I started studying bookbinding a few years ago, and I was immediately seduced by it: by the processes that haven’t changed in centuries, the materials – the coloured papers, gold, embroidery silk, leather – and the tools, which are made of wood and bone and metal.
It was all wonderfully tactile, with a sort of subtle glamour that made me imagine another, older, world. Being a incorrigible daydreamer – ahem, I mean, writer – I suppose it was inevitable that I’d pretend I was an apprentice, and start to imagine the life around me…
At more or less the same time I was a volunteer with the Samaritans, and had the privilege of hearing people’s stories, which were often traumatic or painful, and ‘holding’ those stories for them, feeling that my act of listening somehow helped them to heal.
But occasionally I’d come across someone who was ‘stuck’ – whose whole life had become defined by a story where they were a victim or a villain – and I began to wonder what would happen if I could simply reach out and take that story away from them, leaving them to begin again. Would I do it, if I could?
What would it be like? And what would the wider implications be? It was out of that juxtaposition, I think, that the central idea of The Binding was born: that people can put part of their lives into a book, and walk away remembering nothing. I’ve always been fascinated by memory loss, and the way it can make the simplest things heart-breakingly poignant (I’m haunted by the time my grandfather turned to my mother, after my grandmother’s death, and said, ‘I wonder why Joy doesn’t write to me…’) and so gradually I came to see that this was one way to tell a story about it, and about our sense of identity, about desire, about consumerism – but most of all, about love. After all, The Binding is about two people who find, love and betray each other – although not necessarily in that order… At its heart, it’s shamelessly romantic.
The Binding is my first adult novel, and in some ways it felt like beginning over again, writing for myself without a thought to what would happen once I finished.
When I started I didn’t even know what sort of book it was going to be, and so I wrote in a fever of discovery. I always fall in love with my characters, at least a little bit, and I remember the butterflies-in-stomach, broken-sleep, no-appetite joy of writing some of the scenes. I particularly loved taking on the different voices: Emmett has a kind of innocence as he discovers the new world of binding, and his journey of discovery reflects the reader’s; Lucian is more complex, more troubled, and darker. I’ll let you guess which was more fun to write! But perhaps most of all I relished the dynamics of knowing and not-knowing that are continually at play.
There’s hardly a single scene in the book where both the protagonists know everything – so it was a constant challenge to juggle what I knew and what they knew, not giving too much away.
Sometimes it was quite tricky to keep it all straight. But I’m hoping that dynamic, where they’re desperately reaching out to each other across an abyss of stolen memories, gives the relationship a kind of depth and intensity – they have so much to struggle against, not only their world but themselves and each other, that I really want the reader to root for them…
After writing the novel, and feeling that really it was a self-indulgent pleasure (like gorging myself secretly on chocolate), it was an amazing, delightful shock when my agent took it on, and even more amazing and delightful when publishers started to bid for it. I was overwhelmed by the responses we had, and everyone’s enthusiasm and generosity about the book.
There’s nothing more wonderful for a writer – and oddly enough, more humbling – than to hear that someone has been swept away by something you’ve written, that your words have got up off the page, danced the night away and slept in someone else’s arms…
If that’s the metaphor I’m after. But it’s an especial privilege to hear that from publishers – and among some of the best, Suzie and her team stood out for their energy, creativity and passion. I was thrilled to go with Borough Press, and I’m really looking forward to working with them on their marketing campaign, which promises to be unusual, eye-catching and vibrant. It’ll be a joy to connect with ‘proper’ readers, and of course booksellers, who are the real front-line experts! I really hope they enjoy The Binding– which, being about books and about lovers, is a book-lover’s book in more ways than one.
Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.
In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded. Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.
The Binding is published in paperback on 26th December 2019.