BookTalk Event Review: The Unforgotten

March brought spring to south Wales (for a few days at least!) and another BookTalk event. This month, we were thrilled to welcome Cardiff-raised Laura Powell. Laura was in discussion with Dr Sophie Coulombeau of Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy about her 2016 debut novel, The Unforgotten. Sophie opened the conversation with an introduction of The Unforgotten and her own recent feelings of frustration with many of the books she has read lately, noting that so many are beautifully written, but plot-wise, nothing happens. The Unforgotten, however, stands out because it is not one such book, having both writing quality and plot to recommend it.

The first question Sophie asked was to do with the conceptualisation of the novel and how Laura came up with the plotline. Laura replied that the feeling of the love story between Betty and Gallagher came first and it was that she wished to capture. The love between Betty and Gallagher was based in part upon Laura’s own feelings within a past relationship, where she’d never been quite sure how her partner felt about her in return. Laura confided that she’s always wondered if she was just blowing the intensity of the relationship up out of proportion, and whether in fact the man did not share her own passionate feeling. Laura was quick to add, only the intensity of the emotion Betty feels was drawn from any personal experience, and none of the events detailed in The Unforgotten are taken from her own life!! Moving on to why she chose to set the novel (at least partially) in the 1950s, Laura explained that she had previously attempted to submit a manuscript for publication which was set in the present day, and was told her writing was more suited to an earlier era, such as the 1950s. The Unforgotten was also a lot longer originally, with a large part of it being set in an asylum – one of the main ways through which Laura immersed herself in the earlier period (second only to ‘fifties-themed Spotify playlists) was through researching the asylums of the 1950s.

For the next part of the conversation, Sophie asked Laura what happened after she had finished writing The Unforgotten, and Laura launched into the story of her nightmare-ish experience of the road to publication. After the publishing house that had first offered Laura a book deal collapsed, she and her agent were initially determined to push through the publication of The Unforgotten themselves. The first step Laura took towards this, she told us, was to sit down and write a comprehensive list of all the tasks that needed doing; this eventually totalled 75 separate items! As a novelist herself, Sophie could relate to many of Laura’s difficulties, and when it came to the struggle involved in procuring cover quotes from other authors, the pair exchanged stories. Both women then agreed the thorny issue of cover quotes was very much dependent upon who you know and were in a position to call in favours from.

Sophie’s next question was whether Laura had planned the murderer’s identity from the start, and whether the many twists and turns were calculated to keep her readers guessing. Laughingly, Laura confessed that yes, the twists, turns and many red herrings were intentional – she’d even sketched out a map of events, keeping track with post-it notes! Laura then revealed she has a deep love for ‘Murder She Wrote’ and Jessica Fletcher, but is perpetually frustrated by it, because she always knows within the first three minutes who is about to be murdered and who their murderer is. Laura was therefore quite determined to avoid that predictability in her own story. The identity of the murderer, however, underwent a drastic change during the novel’s evolution. After going on a writing retreat, Laura realised that what wasn’t quite sitting right with the story was the identity of the murderer, who was originally an entirely different character. She re-wrote it, and the changed identity of the murderer added poignancy to the tragedy of Betty and Gallagher’s love.

Following a reading from Laura detailing the moment of Betty and Gallagher’s meeting, the discussion then moved to the publishing industry and the type-casting that goes on within larger publishing houses. Laura described how, as larger publishing houses are frequently focused on trying to make books fit the angle they believe will make them the most money, one publisher wanted her to remove the love story element altogether so it could be marketed as a straight crime novel. Laura, however, felt very strongly that The Unforgotten was first and foremost about Betty and Gallagher’s love story more than the murder; the ‘Cornish Cleaver’ plotline was simply a device to bring Betty and Gallagher into contact with one another. Drawing upon her own experience of working for a smaller publishing house, Laura illustrated a point about how some incredible books slip through the net of larger publishing houses with an anecdote about a book that is shortly to be released. Laura read it on her commute and was weeping by the time she finished, but in a larger publishing house, it is unlikely it would have been afforded a glance.

The conversation then progressed to the second thread of the plotline of The Unforgotten, and Laura once more revealed how she drew inspiration for the feelings behind a relationship from her own life. The disjointed relationship between Mary and Jerry was reflective of a relationship she was in at the time of writing, which ultimately ended. Sophie could commiserate, as she too found herself in an ending relationship just as she was finishing her first novel. The pair speculated that there might be something about the novel-writing process that isn’t conducive to happy relationships. After a second reading, this time an excerpt from Mary and Jerry’s wedding night, Sophie and Laura drew their conversation to a close and the floor was opened to the audience for questions.

The Q&A session covered a broad range of topics, from writing tips to other would-be authors in the crowd, to the rise of the ‘girl’ genre as a potentially worrying shift in attitudes towards women, to the level of Laura’s involvement in the design of the book cover of The Unforgotten. (“Probably more than my publishers would have liked!” came the answer to the latter!) The final ‘question’ of the Q&A was not infact a question, but instead was a commendation to Laura on the accuracy of her portrayal of Betty, capturing the naïvety of a 15-year-old in the ‘fifties. This was a lovely note upon which to end an uplifting and highly engaging evening and Laura continued to be generous with her time, signing books and chatting with attendees right up until the School of Optometry required us to vacate the premises.