Anne Youngson is retired and lives in Oxfordshire. She has two children and three grandchildren to date. Her debut novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. Her new novel is The Narrowboat Summer and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Narrowboat Summer?
I wanted to write a novel about a journey. I am always writing about moments of change, and how decisions are made about what path to take in the future. Journeys are so powerful in giving time to think and to absorb ideas from the changing scenery, traveling companions, and people met along the way. The journey has to be long and slow, and so few journeys are both, in the 21st Century. I imagined a meeting on a towpath, and that seemed like a good starting point for the journey my characters would take.
Are Anastasia, Eve, Sally, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
I build up characters, using vague markers to circumscribe the territory they are in—age, sex, physical characteristics, situation—then start to colour them in, as it were, as I write. No character is based on an individual known to me, but everyone I have ever met has contributed to my understanding of human nature, and that knowledge is what I use to create the person on the page.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I did not know, when I started Eve and Sally off on their travels, what they would decide to do with the rest of their lives. Would Eve find another high-powered job in Engineering? Would Sally go back to living with her husband? I did have an idea about the answer in each case, but I was wrong. As they moved out of their familiar surroundings and talked to each other, it became obvious to me what they would end up deciding, which was not what I expected at the start.
I would have loved to tell more stories about the early days of the canals, the people who worked to build them and then worked on them, the triumphs and the tragedies. But that would be a different book.
How much did you know about narrowboats and the English canal system prior to writing The Narrowboat Summer? Have you ever taken a trip on a narrowboat on the canals?
I went on my first canal holiday when I was a schoolgirl, and have been again, many times, since, with friends and family, and it has always been magical, whatever the weather. My sister and her husband sold their house when they retired and bought a boat to live on, touring round the whole network for many years. She was my consultant on this book.
Did you have to do research about narrowboats and the canals? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?
The idea for this novel has been with me for a number of years, and I had written scenes sometime before I began to work on it seriously. From then, though, it took about eighteen months. There was a lot of reading to do about canal history, but the hardest part of the research was mapping the journey. Working out how long it would take to travel between two points—which depends on the number of locks as well as the number of miles—and what route they would take. I have a shelf full of maps and guides which I hope to use for canal trips in the future.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you knew or learned about narrowboats and the canal network?
The decisions made in the planning for the canals were all practical ones. The less work involved in digging them, the quicker the investors would start to get their money back. So they were only dug deep enough, and the banks made strong enough, for a boat traveling at the speed a horse could pull it. As a result, it doesn’t matter how fast we could make a boat move today, the system will only cope with a top speed of 4mph. If this were still a commercial network, the slowness would be a problem. To enjoy the scenery, it is perfect. A wonderful example of unintended consequences—that being in a hurry to finish the construction has meant we are forever forced to travel slowly.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I’m part of the judging panel for a debut prize for older novelists, so my stack at the moment is diverse and fascinating; an astonishing range of different voices and different sources of inspiration. In contrast, when I have time to read for myself, I am re-visiting the first half of the twentieth century, a period of rich story-telling and well-constructed prose—in the pile I have The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, and Angel by Elizabeth Taylor.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
These are times when I need comfort, but also a way of managing fear and grief. What has carried me through difficult days is, on the one hand, Paddington 2, the joyous, funny, heart-warming second film of the Paddington Bear books; and on the other hand, Inside the Wave, a poetry collection by the late Helen Dunmore, written as she was dying, but so tender and moving it helps to humanize pain and fear and make them less painful and frightening.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Readers surprise me again and again by asking questions I never thought of but which I find myself enriched by being forced to consider. The truly simple question I have never been asked is: Do you enjoy writing? To which the answer is, Yes. I am doing this because I love it.
What are you working on now?
My next novel is a complex story set in the recent past. Researching and writing it has sustained me through a difficult year.