For Books’ Sake Talks To: Annabel Pitcher

8th Feb 2013

Annabel Pitcher

Since then, her reputation has snowballed. Her first book, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, became a bestseller, scored a series of awards, got translated into several languages and had me sobbing on public transport on numerous occasions.

Readers and critics alike loved Jamie, the 10-year-old narrator of this blackly comic, bittersweet story, and before long everyone was talking about the book.

Annabel’s long-awaited second novel, Ketchup Clouds, was published in hardback just over a month ago. A dark and at times disturbing story told by fifteen-year-old Zoe through her correspondence with a convicted murderer, it’s powerful, heartbreaking and beautiful, and already attracting attention.

So what did Pitcher make of all those rave reviews of her début? Did she feel under pressure when coming up with Ketchup Clouds? When we catch up with her to find out more, she describes her latest novel as “my tricky second album,” revealing that there were occasions when she “cracked under the pressure and had a meltdown about book two.”

“The success of the first book definitely made me feel more under pressure,” she explains. “I was very apprehensive [about Ketchup Clouds] in the wake of My Sister so the fact it’s getting some nice feedback is a huge relief.”

Having a début novel become such a runaway success is the stuff of fantasy for most first-time authors. So what is it like when that fantasy comes true?

“Terrifying and brilliant in equal measure,” according to Annabel. The response to My Sister… “was so completely unexpected,” she says. “When you’ve written a book, you really never expect it to get published, let alone noticed, so it was a shock that it did so well.”

I am fascinated by the whole bizarre business of being human...It’s too early to tell whether Ketchup Clouds will repeat the successes of it predecessor, but both books have common ground in their use of young narrators telling their traumatic but ultimately uplifting stories. Grief and loss are recurrent themes, and ones which were important to Pitcher:

“Grief, love and loss are universal. Unavoidable. Largely incomprehensible. I suppose I am fascinated by the whole bizarre business of being human, and these themes are central to that experience. However, I do try to get a mix of the very best and worst parts of being alive in my novels. So, for every hopeless situation, there is a decent amount of courage in the face of adversity. For every moment of sadness, there is a flash of unexpected joy.”

Pitcher aims for her novels to be “bittersweet, rather than completely depressing,” and it’s in this that she excels. The juxtaposition of her young characters’ innocence and idealism with the complicated and often isolating challenges they face is the common thread which makes both both so compelling.

But creating engaging and emotive narratives can be a challenge, a fact Pitcher confirms. In Ketchup Clouds, she says, the themes came first: “I knew I wanted to write about love, guilt, secrets and betrayal, so I invented the plot and characters around these themes.”

Playing with different ideas meant that the first draft took a long time, she admits: “At every point in the novel, there are hundreds of different options. I spent a good few months feeling my way through the story, trying to figure out the best way to put it all together.”

It’s an method that’s been effective, and Annabel’s books are beloved by both adults and younger readers, though she is keen to stress that this response has happened organically, without no specific strategy employed to win over that much-coveted crossover audience:

“I focus on what makes me laugh or cry, what interests or excites me, then hope to God that someone else will respond in a similar way! I certainly never try to change my writing to make it appealing to teenagers. I just write a story and hope it finds an engaged reader, somewhere in the world.”

On the topic of other writers who’ve been an influence and inspiration, this is a recurrent theme: “I look for writers who are beautiful story-tellers and not at all worried about target audience. The authors I admire tend to be the experts in this field.”

One example cited by Annabel of an author that transcends age-groups and genres is novelist Meg Rosoff, making her one of three women writers she believes everyone should read (the other two, she tells us, are Lionel Shriver and Carol Ann Duffy).

Alongside strong storytelling and authentic characters, rhythm is another important element for Annabel when writing, and one she works hard to get right. “Think of writing a book like composing a piece of music for a large orchestra. Too often, people focus on one mood or style without mixing it up. The result is a piece of writing that never really sings.”

“Writing is just like music,” she explains further. “You need the slow, contemplative movements as well as the quick, staccato sections. You need the surprising clash of the cymbals as well as the beautiful silence of a pause after the action. And there needs to be an overarching theme, or melody, that ties the whole thing together.”

Throughout our interview, Annabel’s love of reading and writing is obvious in her answers, and there are a couple of forthcoming releases she’s especially excited about.

“I stalk J.K. Rowling,” she confesses, “so I can’t wait to see what she publishes after The Casual Vacancy.” She’s also looking forward to Eowyn Ivey‘s next novel (describing her début The Snow Child as “exquisite”) and she’s “over the moon” about the return of Bridget Jones. “More big knickers,” she says. “Brilliant.”

As well as passion aplenty about other authors’ work, we also get the inside track about Pitcher’s current work-in-progress. Her third novel, she says, will be “a dark story of destructive friendship between two teenage boys who set out to ruin a young female teacher.”

When that’s handed into Orion in April, she’ll start her fourth book for them, which she anticipates “will keep me busy for the next year or so.”

And after that? “I also have some ideas for stories for younger children that I would like to explore,” she says, “when time allows.” For the time being though, “there are never enough hours in the day!”

For more from Annabel Pitcher, read our reviews of Ketchup Clouds and My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, or find out more via her website.

Jane Bradley