voice: I want, I want, I want.”

Patel, 34, who lives in London, set up the poetry collective 4 Brown Girls Who Write in 2017 after she realised three of her friends were, like her, writing poetry without telling anyone. Nina Hervé, the publisher of Rough Trade Books, put out their pamphlet in 2020 after Patel had contacted her on Instagram asking her to watch them perform. Encouraged by Hervé to write her own book, Patel switched to prose but didn’t want a “novelistic” narrative, borrowing the story’s jump-cut structure from her work as an assistant director in film and television.

Another important influence was the book Shame Space, by the American artist Martine Syms. “She says something like: ‘I’m sick of white people.’ I was like, I can’t believe you wrote that down. I wanted my book to pull apart whiteness but not in a way that was, you know, ‘how to be a good ally’. It was more like, I would like to fuck you up actually and not guide you through this.”

Is the internet dehumanising us?

It’s amazing and terrible. I’m interested in how it changes us. We’re so reptilian. You could just look me up and know everything about me but you’re sitting there pretending that you don’t know anything about me. We all do it, but we don’t talk about it. I’m fascinated by what that distortion does to your brain, when you know too much and have to pretend you don’t.

What did you read growing up?

My parents were typically Indian in that education was the thing that mattered most, but we never had books in the house. As a teenager I found Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s novel The Key in a charity shop and I really liked how dark it was. It’s about a couple where the woman’s writing a diary and knows her husband’s reading it. It seems like she’s being vulnerable but she isn’t really. I like novels about the violence between men and women, or between women and women, where attraction isn’t just sex: it can be domination, obliteration.

Why is that a theme in fiction now, do you think?

We’re in a patriarchy. It’s not a now thing; Jean Rhys was writing all this stuff. The novel mirrors the violence in the world, but I wanted the narrator to be complicit. She thinks she’s of more value because she’s younger and can have children; these systems she’s screaming about have got her own behaviour trapped as well. I decided early on that I wanted absolutely no redemption. AC

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

When We Were Birds (Hamish Hamilton, 10 February)

I believe in ghosts like some people believe in God

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, 41, emerged from the University of East Anglia’s MA in creative writing with a manuscript for When We Were Birds, her masterly debut novel. It announces an important new voice in fiction, at once grounded and mythic in its scope and carried by an incantatory prose style that recalls Arundhati Roy’s hugely impactful debut, The God of Small Things (1997), which Lloyd Banwo cites as a major influence. Born and raised in Port of Spain, Trinidad, she also sees her work within a tradition of female Caribbean writers including Olive Senior, Jamaica Kincaid and Lorna Goodison, but says the biggest influence on her writing was the oral storytelling of women in her own household: “My grandmother told stories like it was breath.” Following the deaths of her mother, her father and her grandmother in Trinidad, Lloyd Banwo moved to the UK five years ago and lives in Battersea, south London. Her writing draws on grief, but Lloyd Banwo’s literary gift lies in her capacity to transfigure that emotion – to conjure a cosmic landscape where the living coexist among the dead. When We Were Birds is both a love story and a ghost story – the tale of a down-on-his-luck gravedigger and a woman descended from corbeau, the black birds that fly east at sunset, taking with them the souls of the dead.

How long have you been writing?

For a long time. As a child growing up. But it was only around 2013, 2014 that I started to think: is this a thing I could actually do?

What was the turning point for you?

Bocas lit fest, 100%. It’s a literary festival in Trinidad-Tobago that happens every year. It’s run by Nicholas Laughlin and Marina Salandy-Brown and a small but very dedicated team. Just seeing writers up close and hearing them talk about how they wrote and what their process was and how they got published… That was a really big deal.

How was your experience of the MA at UEA?

It was the best year I had had in a long time – the first time I was able to just write.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Yeah, I do. I think if I actually saw ghosts I’d be very frightened but I believe in ghosts like some people believe in God, purely on faith, not on evidence. We have to go somewhere and it just makes sense to me that some people are ready to leave – they’ve made their peace – but that [other] people don’t know how to.

