Thursday, 11 October 2012

Author Visit: Sophie Coulombeau

Put the kettle on, folks, and pull up a chair! The excellent Sophie Coulombeau is here to talk about her novel, 'Rites,' which was published this summer. It's pretty damn good, and everyone who replies to this post before midnight Monday 15th October will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of the book


Hi Sophie! Thanks so much for stopping by to have a chat with us. So. Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m a 28 year old bibliophile, now living in York after moving around the world restlessly for most of my twenties. I’m studying for a PhD at the moment, researching the relationship between naming and identity in the late eighteenth century. But my literary interests have always been very wide, and I’m also interested in the modern novel and the relationship between creativity and analysis. ‘Rites’ is my own first novel, and it came out in June. Oh, and I love cheese, wine and amateur boxing.

How would you describe ‘Rites’ to someone who hadn’t heard about it?

The jacket blurb does a pretty good job. “Four teenagers make a pact to lose their virginity away from the watchful eyes of parents and priest. Fifteen years later they reflect on past events and try to unravel how it all went so horribly wrong.” However, that’s about the most you can say about ‘Rites’ without being misleading, because the story is narrated by eleven different narrators who all think that something different happened back in the summer of 1997. It’s up to the reader to play detective and try to piece together who – if anyone – is telling the truth. (Jen: I do love an unreliable narrator or, as in this case, several!)

How did you approach writing this novel? Which concepts/characters did you develop first?

I had lots of ideas buzzing around in my head for years, about religion, belief, sexuality, the nature of narrative etc, but I hadn’t found a really good hook for them. Then someone told me a story about somebody who lost their keys and had to face certain consequences as a result. That triggered a very insistent narrative voice – Damien, who opens the novel. I wrote in his voice for a while, then hit a mental roadblock and couldn’t take it any further. One day I was re-reading a Julian Barnes novel, ‘Talking It Over’, which uses multiple perspectives, and it suddenly occurred to me that what I wanted to tell was not just Damien’s story; there were other people who needed to have a say. After that, the voices started crowding in thick and fast.

The novel switches between different characters; did you find it difficult to master each individual voice? How did you go about writing it; did you write long periods of each character and later split those sections up, or did you write it as we read it?

Some voices were trickier than others. Damien, Rachel and Father Creevey came very naturally and I had to be careful that they didn’t drown the others out. I found Lizzie the hardest to write –she nearly drove me mad, because her defining characteristic is her inarticulacy, and how do you write a compelling, engaging character who’s inarticulate? In the first draft, I wrote the chunks of narrative pretty much as you read them now (a few have been moved around). In order to write a second draft, I took the pieces apart and re-streamed the narrative for each character – so I was looking at Nick’s narrative, for example, as a whole, asking myself some brutal questions about how coherent and interesting it was, and re-writing accordingly. Then I chopped the narratives back up and put them together in the way that you can see when you read the book today. 

Do you have a favourite character in the book?
Not really – some are easier to write than others but that doesn’t mean I ‘like’ any of them. I’ve tried to make them like real people, and to give the reader a fast-track acquaintaceship with them that will bore as deep as any close relationship in real life, in a fraction of the time. And I tend to find that once you know someone very very well in real life, you don’t ‘like’ them, because you know too much about them. That doesn’t mean you can’t care about them passionately or feel very attached to them, but they are too rounded, too real, to ‘like’. That’s what I was going for.

What’s this book’s publication story?

I started ‘Rites’ when I was 27 and had just started my PhD in York. I had written about 8000 words of narrative, built around the idea of a lost set of keys and the ensuing consequences. I heard about a competition being run by Route Publishing called the Next Great Novelist award, which aimed to find and publish the most promising author under 30, and I thought I may as well throw my chunk of writing into the ring. Then I promptly turned back to my PhD and forgot about it until a couple of months later, when I got a phone call telling me I was on the shortlist and asking to see the rest of the manuscript... which, of course, wasn't yet written. So I put my life on hold for two weeks, churned out 4000 words a day (luckily I had a reasonably good idea what was going to happen), and submitted the full manuscript a broken woman. A month or two later, I got a phone call telling me I had won... and then the very comprehensive editing process began.

What’s the most exciting part of the process been for you so far?

Having Philip Pullman send me an email to tell me that he thought it was “terrific” and he stayed up late to finish it can’t really be topped. For a few hours I was thinking, “I’ve peaked. Where can I possibly go from here?” (Jen: If that had happened to me, I'm pretty sure I would have accidentally exploded)

Who are your favourite authors?

