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Q&A with L. M. Nathan - The Virtue Season



By Elle Summers


We are delighted to welcome L. M. Nathan to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, The Virtue Season,  released on the 4th July 2024.


The world didn't end all at once but drip by drip...


Manon Pawlak has just turned eighteen - a debutant at the start of The Virtue Season: a process which will result in a match with a suitable genetic mate.


Her best friend, Agatha, has been decommissioned. Her seizures mean that she has been branded with a scar on the crest of her cheek which will forever sit at the corner of her vision, colouring the world in shades of mauve.


This is the story of their ritual year. And the Council is watching...


Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us here at The Reading Corner! With the hype of ‘Bridgerton’ taking Netflix by storm recently, I was very excited to read what has been described as a Bridgerton-dystopian blend that is The Virtue Season! I look forward to learning more about your creative process.

Could you please tell us a little about your publishing journey – how did The Virtue Season begin as an idea and grow in a novel? Was there anything about the publishing process that particularly surprised you?


Just after my son was born, we moved to an area of Lancashire called the Ribble Valley. The scenery is stunning – Pendle Hill seems to stand guard over it and there are three picturesque rivers, and Clitheroe Castle in the centre. It is the landscape that inspired Tolkien, or so the legend goes. Not long after we moved, there were floods and I was standing at the top of the castle, looking out over the valley, and that’s when the idea struck. I began writing and soon had 30,000 – but then I hit a bit of a wall. I had written bits and pieces, all out of sequence and back to front and wasn’t sure how it should all come together. I was English teacher, so I knew something about narrative and structure and language, but I didn’t necessarily have the tools to write and edit a novel. For a long time, the writing was the thinking. I thought about the book on every car journey to and from my day job as an English teacher. It was an obsession. The key to finishing was the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course that I did in 2021. It gave me the momentum and the tools I needed to finish. My son is now nine, so it has been almost ten years since that moment at the top of the castle.


I had always thought of the publishing industry as a locked door that you needed some kind of secret key to open. What surprised me was how straightforward the road to publication actually was. Write the book, follow the industry guidance, get an agent, get a book deal. It was a simple path once I decided to set myself on it. Of course, it was littered with rejection and anxiety and months of re-drafting and waiting and uncertainty, but it was achievable. I feel a little embarrassed now about how long I put it off.


Was there any research that you conducted when constructing the county of Penn Vale? What challenges did you face when building your fictional world and how did you choose which details to reveal to the reader and when?


Creating a picture of Penn Vale was easy. I was surrounded by it. Making the infrastructure believable was harder. Maps helped. I drew myself a map of the world and kept adding to it as time went on. I still have it, coffee-stained and with crossings out. It shows how my thoughts changed as the book developed. There’s a lot of exposition you don’t see in the book – how these spurious beliefs were passed down, for example. Things that I needed to know but the reader can overstep.

 

I really enjoyed researching the emblem flowers – I wanted them to be native to Lancashire. The choice of the cornflower for Agatha was particularly symbolic given that agricultural practices almost wiped the cornflower out, thinking of it as a blight. But it survived. I wanted the climate change to be believable but I’m not naturally a scientist so I did lots of reading around how the seasons and the tide would be affected. When I first had the idea for forced sterilisation, I worried it would never be seen as credible, but I read lots of accounts of coerced sterilisation and sterilisation by stealth that are far more recent that you might anticipate.  Getting to grips with Darwin was a challenge! Understanding epilepsy was a duty of care I took very seriously. I believe my paternal grandfather had epilepsy. I never met him, and he died when my own Dad was still quite young so he was never completely sure but he remembered my grandfather having absence seizures, and he had been exempt from fighting in the war (although not from being sent to work in a mine!) The Epilepsy Society and Epilepsy Action websites have so much information, including first-hand accounts, and I buried myself in them before attempting to write Agatha’s experience. It was so important for me to get that right.


The reader meets protagonist Manon Pawlak with her best friend Agatha Curlew. Without wanting to give too much away, this is the season that puts their friendship to the ultimate test. It is described that their ‘friendship doesn’t explode, it implodes’. Can you tell us a little about the girl’s relationship. Was it important for you to depict two different experiences of the season? And how do the challenges the girls face impact their relationship?


From the outset, I knew Manon was going to face the threat of decommissioning, and I knew I had to have a character who had been decommissioned. It was the only way to highlight the brutality of this world, and to fully understand its implications. To have Manon and Agatha as friends seemed an obvious choice but I didn’t anticipate how far their friendship would be tested. For Agatha to watch Manon get everything she wants but cannot have must be hugely challenging – made worse when Manon is able to hide her ‘defect’ when Agatha could not. She is on Manon’s side, and fights to remain so, but she isn’t impervious to the injustice, understandably so. Even Agatha, with all her strength and forbearance, is still just eighteen, and her decommissioning and the loss of her future is so fresh. For Manon, she is unable to hide all she feels from Agatha – the anxiety and fear and the desire for consolation – even as she knows how it must test Agatha. As I continued to write, I knew these frustrations would have to come to the fore – but friendships can be tested to their limits and find their limits expand...


The feeling of fear surrounds Manon’s live and her every decision in the season. Her fear of starving, her fear for her family and her fear for her future. What did you do to look after yourself when writing cruel and twisted plotlines such as the punishment enforced by the councillors?


There was something cathartic about writing such dark themes. In an odd way, I think it’s a sort of self-care to put it on the page and let it stay there, behaving itself. Writing Manon was a way of facing my own struggles with anxiety and depression, a way of looking at the strength inside that battle. But it’s nice to step away and do something active – I favour a hardcore spin session and I love a 90s playlist. There’s no better music to lift your spirits.  


Which author would you say is your biggest inspiration and why?


I always say Angela Carter. It’s funny because I never re-read her books, and I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the stories or the characters as other writers I’ve read but reading Carter was an awakening, a shaping of the soul. Her books made me who I am or, at least, helped me understand the woman I wanted to be, which is rebellious and irreverent and suspicious of the boxes society wants to put me in.  


If our readership enjoy your novel, can you recommend any other books that they may also like to read?


In the YA space, Songlight by Moira Buffini which comes out in August. I’m lucky enough to have an advance copy and it is truly outstanding: the concept, the writing, the characters. It’s completely captivating. An adult book I really enjoyed recently was Prize Women by Caroline Lea. It was inspired by a bizarre and cruel competition in the early 20th Century called the Great Stork Derby which offered a cash reward to the woman who could bear the most children over a ten year span.


Do you have any words of advice for writers trying to break into the world of being published?


Share your work and read other people’s work. Get into a dialogue about writing – whether that’s online or at a local writing group, or a workshop or course. There’s nothing better for shaping your thinking and making decisions about where you want your story to go. Critical readers are everything.



L.M. Nathan grew up in the East Midlands, flitting from there to Bristol where she studied English and Drama and then to Malta where she completed an MA in Literature. She also has an MA in Journalism which she studied for in Manchester.


She now lives in rural Lancashire in the shadow of Pendle Hill, and teaches English.


Her first novel, inspired by the wild landscape of home, was completed in 2021 when she was selected to be part of the Curtis Brown Creative novel course.

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