‘I started to no­tice how many cof­fee mugs there were by the sink’

The Observer - The New Review - - Books - Beth O’Leary The Flat­share (Quer­cus, April)

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

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