Stranger Danger

8th May 2015

Jill Glenn meets author Tasha Kavanagh to talk about her chilling debut novel…

General Election? What General Election? Whatever the outcome of the vote, Thursday 7 May 2015 is a date that Bushey-based Tasha Kavanagh, 45, isn’t going to forget in a hurry: the publication of her first novel, 'Things We Have In Common', a creepy, compelling account of adolescent angst and obsession that hooks the reader in from the start.

Tasha is no stranger to publishing; she’s authored several picture books for young children under her maiden name, Tasha Pym, but, as she points out, they were only on average 300 words long. This is a very different beast. “With children’s books it’s all about the idea, about having an original idea,” she says, almost dismissively – but in today’s overcrowded books market that’s true at every level, and 'Things We Have In Common' is no exception.

The idea came from nowhere, just as Tasha was thinking that she ‘might rather like to write a novel.’ Three characters sprang into her head, not quite fully-formed, but sufficiently clearly defined – a girl watching a man watching a girl – that from the very first moment she had both the title and a strong sense of how the book would end (in a place that she describes as happy, although that may not be everyone’s take). Along with that came the opening line – ‘The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field near the bit of fence that’s trampled down, where the kids that come to school along the wooded path cut across’ – and that distinctive, inspired narrative voice. Yasmin, 15 – overweight, friendless and obsessive – is unheard in her own life, so she talks to the reader, addressing her story to the man she sees watching Alice Taylor. She knows he’s obsessed with Alice and she understands; she’s obsessed with Alice herself. She knows he’s planning to ‘take’ Alice. As a reader, you go along with that, just to humour her – and then Alice disappears. From then on, you’re on shifting sand. Can you trust Yasmin’s story?

It became apparent early in the writing that despite its teenage protagonist 'Things We Have In Common' wasn’t going to be a ‘young adult’ novel. It’s very dark: shocking, even. That’s not to say that teenage readers won’t enjoy it – Tasha’s own daughter, Mackenzie, 15, had described it only that morning as ‘addictive’ – but it’s definitely written for adults.

Tasha describes Yasmin as ‘a dear girl’. Then she laughs. “But if I was a teenager I wouldn’t want to be her friend.” You can understand why Yasmin’s mother despairs of her; you can see why her schoolmates don’t like her – but the treatment she receives, on a daily basis, is appalling and heart-breaking. One of the ideas that Things We Have In Common explores is how the way we look makes differences to our choices and our lives. “And how easy it is for someone to slip through the net of society and for that just simply to go unnoticed.”

Tasha’s own teenagerhood was charmed in comparison. She was both musical (with a music scholarship to boarding school) and sporty. The daughter of an Olympic helmsman, for whom sailing was the “beginning, middle and end of his world”, she was in the British team for dinghy-sailing and then windsurfing, competing all over the world until she was 18. Of course, it brought its own difficulties. “I was always away from home, either at school, or sailing.” Some of that dislocation, that disconnection, has found its way into Yasmin’s very different experiences, I think, and Tasha herself likens “the strange loneliness of being at sea” to the experience of writing: “willing the boat on, the sense of cutting through the water… it’s the same as edging the words out of you on to the page.”

The book took about a year to write. “I was gentle on myself… I pretended I wasn’t really doing it. Writing that many words was totally beyond what I believed I could do.” Many novelists have their odd habits, their essential routines that ease them in to the writing process: tea made the same way in the same mug; sharpening seven pencils in order; sitting at the desk at exactly the same time each morning… that sort of thing. Tasha’s revolved around eBay. “I used to ‘watch’ things, things that I had no intention of bidding for or buying.” As a distraction it sounds ideal, but as a tool to get started? “Oh yes, because I’d lull myself into the idea that while I was at the computer I might just open the novel up and maybe add a word or two, or a sentence, or…” And then, in what she describes as ‘a trance-like stupor’, the words would just come. “When you start writing, time really disappears... I’d look up and five hours would be gone.”

Tasha’s previous experience stood her in good stead here. As a young woman she followed a degree in creative arts from Trent Poly with the University of East Anglia’s prestigious creative writing MA, one of twelve students under the tuition of Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. From there she moved into film-editing for ten years, working on movies such as 'Twelve Monkeys', 'Seven Years in Tibet' and 'The Talented Mr Ripley'. She particularly enjoyed – and had a flair for – editing the lip-synching: “that feeling of total immersion in what you’re doing, feeling the words into the mouth.” It’s a good description of the writing experience, too. “I work in the same way as the character,” she says. “Slow progress towards the goal.” She edited constantly, so that by the time she’d written that curiously ‘happy’ ending, the book needed barely any reworking. “The more edits you make as you go along, the deeper you go into the character, and the more the whole thing improves; the more possibilities open up.”

That thoughtful, careful, joyous approach paid off. In one of those ‘can that really happen?’ scenarios, she sent the finished manuscript off to an eminent London agency, who offered her representation straight away. Within a week she had a two-book deal from Canongate. “It all happened so fast, I’ve been quite overwhelmed.”

She is thrilled with her publishers. “They’re cool, iconic, quirky and they’ve a great reputation for handling books well.” Already they have done her proud. With plaudits from both Sophie Hannah and Kevin Brooks on the cover, Things We Have In Common is clearly earmarked for high places. It’s a book that will invite comparisons: one national newspaper has already tipped it as the potential Gone Girl of 2015; the publishers suggest it’s reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s 'Room', of Alice Sebold’s 'The Lovely Bones', of Zoe Heller’s 'Notes On A Scandal' – but while I’m sure that Tasha will be flattered to be in such eminent company, comparisons are only good as far as they go. An elusive, subtle, intelligent read, 'Things We Have In Common' is uniquely, and engagingly, itself.

published by Canongate; out now in hardback; £12.99

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