Soho, 4am is a psychological thriller set in the twenty-four hours between London winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games and the terrorist bombings of 7/7. It follows four young people as they battle their demons through the dark streets of Soho. The idea for the novel came after reading an interview with a woman whose husband had died in a car crash on 9/11. His death, though heart-breaking for his family, didn’t rate a mention on a day of otherwise apocalyptic news. I wanted to tell the story of four ordinary people whose life-changing experiences will be overshadowed by the extraordinary twenty-four hours in which they take place.
Stella is a singer songwriter, so how much of you is in her character?
There are elements of me in all four of the characters – from Ade’s ambition to Zoe’s eternal optimism and Seb’s refusal to let go of the past. Stella is a singer-songwriter but she’s a lot more intense than me and unlike me she doesn’t actually do much singing in the novel!
You graduated from Durham University in 2001, so what was your experience of university life like?
Durham is a beautiful city and the university has become something of a tradition for my family – my brother Daniel studied there as did my nieces Jessica and Lucy. The cathedral is one of my favourite places on earth. I used to go and sit there during Evensong and it was so calm and peaceful it felt like all my worries and concerns were a million miles away. I was quite restless at university – I wanted to get started on my career and student living didn’t really suit me. I like my own space and as Durham is very close-knit it was often hard to find that space. However, I had some great experiences there – I wrote a screenplay called The Bridge about the relationship between a busker and a student and I took part in the legendary ‘Durham Fashion Show’ which was crazy but fun. I also met one of my best friends Kevin who lived in the room opposite me in the first year. We hit it off from day one even though he mis-heard me when I introduced myself and thought my name was Tulip – a nickname that remains to this day!
When you first moved to London you worked in the Chelsea Arts Club, what was that like?
Where do I start? The Chelsea Arts Club is the most crazy, unique, brilliant, eccentric place I have ever set foot in. I have enough anecdotes about my time there to fill another novel! For those unfamiliar with it, the Chelsea Arts Club is a private members club for artists. It was established in 1891 by the artist Whistler and when you step inside the discreet white building it feels like you have stepped into another age. I adored working there and met some amazing people. I was based in the tiny club office but my boss Dudley Winterbottom, the club secretary, would throw some pretty random tasks at me. It was very much an ‘all hands on deck’ affair and during busy periods I could find myself behind the bar pulling pints – there was no such thing as a job description. One time, Dudley asked me to type out an obituary for a member who had died and pin it up on the notice board. I did as I was told, then ten minutes later Dudley marched into the office stony-faced and told me to take the notice down immediately – the seemingly ‘deceased’ member was sitting in the bar very much alive and drinking a Bloody Mary! It was my first job after leaving university and I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my early twenties.
How did your songs become character portraits?
I have always been massively influenced by The Beatles. I love the fact that their songs are stories, precise observations of life, with lines that could grace the best novels: ‘Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.’/ ‘He blew his mind out in a car; he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.’ Some people get ideas for novels from paintings, I get a lot of mine from songs. When I lived in Soho, I would sit on the window seat in my little flat and look out as all of life passed by below. As I watched, I would scribble little character portraits, vignettes that I thought would be songs but turned out to be the foundation of Soho, 4am.
This is your first book so do you have plans for another?
Yes. I signed a two-book deal with Quercus and I have just finished my second novel, The Last Day of Summer. It’s a psychological thriller set in London in the dog-days of summer just after the 2012 Olympics. It re-unites two of the characters from Soho, 4am and is a shocking tale of revenge, obsession and murder. It will be published by Quercus in 2014.
What were your best memories of living in Soho?
I loved the early mornings in Soho as I felt they belonged to me rather than the partying crowds that would pour into the streets after dark. Stepping out to walk to work was rather like turning on the lights after a raucous party, there would be traces of the night before dotted around – a lost shoe, a broken bottle – but there was a beautiful stillness and peace in those hours between seven and eight that I have never found anywhere else. Despite its reputation as a seedy, sinful party centre, Soho is actually home to a close-knit community of residents who live and work amongst the noise and neon. Men and women from all walks of life come here from every culture, background and status. It’s not about being flashy or rich or ultra-cool, it’s about being real and that, for me, is what makes Soho so special.
Why did you decide to move away to York?
I got married in 2005 and when my baby, Luke, was born in 2007 we decided that we needed a bit more space so we moved North close to where my parents live. York is a beautiful city with excellent transport links to London, lots of green spaces and a vibrant cultural scene. When we moved here I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA course at York St John University and when I graduated in York Minster in 2012 I had an agent, Madeleine Milburn, and a two-book deal with Quercus. So it was a very positive move, all in all. I don’t think I could have written Soho, 4am if I had still been living in London. I needed distance to gain perspective. Living in London can be very much like living in a strange vortex and stepping away allowed me to make sense of the city and the power it holds over those who live there.
What advice can you give to someone moving to Soho?
Get some earplugs! Seriously, when I lived there I don’t think I ever got a proper night’s sleep. The noise from the street was so loud and it got louder as the night progressed and the partying crowds arrived. There was one pocket of time – the hour between 3 and 4am – where silence descended but at 4am the street cleaners would arrive and the street would be alive with flashing orange lights and the sounds of smashing bottles. However, with the benefit of ear-plugs and double glazing I would say to anyone moving to Soho to enjoy every minute of their time there; to experience this unique pocket of London while it still has its magic – there are not many places left like this in London!
What is next for you?
Hopefully to write lots more novels! I will be putting the finishing touches to The Last Day of Summer then I will start writing novel number three.
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