Francesca Segal’s debut novel, The Innocents (2012), continues to bring in the accolades. Written over three years, it is centered on Adam and Rachel, childhood sweethearts poised to get married. Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, enters their lives and makes Adam re-think his decision.
The Jewish neighbourhoods in London and the community figures prominently as the backdrop to the story. The Innocents won the Costa Prize for First Fiction (2012) and National Jewish Book Award for Fiction (2012), and was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2013).
Segal (in picture) is the daughter of late author Erich Segal, known for Love Story. Shuttling between London and New York, she juggles freelance work as a journalist, and has written for Granta and The Guardian. Excerpts from a telephonic interview:
Why did you write The Innocents?
The Innocents was due to a couple of things coming together. I was living in New York and reading novels on New York. Being away from London, for a while, offered breathing space and the perspective to think about London. I was reading Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and I recognised the ideas and questions that she was exploring.
What's it like to write a debut novel?
Writing a debut novel involved excitement as well as nervousness. Until you finish it, you don't know whether anyone is going to publish it or buy it. But it was exciting as I was doing the only thing I had always wanted to do -- write fiction. Some days were easier than others to get the flow. It was an all-consuming and obsessive venture.
Are there autobiographical elements in The Innocents?
It is fiction and isn't based on my life or my family. The incidents have not happened to me. But with a hand on my heart, I can say that I am familiar with the neighbourhood and it's a portrait of a world I know of.
Is there pressure to live up to expectations?
There are different expectations. But my father has been a lovely inspiration. He taught me a great deal and I am grateful to him. By observing him, I learned about the real life of a writer, the balance of hard work and the joys involved. It's been a lovely lesson. Our style of writing isn't similar but we are both passionate about language and words, the building blocks of writing.
Is it easier working on a second novel?
With the first novel, there is a certain silence around you; plus, there are no deadlines. But with the second novel, I have been frightened all the time. That said, the first novel afforded a lot of exposure and a certain reassurance that the second novel would be published, which makes it easier. It is still early days and I am still playing with ideas. The genre will be the same; it will be based in London and will be a contemporary novel. I hope to get better over time with more experience; luckily, as a writer you never retire.
Your book talks a lot about Jewish culture, families and food. Was it a conscious decision to focus on these topics?
I am a foodie and I know that food is an important part of family and culture in ethnic groups. Food is often the currency and a means to communicate love; it brings families together. Cooking and food occupies a central part in my family and I was keen to explore it. As for the Jewish elements, I was keen to take one culture and use it. But the pressures, expectations and dilemmas in the novel are something that people of different cultures will also be familiar with. Anyone who grew up in a tight-knit community or small village will understand how lives are interwoven with one another. I have observed a lot of people struggling to balance expectation and pleasing parents with pulling back and making their own choices; what they wanted against what was wanted for them. Family is a wonderful institution but it can get claustrophobic.
Who are the authors who have influenced you?
Edith Wharton, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Salman Rushdie, among many others. Among Indian authors, I have read works by Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Rushdie.
The Innocents, Francesca Segal, Random House, Rs 499. Available at leading bookstores.