Every spring and summer for the past 10 years, I’ve been privileged to be part of the Women’s National Book Association’s Great Group Reads Committee. For the past few years, I’ve reached out to authors of some of my favorite reads – most often debut novelists – and interviewed them here. I am delighted to say that this month’s interviewee, Libby Page, has made our 2018 list of recommended books with her gorgeous debut novel, THE LIDO. (It’s a testament to how much I love this book that I don’t resent Libby for getting published in her mid-20s.)
Here is a smattering of the numerous glowing reviews THE LIDO has earned:
“Charming… an unusually poignant tale of married love.”—The Washington Post
“In many ways, this meditation on community and swimming follows in the footsteps of the enormously popular A Man Called Ove… Both are charming and heartwarming.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Populated with endearing, multidimensional characters covering a wide span of ages and backgrounds, Page’s debut novel makes it easy for readers to imagine themselves in the mix…Page’s underdog tale can also inspire timely discussions about how to build diverse, place-based communities. A smart suggestion for book clubs and readers who enjoy substance with style.”—Booklist
“A delicious debut about the endearing friendship between two women who join forces to save the town pool. Refreshing, funny and heartwarming, The Lido is must read.”—Laura Dave, national bestselling author of Eight Hundred Grapes and Hello, Sunshine
“A joyous and uplifting debut—a testament to kindness and friendship.”—Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit and Tin Man
“This debut is set to be one of the biggest of the year.”—Grazia (UK)
“Brimming with charm and compassion.”—Daily Express (UK)
“A lavish depiction of an unlikely friendship, a London community and life-long love, all charmingly told in rich, yet gentle prose.”—Catherine Isaac, UK bestselling author of You, Me, Everything
“Feelgood and uplifting, this charming novel is full of heart.”—Lucy Diamond, UK bestselling author of The Beach Café
“Did I #lovethelido? So much my heart broke a little turning the last page. A stunning debut.”—Clare Mackintosh, UK bestselling author of I See You
Libby, thank you so much for taking time to do this. You’re my first international interview (Libby lives in England.)! Before we get to your book, let’s talk about you and your unusual background. How did you start in fashion and end up writing novels?
I have always wanted to be an author – I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to write novels. If you asked me at age six, seven, eleven, what I wanted to be when I was older, the answer was always the same. But as I got older I realized that you don’t just ‘become’ an author – it’s a little more challenging than that! I decided to study journalism at university, thinking that this might be a career where I could still write in my day job, while writing for myself on the side. I have always loved fashion and the history of fashion so decided to specialize in fashion journalism, although the course was quite broad and covered all the basics of journalism too. I did lots of internships at fashion magazines while I was studying, but ultimately found that it wasn’t actually for me. When I left university my first job was at the Guardian, writing for their students and education section. But I found that writing for my job meant that I had less time and headspace when I got home to write creatively – which had always been my main passion. So, after a year I decided to leave my job at the Guardian and move over to work in marketing instead. This turned out to work well for me – I found that doing something very different for my 9-5 meant that I had more creativity and energy left to write for myself. That’s when I started writing The Lido.
At the ripe old age of 26 (and, I assume, 25 when your book was sold?), your journey to publication couldn’t have taken very long! How did it come about?
I was 24 when I sold my book! I feel incredibly lucky for everything that has happened to me – I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen this way! I had the idea for my book back in 2014 and spent about six months planning it before starting to write. For me planning was less about plotting out exactly what was going to happen, and more about fully forming my characters so that when I came to write they took the story in their own direction in some ways. I started writing in earnest in 2015, fitting it in around my full-time job. I would write in the mornings before work, on my lunch breaks, in the evenings and at weekends. It was quite full-on! I decided to take a bit of time out to focus entirely on the book, so saved up some money and quit my job in the brand team at a retailer, moving to Paris for six weeks to write intensely there. (It had always been a dream of mine to spend some time writing in Paris so I thought I would go for it!) I wrote about half of my book during that time in Paris – being able to focus on it and nothing else really helped. I then moved back to London for another job in marketing, this time at a charity. But by then I already had a decent chunk completed, so I felt much more motivated to keep going and finish it. The next step was sending the finished manuscript out to literary agents, and this was the longest part of getting published for me. It took me a year to find an agent and I received lots of rejections along the way. I was close to giving up when I heard about a new agency being founded and that they were looking for new writers. I contact Robert Caskie at this agency (Caskie Mushens) and he replied very quickly and enthusiastically. Things happened quite quickly after that – we did some edits together and he then sent it out to publishers at the start of 2017, which is when I signed the deals. Then it was a year of editing and working towards publication with the publishers. In many ways it has been a whirlwind, but there have also been lots of steps leading to this point.