Are you working on your second novel?

Yes. It’s set in the same world as When We Were Birds and I’m delving down more explicitly into the idea of inheritance and houses. Houses as capital, houses as domestic space, memory space, dream space. The novel looks at a house that has been passed down through five generations of women, and the protagonist has returned home to inherit this house. She’s going to sell it off because her life is not in Trinidad any more and then finds that she can’t for various mysterious, supernatural reasons. It tracks a relationship with a house that doesn’t want to be parted from her. Ashish Ghadiali

Emilie Pine

Ruth & Pen (Hamish Hamilton, 5 May)

Fiction is hard… at least with my own life I knew the plot

Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Observer

On 7 December 2019, the academic and essayist Emilie Pine stepped out of her workplace and into the streets of Dublin where a climate crisis protest – one of many around the world – was in full swing. “I was on my lunch break, and there were marchers, speeches and so many young people who were really passionate about it all, and I thought: this, this is the day that it needs to be set on.”

“It” is her debut novel, Ruth & Pen, a tale of two women set over the course of a single day. Ruth is a therapist floored by her failure to have a child after IVF. Pen is a neurodivergent 16-year-old, negotiating a first date as well as the protest. Pine is a professor of modern drama at University College Dublin and the author of a celebrated collection of personal essays called Notes to Self. Her novel is urgent and uplifting; these women are unknown to each other but united in an insistence that they will be themselves, in grief and love, whatever the outcome.

How did you arrive at the women?

I started with Ruth. I always had her; I’d had her in my mind as a character for years and I had [the book taking place] over a much larger span of time, and then the more I thought about it, the more I thought so many decisions come down to one day and those moments that look like ordinary moments. And then I thought, I need another character and I want a teenager. I wanted that idea of different points in our lives.

Where did Pen come from?

I had the first line of Pen, which is two girls kissing on Instagram, in my head, and that was it, she just went from there. I suppose some of Pen’s characteristics are mine, from when I was a very bookish teenager. I wasn’t very good with people, and was very serious and very political. Pen is in many ways a typical 16-year-old. She is really curious and eager to join the world, and yet brings her own insecurities with her. What I think about neurodiversity is that it shines a spotlight on everybody’s neurodiversity, and some people just have some characteristics that put them within the autism bracket. What Pen shows are the problems with adhering to norms. The journey that Pen goes on in the novel feels to me like one where she inhabits the idea that – as her therapist says to her – neurodiversity is a strength.

You wrote about your own experience of infertility in Notes to Self. Did you draw on that for Ruth?

I worried a lot about this, and there were points writing Ruth’s story when I thought: I can’t do this, I can’t go back there, I can’t rehearse the emotions all over again, it’s too hard. And then I thought, the reason I chose [what happens to] Ruth was as a way of not writing my story. It may sound contradictory but it was a way for me to imagine a different trajectory through that experience of trying and not being able to have children, and also to kind of come out the other side.

Which did you find easier to do – the novel or your essays?

It’s so much harder to write fiction! Because at least with my own life I knew the plot.

You write in longhand.

Yes, in exercise books. One of the reasons for that is because the pages are quite small so I feel like I’m making progress. But also, I can’t read back; I don’t read back what I’m writing. If I write on screen I instantly start editing.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I go to the theatre all the time. Theatre is the highest art form. Ursula Kenny

Daniel Wiles

Mercia’s Take (Swift Press, 2 February)

Finding the screenplay for Pulp Fiction was huge: I’d no idea you could do that in writing

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Hilary Mantel is among the early admirers of Daniel Wiles’s feverishly compulsive first novel, Mercia’s Take, which takes place during the Industrial Revolution and centres on Michael, an exhausted Black Country miner desperate to spare his young son from having to follow him into the pit. Narrated with spectacular economy, in a thudding, rhythmic staccato studded with local vernacular, the book deftly folds themes of pride, masculinity and ecological ruin into its central story: the visceral vengeance quest that ensues after a fellow miner makes off with Michael’s life-changing haul of gold.

