Angela Archer, last seen on 18 December, is 24 years old, five foot nine inches tall and of proportionate build, with green eyes. She has dyed blonde hair with brown roots. She has lived in West London her entire life…
She failed to return to her flat…
Her disappearance was completely out of character.
What would you do if a loved one disappeared? How would you get on? Minute to minute, day to day? Julia Kite’s debut novel plunges you into the depths of winter in West London, where Neely Sharpe’s life is turned upside down when her girlfriend Angela vanishes.
Neely Sharpe finds herself at a point in her life when she is both disillusioned with her career (and thus her life’s potential) and the sudden disappearance of her girlfriend. Before Angela’s disappearance, Neely was grappling with the fact that she had come to London to become somebody-and she didn’t feel like she had accomplished this. But now, somebody was missing and this was a game changer.
As unhappy as she was about where her life was, the mundane regularities of life and the presence of a loved one both helped to contribute to an overall sense of meaning and purpose to her life. Now that her life had been tragically punctuated with this kind of ambiguous loss, she is left in emotional limbo. Her search for Angela means that in the interim there is no resolution or closure to enable her to move on. Furthermore, Angela’s emotions are further intensified by her instinct to want to hold on to hope. It is this tension between hope and hopelessness that makes Kite’s writing so engaging. The Hope & Anchor is what you get when you combine beautiful and mesmerizing prose with an affecting portrait of a someone who wakes up everyday fluctuating between these two emotions, trying desperately to hold onto the memory of someone whose return becomes increasingly unlikely.
Maribel Garcia: Julia, thank you so much for joining Book Club Babble
today. The Hope & Anchor reads like a very intimate experience of
real love and loss, was any of it based on lived experiences? What
inspired The Hope & Anchor?
Julia Kite: Thank you Maribel! Book Club Babble is an absolute joy. The Hope and Anchor came about as multiple ideas that all seemed to plait themselves together at a time in my life when I was no longer sure of what I was doing in just about every sense, but I knew that I could still write. Fortunately, I have never had to cope with most of what goes on in the book, and it is entirely fictional. I’ve let my own experiences inform bits of characterizations or actions in certain ways – notably, the shock of failure when your plans for life don’t work out – but in general, this is a story that took on a breath of its own almost independent of mine. I didn’t want to limit myself to writing about only things I had personally experienced, because I’ve never believed in that. I think if you can drill deep down into your characters’ psyches, really figure out what makes them tick on an atomic level, then they can do anything you want them to do, and at that point, you’re just their supervisors. You’ve wound them up, and now you watch them go. That’s the joy of fiction, to me: People you’ll never know, things you’ll never do.
The first scene I wrote was an early chapter in which Angela, one of the central characters of the book, is described at a younger age, riding her bike along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She’s looking at the surroundings that have been hidden in plain sight her entire life, and it’s occurring to her in tiny ways that the city is so much bigger than she knows, and she can have a small bit of another world if she lays her feet on it. From there the entire book eventually sprung. And I remember exactly where I was when I wrote it – sitting at a table, the window and Northern California sunshine to my left, in a seminar for a Ph.D. I never finished. I didn’t want to be there, in that boxy building, pursuing social theories I no longer cared about even though just a year earlier I thought there was nothing in the world I wanted more. Instead, I wanted to be back on that canal. I wanted the cheap bike I’d bought around the back of the Elephant & Castle shopping center; I wanted the grass and the gravel of the towpath under my shoes. I wanted back the life I’d left behind to move to California and do that degree, and I feared I would forget the joy I’d had as a young person in London. So I wrote to keep it alive in that tiny way. As good stories do, it got away from that original seed and turned into something much more complicated as my life continued through quitting the Ph.D., piecing my career back together, moving back to my hometown (New York), and getting a grip on life.
