Annabel Pitcher: 'Everyone screws up at some point ...'

Annabel Pitcher's new blackly funny young-adult novel is all about bad decisions. She tells Danuta Kean about hers

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

Indigo £9.99

"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 ..."

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness