During the first lockdown in 2020, which she spent in a Dorset cottage with her then-eight-year-old daughter, Nancy, Joanna Quinn received an email from her doctoral tutor at Goldsmiths, University of London. His literary agent, stuck at home like everybody else, was looking for manuscripts to read. Joanna was writing The Whalebone Theatre, a historical novel that she had been working on for the better part of a decade, which follows lives of three children – largely left to their own devices – growing up in a manor house by the sea. She sent over a partial draft. The agent on the other end of the email asked how soon she could finish it. Joanna put aside what she could (“laundry piled up; we ate a lot of toast”) and wrote. By 2022, The Whalebone Theatre was on bestseller lists in both the UK and the US.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Look at this nice umbrella over our table. Maybe we’ll dry off now. How’s your egg sandwich?
Oh, that is so good. I have no reason to regret my choice.
Tastes even better when you’ve been walking in the rain. Ketchup?
What are the mornings usually like for you?
At the moment it's chaos because I’m trying to do up my house. There’s lots of making tea for scaffolders. I’m also trying to finish my PhD – I’m writing about children’s books that are set in big houses, which is quite fun. And then I’m stockpiling reference books for my next novel, which is also historical. So when I’m not making tea for builders, on the school run, or doing the PhD work, I’m trying to get through those.
Are you an early riser?
I wish I was. I wish I were one of those people who did “morning pages” at dawn, but no. I’m an owl, not a lark. I’m up at seven-ish, take Nancy to school, and then I normally try to work from 10am until 2pm. That’s my undisturbable time. It’s mainly reading at the moment, because the thing I want to write about next isn’t something that I know very much about. It’s the fun bit, really—going through the research books, picking out the things that I think might be interesting. I’m not doing much writing yet. That’s the tricky bit.
There’s a lot of historical detail about food in the novel. I was always hungry reading it. Are you especially interested in food?
I am. I love eating but I don’t cook. I’m hopeless in the kitchen. I read some great books about the history of food, which is probably where all of that came from. It can be really hard to figure out what you would have eaten, say, at the Savoy Hotel in 1920. But there are some great English-food-through-the-ages type research books.
When you read novels that are set in the past, it’s always those details that jump out. Food is interesting, travel is interesting, clothes are interesting. Differences in language are interesting. It becomes like time travel.
Your PhD involves “big house” stories, and The Whalebone Theatre is a big house story too. Are there many of those types of novels on your shelf?
People have asked me about this and there are probably a few. I read Brideshead Revisited and Rebecca and Jane Eyre and those sorts of things at university. But I think my interest in the big house mainly comes from childhood reading. It’s The Secret Garden more than Brideshead.
There’s a series of books called The Children of Green Knowe by a writer called Lucy M Boston, which are all set in one house, where a child meets children from the past. Also books by Edith Nesbit—there’s one called The Enchanted Castle, which I really loved, which is about children discovering an empty house. So I suspect it came more from that than the tradition of classic big house novels. It’s maybe why I started with child characters as well.
What about the theatrical element of the novel—have you had much experience with theatre?
I was in a few plays at school and at university, but I think it was more that I was thinking about the people in big houses, and what they might be up to. I was really interested in expected roles. If you're a boy, you're expected to do this. If you’re a girl, you’re expected to do that. Everyone has an allocated slot that they're going to be fitted into. And the theatre, in that context, gives them a way of trying out alternate roles.
If you look at women's magazines in the 1910s and 20s, there are often amazing photos of people doing theatricals on the lawns of big houses. It seemed to be something you did at a weekend party, so it fitted quite nicely in that way too. And also children, I think, do it quite a lot. I mean, my sister and I did. We were always putting on plays. I had a cardboard theatre that I made out of a box.
Sibling relationships drive the plot in this novel. Did having a sister help with that?
I struggle to find the origins of the novel, but it did start with Cristabel and Flossie [the two sisters]. I don’t know if I even had names in the beginning, but yes, I wanted to write about sisters. I thought it would be interesting to look at two women who have grown up in that big house environment.
I had an idea of a crotchety old lady living in a decaying house. And I started off writing it as if it were in the present day. So somebody finds the manor house and there's this grumpy old lady and she tells a story and blah, blah, blah. Eventually I got rid of all the contemporary stuff and just went to the past. We meet the old lady as a child, and that was Cristabel, and then I went from there. As soon as I had the idea, I started to draw a family tree and that just felt like so much fun. More like play than work.
The beginning is sort of lost to the mists of time. I started writing the book just before I got pregnant with my daughter and she's now 10 years old, so I can date it easily that way. When I had the idea for the novel, I knew that I’d always worked best in an educational environment, so I signed up to do a creative writing PhD at Goldsmiths. I like someone to give me deadlines and feedback.
I had just become pregnant when I did that. I think it was also a way of making sure I didn't disappear into being a mother. I was working full time too, so I wrote in tiny little bits in between pushing the pram around and going to work.
What did those early writing days look like?
Nancy didn't sleep much at all. But there was a brief window between 10pm and 2am when she would usually be asleep. So I would normally try to get an hour of work in, maybe from 10pm to 11pm. I was writing very little, but it was my rule that if I couldn’t manage to write, I would read a book for research.
And then when I was pushing her buggy around in parks, quite often I would have my phone out, and I’d just be typing questions to myself about what should happen in the next chapter. As in, what does this character want? That kind of thing. Not proper writing, but just making sure that I didn’t forget the things that were in my head.
Then when I went back to work, that felt like a luxury because I would quite often go in on the train. 40 minutes in, 40 minutes out, and a lunch break. If you add it all up, that’s around two hours a day. You can do more than you think on train journeys. The trick is never to get your phone out. As soon as you get your phone out, you're done.