Wiles, who lives in his home town of Walsall, wrote it during a master’s degree at the University of East Anglia, funded by a Booker Prize Foundation scholarship, which pays all costs and is awarded to one writing student a year. “I wouldn’t have been able to do the course otherwise, so it was lucky,” he says. He applied after an undergraduate writing course at Wolverhampton, where he tried to write American crime screenplays under the lingering spell of the Quentin Tarantino movies he first watched with his older brothers. “It wasn’t until the last year of that degree that I thought: I’ve got this huge breadth of material right here. I started to become more proud of the area and its history, and the way people talk.”

Having dug into the archives of his local library, Wiles honed his manuscript under lockdown while living in Norwich near the UEA campus. But a classmate told him it wasn’t long enough to be a novel, and agents agreed. One night he decided to email the book straight to Mark Richards, the publisher of Swift Press, without a pitch or synopsis; Richards rang the next morning with an offer.

Wiles says his family didn’t believe him when he said he was publishing a novel. “They were like: ‘You can’t do that. How much do you have to pay to get the books printed?’ But by the time there was a preorder link, they really got onboard with it.”

What led you to mining as a subject?

I was drawn to the idea of the Earth as a living thing that’s being sort of killed. Mining gave so much to the country and the world in that period of time; now we’re seeing the lasting effects. Definitely the main thing that people will take away from this novel is that it’s a revenge story about a father trying to look after his son and make a better future for him. I don’t think many people will pick up on the book as a commentary on global warming but that was strongly in my mind when I was writing.

What did you read growing up?

I never really grew up interested in books. Finding the screenplay for Pulp Fiction was huge: I’d no idea you could do that in writing. Later I was blown away by The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins. The whole novel was in this Boston dialect, moving the narrative in the most economic way; looking back, it definitely had an effect.

What are you writing now?

I’ve been working on another novel, set just after the Romans left Britain. If somebody said to me, write about anything in the modern day or in your own fantasy world, I’d be like, OK, where are my constraints? Finding out how I can say something about today with this alien past world is just something that attracts me. AC

Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry (Doubleday, 5 April)

I can’t be one of those writers who goes to a coffee shop, because I read everything out loud

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

An American in London, Bonnie Garmus had an itinerant childhood as the daughter of an entomologist whose work took the family to places including Colombia, the Everglades and, for just one week before war broke out, Pakistan.

Her humorous novel Lessons in Chemistry is set in California in the early 1960s and centres on one-of-a-kind heroine Elizabeth Zott – chemist, single mum, and reluctant star of a TV cooking show called Supper at Six – and her mission to challenge the status quo. An ex-copywriter, Garmus landed herself a top-tier agent even before she’d finished a draft; the book would take six years to complete, and has since been optioned by Apple TV+, with Brie Larson attached to star.

Despite having announced she was going to be a novelist when she was just five, Garmus makes her debut aged 64, and is thrilled to be proof that it’s never too late. To aspiring authors of any age, her advice is simple: “Never, ever, ever give up. You cannot quit – that’s the death of it, right there.”

How did the novel come about?

Honestly, the whole book came from a bad mood. I’d been in an all-men meeting and felt a lot of garden-variety dismissiveness. Elizabeth Zott was a minor character in another book I’d shelved years earlier, and as soon as I got home, I heard her. I felt like she was sitting across from me, saying: “Me, I have a story to tell you, and it’s much worse than what you’re experiencing.” I wrote the first chapter instead of doing my work.

How would you sum the book up in a sentence?

I would say Elizabeth Zott is a rational person who exists in an irrational society – that’s why she doesn’t fit in, that’s what makes her so interesting, and that’s why we need her more than ever, because our society has become more and more irrational.