I admire a vast range of authors. Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, Angela Carter, Philip Pullman, Frances Burney, Wilkie Collins, Philip Larkin, Lionel Shriver, David Mitchell…. I could go on. All these influences feed in to my writing in different ways.

What are you reading at the moment?

Um… the honest answer is Nathan Bailey’s 1734 ‘Dictionarium Britannicum’, because I’m writing about it in my current thesis chapter…. But I’m not sure if that’s what you mean! I have three books on my desk tempting me with their siren cries, which I’ve promised myself I can read when I’ve finished the chapter – Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’, Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, and Zadie Smith’s ‘NW’. I’m incredibly excited about all of them.

Do you have a writing routine?

I jot down notes and ideas all the time in a book I carry, but in terms of the manuscript itself I tend to write in concentrated bursts of 10 hours per day for a week or two at a time. I admire people who can sit down and spin out two pages every day and then get on with their regular job, but that’s not me – I need to have my head entirely in the fiction zone. I write in bed, at my desk, or in the pub. Times of day vary. It needs to be reasonably quiet, and I need ready access to strong coffee and cake. (Jen: I maintain that cake is a necessity when writing. Always)

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on a second novel. It's set in London on the eve and outbreak of the French Revolution, and is about two warring political/intellectual factions who are thrown together with explosive consequences when a pair of French emigre brothers arrive in London. I'm also writing a play, which explores some of the crucial issues in higher education at the moment and is very - almost problematically - topical. So I've got half of my head in the eighteenth century and half following this morning's headlines at the moment.

What do you hope for, for the future?

I’d love to be able to work in the worlds of both creative writing and criticism – I think the two can be mutually beneficial if you get the balance right. There’s never been a more important or exciting time to be working in higher education, so I hope to get a job teaching and researching in an English department when I’ve finished my PhD. However, I can’t imagine not writing fiction, so hopefully I can find the time to do that as well.

Thanks, Sophie! And good luck x


Sophie's Blog / Sophie on Twitter / Buy Rites


*When replying, make sure you leave a Twitter name, email address or blog link where I can contact you if you win the copy of 'Rites.'


  1. Sounds like a really great read! x

  2. Great interview and intriguing book. I love the idea of multiple unreliable narrators, and who could argue with a stamp of approval from Philip Pullman?

  3. Great interview. Book sounds really interesting

  4. I look forward to reading this book! And I can't believe you got that much down in two weeks - amazing!

  5. I do love an unreliable narrator! Great interview Jen :) @bibliomouse

  6. I'm intrigued. Based on this interview my brain is buzzing about ways I could teach this text in schools (regarding narrative styles/voices). Thank you for this.

    Sophie, I'm amazed and impressed that you managed to write the book alongside your PhD!


  7. Would love to win this book. The new book she's working on sounds like it's going to be a good read too!

  8. I would love to read this book!

  9. I've just finished third draft of a manuscript with multiple voices so I was very interested to discover how Sophie worked. Her comments about her relationship with characters resonated with me but I was left open mouthed (not a good look) and deeply impressed by her 10 hour writing bursts. Excellent interview with a fascinating author I hadn't heard of before so thanks for the introduction (and my fingers are crossed until midnight Monday)

  10. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Really nice to hear the reactions to Jen's excellent questions. And good luck in the draw! (for which I'm not entering myself by posting this comment, by the way... I have a copy already...)


  11. great interview, can't wait to find it at a bookstore or order it ASAP, thanks for sharing.

  12. hope I win.... sounds a good read....stellakateT

  13. It'd be so nice to read this book!

  14. Thanks again to Sophie for the answers, and thanks to everyone for responding.

    The name pulled out of the hat was Lotte - I've sent you a tweet, Lotte!

    Do check out Rites, if you didn't win this :) x

  15. I'm faaaar too late for the draw, but this sounds like a really good read; I've added it to my 'books to add to my tbr' list accordingly.
    Also: '(Jen: If that had happened to me, I'm pretty sure I would have accidentally exploded)' HA! I'm pretty sure you would too ;)

  16. Still very excited about winning. Was surrounded by friends when I got your tweet- obviously I became quite giddy, now they're excited by the book too. As soon as it arrives, and I've read it of course, there's a list of other people waiting to read it. The word is spreading :-)
    Thank you Jen, Sophie & luck of the draw. I'll post a review somewhere when I've read 'Rites' x

    1. Hi Lotte - I keep forgetting to take the book to work with me, sorry! I'll make sure I post it on Monday :) x

  17. Hehe, no worries. No rush. Giving me time to get through my other reading :) x