We Chat to Holly Williams About Her Highly Anticipated New Novel

Interview: Alycia McNamara
Wednesday 21 February 2024
reading time: min, words

A seasoned freelance journalist, Holly Williams has embarked upon another career as a novelist. As NTU WRAP's featured author for this spring she was in town at the new Central Library, so we thought we'd catch up with her... 

Screenshot 2024 02 21 At 18.33.28

Hi, Holly! 

Your second book has been named by Cosmopolitan as one of the top 20 books of 2024, which is pretty exciting. Can you tell us more about the the book and your experience of writing it?

Yes, of course. It’s called The Start of Something and it’s ten chapters, ten characters and each story sort of interlocks - each one flows into the next. So the first chapter is with Will and he goes on a date with Amanda and then in the next chapter, Amanda takes over and she has an encounter with someone at work - then it’s their chapter next. 

I actually nicked the structure for it from a very old play by Arthur Schnitzler called La Ronde, in that it’s very much man-chases-woman-chases-man-chases-woman. It was the sexual politics of the time which is obviously quite different to now. But I knew that play and that structure and there’s just something very satisfying about it. In the last chapter, the first person and the last person join up, so it’s kind of this circle shape.

I just thought, wouldn't that be more fun now? When you can have different kinds of relationships, genders, sexualities, relationship structures. So it sort of ripples in lots of interesting ways and it’s fun in the novel form to get one person’s perspective followed by the opposite perspective. I hope that as you go through you’re continually changing your mind about things or thinking about people differently - it’s also quite fun to write ten different sex scenes…

I could imagine this being a ten episode series - what do you think?

Yeah, touch wood, maybe! 

It is actually out with an agent for potential film opportunities at the moment. She’s sending it to people, so we’ll see…

We heard you were at the Nottingham Central Library on 20 February. Can you tell us a little bit more about this event?

Well, it very much came from lovely Becky Cullen at NTU - she shaped the session. It was an ‘in conversation with…’ I read a bit from my first novel, What Time is Love? and we had a bit of a chat about that and where it came from. Then I talked a little bit about The Start of Something - it was really exciting to be a part of the event in the brand new shiny library there. 

Is this the first type of session like this that you’ve done?

No - I did some similar things when the first book came out a couple of years ago. But I haven't talked about it for a little while, so I’m glad it went well. This was the first event for the new book, though! 

I did do a workshop there at NTU, which was with some of their students about writing reviews, because that’s also part of my job as a journalist. They were a really great bunch - interesting, thoughtful and varied.

So, you started out as a journalist…when did you start to delve into fiction?

When I was a student, I went to York University, which was known as University of Dork - it wasn’t necessarily the coolest place, in terms of nightlife, shall we say…But one thing it was really good at was supporting people with doing extra-curricular stuff. Me and my friends, who liked writing, set up our own little magazine called Seven Short Stories.

Then I got a job working for a little local newspaper in Wales in the gap year between my Masters and Undergrad degree, and after my Masters I went to do work experience at The Independent in London. 

That was a very, very full on job - initially I didn’t have a job. I was just helping out, trying to be useful, saying ‘I’ll do that… I’ll do that!' I was writing a lot but it wasn't creative, and I didn’t really feel like I had that much space in my brain for creative writing. Living in London in your 20s, you’re having a lot of fun as well. But it was always in the back of my mind…until you try it, you don’t really know if you’re shit or not.


I went to York University, which was known as University of Dork - it wasn’t necessarily the coolest place...

Eventually I got to the point where I’d been at The Independent for five years. I was feeling that I had an itch and an urge and I wanted to try creative writing - I thought, I’m open to the idea of it not being my thing. But I’ve got to give it a serious go.

I went down to being part-time, using that space to do a little bit of writing. I would get up and do an hour or two in the morning of my own fiction - I needed that to get going on writing a novel. The idea of doing it after a day spent on the computer in the office just wasn't going to work for me.

Then The Independent went digital only and I got made redundant. Which was fun. But actually, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands - they gave us some retraining money and a few of us did a writing course with it. Of course, retraining to be a novelist was a really good idea in a difficult financial climate…but it worked out. So I did this year-long online course - by that point I had about 20,000 words so it was about finishing that book. 

