The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw
On the way home from a dinner party she didn’t want to attend, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.
It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident. Or does God have a higher purpose after all?
At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decisions to make and that she needs to find a way home…
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) I was born and brought up in the west of Scotland and am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. After a number of temporary jobs, I started work as a newspaper reporter, which was all I ever really wanted to do. That journey took me from Glasgow to London.
However, put of the blue, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence and, stupidly, I accepted their kind offer. It took me away from what I loved – and was good at – and put me in a world that was badly paid and which I didn’t much enjoy. In any case, it was dull and don’t like vodka martini.
Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and that’s what I’m still doing. Of much greater importance, I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian. And that’s about it.
My current book, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, is a modern fairytale of love and loss. It’s about the subtle ways in which we change, and how the small decisions that we make can have profound and unintended consequences.
On one level, the book is a simple story of a young woman’s life. But, for those readers who want to make the connection, The Things We Learn is also a retelling of The Wizard of Oz: how a young woman in ultimately tragic circumstances comes to reassess her life and find a new beginning.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) Your question suggests a journey and, for me, it started with a journey because the first inkling of the idea for the book came on a train from Edinburgh to London. It was an apt place to have a booky idea because Edinburgh, being a literary kind of place, is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station – Waverley – after a book.
When I got home I then wrote the first chapter and the last chapter and, while the first chapter has changed out of all recognition, the last chapter is much as I originally wrote it.
The next part of the journey was harder. On the back of the completed book, I obtained a glittering London agent who pitched it, without success, to the big publishers. Some were 50/50…so it could have gone either way. In the end, sadly, none pitched for it.
However, I knew that what I had written was good and, frankly, that it could be better. I therefore set about rewriting and rewriting it until it was the best that I could make it. Then in stepped those nice people at Accent Press…
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) Oh Lord! Growing up, my favourite authors were the likes of Hemingway and Greene. Then I morphed onto Fay Weldon and Paul Theroux. More recently, my favourite authors have to be the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Kate Atkinson, and the incomparable Joanna Harris. A special mention also to the late great Iain Banks.
Rather than recommend books that everyone has heard of, I would suggest A Visit From the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), The Panopticon (Jenni Fagan) and Skippy Dies (Paul Murray).
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
A) The book that stands out is Jennie by Paul Gallico, about a young boy who is knocked down by a car and wakes up as a cat. It was a revelation to me then and, thinking about it, it probably influenced The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, because it’s a book about love and loss and finding a new beginning…in the same way as the Wizard of Oz is.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) There hasn’t been any one special moment. Rather, it’s the quiet satisfaction of knowing that I have outlived all those rejection letters! It’s always nice, I suppose, to achieve something in life and, because writing has been so central in mine, I have an acute sense of real satisfaction.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) I think that would have to be me. Other writers have support networks to read what they’ve written, make comment, and suggest changes. I haven’t really had that luxury. It has, I suppose, made me the biggest critic of me.
It’s a thick-skinned approach to writing that I would recommend every budding author to adopt. Read lots, write lots, tear it all up, start again…and slowly get better. If you have friends and family to do some of the heavy lifting, then great; if not, do it yourself, and be your own worst enemy!