Michelle Richmond answers questions about her book No One You Know:
What was your inspiration for No-One You Know?
I think part of what inspired the story was the experience of being one of three sisters. At the heart of the novel is Ellie’s relationship with her sister Lila. After Lila’s death, Ellie realises there had been so much that Lila kept private, even from her. So the intimacies and complications of the sisterly bond were very compelling to me. I also knew from the start that I was interested in the fine line between fact and fiction, and the way stories shape our lives – the idea that the stories others tell about us can have enormous repercussions.
Coffee and mathematics are quite diverse elements to include in a novel. Was there anything in particular that drew you to each?
I’ve been rather obsessed with coffee for a long time. I drink it every morning, religiously. It has been a ritual since my college days – the morning cup of coffee to clear the cobwebs in my brain before I begin my day. Having the protagonist be a coffee buyer gave me a chance to explore coffee’s origins, some of the interesting stories behind it. It also gave me an excuse to attend cuppings, tour a coffee warehouse, and try many different kinds of gourmet coffee. That part of my research was sheer pleasure! Maths is another matter. I have nightmares to this day of walking into a university maths class at the end of the semester, on the day of the final examinations, having never attended a single class. While writing about coffee was a way of indulging my passion, writing about maths may have been a way of tackling my demons. I also thought it would be an interesting contrast between the sisters – Ellie the coffee buyer, who experiences the world through her senses, and Lila the maths prodigy, who experienced the world through her intellect. While I didn’t want the novel to hinge too much on esoteric maths, I did want the flavour of mathematics to be part of the book; while the narrator is as math-phobic as I am, she is able to appreciate some of the stories behind mathematics with a layperson’s eye. I have always been drawn to “found texts” in fiction, so it was great fun for me to have Ellie come across Lila’s maths notebook from her days at Stanford.
Do you have a favourite time of day to write? A favourite place? What’s your writing process: are you a planner?
I prefer to begin writing in the morning, as early as possible. I find my mind is clearer in the morning. I write in my home office, which is a small room piled with books. I usually write on the computer, although sometimes, when it’s sunny, I’ll sit on the sofa in my living room, beside the row of windows, and write in a notebook. In order to get into the spirit of it, I need good pen and a simple moleskin notebook with unlined pages. I do plan to some extent, but I never outline. I rarely know how the novel is going to end when I begin it; I tend to figure out the plot as I go along. However, from the moment I begin, I do have a very clear idea about characters, theme, and structure, as well as a strong handle on what the emotional and intellectual centres of the book should be.
Which book are you reading at the moment?
I tend to have a couple of books in progress at any given time, and will open whichever book fits my mood at the moment I sit down to read. Right now I’m reading everything I can get my hands on by Paul Auster, in preparation for an interview, as well as Pers Petterson’s In the Wake. I’ve also been reading Charlotte’s Web, one chapter per night, to my young son.
Who are your favourite authors?
Jorge Luis Borges, Bohumil Hrabal, Vladimir Nabokov, Walker Percy, Ismael Kadare, Grace Paley, Richard Yates, Ian McEwan, E.B. White, George Orwell, Gustav Flaubert, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera, Lars Gustafsson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor.. I’m sure I’m leaving many out, but these are the names that immediately come to mind. Ask me tomorrow and I may have a different list!
Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
H’mm, what a wonderful question! Dare I say that I have never read Tristam Shandy? Not for lack of trying, I might add.
Which fictional character would you most like to have met?
Oh, this is good! Wouldn’t it have been a riot to meet Don Juan? Or Gregor Samsa! As a child I had this fantasy that Pippistocking lived next door. I’d also love to meet Scout from To Kill a
Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
Oh, I can’t begin to answer this! For fear of incurring the wrath of the literary gods, you know.
Other than writing, what other jobs or professions have you undertaken or considered?
I have taught college writing, primarily creative writing, for the past ten years. But before I began teaching I worked as a waitress, an advertising copywriter, a tanning salon attendant…oh, there were so many inglorious jobs, it’s difficult to remember all of them. I also had a job at a major PR firm in Manhattan, but I quit after three weeks because the cubicle was suffocating and my boss kept “correcting” my memos and making them grammatically incorrect. The best job I ever had, perhaps, was as the private English tutor for the president of a Chinese trading company. I was hired to work in the company’s U.S. office at the Empire State Building, but within two weeks of accepting the position I was on a plane to Beijing. I spent a few months in China, but because my employer had very little time to be tutored, I spent most of my time wandering around China by bus and by train, writing about what I saw and heard. My first novel came out of that experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m taking a few weeks off from writing to promote No-One You Know. At the end of the summer, I will begin a new novel. I have the basic situation for the novel in my mind, the fundamental structure, and I know what is propelling the main character forward. I know it is set, once again, in San Francisco. But that’s all I should say at the moment. If I talk too much about a novel-inprogress too early into the process, I end up talking myself out of the story!
Read an extract of No One You Know here.
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Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Karin Slaughter and many more share their personal writing experience with you in our Q&As. Take a look!