Wow! That’s amazing. (Why didn’t I think of going to Paris to do some writing? Even a grocery list or two…) Speaking of travels, what has been the most surprising part of your journey so far?
The whole process of publishing a book has been entirely new for me, so every single thing has been a learning experience! Learning all the steps that happen along the way and all the different people involved has been fascinating. For me the really surprising thing has been how friendly the publishing industry is – lots of people in publishing houses seem to know each other, having moved around in different jobs in the industry. For such a huge industry, it still feels very personal, which I love. In the lead up to the launch in the UK I visited independent bookshops to ‘hand sell’ copies to book buyers. I had no idea that this was something authors did but I loved doing it – it was amazing to meet in person the people who would be selling my book. I have been so impressed and inspired by the booksellers I have met along this journey – there is such creativity and passion in this industry.
Are you working on a second book? Have we seen the last of Kate? (I hope not!)
I am writing a second book, yes! It is a standalone novel though, so not a sequel to The Lido. Although who knows – I’d never say no to revisiting the characters if inspiration struck in the future.
My fingers are crossed! In the meantime, any advice for aspiring authors?
My main advice would be to persevere. I was very close to giving up when I found my now-agent. The journey to publication can be quite demoralizing but I’m so glad I didn’t give up. I’m also pleased I didn’t give up with the actual writing of the book. It can be quite an isolating experience and you do sometimes question why you’re doing it – I think it’s a common trait among writers to be plagued by self-doubt. But you have to push through this and remember why you’re doing it – and I’d say that for most writers it’s simply because they love writing. And loving something is a pretty good reason to persevere with it, in my opinion.
Beautifully put, and absolutely true. And now, on to The Lido itself!
What did you come up with first, the story or the characters?
The start of the idea came from wanting to write a story about the importance of community. I lived in Brixton as a student and found that there was a really strong sense of community there, but that it was under threat with lots of big chains moving into the area and new blocks of flats being built. When I stepped back I realized this was something happening across London, and in towns and cities everywhere really, with community spaces being threatened by new developments. It made me really worry about what kind of places we will be left with if we lose all these special community hubs. I am a keen swimmer, so the lido seemed a good place to explore this theme of community. The characters came next, starting with Rosemary and Kate and growing from there.
Interesting. That makes perfect sense. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Just sticking at it was definitely hard at times. I wrote it with no real expectation of getting published, just because it was a story I wanted to write. But it meant that there were certainly moments when I doubted what I was doing and why I was giving up so much time for it. I’m definitely glad I persevered though!
I am, too – and no doubt many other readers will be glad as well.
You capture the voice and, more importantly, the heart, of an 80something woman in Rosemary so authentically. Where did you draw your inspiration from?
Thank you! Rosemary’s character isn’t based on any specific person but was definitely inspired by older women that I have encountered when swimming. You often see women of Rosemary’s age in the changing room, and they can be very hardy and dedicated outdoor swimmers. I loved the idea of a character who is that age but is not a ‘little old lady’ – someone who is still very active in her community and who feels young at heart. Because I imagine that being that age doesn’t necessarily feel so different on the inside to being twenty-six. Your body might change, but you’re still you – why wouldn’t you be? So in some ways it wasn’t too hard to get into the mindset of an 80something, because I honestly believe we all have much more in common than we think, regardless of age. The emotions we all experience are universal. Kate and Rosemary both experience loneliness, for example, for very different reasons, but the feeling is the same. Those common emotions are what unite us, I think.
I love that. You are absolutely right, Libby!
Whom did you relate to most as you wrote, and why? Did that change at any point?
I related to both Kate and Rosemary very strongly throughout the book. There are obvious parallels between Kate and myself – she is a similar age and like her I too have experienced what it’s like to move to a big city and feel somewhat overwhelmed. But I have now lived in London for over seven years and absolutely love living here. When writing Kate’s character there were moments when I wanted to say to her, ‘It will get better! This place has so much to offer!’. Right now I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, but in The Lido, Kate still has a journey to go on in order to find her place in the city.
Rosemary is obviously a very different kind of person to me, but I related to her a huge amount too. Although I fortunately have not experienced the bereavement that she is dealing with at the start of the book, I can imagine how that might feel and I put those feelings into the writing. And although she is 86, she was a young woman once too and I very much wanted to get a sense of her younger self across in the book. I think often we can look at older people and forget that they were children, teenagers, young women once.
