Kate Weinberg spent seven years writing The Truants in the invaluable ‘room of one’s own’ offered to her by Emma Freud, Suffolk’s Tatler columnist and mother to Scarlett Curtis, author of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink.
Praised by Alain de Botton, Kate Weinberg’s debut novel is a modern-day whodunnit with four complex rule-breakers at its core, all suffering from a perilous desire to live life against the grain. With all the debauchery and inter-friendship sex one would expect from middle-class university students, this book will have you wishing you’d just let yourself go in your twenties when responsibility was a myth of adulthood. It’ll get you thinking, too, “are white lies, even elaborate acts of deception, sometimes justified? …Could you, if the right sort of pressure was exerted, kill someone?”
What does a day in the life of Kate Weinberg look like?
Oh, that very much depends on what stage I’m at in writing a book. After I’ve dropped my two children at school, I go to the small room I rent in a little office block in central London (my writing only got serious when I invested in a “room of my own.”) After I’ve had my second coffee, I’m normally ready to write. If I’m writing my first draft, I do so in longhand, into a notebook. If I’m editing, I’ll do that straight onto a screen. I’m naturally more confident in the editing phase, so I find I procrastinate far more when I have a new scene to write. This will involve breaks with a friend (more coffee), walks up and down the nearby Primrose hill which looks out over central London. On a bad day I’ll struggle to do more than two hours of productive work before I turn to my emails. On a good day, often late in a draft, when I have momentum, and if I have some childcare organised, I can work until the wee hours, and forget about mealtimes altogether.
What scene are you most proud of in The Truants and why?
Great question. I have a few contenders but I think probably the one that inspired the brilliant artist who designed the cover of the hearse sitting in between the tall pines. My narrator has gone jogging on campus, and she’s listening to a song while she’s running – although I’m not explicit its quite obviously Sinnerman, by Nina Simone – when she spies a hearse parked in the woods. She goes up close and sees something shocking through the huge rear windows which roots her to the spot. The scene, when I wrote it, came very naturally. And when I read it now, I still feel it keeps to that urgent, impending beat.
What scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
The puppet show and the prologue. In the puppet show, I was having to repeat something we had already seen a snapshot of, but not feel repetitive, and both had to work in their own right. I kept switching between the two adjusting all the beats, and making sure they were entirely in synch.
What was it about the real life Lorna Sage at the UEA that inspired Lorna Clay?
That sense of holding a room, of being in the presence of someone extraordinary. Lorna Sage was the cleverest person I ever met. But it was an intelligence that was far from dry – it had filtered through into her wit and spirit and sense of mischief. Rare qualities I think in a brilliant academic. I tried as best as I could to convey that in Lorna Clay, and in the effect she has on people.
Do you have any stories to share from your time at university that were used as inspiration in The Truants?
I went to Lorna Sage’s house for supper once (though we didn’t eat oysters). And I used to go for runs through the woods. But not much else. I was there doing a Masters in Creative Writing. I’d already had an undergraduate experience at Oxford. So I didn’t have much in common with Jess’s experience as an undergraduate. The Brutalist nature of the campus made a big impression on me, though. After I’d left Oxford, I spent two years living in Rome. So I had been spoiled by the picturesque. There was something bracing about UEA’s concrete reality.
What did you really think of Norwich? What were your favourite parts and least favourite parts (I’m trying to get it on the map haha)?
I lived just off the Unthank Road (great name for a street I always thought) in an area the students referred to as the Golden Triangle. I rented one of the little redbrick terrace houses with a boyfriend. It was pretty in that zone, I liked the local pubs. I liked the city too, I loved wandering around the cathedral and its gardens. My main issue with Norwich was that I learned to drive there, and it seemed to have millions and millions of roundabouts. I failed my test twice there.
Was there any contention around the scene of the abortion? Do you hope it will raise discussion around ‘my body my choice’ for example, especially given the current climate in the US?
Well, the book is not out in the US until January 2020, and it’s just come out in the UK, so I’m waiting (with interest) to hear from readers about this. My intention was not to moralise in any way, but to provide as vivid an experience as I could for the reader, emotionally as much as physically.
If you’re allowed to say, what’s in the pipeline for your next book? I see there’s a two-book deal!
I’m very excited about my next book. A lot of it will take place in South Africa. I think I need to keep quiet about the rest for now!
Was there ever an alternative ending or were Lorna’s whereabouts and Alec’s fate always your intention?
Yes and no! I’ve deliberately kept some ambiguity about both of those aspects, and find that sometimes, depending on my mood, I myself change my mind on the weight of blame and responsibility involved. It’s hard to explain more without a spoiler, but if you want to come and join me for a ‘Loafing Hour” of cake and chat, then I’ll expand…