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Laura Freeman has been shortlisted for the 2018 Young Writer of The Year Award, with her debut book, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite

At the age of fourteen, Laura was diagnosed with anorexia. She had seized the one aspect of her life that she seemed able to control, and struck different foods from her diet one by one until she was starving. But even at her lowest point, the one appetite she never lost was her love of reading. As Laura battled her anorexia, she gradually re-discovered how to enjoy food – and life more broadly – through literature.  Here, we ask her a few questions about her writing.

 

You’ve just been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award. How does it feel? What does being shortlisted mean to you?

I am pinching myself.

Every writer has doubting days (weeks, months, years) and you do sometimes wonder if you’ve written a lot of nonsense. It’s encouraging and good for morale to think that a judge has read your book with a critical eye and thought: not nonsense.

When did you first start writing? What drew you into it?

When I was at primary school, I wrote a story about an umbrella and a parasol who fell in love thanks to a fairy called Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. The prize was to read it out in assembly – knees knocking, cheeks flaming – in front of the whole school.

I feel about writing now as I did aged 9. The part where I’m on my own with a ruled exercise book (then) or laptop (now) is wonderful, the part where I have to read what I’ve written aloud on a festival stage or into a podcast microphone or into the lens of a camera is excruciating.

What drew me into it? Words are good company. I might feel lonely in a restaurant on my own, but never while writing. Solitude, yes. Loneliness, no.

How did you come to write The Reading Cure?

The idea started as a newspaper feature idea. I wanted to test the water: to see how it felt to write about my illness and to have it printed in black and white. It was strange and sad to see it on the page, but a great relief, too, to spit it out. Two friends, both with younger sisters who were battling anorexia, wrote to say that while my piece hadn’t shown them a way through, it had given them and their parents hope that recovery was possible.

After finishing one feature, I’m usually onto the next. This one nagged at me. There was more I wanted to say and I thought it might help my mind and body to say it and that a book might help others too. One of the messages of ‘The Reading Cure’ is that you cannot always, every day, in every way, be happy. But you can have hope.

Tell us a bit more about the writing process: How long did it take you, what did it involve?

To begin with: I sent a clipping of the newspaper piece to an agent – Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit – with a covering email. Will invited me to see him. (That was August 2015.) He sent me away to write an introduction. It was promising, he thought, but not enough to convince a publisher. He sent me away to write a first chapter. (September 2015.) It was promising, he thought, but… (October 2015) I went away and wrote a second chapter. And a chapter plan for the rest of the book. (November 2015). On 12 December 2015 – I remember because it was my birthday – an email arrived while I was in P&G Wells bookshop in Winchester. Will thought it was ready to send to publishers. Sigh of relief in the back of the shop.

I bit my nails over Christmas and the proposal went to editors in January 2016. I signed a deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February. Even bigger sigh of relief.

The proposal was about 18,000 words and my contract asked for no more than 80,000 words. I delivered the manuscript (72,000 words) in November 2016 after ten months of ping-ponging between journalism and chapter-writing. This was a slightly stressful method, but it had the great advantage that after writing a passage of the book that brought back bad memories, I would then write a piece about Eric Ravilious’s greenhouses or Osbert Lancaster’s cartoons and Eric and Osbert would cheer me up.

N.B. The Reading Cure was not my first idea for a book. My desk drawer contains: one unfinished novel, one finished (unpublishable) work of non-fiction written between school and university, four proposals for non-fiction books that failed to find agents and umpteen competition entries for essays, short stories, flash-fiction, poems, haikus and Halloween ghost tales. Writing is never wasted. The stuff in the drawer is as important as the stuff that finds its reader.

Which writers (of fiction/non-fiction) do you look up to? What do you like in them?

Hermione Lee’s biographies are magnificent. I never want them to end, though lives, of course, have to. Frances Spalding on the Bloomsbury set and John and Myfanway Piper. James Russell on Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus and co.  Jules Lubbock wrote the book that has most shaped the way I look at paintings: ‘Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello.’ Storytelling, that’s the important bit. Simon Schama is glorious on Dutch painting, John Mullan on eighteenth-century novels and Jerry White on London through the ages.

For bedside table: Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters, Charles Dickens, Barbara Pym, Rosamond Lehmann, Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth David, A. A. Milne, Goscinny, Uderzo and Molesworth.

What are you planning to do next?

I’d like to write a life of an artist. Someone with a good story to tell.

 

Laura Freeman writes for the Spectator, The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, TLS, Evening Standard and Apollo. She was shortlisted for Features Writer of the Year at the 2014 British Press Awards. She read history of art at Cambridge, graduating with a double first in 2010. The Reading Cure is her first book.

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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