Excerpted from My Best Friend's Girl by Dorothy Koomson. Copyright © 2008 by Dorothy Koomson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Discovery, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Dorothy Koomson is a journalist as well as a novelist, and she currently lives in England, where she is at work on her next novel.
A Q&A with author Dorothy Koomson on her new book, My Best Friend's Girl
You are having tea or coffee with one of your favorite authors. Who is it, and what would you ask that author if you only got to ask him/her one question?
I’d love to say I was sipping champagne and my favourite author and I were sitting in a beach restaurant that has been hired out exclusively for us, but as is most likely, we’d be in a small, greasy-spoon café and I’d order a cup of peppermint tea (I don’t drink tea or coffee) and then not drink it because that’s a bad habit of mine. I would be with J G Ballard (Empire of the Sun, Crash) and I’d ask him how it feels to have been so prolific that he has been published in five different decades.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about having a book published?
That you don’t become a millionaire and you still have to have a day job! Oh, and that you can touch so many people and inspire them with the words you’ve put together.
What’s your typical writing day like? And what environment is most conducive to your process?
My writing day varies so much because I’ve had two jobs—journalist and novelist—for so long I’ve usually had to fit writing books around the one that pays the bills. That has also meant I can write pretty much anywhere because I write long-hand in notebooks first then type it all up. I used to write on the train to work, or during my lunch breaks. I think it’s a little self-indulgent to need lots of space and time to ‘create’. I find that if a story wants to be told, it will find ways of coming out. Also, if you passionately want to be a writer, you’ll find the time to write. (Please remind me of this when I say I can’t write another book until I’ve moved home so I can have an office.)
Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
My mum taught me to read and write before I started school so I’ve always been someone who reads a lot, meaning I can’t think of the first book that inspired me. I can remember books that meant a lot when I was younger, though. I remember being blown away by Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives — it was access to a life I would never have known about (although I was far too young to have read it!). It inspired me to want to tell stories. I loved Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, because it was a tale about being a teenager, which told me that teenagers like myself had stories to tell. And I remember reading a set of books about some talking vegetables called the Garden Patch or something. The books were written by a girl who was about ten years old and that made me believe that if she could be a writer so young then maybe I could, too.
Many writing experts advise “write about what you know.” Do you agree with this? And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author?
I have lots of writing tips on my website (www.dorothykoomson.co.uk) but I would suggest that aspiring authors “write what you love” rather than write what you know. That means writing a story because you believe in it and that you want to tell. I think many, many people make the mistake of trying to write for money or because they think they can do better than another author, or because they think it’s the type of book that will sell. They’re all valid motives for putting pen to paper, and they do work for some people, however, I’ve found that none of them will comfort you when you start receiving rejection slips as much as knowing you’ve got a story you love. Also, the sense of satisfaction of seeing a story you’re truly passionate about on the shelves is second to none.
Which came first: the characters, or the storyline?
I don’t know, to be honest. The people and the story seem to appear in my mind. If you spot me staring off into space when I should be listening to someone or watching something, it’s generally because a scene has just played itself out in my head and I know a story is developing.
If we asked your best friend to describe you in 3 words what would they be? What if we asked you?
Best friend: Warm, determined, ever-so-slightly crazy.
Me: Stubborn, funny, ever-so-slightly crazy.
Is there something in your Bantam Discovery Novel that you are particularly proud, or happy, about?
The fact that I have had so many different people contact me and say the characters are like them, or they have lost loved-ones to cancer and the book has given them comfort, or that the book has made them cry.
Can you tell us about the book you are working on now?
I’m just finishing my fifth novel, Goodnight, Beautiful a tale about a woman who agrees to have a baby for her best friend and his wife, but finds herself in an impossible position when they decide they don’t want the baby any more.
When you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
It’s 4am UK time, so I will be returning to writing Goodnight, Beautiful because as I say, I’m just finishing it so that means working sometimes through the night. Then I’ll be sleeping for an hundred years, give or take a few hours.
All About My Best Friend’s Girl
by Dorothy Koomson
My Best Friend’s Girl is my third novel and it centres around the tale of Kamryn a career woman who over the course of a day becomes a mother to a five-year-old girl called Tegan. It almost sounds like a fantastical, mystical tale when described in those basic terms, but that is essentially what the book is about—and that simple idea was the inspiration for the book.
When I start to come up with the idea for a novel, I usually have a scenario—a ‘what if?’ situation —bubbling away at the back of my head that needs to be nurtured so it can be grown into a story. With My Best Friend’s Girl, I wondered: ‘What if you woke up one morning and by the end of the day you are responsible for another person?’ Usually when a woman has a child she has nine months to get used to the idea of becoming a mother—even if she doesn’t use that time to prepare herself properly, she still has time to grow accustomed to the idea. But in this case, what if the child is given to you without warning and you have no option but to go along with it?
After I had this initial idea, I thought: ‘What if this child you were suddenly asked to give all the unconditional love, support and care a mother provides for her child was the one person on earth you wouldn’t want to be around? What if becoming a child’s mother hurts you more than you can imagine?’ I then set about trying to work out why that child would cause such pain. And also why you would be in that situation of having a child under your arm, and a whole new, unexpected set of responsibilities resting heavily on your shoulders by the end of the day. Where is the ‘real’ mother? Of course, then, the story takes on a whole life of its own as it grows from the seed of an idea to the tree of a whole story. That story focuses not only how the initial situation came about but also how you would rearrange, adjust and decimate your life to fit in with this new responsibility, and how the struggles you face along the way would change you as a person.
At the core of any good story, I believe, is this idea of change. How something startling, out of the ordinary or unforeseen will change a person and if they meet the challenge or buckle under the strain. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as major a change as becoming responsible for a child, it could be starting a new job you feel drastically unqualified for, it could be moving into a new place and having to develop new relationships, it could be kissing someone you shouldn’t, it could be having to face up to a secret that you’ve hidden for many years.
Stories like that, which show how the human spirit can bend, change or break, which show how people’s emotions are tested, how their personalities are opened up, or altered or are given the opportunity to blossom are my favourite kind. When I read a novel, I want the words and the story to touch me. Even if it is not a particularly emotional subject the author is dealing with, even if it makes me laugh from beginning to end, if there is something that resonates with me—makes me laugh (which does take a lot), causes me to think about something in a different way, or makes me feel as though I know the characters by the end, then I label it heart-lit. Literature that strokes its fingers over the strings of the heart. Books that fit the label of heart-lit, I find, deal with subjects that other types of books don’t. These novels allow the reader unrestricted access the minds, lives and hearts of another ordinary person they may not otherwise get to know; these novels allow the reader to consider what they would do in that situation without ever having to go through the trauma of it themselves.
My favourite types of heart-lit books are the ones that have characters that are real. These characters aren’t nice every minute of every day, they can be difficult at times, they can—like all of us—annoy others, they can be wrong at moments and refuse to see they are. For an author it is much harder to create a character who is real because readers may not like them all the time. I remember when my British agent read the first few chapters of My Best Friend’s Girl he said he was worried Kamryn came across as being pretty unpleasant at times. (I remember thinking he should try talking to me first thing in the morning— then he’d know what unpleasant really was!) I explained to him that Kamryn, as I was creating her, was a real woman and therefore not going to be all smiles all the time. When he had read more of the book, my agent did change his mind, and agreed she seemed more like a real person because of her character flaws.
From the emails and letters I’ve received from readers of My Best Friend’s Girl across the world —it has been sold and translated in over 20 countries— it is this sense of reality that has touched people. The fact that Kamryn is not perfect, but she tries to be a better person while coping with what has been thrown at her; the fact that Tegan is a damaged child who wants nothing more than to have a family; the fact that these two bereaved people who don’t know much about each other are now having to create a new life together has inspired hundreds of people to contact me. And to tell me how much they loved the book, to share their similar stories, to confess that the novel made them cry!
I love receiving emails like that because it shows that I’ve done what I want to do with my writing—I’ve told a good story. And I’ve touched another person’s heart.
1. What can we infer from the fact that Adele had hundreds of people at her funeral, but only trusted an estranged friend to take care of her child? What does that say about Kamryn?
2. Why do you think Adele kept Tegan’s paternity from Nate? Do you think Adele would have told Nick the truth before she died, if Nick had returned her calls?
3. Would Kamryn ever have faced her past with Adele and Nate if she hadn’t become the guardian of Tegan?
4. Do you think Kamryn had a choice in taking guardianship of Tegan? Do you think Kamryn would have taken the child if Tegan had loving grandparents?
5. All of Kamryn’s relationships seem to grow out of negative feelings. Kamryn didn’t like Luke or Adele at first. She slept with Nate on their first date just to get rid of him. Kamryn’s relationship with Tegan is the only relationship where she does not make any judgments. How does this effect your perception of Kamryn?
6. In Adele’s letters to Kamryn, she explains what happened between her and Nate. Is the explanation satisfactory? Why was it easier for Kamryn to forgive Adele than it was for her to forgive Nate?
7. Kamryn is always questioning which man is “The One” for her. Do either Luke or Nate fit that description? Who would be better for Kamryn? For Tegan?
8. Because of Tegan, Kamryn is not considered for the position of Marketing Director. Do you think Kamryn was ready to handle the position with all the changes in her life? Do you think her boss should be the one to make that decision for her? Would Kamryn have made the right choice for her and Tegan?
9. What will happen to Kamryn and Luke? Will Kamryn, Tegan, Luke, and Nate be able to live peacefully in their makeshift family?
10. What do you think is at the core of this novel? Friendship? Love? Change? Discovery?
11. The author refers to My Best Friend’s Girl as a “heart-lit” book. Do you think this moniker is accurate?