What’s the secret to comic writing?

It’s really hard but keep slimming it down. It’s all in the timing of the sentence and it has to be brief and quick to work.

When and where do you write?

Early in the morning. A lot of the time, I wake up because a character is saying something. We live in a fairly small flat and I usually sit at our dining room table – I can’t be one of those writers who goes to a coffee shop, because I read everything out loud. My husband sits three feet away and has to wear noise-cancelling headphones. I don’t write every day but I work every day, just thinking, thinking, thinking. If I write from an outline it’s like having a to-do list – the creativity goes away, the characters will not talk to me.

What’s the worst thing about being a writer?

The worst thing is when nothing comes. It’s so defeating and so discouraging. You just have to allow yourself to hear your characters – don’t decide what they’re going to say beforehand, let them tell you what happened to them.

And the best?

I love having my characters teach me things about me that I didn’t even know.

Name a favourite debut novel.

I have two: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, which I read as a kid, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I still revisit because I love it so much. Hephzibah Anderson

Moses McKenzie

An Olive Grove in Ends (Wildfire, 28 April)

A lot of my bredrin have come up to me and said: ‘Your book will be the first book I ever read’

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Moses McKenzie, 23, never thought of writing a novel until he had to read Cormac McCarthy at university. He smiles to recall his “completely misplaced arrogance”. “I’ve generally got a lot of opinions, and if I’m not liking what I’m reading… I wasn’t feeling it. I was just thinking, I’m better than this; if my man can do it, I can do it! So I went home to write a book.”

He shakes his head at the memory of the result. “It was horrible, convoluted, all over the place.” But he realised that he had enjoyed the process and soon wrote two further manuscripts before landing an agent and a two-book deal with An Olive Grove in Ends, drafted in three months in 2019, the year he graduated.

Set among a richly drawn cast in a Jamaican-Somali community in Bristol, it follows the turbulent, often painful childhood and teens of Sayon, a drug dealer trying to keep his crimes secret from the pastor’s daughter he’s in love with. His engrossing first-person narrative, lyrical and slangy by turns, is the vehicle for a tough yet tender story of faith and friendship, as well as money, knife crime and the failings of the British education system.

McKenzie calls it an ode to Easton, the Bristol neighbourhood he grew up in after his father emigrated from Jamaica. Lately the area has witnessed rapid gentrification. “I’ve never seen anything happen so brutally,” he says. “Growing up, it was just a bubble of blackness. This is where I first felt safe, this is where I first felt happy, this is where I made the majority of my connections in my life.”

His second book, which he’s writing now, will also be set in Bristol, this time during the St Pauls riot of 1980. “But after that I won’t write about Bristol in a novel again. I don’t want to be ‘a Bristol writer’. I intend to write until I die.”

How did the novel’s voice come about?

Very naturally. Everyone’s talking how I talk or how the person next to me talks. If I’m writing for myself, people similar to me will understand. Whoever else can tap into it is an extra blessing.

Was it uncomfortable to write about an antihero?

Not at all. If someone like Sayon sees violence everywhere he looks, perpetrating it is normal. Rather than punishing someone, it makes more sense to rehabilitate them. For most of the story the police are absent: the book isn’t about the punishment other humans can give, it’s about whether God will punish us. In self-governed places, there are often no consequences. I’ve seen people do crazy things and get away with it. It won’t make the news, it won’t make any noise whatsoever.

Did you worry about how to portray your area?

Creators have a responsibility to be accurate, especially when you’re black, but you can’t tell every single story in one story. The Somali community is a community I have a lot of friends in and that I’ve grown up around, but I have to be careful writing about it because I’m on the outside. With the Jamaican community I can speak more freely.

How have your friends responded to the book?