MG: Neely’s pain and want for companionship is relatable to all people. The need for companionship is very human, necessary in our efforts to find some emotional balance. Was companionship a theme something that you set out to write about or did that just
Julia Kite: I think it evolved naturally as I thought about what Neely and Angela each wanted out of life, and from each other. Love in and of itself is irrational, but when you put together two characters from drastically different backgrounds, different worldviews and life experiences, you need to know what’s gluing them together and what they have to lose were they to be split apart. The need for companionship, for someone to make us feel as if the world and our place in it make sense, transcends the multitude of ways Angela and Neely differ. Each, to the other, represents nothing about their past, and only their aspirations for the future. Neely thinks back to being the clever girl at school, bored, coloring in a tear in her school uniform with a pen, being of no interest to anybody other than for what they might be able to copy off her exams. That’s long ago, but she’s stung by her more recent failure in an academic career and her loss of status, and Angela doesn’t have to know about any of that. Angela doesn’t remind her of what might have been, had all her plans for life worked out. Neely always feels intelligent and valued for what she has to say when Angela’s around. It’s something that makes her pause with a bit of guilt when she thinks about it, but it’s true, and she needs that validation. Angela, meanwhile, has Neely to hold onto for stability, for the promise of a life where everything seems to come so easily. Neely doesn’t know about the torments of Angela’s childhood, about being treated condescendingly because of her epilepsy, about all the times she needed her older sister to fight her battles. And, crucially, Neely doesn’t have to know about what happened to Angela when she was a teenager at the hands of a boy she thought she could trust. It was something that made Angela vow to stay in this little corner of West London long after so many of her friends and family left.
The title of the book was an entirely serendipitous fluke. There are dozens of pubs in Britain called the Hope and Anchor, including one in North London that’s somewhat famous as a live music venue, but when I decided to give that name to Angela and Neely’s local, it made perfect sense – these two women hold each other steady while they let each other dream. I knew that was my pub, and I knew that was my title right then.
MG: So much of the story is about excavating Angela’s secrets and poking around in a world that is not her own (Neely Sharpe is anoutsider, and she happens to live in Angela’s hometown). Every move that Neely makes in her effort to find out about what happens only
leads to more questions than answers. As a writer, what were you trying to accomplish here? Is there a broader message?
Julia Kite: I wanted to show how very little in life is straightforward, cut-and-dried, black-and-white. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and the chaos of cities mirrors the complete sloppiness of being human in that there’s some order there, but it’s carefully concealed and not the kind of thing you can learn from books. People are like icebergs in that most of what’s going on with them, most of what makes them who they are isn’t put on display. Some things, like traumas, are deliberately concealed. Other potentials never get a chance to flourish because people shove parts of them away, deep down, out of fear. What I wanted to show through Neely is that things we believe are so certain – the paths our lives should take, what we want out of relationships, what we think is good for the world and everybody in it – come with no guarantees, and the things we think we want can turn into these massively unexpected situations for which were entirely unprepared.
MG: The Hope and Anchor is so much about London as a city. Your love for this city comes across and you make your readers feel like they are walking and living in parts of London they may never have visited or even seen before. How did you come to know London so well,
can you talk about that?
Julia Kite: I lived there for some of the happiest years of my life, years where I figured out who I was and what I wanted. When I left and moved to California, I very quickly realized I had made a horrible mistake that could not be undone. I often write to take myself places I would rather be, and in this book I wanted to capture London as I remembered it at a specific moment in time. I’m fond of saying the only constant in cities in change, and that you can’t expect one to wait for you. It’s going to evolve and move along whether you’re there to witness it or not, so when I write about London, I’m keeping a particular memory of a very specific part of it preserved. In making my writing public, I’m trying to take other people there with me and see a place the same way I do. I love that little bit of West London so intensely, so profoundly, and I want readers to understand it. Love, of course, does not mean being uncritical; I had my share of sadness there just as I did in other places because that’s life. But I loved it madly and still do. I love who I was when I lived there, sitting out in my paved-over garden on the Warwick Estate with all my flaws, and a bike locked to the fence.
