An Interview with Lorraine Brown
In Lorraine Brown’s debut novel, Uncoupling
, we spend just over twenty four hours in the company of Hannah, the central protagonist, who, finding herself mistakenly in Paris, stumbles into Léo - prompting her to reassess all that is right and all that is wrong in her world.
Lorraine told me that Hannah was created, in part, to represent her own personal and professional background and to be a character to whom others could relate. Lorraine said that despite her character’s daily struggle with credit card debt and the consuming tedium of a dead-end job, she wanted Hannah to show a degree of strength, demonstrating there is a strong, confident woman within.
In the novel, we slowly come to understand the events of the past that have shaped the Hannah of the present, how her background influences her current behaviour. Lorraine Brown also draws upon a varied portfolio of her own experiences which both influence and are manifest in her writing to some extent. She told me that one key lesson she has learnt is that resilience is essential: “if you are passionate about something, and if you’re prepared to work hard enough at it, you should never give up”.
Luckily for readers this wisdom is one that has propelled Lorraine over the hurdles to becoming a published writer. Throughout this series we have talked about the writing and publishing journey with many new writers, and certainly Lorraine’s own experience has been far from straightforward, in fact it has been “long and complicated and fraught with rejection!”.
Lorraine recounted her experience to me in a way that felt refreshingly candid, but with a huge amount of perspicacity, which I expect has come from her studies in psychodynamic counselling. She strikes me as very self-aware; something that began with her experience at drama school and working as an actress in her twenties.
She told me that in order to understand the characters whose roles she was to assume, she first had to understand herself. She was trained to cite the differences and similarities between herself and the characters, and this is a technique she still uses, to a lesser extent, when writing. She recalls from her acting days the times she’d read a script and think ‘would the characters really say that
?’. Now, the dialogue she creates is critical: it has to flow, it must be genuine, it must be real enough to provoke an authentic response from the other characters.
The death of Lorraine’s father in 2010 brought home the reality of her dissatisfaction with the status quo. She had become a full-time secretary in a school, needing the regular income that acting couldn’t provide, but she knew that her calling was something altogether more creative. Writing a book, she says, seemed “as unlikely as being an actress” but she began a ten week creative writing course for beginners at Central Saint Martin’s in London and found, to her delight, that writing came more easily to her than acting. Spurred on by positive feedback (something she says “forever eluded” her at drama school!) she continued her secretarial role by day and completed writing courses in her free time, including a novel writing module at Birkbeck College, University of London.
By 2014, Lorraine Brown had completed her first book. Amongst the blanket rejections, she clung to a single positive response which she channelled into a new piece of fiction, and ultimately in 2018 she became a mentee on the Penguin Random House WriteNow programme, a scheme that aims to launch the careers of writers who are currently under-represented in the publishing industry. With an editor who would mentor her for a year, she began to have real faith in her ability as a writer... “If Penguin Random House had chosen me out of all the writers, then surely I was in with a chance?”.
At the same time Lorraine had begun a postgraduate diploma in psychodynamic counselling, which I believe has also influenced her writing. Hannah, the protagonist, struggles with the feelings of loss, of not being good enough, and not having a firm connection to her parents. This relates to a key aspect of this branch of counselling, that is, dealing with ‘deep rooted feelings and memories that affect current behaviour’. Lorraine’s course coincided with the writing of Uncoupling
, and she says that with each new draft, she would add a “new layer of understanding” deriving from her studies. As part of the course, she also had to have personal therapy which gave an insight into her own relationship patterns, her personal beliefs and assumptions. It highlighted that in reality, people are much more a product of their early childhood than is commonly accepted. It has allowed her, too, to become closer to her characters, as if they were real acquaintances, understanding whether their emotional needs are met, and establishing their own personal coping mechanisms. This period of Lorraine’s life was stressful, balancing part time work with motherhood, studying and writing, but she says that “without training to be a counsellor at that very specific time, the book would have been something quite different”.
During 2019, in response to further rejections from potential agents, she used the feedback received to write another re-draft, she met with editors and agents at two literary festivals, and in August 2019 she signed with her “dream literary agent” – Hannah Ferguson – whom Lorraine had followed for years on social media. Finally, at the end of 2019 she achieved a deal with Orion Fiction in the UK and with Penguin Random House in America.
Literature has accompanied Lorraine for most of her life: her teenage years were consumed with “losing herself in the books of Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins”. She even began a novel as a teenager, what she calls a “bonkbuster set on a yacht” before giving up after two chapters, realising she was writing about a world she didn’t really understand. Subsequently she has been inspired by Marian Keyes, who writes novels that are both accessible but also touch on more deep-rooted issues like alcoholism and domestic abuse. The books of Maggie O’Farrell motivated her to find her own authorial voice, something she struggled with in the early stages of Uncoupling
when she was told her voice “wasn’t strong enough”. However, novels such as The Flatshare
by Beth O’Leary helped her realise that her characters perhaps needed a bit more humour; she says that her tendency to be quite serious was too strongly manifest in her earlier drafts.
Her favourite novel is Girl with a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier as it creates a lasting impression, a tension constructed through its “quietness”, and currently she adores Sally Rooney, whose “dialogue is perfection”. For Lorraine to begin writing she needs a ‘hook’ – that is, a compelling one-liner that sums up the story and convinces others to want to find out more. She will decide on a setting, create a plot outline that can be rearranged and shaped to accommodate the development of the characters and their dialogue as she progresses.
Lorraine shares the common writers’ anxiety of “can I do it all again” and of course worries whether she will find a second or third elusive ‘hook’ – however, she is determined to make a career of her writing. She has just finished the first draft of her second book, plotted during the spring lockdown and written over the summer. This is another contemporary love story where two very different people meet because they live opposite one another in the same apartment block. She continues to work one day a week as an associate counsellor at the University of Cambridge but she is “already wondering what on earth I’m going to write about for book three”. One thing she assures me of is that despite what the wider public might believe, writers are not “full of amazing story ideas”. A big part of writing, it seems, is about overcoming the fear and the challenge of conceiving an idea for a novel, but this is rewarded by the excitement, and immense satisfaction, of seeing an idea come to fruition.
Lorraine finishes with the same candour with which she began the interview - telling me that gaining her publishing deal “literally changed everything”. She felt as if all that she had been through, the successes, the failures and the rejections, had been for a reason. That Lorraine doesn’t think she would have been able to write about relationships in the way that she has if she had had a “smooth ride of it” reiterates her earlier point: if you have passion and you are prepared to work hard, you should never give up on your ambitions.