Having that monthly check-in with your peers, with tutors, was really useful and helped me finish the first book. Nobody will probably ever see it, it’s in a drawer - I did try to get an agent for it and get it published but nobody wanted it and I think that’s probably fair. It was a thing I learned to write through doing, rather than a really good book, necessarily. 

So, how did your books come to be published?

I spent a long time editing and working on the first one, but then I got a bit sick of it and I wanted to start writing something new.

I’d done the first 20,000 words of What Time is Love? I was talking to an agent about the first book and I mentioned the second one - he said he loved the sound of it and that the structure sounded really good. He asked to read the first bit, and he said that was the one. He told me to forget the first book and finish this. 

He signed me on the strength of the first 20,000 words and the synopsis. And that’s how it came to be. 

It has to stand on its own merit. No one is going to say ‘oh my god, you wrote a book!’ 

The relationship themes in your first novel have been called traditional - would you say this is different in The Start of Something? What types of relationships are featured?

It’s definitely much more contemporary, because the first book was set in the 40s, the 60s and the 80s. A few years of each decade. Although with the relationship in that book, they start with a marriage and by the end they start exploring free love. Some of the things that are in my new book were also hinted at in the first one. 

In this book, the structure wouldn't work if it was ten couples and they were all in monogamous relationships. But that was one of the fun puzzles about it.

You've got people going on first dates, random hookups at parties, people who are in open marriages or polyamorous situations. In all of them I find it quite interesting to write about the variedness of love, lust, desire and also power imbalances.

I suppose the thread that runs through all of them is love, affection, and romance which can take all sorts of shapes - it’s all good as long as people are able to be authentic and communicate about it. Which is obviously really, really hard. Most of the conflict is in characters who may be trying their best and getting things really wrong, or maybe not trying their best, not showing up in the way they could. The book is serious in some ways - but I hope it’ll also be fun to read. 

When you were doing research for the book, how much did you draw upon your friends' experiences, your own experiences, or even stories about relationships which you’ve seen on the internet or on television?

It was a real mix. At the start it was me using my imagination. There’s a bit of me in all of it, but none of these characters are me or are close to relationships that I’ve had. It feels pretty removed. But I think you can always put yourself empathetically in the situation, even if it’s not one you’ve had.

I also did lots of chatting with people in an informal way. When I had a first draft, I made sure that any stories where I felt ‘oh, this is really not my personal experience’ - I made sure I got at least one person to read those. So, for example, the book begins and ends with two bisexual male characters who have quite different experiences, and that’s something I’ve chatted to people about. It’s ten characters, so I thought ‘well, they cannot all be women in their 30s’. 

Obviously, it’s a really sensitive issue writing things which aren't your experience - but a story which was similar to my experience was only going to be one chapter. 

I felt like I wasn’t trying to sustain a novel based on experiences that weren’t my own. The same goes for gender identity and sexuality. I had a non-binary friend who read quite a lot of it and it was really interesting. We also used a sensitivity reader who has experience as a queer non-binary person. They were absolutely brilliant and gave me lots of thoughtful, intelligent notes - it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. I also worked with a deaf actress because there’s a character who is deaf and I wanted to make sure that how sign language was being depicted felt authentic, and again she was great.

Lots of research came from listening to podcasts and reading books to make sure everything was covered. I wanted it to feel right for the reader.

What are you most excited about in terms of when the book is finally released into the world?

I am scared for this one actually. More scared than for the last one, in a way. 

I think with your first book, there’s an incredible goodwill, which is just the nicest thing to experience!  With this one I feel a bit more that it has to stand on its own merit. No one is going to say ‘oh my god you wrote a book!’ 

With this one it’s much more, I’m just doing my work. Less that I’m trying to do this mad ambitious thing and maybe one day there will be a book, and then there was.

There's also been more debate about what changes should and shouldn't be made. The bit just before publication is just a bit nerve-wracking. 

Will you be having a book launch?

I am, I’ll be having a book launch on the publication day in London. I’ll also be having a Sheffield event, maybe a reading and a short Q&A with Juno Books. Very, very fun. 

At my first one, my mum did a really embarrassing speech, which is not standard - but everyone loved it. I thought, was this event to launch my book, or to launch my mother?

Holly Williams’ latest novel, The Start of Something, is out on the 11th of April.

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