One of this summer’s big hits was Nightingale Point, the debut novel by Luan Goldie.
Set on a London council estate, the residents experience an extraordinary event which tests their resilience and changes their lives forever. We caught up with Luan to find out about what inspired her to write this novel.
Tell us about yourself and what you do…
I was born in Glasgow but grew up in Hackney, East London. I’ve always wanted to write, but first went into business journalism. I then ended up doing my teacher training. This is my tenth year teaching primary and as much as I love it, it’s an incredibly challenging job.
In 2017 I won the Costa Short Story Award, the £3,500 prize money gave me the freedom to drop down my days at work and get a publisher. I signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins a few months later and Nightingale Point is my first book.
It’s rare to read a novel set on a London council estate, with a diverse cast of characters portrayed with such heart. Was this a deliberate choice on your part?
This book was always going to be set on an estate. The estate is almost like one of the characters! But yes, I was aware that it was an unusual setting. But why? Living in social housing or in a tower block isn’t some niche, alternative way of living, it’s really quite normal. So why is it still a rare setting for novels?
On average, I read a book a week and struggle to think of many books set on council estates, yet I could easily reel off loads set on country estates and in manor houses. I wasn’t trying to make a big statement about class, the tower blocks are just a setting, the same way a terraced street is.
As far as the cast of characters being diverse well, I’m a mixed-race East Londoner. I can only write about the world and people I know.
The novel depicts an extraordinary event which irrevocably changes the lives of the characters. What was your inspiration for choosing such an event to base your story on?
My husband is Dutch, so we regularly go to Holland. One day we were driving around and a friend pointed out the Bijlmer and described it in a way that reminded me of Hackney, as it’s an area that was once ‘no go’ but has now been gentrified. He then added ‘it’s where the plane crashed.’ He said this so casually that I couldn’t quite believe it and had to go home and look it up online. Most people here in the UK don’t know about the event, it’s not part of our national history, in the way things like the Kings Cross fire are. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it after. It’s just so tragic and should never have occurred, but I kept thinking about how a community gets over something like that.
Were there difficulties in writing a fictionalised account of this kind?
It was very difficult to write the actual crash scenes. I wanted to tell the characters stories, I wanted the reader to feel everything with them, but I was so aware of doing this sympathetically. The last thing I wanted when writing the book was for it to be sensational. It had to pay tribute, in some way, to everyone who has gone through a tragedy and managed to rebuild their life. That’s really what it’s about.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with the events of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, especially its aftermath. Was this something you were consciously aware of while writing? How did that affect your process
Nightingale Point was written over two years before Grenfell happened. When I researched the original incident at the Bijlmer it was quite traumatic reading, but because it happened so long ago and in another place it felt like there was some distance, especially as so much of what I researched had to have translated first. When Grenfell happened I was shocked by some of the similarities, particularly with the aftermath. Post Bijlmer there was lots of upset from the community about how they were treated, it took long for people to be rehoused and because so many of those affected were poor or immigrants or not fluent in the language they didn’t quite know how to access those public services.
You portray some very strong, realistic and vivid characters in the book. Did you have any real-life inspirations for them?
Yes, I guess everyone I’ve ever met influenced these characters. But none of them are explicitly based on any one person. These characters each walked into my head fully formed and I couldn’t write them fast enough.
What’s your favourite scene(s) in the novel?
I have lots of small scenes I really love, mostly snippets of conversation between characters, when it really feels like they are talking- rather than me writing! Dialogue is always my favourite thing to write, it comes quite easily for me and I enjoy reading it back. I found all the ‘action scenes’ really challenging to write, so when I read those back it just reminds me of how difficult that work was.
Who are your literary favourites?
I have a top 5. I’m a huge fan of Zadie Smith, she’s my number one for so many reasons, of course for the writing, which made me want to write myself, but also because she’s always so cool, so smart and gracious. I love Jeffrey Eugenides (I’ve read and reread The Virgin Suicides more times than any other book). I also love Michael Cunningham for his beautiful prose and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche who seems to be brilliant at everything (prose, plot, comedy, melodrama). I’ve only started reading Jesmyn Ward in the last two years, but her work just blows me away.
What are you reading currently?
I tend to switch between something quite commercial and then something quite literary. So I just finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which is a love story set on a concentration camp, I’m really surprised it was so successful as it’s quite brutal in places. I’ve now started Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World which is bleak in places but superbly written. I’ll be ready for something light and humorous after these two books.
What’s next for you?
My second novel is almost done. It will be out next year with HarperCollins. It doesn’t yet have a title but is set in London and Kikuyu in Kenya. So while it doesn’t sound similar to Nightingale Point at all, I think the themes probably are.
I’m also keeping busy with short stories, one which just came out in the final issue of The Good Journal, edited by Diana Evans, and another in Resist: Stories of Uprising, an anthology of fictionalised accounts of political uprisings.
Nightingale Point is available to purchase here. Audio versions are also available.