August 2017

Gail Honeyman on 2017’s bittersweet breakout debut

Interview by
The reading world is in love with curmudgeons—perhaps because we all feel unbearably awkward at times—and Eleanor Oliphant, the lonely heroine of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, is the latest hit.
Share this Article:

Thirty-year-old Eleanor isn’t concerned with anything outside of her weekly ritual. But sometimes “fine” isn’t good enough, and when a love interest and unexpected friendships cross her path, Eleanor slowly ventures into social interactions and takes tentative steps toward confronting the great pain in her past. Her description of learning to dance the “YMCA” is worth the price of admission alone.

Brimming with heartbreak and humor, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was shortlisted for the U.K.’s Lucy Cavendish Prize in 2014 and was a hot title at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair. Rights were sold in 26 countries, and soon after its U.S. publication in May, Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, announced plans to bring it to the big screen.

We asked Honeyman, who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, some questions about her standout debut.

Did you have any idea that the world would receive Eleanor Oliphant with such open arms?
Definitely not! As a debut writer, I was managing my expectations for the book very rigorously throughout the process of completing and submitting the manuscript. I still can’t quite believe what’s happened with it—I’m pinching myself!

What reactions to Eleanor have surprised you the most?
I’m delighted by how incredibly generous readers have been. When we first meet Eleanor, she’s not, on the surface, a particularly likable character; people have talked about feeling protective toward her, which has been wonderful to hear.

In Eleanor, you have created a wholly original heroine: She is a social outsider, but she’s doing her best to avoid self-pity. She is—she must be—fine. Where did this determined voice come from?
I wanted to show that Eleanor is a survivor, that she’s damaged but not broken by what has happened to her. I also thought it was important, if the character was going to work, that Eleanor never displays or experiences self-pity, however distressing her circumstances. I wanted to leave space in the narrative for the reader to draw their own conclusions about her life and her experiences and how she’s responded to them, and hopefully, to empathize with Eleanor as a result.

At one point, Eleanor says, “Loneliness is the new cancer.” In the way people used to fear saying the word “cancer,” loneliness is often considered embarrassing, even shameful. Why did you decide to write about it?
The idea for the book was initially sparked by an article I read about loneliness. It included an interview with a young woman who lived alone in a big city, had an apartment and a job, but who said that unless she made a special effort, she would often leave work on a Friday night and not talk to anyone again until Monday morning. That really struck me, because when loneliness is discussed in the media, it’s usually in the context of older people. When I thought more about it, I realized that there were plenty of potential routes to a young person finding themselves in those circumstances, through no fault of their own, and how hard it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections. From this, the story and the character of Eleanor slowly began to emerge.

“People have talked about feeling protective toward [Eleanor], which has been wonderful to hear.”

Eleanor is aware that love could change her, to help her “rise from the ashes and be reborn.” She sets her sights on local musician Johnnie Lomond, and through the internet and social media, she’s able to believe that love with him is possible. What are your feelings about the false intimacy that can be formed through social media?
Eleanor’s passion for Johnnie is a crush— I tried to show, in her responses to him, that it’s a very juvenile passion. Although she’s 30 years old, emotionally she seems much younger because of what’s happened to her. I’m not sure about social media more generally, but in the book, it was a very useful way of allowing the reader to see aspects of Johnnie which Eleanor, in the throes of her crush, is oblivious to.

I would be terrified and delighted to hear Eleanor’s initial impression of me. She’s so eloquent and specific with her harsh judgment. How would Eleanor describe your book?
That’s a tricky one! Although Eleanor’s directness causes her some problems socially, the first-person narrative allows readers to know that there’s no deliberate intention on her part to offend. It certainly makes life a bit awkward for her sometimes, though!

Some of my favorite moments of the book are when Eleanor ventures into areas of physical self-improvement, as her descriptions of getting a bikini wax or a manicure had me laughing aloud in public. What was the most fun to write?
I don’t have a favorite scene but did make myself laugh when I was writing the ones you’ve mentioned, so it’s very reassuring to hear that they made you laugh, too—thank you!

Eleanor has a spectacular vocabulary and perfect grammar. Has your own speech improved after spending so much time in Eleanor’s head?
Sadly not, I suspect! I wanted to make Eleanor’s voice a distinctive component of her character, and a big part of that was her unusual and mannered way of articulating her thoughts, both internally and in conversation. In some respects, her speech mannerisms result from her loneliness and lack of social interaction, and unfortunately, they also sometimes serve to reinforce this. As a writer, trying to capture that particular voice was both a challenge and enormous fun.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

Author photo credit Philippa Gedge Photography UK.

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews

Ayana Mathis’ The Unsettled is a gripping novel about mothers and children, past and present, and the private hells in which we often find ourselves while searching for utopia. With its chorus of intergenerational voices and its themes of love, loss and legacy, it contains many of the things her loyal readers most enjoy, along with a story that is heartbreaking yet hopeful.