Author Q&A: Clare Pooley

Elena Bowes spoke with British writer Clare Pooley about her fantastic second novel, The People on Platform 5 or in the US and Canada, Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting. The feel-good book is very funny, original, and wise with engaging characters I’d love to meet, especially the indomitable Iona.

Nobody speaks to strangers on the train. But what would happen if they did? Throw in a grape choking scene and find out what an eclectic group of commuters discover about one another. Preconceptions be damned. 

Clare, l absolutely adored loved your book. Everyone should be so lucky as to have an Iona in their life. She is so funny, wise, outspoken, stylish, colourful and human. Can you tell us about your journey that led to The People on Platform 5 or for readers in the USA and Canada, Iona Iversons Rules for Commuting?

This was not the book I had intended to write! I’d spent a year writing an entirely different novel as a follow up to my debut – The Authenticity Project. It wasn’t going well. The writing was feeling like a chore, not a pleasure.

This was during the long lockdown, when we were all confined to our individual boxes, and I really missed family and friends. Surprisingly, I also missed being surrounded by groups of strangers and I found myself reminiscing about my London commute when I’d travelled in packed buses, trains and the tube, my nose jammed in other peoples’ armpits.

I remembered how I would see the same people over and over again. I’d make up nicknames for them and imagine what their lives were like beyond our shared commute, but we never spoke. Because that’s the first rule of London commuting: never speak to strangers on the train.

I found myself wondering what would have happened if I’d broken that rule and had made some random connections with my fellow commuters? What magic might that had led to?

I realised that that was the story I really wanted to write, so I threw the other book into the virtual bin, and started all over again…

Can you tell us about your inspiration for these characters, especially the indomitable Iona?

I spent nearly twenty years working in advertising. By the time I was 30, I was the youngest woman on the board. A decade later, I was one of the oldest women in the building. It made me really angry that as men age, they gain gravitas, whereas women become irrelevant and invisible. Iona is the woman I want to be. One who couldn’t be invisible even if she tried. One who becomes the hub of any community and who is determined to have a triumphant second act.

Piers is based on stories I’d read in the newspapers about commuters who turn out not to be as they seem (that’s deliberately cryptic, so as not to include spoilers!), Sanjay was inspired by the wonderful nurses I met when I was being treated for breast cancer, and the character of Martha was created around my hopes and fears for my own teenaged children.

Which came first to you – your delightful, engaging cast of characters or the plot, ie what would happen if daily commuters on a train who had nothing in common with one another broke the first rule of commuting and started talking to one another?

Iona came first, as she was stolen from the novel I threw away. The only thing that remained from that year of work. So, I put her on the train and tried to imagine what her fellow commuters might look like…

What is your writing process?

It involves very early mornings!

I generally wake up at around 5am, and while I’m still half asleep I play the next scene of the story I’m writing in my head. It feels like directing a dream. I note all the small details and allow my characters to take the lead. Then, I fire up the laptop at my kitchen table and translate that visual scene into words.

I never write new scenes after about 10am. My brain just doesn’t work in the right way. After mid-morning I just reread what I’ve already written and edit, and edit and edit.

Have you always loved storytelling?

Oh yes! Reading and writing has always been my passion, although I wrote nothing apart from emails and PowerPoints for decades. My first novel was published when I was 50 years old. It’s my own triumphant second act!

How much of your fiction draws on your real life? And would you recommend real life as the best source of ideas for aspiring fiction writers?

Much of it!

My debut – The Authenticity Project – was inspired by my own experience of telling the grubby truth about my life to strangers. I had a secret alcohol addiction for years, which I wrote about in my memoir – The Sober Diaries.

Your writing, I think, feels much more genuine if it’s inspired by your own experiences. Which is why older writers are the best!

I loved all the different names the commuters had for Iona, until they got to know her – Crazy Dog Woman, Rainbow Lady, Magic Handbag Lady and Muhammad Ali – How important do you think names are when creating characters?

Naming characters is one of my favourite things! The character inspires the name, but then the name influences the character. Nominative determinism is real!

Iona was named for one of my oldest friends, Iver. Iver was a builder and a farmer. In his late 40s he decided to spend the summer in Tanzania with a charity building affordable housing in remote communities. While he was there, he had a massive heart attack and died. His daughter, my Goddaughter, is called Iona. Hence Iona Iverson. Having named Iona, I found that she took on many of Iver’s eccentricities, including his eclectic dress sense, and love of women!

I read that you returned to writing when you became sober, that writing was therapy for you. Can you expand on that?

When I quit drinking in 2015, after many years of battling a secret addiction, I was too ashamed to talk to anyone in real life. Not my friends, nor my family. Not even my GP or Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, I poured everything out in an anonymous blog called Mummy was a Secret Drinker. Writing became my therapy, and I’ve written every day since.

What are you working on next?

I couldn’t possibly tell you, because that would jinx it! Sorry!

Thank you so much for writing this book. I found it just as inspiring (although very different) as Anne Lamott’s incredible Bird by Bird, which I see you wrote a beautiful blog on – The Single Best Piece of Advice on Life

Oh, that’s so lovely of you. Bird by Bird is one of my all-time favourites!

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.