As literary near misses go, Annabel Pitcher's is one of the more colourful: if it hadn't been for the intervention of her husband, Jimmy Savile would have been a key player in her delightful new hormone-rush of a novel, Ketchup Clouds. Before the truth about him emerged, the perky 30-year-old wrote a version of the book featuring Savile as confessor to 15-year-old Zoe, who is keen to unburden her guilty conscience.
"I was thinking of letters and who a teenager would write to for help, and I thought of Jim'll Fix It," she explains over a breakfast of French toast and maple syrup at the Covent Garden Hotel. "I wrote a whole opening letter to Savile." The former teacher shifts awkwardly in her chair, and her words tumble out while her hands whir in the air as if wiping clean a whiteboard.
Salvation came when her husband Steve pointed out that modern teenagers – the target market for the book – didn't know Savile. They do now. "Thank God I changed my mind, because the book would have had to be pulped." Pitcher's eyes widen at the thought. "Can you imagine it? A teenage girl unburdening herself to Jimmy Savile?" As she squirms, the eyes of the owls which decorate her dress appear to widen in sympathy.
The Savile opening was one of a staggering 150 Steve listened to, as Pitcher struggled to write this epistolary novel. In the end, she chose a Texan Death Row prisoner to be Zoe's confessor. But, as if trapped in some kind of literary Groundhog Day, Pitcher would wake up each morning, re-read the previous day's work, tear it up, and begin afresh. This lasted for three months.
Looking back, Pitcher says that she was seized by "stage fright", following the success of her debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. A moving tale about the aftermath of a terrorist attack, narrated with beguiling innocence and humour by 10-year-old Jamie Matthews, it was a hard act to follow. Laden with awards and shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal, it raced up the bestseller charts. Pitcher placed herself under pressure to deliver more of the same.
"I had an editor and knew what she liked, and an agent who liked something slightly different. I thought about Amazon reviews. Everything," she recalls. She leans towards me, crushing the faces of the owls on her dress into intense little frowns. "It was only when I put all that aside and just wrote what I wanted that I could finally get on with it," she says.
What enabled her to move on was a pep talk from her mother. "My mum was like: 'Get over yourself. If you write a bad book, it's just a bad book.'" Pitcher's mother contrasts sharply with the mothers in her novels: in both Mantelpiece and Ketchup Clouds, the mothers are dysfunctional linchpins in dysfunctional families, afflicted by guilt, loss, and suppressed anger.
"I think the mothers are among the more interesting characters in both books," Pitcher admits, though she is at a loss to explain why she has twice alighted on the subject of troubled matriarchs. "My own personal experience couldn't be further away from these women's. Friends call my family The Waltons. My mum and dad met when they were teenagers, have been together their entire lives without a glitch, and are completely in love. Everyone has always thought we were a bit twee."
Not so Zoe's parents. Central to Zoe's development is her mother's attempt to assuage a guilt as debilitating as that of her daughter. A woman so uptight that she feels like a parcel attempting to hold in its strings, the mother evolves from a stereotypical pushy parent into a woman whose life has imploded thanks to one mistake. And the way that a bad call can impact the rest of a life is an obsession for Pitcher. Considering how close to textbook perfection her life has run – from her nice family upbringing to Oxford University, marriage, a job in teaching ("which I loved"), a book deal, and critical and commercial success – the depth to which guilt and fear have embedded themselves in her psyche is alarming.
"Every human being on the planet at some point screws their life up," she says with conviction. "So what about you?" I ask. She bats away the question with a lame joke: "What? Killed someone? Last week, actually." When I ask again, she admits: "I've had a lovely, quite straightforward life." She grins – the kind that children give parents when caught fibbing. She drops the smile: "I have had a very strong sense of guilt – inappropriate guilt – since childhood."
What stops her from collapsing under the weight of existential angst is a robust sense of humour, which also ensures that the darkness of her novels' subject matter never overwhelms readers. Like Jamie before her, Zoe is a beguiling narrator, whose remorse is leavened by hilarious observation. A hospital waiting room is described with comic precision, from the "droopy plant that looked more ill than the patients on the ward" to the "stack of leaflets about bladder weakness, which could explain why the nurses hadn't refilled the water".
"I had to tone down the humour," Pitcher says when I mention how funny I found the book. "There were a lot of jokes that I took out because my editor said they went too far. The ones that are in, I had to fight for." She is drawn to dark comedy she says, which is why she finds her near miss with Jimmy Savile amusing rather than unnerving.
Her inspiration is the awkward social comedy of Ricky Gervais. But unlike his, her work never tips into cruelty. When you laugh at Zoe, it is with warmth and recognition. Pitcher likes that, because above all she wants her books to feel real. "Life is never all beautiful or all miserable," she adds, "and I try to get that across in what I write."
Ketchup Clouds, By Annabel Pitcher
"A couple of months ago, I printed off this list of all the men responsible for genocide, and at night, when I can't sleep, instead of counting sheep, I count dictators. I send them leaping over a wall. Hitler and Stalin and Saddam Hussein jumping through the air in their uniforms with their dark moustaches blowing in the breeze. Maybe you should try it ..."