It makes me happy that a lot of my bredrin have come up to me and said: “Your book will be the first book I ever read.” For a lot of them I think it will be. That goes back to the education system teaching black boys differently to how they teach others, not taking an interest, policing us, setting incredibly low expectations.

What was the last novel you read?

One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m researching my third novel at the moment. I really like magical realism so I had to go to the source. AC

Jo Browning Wroe

A Terrible Kindness (Faber, 16 January)

With writing, you have to know the smells, the sounds

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

When she was a child, Jo Browning Wroe and her family went to live in a crematorium in Birmingham where her father had got a job as superintendent. Growing up, she was aware that her home was unusual, but there were advantages; the grounds were beautiful, and after 6pm she and her sister had them to themselves. She also developed an early understanding of what happens when someone dies. She knew not to be seen playing when hearses were on the move, to avoid treading on the ashes from the cremators, and she appreciated the seriousness with which the undertakers took their roles, the quiet commitment. It was this dignity of labour that she wanted to honour in her highly accomplished and affecting debut, A Terrible Kindness. The novel is set in the world of embalming, and draws on the experience of embalmers sent to Aberfan in the aftermath of the 1966 landslide, when coal slurry buried a school, claiming 144 victims, most of whom were children.

Wroe lives in Cambridge and worked in publishing before taking an MA in creative writing at UEA in 2000. Since then she has been teaching, editing and “learning my craft… It’s just taken this long, it really has, and I’ve loved the process.”

Did writing about Aberfan feel a somewhat daunting responsibility?

I was very aware that it was a responsibility with every sentence I wrote, but the book is about somebody who goes to help there and then leaves, it’s not trying to inhabit the experience of somebody from Aberfan. It all started when I came across an article about the embalmers’ contribution there. I was incredibly moved, and my background just made me absolutely lean into this story and think: Oh my goodness.

Did you learn a lot about embalming?

I did. I got to know a local embalmer, a delightful chap who loved talking about it, about all the funny things, the difficult things, and I said to him: “Can I actually come and watch?” I knew I had to because of that thing about writing; you have to know the smells, the sounds. I’m a bit of a fainter so they put a great big leather armchair in the room so that I could just go over and fall into it if needs be. It was fine. I didn’t faint, I found it very moving; the tenderness and kindness.

WG Sebald was your tutor at UEA. What did you learn from him?

It was the term that he died, so it was all quite dramatic and sad. He was very dry and droll, very likable but sort of Eeyore-ish, and he said on the very first session: you should think carefully about doing this writing business because you’re miserable if you’re writing, and you’re even more miserable if you’re not.

You don’t sound very miserable.

No, I’m not! I’m definitely a different personality type, but the most helpful thing he taught us was when he asked us all to bring in our favourite passage from literature, so we all brought in what we thought were these gleaming, shining lines, and I brought in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. And basically he encouraged everyone else to rip into it. And for every piece there was somebody in the room who would say “I can’t stand it, it’s overdone”, it’s too this, it’s too that. And his simple point was that you’re never going to get a piece that everybody likes.

A lot of people seem to like your book…

The past few days have been exciting. Simon Mayo said: “I’m going to call this early – book of the year 2022”, which was nice. It’s also going to be adapted for TV but I’m not allowed to talk about that. UK

Louise Kennedy

Trespasses (Bloomsbury, 14 April)

I thought, maybe I don’t have 25 years to arse around and write a novel

Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Observer

Set in Northern Ireland in 1975, Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, is the story of Cushla, a young Catholic primary school teacher who gets in over her head trying to help Davy, a working-class pupil whose father is a victim of sectarian violence. She’s also caring for her mother, helping run the family pub and, most urgently, falling for a married barrister twice her age.

It’s a layered, involving story, told with artfully quiet symbolism and remarkable narrative control as it stages a creeping clash between Cushla’s roles as a daughter, lover and teacher at a time of political tumult. “I think we all have all sorts of lives that we’re living at the same time,” says Kennedy, 54. She was diagnosed with melanoma shortly after starting the book in March 2019. “I had fairly horrible surgery and was off work for about three months. I thought, maybe I don’t have 25 years to arse around and write a novel.” It took nine drafts. “I had to push myself every single day even though I just wanted to bowk all over the laptop.”