It helps that I walk everywhere, or I ride a bike. You get to know places differently when you’re close to the ground, touching the bricks, waiting for the buses, eavesdropping on the conversations. I’ve lived in so many different cities and each one of them I spend a lot of time with my mouth shut, wandering around with no agenda. Even places I know like the back of my hand get this treatment. Every time I’m back in London, I walk along the Grand Union Canal where so much of the action of The Hope and Anchor takes place, and every time I see something I didn’t before.
MG: And since we are talking about London, let’s talk about HarrowRoad. In another interview, you wrote, “Nobody is going to say the Harrow Road is paradise, but I love it in all its flaws, and I wanted to make it almost like a character in and of itself in The Hope and
Anchor. In this, you did succeed. What was it about Harrow Road that inspired you the most?
Julia Kite: At the time when I lived down the road from where the book is set, I was young and naively ambitious, and for a while, I had time on my hands, so I could wander. What struck me about Harrow Road was how extremely ordinary it all was. Nothing about it would attract a tourist or anybody who didn’t have any business in the neighborhood. If you don’t live there, then it’s just a conduit to somewhere else. For one segment of it, the part next to where I lived in Westbourne Green, an elevated highway called the Westway rises above you, and it’s a direct route into the center of London. If you walk eastbound on the canal, you’re very quickly at Paddington Station and a brand-new glossy office district that was only just being built when I lived there. But then, just a stone’s throw from all the action, is a place most people would consider dull, a buffer zone between the wealthy districts of Notting Hill and Little Venice and the filthy realities of how a city functions, specifically the railway and the motorway. I’m a transportation person. That’s my day job. Before that, I was an urban planning person. I’m always looking for how people move throughout cities and how they make sense of the spaces they move through. And, as I was working as a social researcher at the time, going into the homes of complete strangers and asking them sometimes rather intrusive questions about their housing situations for government studies, I got to wondering more about the lives of people behind the plain doors and solid curtains.
And for me, the Harrow Road itself was inseparable from the Grand Union Canal, which sometimes meanders alongside it, sometimes swinging wildly away. When you’re down on the canal towpath, it’s sometimes difficult to believe you’re in central London. You have families of swans paddling by, you have people living on these lovingly painted narrowboats, then a clump of plastic bags floats by, and you remember, oh yeah, I’m in this massive dirty city. It, too, is a buffer zone where every now and again you pop back into mundane reality – there’s the supermarket, there’s a factory, there’s the Westway – but you can also completely lose track of where you are and what you were thinking. It’s a good place to always be in motion, and whenever I needed to clear my head, that’s where I went.
MG: I loved reading about Angela’s older sister, Andy. Unlike Angela, who stayed in her hometown, Andy leaves her difficult upbringing behind when she marries a middle-class man, moves to the suburbs, and has her children. Andy’s life is the exact opposite of her sisters, but it also speaks to the fact that you cannot always leave your past behind. Do you ever think about writing a story where Andy is the central character?
Julia Kite: I have started already! One regret I had was that, in the essential process of editing and mercilessly paring down my manuscript, I had to cut a lot of passages from Andy’s point of view, or sections where I got deeper into her head and her conflicts. But when I edit, I rarely delete what I trim. I file it away in a big sandbox of a Word document in case I want it back someday. Andy has been living in that file. I grew to love her as I was writing The Hope and Anchor because she’s such a bundle of conflict, and inside her, it burns and condenses until she’s spitting out rubies when she talks. She has internalized her issues to the point where, when Angela disappears, Andy is full to bursting, and they’re all spilling out onto her attempts at a quiet and respectable middle-class life. And because she doesn’t know how to control her explosions, because love and violence are never terribly far apart for her, people are going to get caught up in them and burnt. She’s all too human; she’s not Superwoman, she can’t hold the world together for her family anymore. As much as she’s the product of her circumstances, she’s very much determined not to be a victim of them – the consequences she’s okay with facing are the ones of her own making. Andy probably wouldn’t like me very much if she knew me, but I love her to bits.
