‘It wasn’t until I started writing about sexual assault that the work took off’
What Red Was (Harvill Secker, May)
Rosie Price had set her sights on being a writer several years before she started work on What Red Was. “But it wasn’t until I started writing about sexual assault that the work took off. It felt so urgent – there was so much I needed to say, and that gave me the momentum to keep going.”
Price, 26, was herself the victim of rape, when she was “too young to understand properly”. Through writing the book, she began to make sense of her own experiences, exploring how the assault had “changed my view of the world”.
The novel is an intriguing blend: part comedy of manners, part hardhitting drama. Price was influenced, she says, by Edward St Aubyn’s blackly comic Patrick Melrose novels, and the idea that “the more levity and joyful moments you have, the darker you are able to go”.
It follows a young woman, Kate Quaile, as she leaves her modest upbringing in rural Gloucestershire for university. There she meets Max Rippon, a charismatic young man from a privileged background. Kate is drawn into Max’s world, and becomes close to his mother, Zara, a successful film director. She becomes increasingly reliant on the Rippons, both emotionally and financially, so when she is assaulted by one of their inner circle, she finds herself trapped.
When Price started writing the novel she was working in a literary agency – a job she had held since graduating three years earlier. She initially worked on the book in the evenings and at weekends, but then quickly realised that she needed to “make the leap and commit”. She left her job for a more flexible tutoring role, which allowed her to write in the mornings. The gamble paid off: there was a five-way auction among publishers for What Red Was, and film rights have now been bought by the BBC.
Of course the book feels timely in the light of the #MeToo movement – but the project was already well under way when the first Weinstein allegations surfaced in October 2017. Some of the echoes in Price’s narrative seem almost uncanny. “When it all emerged, I already had a character who was a female film director, who had been assaulted,” she says.
Although she praises #MeToo as “an incredible movement”, she describes that period as a difficult one for people who have been victims of rape and assault. “It is really hard to be reminded of it every time you turn on the news. And in some ways it felt as though those experiences were being normalised.”
What Red Was has allowed Price not only to explore her own legacy of trauma, but also to find a way of speaking out – the pros and cons of which are explored in the book.
“Nobody can tell a rape survivor how to behave – there are a plethora of reasons why speaking out may not be the right thing to do,” she says. “The one thing you have afterwards is control over how you tell your story. For me, the process of writing has been very empowering.”