That is astounding to me, that level of commitment when you had so many other demands on your time.
I worked in really small chapters and really small chunks. Because I didn't have much capacity outside of that. So for a while each chapter was almost too perfectly formed and standalone. When it came time to do the edit many years later, the thing I had to work on was pulling the narrative through.
Once a month I needed to send something off to my PhD supervisor and I think it's the fact that I had someone waiting for something, that made me do it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have. And I mean, some months it was hardly anything at all. But even if it was just a half draft or a rubbishy chapter, I would still get it done and send it off. And then every now and again, I would have to go to meetings for work and that meant travelling up to London, and I would time it so that I saw my PhD supervisor as well. I was quite tired.
What did you do to stay motivated?
I have a series of fallbacks to writing, because I think you can beat yourself up by going, okay, I've got to write this, and then if you don't write it, oh, it's rubbish. I might as well just watch the telly. But if I didn't feel like I could write, I would read books for research. And if I didn't research, I would read a novel from the time when my book was set. That was a really good tip that a friend gave me. I read a lot of 1930s detective fiction, which was so enjoyable, but also helped me to find little details I could steal about train interiors and things like that.
Which 1930s detective fiction?
Dorothy L. Sayers.
One of my favourite writers.
Yes, she’s the best. And it’s a really good tip, that detail stealing. In one of the books Wimsey [the detective protagonist created by Sayers] goes to a bohemian party, and there’s a bit in my book where Rosalind goes to a bohemian party, and I stole a few Sayers details for that.
While you were writing, did it ever feel like, this could be my job? The novel is my job?
I always knew that that was my aim. I always wanted to be able to write fiction for a living. And I thought, what I have to do now is do the two things at the same time [a day job and writing], and it’s going to be horrible and hard, and in the end, hopefully something will work out. And I also thought, even if I get to the end and the novel doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll have written my first novel. So I’ll have learned a lot, even if it’s never published. That was my goal. Just finish. That’s fine. I’ll get my PhD, and I’ll try again.
Was there a point while you were working on this novel, when you started to think you might be onto something?
Never. Never never. Absolutely never. No, I never thought that because I thought nobody would be interested in such an old fashioned story. Even when I finished it and sent it off, I thought people would say it’s way too big. Often you hear that debut novels don’t get published if they’re big and chunky. Nobody’s interested in a big house story anymore. It just felt like it wouldn’t be fashionable. So I thought, I’ll do it for my own entertainment, I’ll make it as fun as I can for me, put all the stuff in it that I find interesting, and we’ll see what happens.
When did you decide the book was ready to go out to literary agents?
That was all a bit weird as well, because I hadn't finished it. I was about three fifths of the way through. I knew roughly what was happening. And then I took redundancy for my job, which was fine, because I'd been there a long time and I thought, Oh, I'm ready for a change and I'll have a few months off and then I'll get something else. And then we went into lockdown and I couldn’t get another job.
And it all became a bit harder because then I was having to homeschool, and it became tricky financially because I couldn't pay my rent. I had a very lovely landlady who was very sympathetic. Around that time when my panic levels were increasing, my PhD supervisor, who is a writer, said his agent was looking for manuscripts to read during lockdown. He said that to all of his PhD students, I think.
And I said, well, mine isn’t finished, should send it? And he said send her some and see if she likes it. So I sent Clare [Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates] two big chunks, and she loved it. And I had this message that she wanted to speak to me on the phone and I thought well, she's probably not rejecting me if she wants to speak to me. But I thought she was going to say – you can write but can we do something shorter, less huge – and instead she said I want to sign you up, when can you finish it. And suddenly I had a goal.
How did that feel?
It was – I was in my house surrounded by wet washing and Nancy nearly losing her mind and me nearly losing my mind. Lockdown was hard for everyone, of course, but she was just desperate for other company. It was quite hard. We spent a lot of time walking the hills. And I just typed and typed and typed. And Nancy was able to go back to school so I had a few days a week and then we went back into lockdown. So I was working around that. And that was hard and really stressful, and kind of nice as well because I'd never had so many successive days of working on it before. I could go to bed and get up in the morning and carry on. So I just went like a maniac and finished around Christmas 2020. Clare came back with a few suggestions we had a bit of a tidy up in January. And then we sold it in February.
When you aren’t working on your next novel, what are you reading?
I’m completely behind on all contemporary things. I haven't read any Elena Ferrante, I haven't seen Fleabag. There's about 10 years of cultural stuff that's passed me by. I’ve now begun to read a few things because people have sent me nice proofs, and that’s been a nice surprise about being published, because I didn’t know that that would happen.
I loved In Memoriam by Alice Winn, it was really, really good. I just read a book called The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley, which is coming out next year, and I loved that as well. And a book called The Midnight News by Jo Baker, which is a psychological thriller set during the Blitz. Really good.
You mentioned that the proofs have been a nice surprise. Anything else that was unexpected about being published?
So many things. A very new thing for me has been aspiring writers asking for advice. Like oh oh oh oh, this is strange. It's very weird that you're sort of considered to be someone who knows what they're doing.
What do you say to them?
For me, I've always enjoyed being student. Even before I did my masters and my PhD, I went on courses. I love Arvon. It’s a writer’s charity, and they have big houses in the country and you go for a week. And it's like “Starting to Write Fiction” or “Begin Your Memoir” and it’s really great. They have great writers who teach on them. I think I did three of those. I got mentored by writers through that charity. I was always putting myself in workshops, always putting myself in classes, finding teachers, finding friends. I've met two women on an Arvon course, Peggy and Sarah, who became friends and we share work all of the time.
Find a community, whether it's online or offline. Because writing in isolation is just, well – you need readers to tell you whether things are rubbish or not.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.
The Whalebone Theatre, Joanna’s first novel, is available now.