‘I started to notice how many coffee mugs there were by the sink’
It was moving house that gave Beth O’Leary, 26, the idea for her first novel. She had been living in London for a couple of years after graduating from Oxford University, working in children’s publishing, but never felt “quite right” in the city. “It’s so loud and nonstop and just not me,” she says. So she moved back to Winchester, her home town, to share a flat with her boyfriend, Sam, a junior doctor.
Ironically, she found she saw even less of him than when she had been living 60 miles away. “He was working nights and I was commuting to work, so we could go a whole week when there was always one of us asleep in the bed but never [both] at the same time. It was such a weird way to live, being in the same space as him but not actually seeing each other.”
She found ways of telling how Sam’s day had been. “I would start to notice how many coffee mugs were by the sink. If his trainers were out, that meant he’d had time to go for a run before he went to bed. And it just got me thinking, ‘What an interesting thing that is, how close you can feel to someone when you’re in the same physical space but not at the same time. Could two people who don’t know each other become very close living like this?’”
That is the big question driving O’Leary’s story about two hardpressed strangers who decide to save money by sharing a onebedroom flat. Leon works nights as a nurse, so he occupies the flat during the day, while Tiffy is out at work as a publicist. She has the place to herself the rest of the time. The book, which O’Leary wrote on her laptop during her daily commute, explores Leon and Tiffy’s relationship and their lives as they communicate through Post-It notes, introducing us to an eclectic cast of minor characters, from Leon’s brother, who is in prison, to Tiffy’s controlling ex-partner.
Having rented a flat in London herself, where a sewage pipe from the flat above used to leak through her bedroom wall, O’Leary says: “It didn’t seem at all implausible to me that two people would agree to that kind of arrangement, because
so many people I knew were so desperate to find somewhere to live in London, however awful.”
Within weeks of her sending the book to an agent it had sold in a pre-emptive deal for six figures, with foreign rights snapped up in 30 countries.
O’Leary has always wanted to be a writer. Growing up as one of six children in a noisy household, she spent every spare moment reading books and writing stories. “I just never thought it was really a feasible career path,” she says. Now she has given up her job in publishing to write fulltime. “It is a total dream,” she says. Lisa O’Kelly