MG: Many of us are also coming of age as writers in a rather brave new world of book publishing. There are many new pioneering models in publishing, and your press Unbound is one of them. Can you tell us a little bit more about them and your journey as an author?
Julia Kite: Unbound set up shop about seven years ago, founded by three industry veterans who weren’t happy with where publishing was going. Because publishing is, first and foremost, a business, the major houses increasingly chase books that they know will sell loads. Those would be proven bestsellers, celebrity memoirs, and whatever theme is hot this year (remember vampires?). Understandably, they are unwilling to take financial risks on, say, new literary fiction from entirely unknown authors when a large proportion of such books never earn out their advances. It wouldn’t make much sense when profit margins are slim, and everything, from placement on the table in the bookshop to consideration for major awards, costs a hell of a lot of money. These books might not sell half a million copies, but they are still good writing that can get a decent audience. That’s where Unbound comes in. To mitigate the financial risk, they employ a crowdfunding model for the initial print run. The author essentially gets pledges in the form of pre-orders, and once they hit the target, production starts like at any other house. They don’t accept everything – that was crucial when I was deciding whether I wanted to submit my manuscript to them, because I wanted to avoid anything that had the whiff of vanity press about it – and they have an excellent track record with books that are a touch outside the mainstream, like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake.
The day I decided to sign with Unbound, I also had an offer from a traditional literary agent here in New York. I’m happy with the decisions I made. Even when you get an agent, there’s a chance you’ll never get a book deal. Just as all aspiring authors have to look for agents, writing obsequious cover letters likely to be read only by an intern if not auto-deleted altogether, agents have to pitch your book to publishers, and there’s the very real risk of all of them saying no, because they just don’t see you being profitable. I wanted off that roller-coaster, I wanted to do things more on my own terms. Unbound let me do that. Also, I’ve come to realize so much in publishing is pure luck and being in the right place at the right time. Little did I know at the time that the editor at Unbound who acquired my book is from just up the road from where it takes place. He became an excellent champion of it because he saw that I nailed the setting.
I do think a lot about publishing and how it picks winners and losers, specifically whether there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and circular logic at play: The books that are bestsellers and award winners became that way because their publishers invested in them, hyped them up, gave them huge publicity budgets and whatnot. I mean, it costs a publisher £5000 to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The logic is that the publisher will more than recoup that investment in increased sales of the book, but again, that’s a risk the publisher has to be willing to take. That amount of money isn’t much for one of the Big Five, but it’s immense for a small press. All these pressures lead to risk-aversion. The landscape of publishing can be very depressing if you look too hard at it, but I keep reminding myself that I have success on my terms: My book was commercially published, and complete strangers are reading it. Also, the cover was beyond my wildest dreams! I can’t draw, so when Mark Ecob e-mailed me that design, it took all I had to not scream, “YES! GOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAL!!!” in the middle of the Chinese restaurant where I was waiting for my take-out lunch.
MG: What was your favorite scene in the book? Why?
Julia Kite: It’s probably when Neely thinks she’s done something right in calling the police on a local man she believes is ultimately behind Angela’s disappearance, and it turns out she’s got it completely wrong. She doesn’t figure that out until she goes to the local pub – the Hope and Anchor – and finds out she’s ruined everything for a completely innocent person who is already one of life’s losers. Neely quite literally has some sense smacked into her by the man’s girlfriend, and she is forced to recognize that for all her brains, there are things she can’t know, things it would never occur to her to think about. The traits she likes so much in herself – her sensibilities, her almost mathematical reasoning about life, her protectiveness of Angela – have become her flaws. They’re no use to her here, in this world she thought she wanted. Pubs are hugely male-dominated spaces, but in this scene, all the action is around the women. They’re controlling everything; they are the movers, they determine right and wrong. I massively enjoyed the choreography of it all. I realize that just about every woman in my book is a mess in one way or another, but I think that makes them more real. They are strong in their ways, they’ve navigated the only world they’ve been given, and they’re authentic in their imperfections.