Her agent sought Kennedy out in 2018 after reading a story published in a Belfast literary magazine. In Silhouette went on to be shortlisted for the Sunday Times short story award and became part of her 2021 collection, The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, sold to Bloomsbury together with Trespasses after a nine-way auction.

Kennedy lives in Sligo and has two children. Previously she had worked for nearly 30 years as a chef, only starting to write in 2014 after a friend persuaded her to tag along to a workshop. “The first meeting was mortifying,” says Kennedy. “The others had been writing since school. I said: ‘Oh, I’m only here because she made me come.’ I agreed to try and write something. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but by the end of the first paragraph I just thought: I don’t want to get out of this seat.”

Where did Trespasses come from?

My family had a bar in the north in a place similar to the one in the novel. I wasn’t taught by anybody like Cushla but I could’ve been one of Davy’s classmates. The novel maybe isn’t a view of the north people see often. These [Cushla’s family] are middle-class Catholics: they’re not being pulled out of their beds by soldiers every night. They’re trying to find a way to keep their heads down in an area where they’re in the minority, but at the same time they’re aspirational. There absolutely are snobberies within those Catholic communities; it’s not “we’re all downtrodden together”.

Had you always wanted to write?

No! I was roaring in a kitchen every Saturday night, prodding steaks and this sort of carry-on. Before I had kids I was probably out every night after work. That’s what chefs do. Then I’d get up and lie in bed and read for a few hours. I worked in a big bookshop in Dublin part-time for a couple of years in the early 90s and that was probably good for my reading. I read all of Ellen Gilchrist, I liked her. I liked Isabel Allende’s stories. I read Raymond Carver as well.

What was the value of working in a writers’ group?

As the weeks passed, nobody missed a deadline, nobody added in anything that was shit; you didn’t want to be the one to do it. That said, pretty quickly all of us were writing about the same things and nobody realised. There were several stories about drowning, and we were thinking, OK… There was this weird stuff going on around trees as well, so that had to stop. You need to pull back and work on your own, but for the first while it was amazing. AC

Lauren John Joseph

At Certain Points We Touch (Bloomsbury, 3 March)

It was like being possessed and it was incredibly cathartic. I cried the entire time

Hair and makeup: Guy Common, Veil by Piers Atkinson. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Ahead of the publication of At Certain Points We Touch, Lauren John Joseph, 39, has been hailed by one critic as “a shocking new talent” and their book as “a stone-cold masterpiece”. A lot to live up to, but Joseph seems ready to take it in their stride having had two years to anticipate this moment since the manuscript was picked up by Bloomsbury. Born in Liverpool and hailing from “a background of striking dock workers and long-term unemployed”, Joseph was the eldest of eight children and became the first in their family to go to university (reading American Studies at King’s College London and Berkeley). At Certain Points We Touch moves between backdrops of contemporary queer London, San Francisco and New York and draws on the tragic autobiographical material of a friend and lover’s premature death to deliver a moving portrait of youth, friendship and first love.

Who are your literary influences?

One of the big influences on this book is Edmund White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples, which is written with the same narrative framing. Also, Olivia Laing’s Crudo, which was liberating, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I love how that book moves between violence and tenderness and how she modulates between a real world and a magical world so effortlessly.

Your novel comes out of incredibly personal material. Was that hard?

I felt compelled to write it. I didn’t want to write it. I thought: leave this in the past, this is too dark, too heavy. It will destroy you. [But] I couldn’t not. It was like being possessed and it was incredibly cathartic. I cried the entire time. I was crying as I wrote it, as I edited it, but I’ve come out the other side now with a better understanding and it’s been a healing process.

What have you learned about healing?

That you have to circulate your feelings.

How did you first get into writing?

I remember being on the estate when I was maybe six, seven, eight and I had a neighbour called Winnie, who would buy me exercise books to write stories in. Also, my mother just read all the time – she never watched television [and so] I didn’t watch television myself until I went to college. I read whatever she was reading. Shakespeare and Tolkien and Terry Pratchett.

Tell me more about your process. Are you disciplined or haphazard?

Very disciplined. I have to be completely isolated to write. For At Certain Points We Touch, I went away to any place that would have me. I spent time in Norway, Costa Rica, Mexico. I would go for a month at a time, write and do nothing else – just leave the house once a day to find something to eat, find a Coke and then get back to it. Three months of travelling and solitude.

So novel-writing for you is not part of everyday life?

I’m constantly writing, but the actual construction of the sentences, I’m not doing that every day. I’m kind of fascinated by someone like Donna Tartt, who says she can just do it on the bus. I can’t do that. With the actual construction of the sentences, I almost don’t feel like I’m writing at all – I feel like I’m a body and my hands are moving over the keyboard. It’s really a trip. AG

Rosie Andrews

The Leviathan (Bloomsbury, 17 February)

Political sovereignty was a question in the 17th century… and it still hasn’t been resolved

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Rosie Andrews, 38, is a secondary school English teacher, based in Hertfordshire, who started writing in earnest in 2018 and was immediately shortlisted in the HG Wells short story competition. She then signed up to a 12-month fiction writing course with Cambridge Writers, out of which came the idea for The Leviathan, written over nine or 10 months and then picked up by Bloomsbury’s Raven Books, which will publish the novel next month. “I don’t mean to make it sound easy,” Andrews says, describing a process that has been as methodical and attentive to historical detail as it has been carried on favourable winds. The end result is a supernatural mystery spanning the age of enlightenment and combining big ideas with an insistent narrative drive.

You’ve split the story between 1643, the year of a significant turning point in the English civil war, and 1703. Why?

I find the civil war interesting in terms of the landscape of belief that started to transform [society], particularly in Britain. People fundamentally believing in religious principles and believing in the idea of the supernatural started to think in a more rational way. But that transition was so chaotic and so turbulent. One of the events that happens in the 1703 narrative is a great storm, which was a real event that people thought happened as a punishment – to punish them for moving away from God. I thought that was interesting and that it framed the story quite nicely.

Is there a contemporary resonance for you, or do we just immerse ourselves in the past?

I love the past for its own sake, but we’re also living through some of the most chaotic political and social times we might remember, and you can’t help but think about those resonances. One of the things they were thinking about in the 17th century was this question of political sovereignty – who gets to rule whom, and on what basis, and how far do people get to decide their own destiny versus putting it into the hands of a monarchical or democratic structure. If you look at events like Brexit, the coming to power of Trump, the pandemic and the question of individual rights versus our responsibilities to wider society, it’s clear that these questions from the 17th century haven’t been resolved.

Where did the impulse to start writing come from?I was a full-time teacher for a while. Then I had my daughter and when I went back to work I went back full-time. Having my daughter led me to question what I really enjoyed, where I really wanted to spend the limited amount of free time that you have when you have a child, and I’d started to get more interested, because I was teaching it, in how a story works, what makes it work, and I started to think, well could I try that… That’s where that came from. An idea of limited time.

Which writers have most influenced you?

My absolute favourite​s​ are Tolkien and Orwell. Tolkien was an early love. It’s the escapism that really attracted me [as a teenager]. With Orwell, on the other hand, it’s his lucidity. What he wanted to convey is exactly what comes across in his writing – there’s no ambiguity. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was an important book for me​ as well​. That was my first experience in fiction of what I’d call psychological realism – the feeling of being inside the character’s head. Not all writers can do it. And I love CS Lewis. I love the magic. AG