Anne Miller is all about the books. In her new column she’ll be talking to people who write them, people who sell them and people who read them. First up, she spoke to Antonia Honeywell about her debut novel The Ship.
Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel The Ship opens in a dystopian London where the Thames has flooded, food is in short supply, the government only recognise you as a person if you’re carrying an identity card and the dispossessed are sheltering in the British Museum.
The story revolves around 16-year-old Lalla Paul who was “born at the end of the world.” The only glimmer of hope comes from her father’s plan to choose 500 people to set sail on a ship, leaving their old lives behind.
I met Honeywell on the hottest day of the year. We camped out in the cool depths of the British Museum to discuss the importance of museums, humanity’s chances in a crisis and balancing writing about dystopian futures with living in the present.
Honeywell has always loved museums. She began her career in the education department at the Natural History Museum, where she looked after animatronic dinosaurs and would come across stray giraffe heads when running through the building’s subterranean tunnels.
Inspiration for The Ship came from a visit to the British Museum five years ago when a jade axe caught her interest. Honeywell found herself wondering why someone might have made such a thing: “It’s fragile, it’s valuable, it could never be used as an axe.”
It turned out to have been made to lie in a warrior’s tomb to show status and was never used again. Honeywell notes that museums are full of things that have been used for the last time, even if people didn’t know it then. They show “great civilisations that have passed. But they were once the only way the world looked.”
In The Ship’s London, Lalla’s mother brings her to the British Museum as a form of schooling: “In a society that is collapsing, there wouldn’t be schools. How would you educate your children?” Honeywell, who went on to teach English for 10 years, stresses the benefits of educating by stealth.
“When a child is actively engaged in learning they cannot be bored,” she says. “If it’s presented as a birthday party they get really into it and learn an awful lot.”
I ask about other favourite museums and she names the Horniman, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery as spots to explore. She’s also a fan of the Grant Museum – a small university zoological museum in Bloomsbury – where she launched The Ship and where her speech turned into a flashmob performance from her (gold medal winning) a cappella group.
The Ship is Honeywell’s first novel to be published although not the first she has written. The earliest, completed when she was eight years old, was about a Snakes and Ladders counter making its way cautiously around the board. The Ship explores an even more uncertain world as Lalla struggles to adjust to life on board and has to think about what she really wants from her future.
“The people who write novels are real people; they’re not some kind of other otherworldly beings sitting on clouds. They are real people, living real life just like you.”
One of the most remarkable things about the novel is how easily all the events in the book could happen. There are no extra-terrestrial visits, extreme weather events or virus mutations – the dominoes of everyday life just begin to fall. What are our chances of surviving a similar collapse? Honeywell thinks that survival is in our own hands and will depend on how we view and treat each other: “In society’s worst times in history there have always been pockets of people that have looked after each other.”
While researching the novel she collected news stories about widening inequalities. Technology brings obvious benefits, but access to iPhones and tablets relies upon a certain level of financial security. It has also changed the way we react to each other.
“If I got stranded on my way home, people will expect me to have a mobile phone, they’ll expect me to be able to access help on my own. Whereas pre-mobile era I would have had to ask someone for help.”
Skilfully and subtly drawing attention to the fragility of the way we live, The Ship is a book that leaves a lasting impression. I wonder how it’s possible to write about such a potentially bleak future and then switch back into day-to-day life.
Honeywell found the perfect “antidote” in her four young children, as “their needs are immediate. And their needs don’t give way to the fact that in a world that doesn’t yet exist this terrible thing is happening to people I’ve created in my head.”
Honeywell recently set up The Prime Writers – a group of authors who all published their debuts when over the age of 40. Members include Claire Fuller, the recent winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize for Our Endless Numbered Days, Laline Paull, the Baileys Prize shortlisted author of The Bees, and Kate Hamer, who wrote the Faber hit The Girl In the Red Coat.
Honeywell is passionate that people see writing as an option and not just as something that other people do. She mentors new writers through the WoMentoring scheme and strongly believes in the importance of having someone to say, “‘Well, who else is going to write novels if you don’t?’ The people who write novels are real people; they’re not some kind of other otherworldly beings sitting on clouds. They are real people, living real life just like you.”
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.2920 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne