Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Monday, 27 February 2012

Cells - Harriet Grace - Author Interview

Interview with the author of 'Cells', Harriet Grace

Thank you for visiting The Little Reader Library today Harriet.

Was this (infertility) a topic that it was important to you to write about?

I started out with an image of a woman looking across an open-plan office and seeing a younger man and some kind of spark happening between. She’s a successful career woman who has the job, the house the husband.  He’s a loser from a dysfunctional family.  Then I realised she has no baby; she has tried IVF; it hasn’t worked; she’s trying to move on. As I started to explore and write about this subject I realised I had hit on a peculiarly modern dilemma.

I have been lucky enough to have three children and now grandchildren, but I remember the despair in my twenties at not being able to conceive my first child for over a year.  I had been brought up to find the ‘right’ man, marry and have children.  Imagine, I thought, a woman who was brought up to have a career first and then, almost as an afterthought in her mid-to-late thirties, thinks about having a baby.  What happens if she doesn’t succeed, in spite of IVF treatment?  Is it the same for her?  Does she mind so much?  Won’t it interfere with her career? It brings to the forefront, the ambivalence that many women have about childbirth and rearing children – their longing to have a baby, create a new life, versus what it does to their identity and their career.  It also brings up the sometimes unbearable extension of hope that IVF provides, and the despair when it fails.  Both these factors affect men too.
So, yes, this felt an important and topical subject.

The novel is very much driven by the developing relationships between the three main characters, and by their motivations. Are you very intrigued about how people interact and the psychology of relationships?

Absolutely – in another life I would be a psychotherapist, and if I could have afforded the very expensive training I might have gone down that path in this life, but then I probably wouldn’t have written novels! I’m fascinated by how people have become who they are, what happened in their childhood. I’m fascinated by what goes on below the surface of people’s lives, what we don’t say but maybe are feeling and how that effects the people we interact with.  A writing colleague said about my writing:  It's clear from everything you do that you're fascinated by the chaos that lies underneath restraint

I like being able to get inside more than one character, and show what each one is thinking which may be in conflict with how they are behaving. It has great dramatic potential!  I can show Martha at the office being very professional, but underneath feeling attracted to Jon and wondering what he thinks of her.  Then I can show Jon being polite to her but underneath finding her scary and weird although she might be able to help in his career, such as it is.  
I’m interested in ambivalence. Martha is ambivalent about wanting a child. Near the end of the story Grant is ambivalent about whether he wants to stay with Martha. If we are human we waver; we are often uncertain; we ‘sit on the fence’; nothing is obvious or straight forward. I like exploring all that and trying to get it onto the page. 

I am interested to know if you knew when you started writing the book if you knew what the ending would be, or if it took shape as your writing progressed?

I read somewhere that writing a novel is like driving in the dark – you can just see the part of the road lit up by the headlights.  You trust the lights are good enough and keep going!  That is me.  A lot happens (hopefully!) as I write.  I didn’t know what the ending would be.  There were two ways the story could go.  I struggled between having an ending that might be a balm for infertile women, against what felt right for the characters and the story.  In the end I chose what felt right for the characters.  

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

It took several versions of the first chapter for me to decide to use the viewpoints of the three characters, Martha, Grant and Jon.  This gave me a structure but meant that I had to make each of the characters equally believable, different and interesting.  I had to find their three ‘voices’.  Jon was probably the hardest.  He’s an oddball, and at first he was too inept and not very attractive. Grant and Martha seemingly have it all.  He has very little.  But in spite of his dysfunctional background I wanted Jon to give something to Grant and Martha they wouldn’t have got from anyone else, and I don’t just mean the question we are left with at the end of the book!  

Where do you write - do you have special place or can you write anywhere?

I wrote ‘Cells’ mostly in a small room upstairs at home. But recently we built  a ‘little house’, as my grandson calls it, at the bottom of our 60 ft garden in Kew – in brick and beautifully insulated!  So now I hole up in this lovely room and when I get restless, go for a walk and usually end up in a cafe where I scribble in long hand.

Are there any writers that have been an influence on you when writing?

Yes... any good writer who makes me want to get into the world they are creating and STAY there.  They somehow give me permission to be brave and go down the less travelled route, show me how they do it, and when I’m flagging stoke up my self-belief and say  – you can do it!  With ‘Cells’ I was influenced by Julian Barnes’ novel ‘Talking It Over’ for the structure, early Julie Myerson novels, Lesley Glaister, and the wonderful early novels of Jennifer Johnston.

Which authors do you enjoy reading yourself?

Shirley Hazzard, Jennifer Johnston, Julian Barnes - some of his books, Rose Tremain – particularly ‘The Way I Found Her’, Penelope Lively - particularly her classic ‘Moon Tiger’, Philip Roth, Simon Mawer, Patrick Gale, Nadine Gordimer’s short stories,  Alison Munro.....   Recently Jennifer Egan and her amazing ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’.  I’m now just discovering Howard Jacobson and his ‘The Finkler Question.  The list could go on....! 

Thank you so much for your time Harriet.


  1. So interesting! I can see you as a psychotherapist, Harriet. I love seeing which writers other writers are reading :-)

  2. Thankyou for posting this interesting interview with Harriet Grace.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment.

  3. Fabulous interview. I love how you share, Harriet, how you came up with three viewpoints. I can't wait to have a read of "Cells"! Thanks to Lindsay for hosting you today, it's nice to get to meet you more. XX

  4. Really great interview and I was fascinated with the description of Cells which sounds like the kind of complex novel I might enjoy. I rather liked the idea of a 'little house' at the end of the garden as well. I think it should be made compulsory for all writers to have one of those!

  5. Many will understand the heartache and complexities of the emotions surrounding problems conceiving. It's something that can rip a relationship apart. Can't wait to read this myself!

  6. What in interesting interview on a complex subject. I loved your writing analogy of 'like driving a car and only being able to see as far as the headlights'. Cells sounds like a fabulous book, Harriet, and I can't wait to read it. Wishing you great success!

  7. And then comes the fork in the road, one of which takes you to the most satisfactory ending. I like it. Like also that yours is left with a question, Harriet. Great interview, ladies! :) xx

  8. Thank you everyone for your lovely comments. Thank you Lindsay for great questions. I really enjoyed answering them. xx

    1. Thanks Harriet, I'm glad they made for interesting discussion. Great to have you on my blog. x


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit and leave a comment. It's great reading your comments and I really appreciate them :)