Jackie McGlone

IS Amanda Craig in possession of a crystal ball? If not, how are we to explain the fact that she began writing her ambitious new book, The Lie of the Land, more than seven years ago? Yet here it is, one of the first of a clutch of post-Brexit novels, being published with impeccable timing on the anniversary of the referendum.

The London-based critic, broadcaster and author of six well-received novels – her third, A Vicious Circle, became a literary cause celebre – admits that she has been working on The Lie of the Land for several years. Why? “Because it is such a battle to write every book – I work so hard at it, to make everything, especially the storytelling, seem effortless,” she explains over coffee in a local near her Camden Town home. We could have met there, she says apologetically, but she has builders in – as does this public house so our interview is played out against a deafening soundtrack of drilling, hammering and banging.

I’m battling to hear her speak about the disparities in our society and the immense gulf between town and country, the haves and the have-nots. Which is a pity as Craig, 57, a warm, witty, immensely friendly woman, has many interesting things to say on many subjects ranging from life in post-Brexit Britain to the joys of fairytales, the punitive libel laws in this country and the nest of vipers that is literary London. She is, of course, something of an expert on the latter – 20 years ago she wrote a satirical novel brilliantly skewering the literati and the chattering classes, which only narrowly escaped the ignominy of being suppressed as libellous.

To say A Vicious Circle’s publication was troubled is an understatement. Written in the style of a grand Victorian novel, it featured a cruel, ruthlessly stylish journalist, one Paul Pinsent. The writer David Sexton, then a reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph and now with the London Evening Standard, and whom Craig had dated 15 years earlier when they were students at Cambridge University, accused her of libel and threatened to sue. Much to her dismay, the satirical novel was spiked by her publishers – “I was very badly let down by Penguin and by the editor,” she recalls, adding that the subsequent trauma almost destroyed her and her family, physically, emotionally and financially. “It was truly awful.”

Thankfully, the book – it’s a deliciously tart, thought-provoking read – found new publishers, Fourth Estate, but she had to delete the character of Pinsent and still hopes that one day the original manuscript may be published. The novel’s afterlife has, however, been gratifying; it is still being read and is much loved. “It’s amazing how it has carried on given the enormous struggle I had to get it out. For instance, I was at a party in Devon at the weekend and this woman came bounding up to me saying, ‘It’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read and I am so pleased to meet you.’”

In Devon, they will soon have another topic of conversation, however, for in Craig’s new state-of-the-nation novel, The Lie of the Land, she has chosen to write about rural poverty and the many impoverished who live in an area of the county “poorer than Romania.” Because, she remarks, despite the current vogue for nature-writing, there has never been less writing about people who live and toil in the countryside.

“I really wanted to write about these invisible people. [Devon] is very varied economically, and being married to an economist made me interested in that aspect, too. As in other remote farming areas of the world, its inhabitants are too often either forgotten or despised, especially by politicians.”

Always fascinated by the way we live now, Craig’s last novel, the superb thriller Hearts and Minds, tackles the sensitive subject of the lives of shadowy, unwanted immigrants in London. Then almost 10 years ago she became interested in “this whole town versus country thing and how intensely political it has become, and the country people, the left-behinds who eventually voted for Brexit. You know, those people are never talked to so I could see this vote coming. They are so neglected and angry. It’s shocking!”

She filters her story through the eyes of a middle-class metropolitan couple – Quentin is a roguish, serial adulterer and journalist and his much put-upon wife Lottie an architect – forced to downsize to Devon because they cannot afford to divorce. The story segues seamlessly between their lives and those of migrant workers on zero-hours contracts at the local, Humble Pie factory, as well as many locals, such as a health care worker and her farmer husband. Craig stresses how important it was for her – a Remainer – to give the lie to the assumption that all Brexiters are “stupid, jingoistic, racist fools – of course they are none of those things. They are brave people who work and labour the land. I don’t agree with the way they voted but I respect their views, which I think are really important.”

South African-born, she grew up in Italy and with her husband, Rob, and their children – a grown-up son, William, and daughter, Leonora – divides her time between London and their house in Devon. ”A little bit of Heaven in Devon! It is sort of like Narnia, but not if you are living there and working the land. There are so many real problems.” she says, exuding middle-class guilt about owning a second home but quickly explaining that “only idiots from London would have bought it anyway since it was isolated, bodged, half-ruined.” The view, though, she rhapsodises, is extraordinary. And they ensure that it rarely stands empty when they are in London. “We had no wish to take a home away from locals. We did it all on a wing and a prayer.”

They bought the house a decade ago when she was recovering from a dreadful bout of illness, including thyroid cancer – for which she will remain on the drug thryroxin for life. A promotion, legacies, after the couple lost both their fathers, and finishing Hearts and Minds, which had taken four years, meant they could afford to buy. Meanwhile, a handful of close friends found their marriages were almost as ruined as that crumbling Devon house, which the family has toiled hard to repair. “It helped us to recover from a period of suffering.”

She and her husband – “an absolute darling” – are blessed with a long, happy marriage but she began thinking about the agony of divorce after those friends confided that their marriages were not all they believed. “I decided to examine a number of fictional, different marriages by bringing back two minor characters [Quentin and Lottie] from Hearts and Minds, questioning whether they might turn over a new leaf in the country.”

Resurrecting characters from previous novels is one of Craig’s tropes, along with those of fairytale – her next novel which she’s already working on draws on Beauty and the Beast. A different aspect of that tale inspired her recent Quick Reads novella, The Other Side of You, which has a deprived teenager hiding from a murder.

“Breathing fresh life into characters from previous novels is a trick I got from Balzac and Trollope, all those monumentally wonderful Victorian writers I love. It’s satisfying to have characters grow and age. It gives me real pleasure. For instance, Lottie’s mother Marta will return in a big book I’m also writing that’s set in Tuscany, where my mother, Zelda, lives. Yes, my characters do haunt me. They’re with me all the time. It’s a lovely thing – but they are definitely not me, only aspects of me.”

Indeed, in The Lie of the Land, Craig acknowledges: “The very first thing I should say is that my husband is not Quentin (any more than I am any other character in my novels). It should be otiose to say this, but women are too often believed by some to be incapable of imagination, or creation.”

Words written from the heart? “Absolutely!” she exclaims with feeling.

The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig (Little, Brown, £16.99). Amanda Craig and novelist Gwendoline Riley will be in conversation with Jackie McGlone at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 23.