I behaved badly at that first supper. That’s what my parents thought. They didn’t say, they wouldn’t, but I could see it in their stiffened faces.
On a bleak, muddy island in the Blackwater Estuary, Lizzie struggles to come to terms with the loss of her sister and unborn child. Hemmed in by an ineffectual but well-meaning husband, and her aloof parents, the things that are said and left unsaid on this strained, strange holiday threaten the complex family ties linking mothers and fathers to their daughters.
Will Lizzie’s marriage survive the double tragedy? Will her family pull together or break apart under pressure?
A compelling and poignant exploration of one woman’s grief, this debut novel moves us to ask ourselves how well we really know those with whom we are most intimate.
About the Author
Julia Russell was born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa. Educated in Paris and Oxford, she now lives in Cambridge with her daughter. Pedalling Backwards is her debut novel.
What inspires your writing ?
My interest in people. Ever since I was a child, I liked watching people, I was a born eavesdropper, lying behind sofas and listening to family and friends, hiding upstairs and spying on my parents’ parties. I love the look of houses at night, the windows lighted up and imagine what is going on inside, the stories of people’s lives behind closed doors. Reading books is like being invited into the room to sit quietly and observe and when I am writing I imagine I am drawing the reader into a lighted room of my own making. Even while I am writing, I still feel as if I am the invisible observer, listening and watching my characters, sharing them with the reader.
What is your favourite thing about being an author?
No aspect of life seems wasted, everything is a potential experience to record, a way of seeing the world or understanding how people live in it. Even the boring sides of life, the supermarket shop, standing in a queue. It may be a particular mannerism of someone, a way of speaking, a thought I have; any of these things could find their way into a book and be transformed. Writing is not so much a job, but a way of looking at the world.
What is the toughest part of being an author?
Starting a book, the first page is always difficult. Thoughts and images have sat for months in my head. I have written scribbled notes and sometimes whole paragraphs have sounded out in my brain. But that first sentence on a blank screen takes a leap of faith. It is up to me to make the book real, to create something from nothing. Exciting, but frightening. There is also the story cannot sustain itself, that the plot or the characters will fade and become less credible. But when it all begins to take shape, it is a wonderful feeling and there are days when I can’t sit still after writing a few sentences. The other hard part is what to do when the novel is finished. Handing it over to the first person to read and pass judgment, can feel agonizing.
If you could not be an author, what would you do?
Horrible thought. There are far too many jobs I would hate. I have tried working in an office and had to escape far too often to be on my own. In another life, I would be a dancer or an actor. They are creating stories in a different way. Unfortunately, I don’t have those talents, so writing it is.
What would the story of your life be entitled?
My books have pieces of my life in them, little fragments cobbled together into something else. They are in some way an expression of my life or rather the contents of my mind. But my life keeps changing, I could never have dreamed up some of the things that have happened. Sometimes it feels as if my life is beginning again, taking a new course and I would hate to sum it up with a title. A long way to go, I hope. Maybe on my deathbed, if I have the time and luxury of that, something will spring to mind and I will have someone beside me to tell.
What is your favourite book of all time?
I couldn’t choose. I have favourite writers. Anne Tyler, Margaret Forster, Jane Hamilton, William Trevor to name but a few. All authors who invite me into their lighted rooms filled with ordinary people who teach me about being human and offer me up little connections so that I feel part of them.
Which character from any book are you most like?
All the books I have enjoyed most have characters I can identify with, thoughts and feelings I recognize. Reading is not so much of an escape but a searching and finding of yourself. It makes you feel more connected to humanity rather than removed from it. I have similarities to many of the characters I read about, sometimes they even explain me to myself. Reading is a solitary occupation as is writing, but it makes you feel less lonely.
What character from your book are you most like?
Lizzie is not me, but I have experienced most of her feelings. I can imagine reacting as she does and I understand her on a profound level. Writing about her has sometimes been uncomfortable, her passivity, her paralysis when she should act, her anger and sadness all forced me to look at myself. I wanted to rescue her, comfort her, make her more heroic. But she had to be herself, remain consistent.
What is your favourite season?
Growing up in South Africa, in Johannesburg, which has a very dry winter when everything turns brown in the harsh light and lips chap painfully, spring was something wonderful. The willows were the first to leaf, bright, light green soft little leaves that promised so much hope. Spring has always been my favourite, new beginnings again, but tinged with a memory of life as harder and colder.
What inspired your book cover?
The story of Pedalling Backwards is so much about loss and memories of childhood that it seemed right to have a child on the cover. But I did not want it to be sentimental and I wanted to retain some mystery, so the child is faceless and her simple white shift is timeless. This could be Lizzie as a child, the child she plays with on the island, the child she lost. The child holds out her hands full of beach pebbles, offering them to be looked at. It is her treasure, something of herself she is showing and she can’t know how her parents, the world will receive it. The openness and imagination of children is very moving, an act of faith like writing. Giving something of yourself that can be received or rejected.
Are you working on something new?
I am editing my new novel, Picking Apples, at the moment. There are a few adjustments to be made, but I am very excited about it.
Anything you want to say to followers of this blog or those just stopping by?
Once a book is written, it is no longer in my control. I feel grateful to people who read with care and take the time to find their own reactions to the story and its characters. The book is there to be read and every time this happens it takes on a new life.