MG: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Julia Kite: I’m working on short fiction, which is an entirely different animal from the long-form writing I typically do. As I mentioned, I’m revisiting Andy, trying to imagine her life now. In my head, the events of The Hope and Anchor took place maybe eight or nine years ago. If we think about Andy today – well, she’s past 40, her kids are teenage or close to it, maybe she hasn’t got her dad anymore, maybe she’s called Andrea now because nobody’s going to mix up her name with her little sister’s, because now she moves only in circles where nobody knew Angela, and nobody remembers what happened eight years ago. And maybe she’s perfectly happy until something happens, again, to dwarf her own tragedy and drag her back to the old neighborhood. And it did happen, last year, the night before my book was turned over to the editors. It was the Grenfell Tower fire. I will never forget the utterly bizarre and chilling experience of watching dozens of people living out the last minutes of their existences on live television. It’s crass, and it’s ghoulish, and it feels cruelly intrusive, and it’s what we’re accustomed to now with the news: People on the high floors flicking the lights in their flats to signal S-O-S, and everybody is watching, and we know how it will end. And this was life in one of the world’s wealthiest cities in 2017, and this is how people die – in front of audiences. There’s a chapter in The Hope and Anchor where we see a younger Andy, before her husband and kids, and she’s living in a tower block in North Kensington, ignoring her neighbors, making her world very small. That fictional tower I made for her years ago when I wrote that chapter was based on Grenfell and its neighbors on the Silchester and Lancaster West Estates. After the fire I considered altering that chapter – it didn’t feel right to be fictionalizing a place that suddenly had such a horrific reality – but in the end, I let it stay. When I was back in West London in February, I walked by, and that charred, hulking shell is still standing over the neighborhood. Thousands of people living around there look at it every day. The mental strain of not being allowed to escape those memories is immense; it’s like how Manhattan felt after 9/11: You have to go about your daily life amidst traces of people who cannot. I saw a sign taped to a fence that said, “Please do not take photographs, we are a community in mourning.” I found that really profound: Do not capture for yourselves a trite and still image of what we have to live; this symbol of our grief is not yours, no matter how familiar it may seem to you. It became public property when the world saw those unanswered S-O-S lights, but most of us could turn off the TV, or click away from the website. Grief is a public object, pulled away from the people for whom it is truly personal, made into a stock image or a trope. And it’s in that direction where I want to take Andy’s story next. She remembers flicking the lights in her dark days; she remembers when she could leave for something better. And when grief is writ large, across the night-time of West London, her pain for Angela – so small, so distant in comparison – is something she has to claim and own, all over again. She looks back at her life through a screen, through a lens, and has to decide how it’s going to go on.
I don’t want to end on a down note! I tend to overthink things, but when I look back at this book, there’s nothing I want to change about it (other than to correct a couple of sneaky typos that got past the proofreaders). I think a lot of us writers could nit-pick and revise forever and still never feel like we are indeed finished, but after I’d done my millionth read-through, I realized that this book had matured so much since those first scribbles of a scene in California, and it was time to let it go and live on its own as this real object, a book. There’s one scene, also early in the book, where Neely’s back in school and she accidentally slices open her trousers with scissors while wrestling open some plastic packaging. I’d done that myself, out in California in those years where everything blurred together into one blob of uncertainty, but I mended those jeans and hung onto them and wore them through other jobs, other cities. When my book came out in February, I still had them, fading from all these years. In London, I sliced them into tiny strips and left them among the trees and the underbrush along the canal. They’ll be bits of birds’ nests now, I hope. They’ll be around; only I won’t recognize them. I have new clothes for walking those old paths.
About the Author
Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she is a policy advisor in the New York City Department of Transportation. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.