Is it strange to admit you love a character you created? Because I do love Rosemary! I’d love to be like her when I’m older – I admire how involved she is in her local community and that’s definitely something I’m trying to put into practice in my own life. You could say that writing about her has inspired me in that way.
I think both Rosemary, and this story, will inspire many people.
Did your story – or characters – take any surprising turns?
Both Kate and Rosemary were so clear in my mind that when writing they often did or said things that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. They grew the more that I wrote and that often took the story in new directions. That said, I did have a clear idea of the general plot when I started writing.
“Stories were Kate’s friends when she found people challenging.” Is this fiction or autobiography? 😉
I think all writers are readers first and foremost, and I am certainly no exception. I have always loved reading – it’s what inspired me to want to become an author. I love that books can be a real refuge for readers – the right book at the right time can be very powerful. But I have always loved people too, so in that way I was a much more sociable child than Kate. That love of people and their stories is probably the second thing that made me want to be an author, after the love of words themselves.
Had you always planned to include such a wonderful medley of supporting characters, like a pregnant woman, an adolescent boy, and even (spoiler alert!) a fox? And how on earth did you come up with a fox, anyway?
The thing I love about lidos is that they really can be hubs for the local community. People from all backgrounds come here to swim, and so I wanted to reflect this in the book. For me the supporting characters were there to show the role places like this can play in our communities – these special places where people come together. You might not know anything about the people you swim alongside or walk past in your local library or bookshop, but they are there and they all have their own story and reason for visiting. And you share something with them just by being in the same place.
The idea for the fox came about because I wanted to show a glimpse of the Brixton area from a different perspective to help build up a picture of the place for readers who have never been there. In London foxes are everywhere – you get very used to seeing them wandering down your street in the day as well as at night. They do cause a bit of a mess sometimes but I think most people feel quite affectionately about them – I personally think of London’s foxes as my neighbors. They share this city with us and live alongside us – I wanted to imagine what life must look like through their eyes. It’s just a couple of fleeting scenes but I hope might encourage readers to try and look at their own neighborhood from a new perspective. When we live somewhere we can sometimes stop seeing new details about the place – often it takes putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes (or in this case, paws!) to do that.
That’s a great idea!
“A small life was more than big enough for her if it had George in it.” Rosemary and her beloved George were married for 64 years – just like my parents! Are they modeled on a real-life couple you know?
Although Rosemary and George aren’t based on one specific couple, I have been lucky to have witnessed many great love stories throughout my life, from grandparents, to family friends, to my mum and stepdad. But the thing I find about these great true-life love stories is that they are not usually the dramatic affairs you often read about in books or see in films. True love, I think, can often be very ordinary. But that’s what makes it so wonderful. Rosemary and George are in some ways a very normal couple (they are not wealthy, they spend their whole life in the same neighborhood) and yet they are also remarkable – they grow together throughout their lives and are true partners for one another. That is the kind of love that I aspire to nurture in my own relationship and was the kind of story I felt most compelled to write about.
Kate says, “Hope is the most painful thing.” And yet one thing that stands out most to me about this book is its hopeful nature, its positivity. Can you speak to this paradox?
I am a natural optimist, but I have met lots of pessimists throughout my life who perhaps hold themselves back from being hopeful and thinking the best might happen in case they end up disappointed. I think it’s a particularly British trait to be prone to cynicism. If you really care about something, for example by getting involved in a local campaign or fighting for something you believe in, there is a chance that you might end up not getting what you want. If you let yourself think positively, sometimes you are proven wrong. But I still believe that being hopeful is an important thing and I tried to capture this in my book – that some things are worth fighting for, even if you aren’t sure if your efforts will be rewarded. I personally would rather live my life in hope, and the journey towards hopefulness is an important part of my book.
And, speaking of hope, what do you hope readers will take away from this novel?
I hope that readers enjoy the book and it leaves them feeling uplifted. But I would also love if it made people look a little differently at the places in our communities that are often easy to overlook: the libraries, the swimming pools, the independent bookshops. We can sometimes take these places for granted, but I truly believe that we would lose so much if these places were to disappear from our streets. Oh, and if people felt inclined to go for a dip in their own local pool that would be wonderful too!
Libby – thank you SO much for taking time to answer these questions. I adore your book and its characters and your writing. It was difficult limiting myself to quoting only a few lines, as there are so many I love.
Thank you so much! It was a pleasure to answer these questions and thank you for your support of me and my book!
Now that you’ve read her interview – and, I hope, WILL read her beautiful book, if you want to follow Libby on social media, here are two ways to do it: Twitter: @LibbyPageWrites and Instagram: @TheSwimmingSisters