Beth O’Leary on writing The Switch, the follow-up to The Flatshare best-seller
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2020
Winchester novelist Beth O’Leary faced a battle with imposter syndrome as she penned the follow-up to her debut bestseller
Becoming a best-selling author has to be at the top of any writer’s wish list.
For novelist and Winchester girl Beth O’Leary, it was certainly the dream she aspired to when she began writing the novel that was to become her debut on her daily commute to London to a job in children’s publishing. She never imagined that The Flatshare, would become such an overnight success, ending up a Sunday Times Top Five bestseller, being sold into 32 languages, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick and being awarded the coveted title WH Smith’s Fiction Book of the Year in 2019 – and all of this enviable achievement at the age of 26. There’s even a television deal in pre-production. Although the last year has seemed somewhat of a whirlwind of luck, Beth has been working towards this dream since she was a teenager.
“In some ways it does feel like it came out of the blue but I did write four completed novels before The Flatshare and I tried to get all of them published,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get an agent since I was 17 – that’s when I sent my first submission out.’
A heart-warming romantic comedy, The Flatshare tells the stories of quirky book editor Tiffy Moore who is looking for somewhere cheap to live and fast, and introvert Leon Twomey, a nurse working night shifts in desperate need of cash. The solution? To share Leon’s one bedroom flat – Leon occupying it during the day and Tiffy coming home to an empty flat after work. They even share the flat’s double bed, despite the fact that they have never met.
One of last year’s hotly anticipated releases, the seeds for this story of friendship and finding love in unexpected ways grew from Beth’s own experiences of renting in London and living with junior doctor and boyfriend Sam. Told with wit and charm, The Flatshare has seen this exciting new novelist heralded as ‘the new Jojo Moyes’.
“I just thought this is the story I want to write and I’m so glad that I did that. As a writer, you want to give people what they don’t know they want yet. That’s what you do by writing something a bit different,” Beth tells of her publishing journey. “I just managed by pure joyful luck to hit a moment when people wanted something a bit more cheerful. Everyone needs a little pick me up.”
Offering the perfect escapism and antidote to what has been a turbulent few years politically and economically, Beth’s writing brings the feel-good factor to readers, joining a growing trend of books which publishers describe as ‘up-lit’, books which are uplifting and optimistic.
It’s proven to be a winning formula as shown by Beth’s second novel The Switch – which came out last month. When 79-year-old Eileen decides to swap lives with granddaughter Leena for a couple of months, they both discover that stepping into one another’s shoes offers the second chance they have both been searching for. Gossiping neighbours, affairs of the heart and difficult family dynamics play their part as Leena swaps city life for rural Yorkshire and Eileen looks for love in London. The inspiration for the book transpired following a brief stay with her grandmother before she died.
“My grandmother had been poorly for a while and we knew it was going to be her last few weeks. I was up staying with her in her little village – her neighbours were dropping round, friends were there and the people she played Scrabble called in. I was sitting at her dining room table, reflecting on her life and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if a young woman was thrown into this situation, into this sort of community and had to step into her grandmother’s shoes?”
While Beth didn’t want to focus on the sadness of losing her grandmother, she did feel inspired to tell a story with an older character at its heart.
“We talk about older people being ill a lot. I didn’t want to dwell on that. I wanted to write about a woman in her late 70s who is at the start of a new adventure, not just a background character there to provide a narrative for the younger character,” she explains. “I wanted Eileen to be the sort of person we’d all like to be at 79.”
Regular volunteering for a local lunch club run by Age UK also proved to be a fantastic source of inspiration for the novel.
“The thing which has struck me spending time with them is that we have all of these assumptions about older people being sensible and they aren’t like that at all,” laughs Beth. “They are such a great group of people and I look forward to catching up with them each week. I wanted there to be something of them in Eileen too.”
Even with the success of The Flatshare, writing a second book came with its own challenges as Beth struggled with confidence, imposter syndrome reigning supreme.
“I kept thinking: ‘What if The Flatshare had been a fluke?’ I wasn’t sure I could do it again. It’s probably no coincidence that I wrote a second book about people being totally out of their comfort zones because I was writing it, thinking ‘Can I do this job?’,” she says. “In the process, I suppose I figured that I was actually doing it, that I am a writer.”
With a significant deal for a third and fourth novel with publisher Quercus hot off the press, it looks like Beth has nothing to fear – she’s definitely an author in demand and a talented one, at that.
“Travelling up to London for a meeting, I saw one of the guys who I’d been commuting with, sitting in the same seat. Obviously, he’s still doing his commute but it seemed so strange that my life had changed so much and yet, he was still there. This is my total dream and I don’t want to mess it up,” Beth says. “I want to be able to keep doing it and if that means working hard, then I’ll do that. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t give it my all.”
It’s this incredible work ethic and dedication to her craft that has seen Beth’s writing go from strength to strength and ensuring her place on the list of bestselling authors. No doubt that if The Switch is anything to go by, her enormous fanbase won’t be disappointed either.