Chelsey Philpot is here today to talk about her debut novel Even in Paradise. Reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby, among others, Even in Paradise is a story about love, friendship and the moments that come together to shape a life.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Chelsey Philpot (CP): Getting from wanting to write to being a writer is not a glamorous trip. If I make it sound easy or quick, please know that I’m condensing the journey so as not to bore your readers with the minutiae of it all.
As a kid, I read voraciously and started keeping a journal, two things I still do today. I majored in English at Vassar College and later got a masters degree in journalism from Boston University.
After BU, I worked full-time as an editor, first, in Boston and then New York City. I wrote articles and book reviews before catching the subway in the morning and after work at night. I lived on coffee and take-away meals from the bodega on the corner.
When I made the decision to fully commit to writing Even in Paradise, my days started and ended in the dark at a small desk that looked out the back window of my Brooklyn walk-up.
I was very lucky to sign with a fantastic agent who found a home for EIP at HarperCollins.
MP: Even in Paradise began life as a retelling of Brideshead Revisited. What drew you to this source material? Were there other inspirations at play?
CP: I fell in love with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when I was studying abroad in Scotland. Waugh’s novel is about an aristocratic family and the outsider who falls in love with them all. Reflecting back, I think that what drew me to this book was that at its core it’s a coming-of-age story.
I deliberately reference a bunch of “boarding school novels,” such as John Knowles’s A Separate Peace and John Green’s Looking for Alaska. And EIP is very much a love letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As for other influences, I’ve really loved having readers point them out to me.
MP: One of my favorite things about this novel is Charlotte’s narrative voice and the fact that she has no regrets about the events in the book. How did you go about capturing Charlotte’s voice? Did you always know she would remember the events of the novel fondly rather than with remorse?
CP: It took many, many drafts and a lot of conversations with my editor to hone Charlie’s voice. Her ability to look back on her time with the Buchanans without remorse is also demonstrated in how she approaches art. While some people might see past hurts as regrets and discarded items as junk, Charlie sees how her heartaches helped her grow and how old bottles, wire hangers, etc. can become art.
MP: Much of this story takes place at Charlotte and Julia’s boarding school. Did any real locations inspire St. Anne’s or any of the other locations in the story?
CP: The settings in EIP are a mishmash of places I’ve been and places of my imagination. For example, all the dorms are named after colleges at Oxford University, where I spent the summer before my senior year. The St. Anne’s library is the gorgeous library at Vassar College, where I spent so much time as an undergraduate. And in high school (I went to a boarding school), we really did “borrow” lunch trays from the dining hall and use them for sledding. In fact, the wonderful woman who worked as the head chef while I was a student came to one of my readings. Turns out, she knew we took the trays but let us think otherwise because the excitement made the whole ordeal more fun.
MP: Charlotte spends a lot of the novel collecting mementos for significant memories. Is this trait one you have in common with your heroine? Do you have any special memento from your past that you can tell us about?
CP: I like to collect shells. I have a jar of them on my desk—right next to a menagerie of plastic and wooden animals. The shells have dates written on the inside to remind me when I collected each and the story/memory of that particular day.
A lot of Charlotte’s character is informed by the fact that she is an artist. How did you decide what kind of artist Charlotte would be? Did you always know that her artwork would play a large role in the story–particularly at the end?
CP: I am a total art geek. My idea of a perfect Saturday is one that begins at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and ends with a dance performance at the Institute of Contemporary Art. As of late, I’ve been particularly fascinated by found-art sculptures (the kind of works Charlotte creates). There’s just something so lovely about the idea that discarded and scarred objects can be transformed into art.
I knew one of Charlie’s works would play a role in the final chapter, because the sculpture, in a way, represents how she’s taken her memories (the good and the bad) and used them to make a beautiful life.
While this story is very much focused on Charlotte’s friendship with Julia, there is also a bit of a mystery involved. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?
CP: Oh boy, I am very much a need-to-write-multiple-drafts-before-I-get-to-where-I-need-to-be writer. Thus, my not very exciting answer is that I honed the pacing of the mystery over the course of many, many drafts.
It was really important to me that the mystery had layers, meaning that if readers figured out what happened before the end, they would keep reading to uncover why it happened.
In Even in Paradise Charlotte begins to collect bottle caps with fun facts on them reminiscent of Snapple bottle cap facts. Do you have a favorite fact from a cap of your own?
CP: “Nantucket is not a part of Kentucky.” Found on a Nantucket Nectars bottle cap.
Can you tell us anything about your next project?
CP: Yes! Book two is currently in my editor’s hands. I’m not ready to say too much about it other than that this is the novel I very much had to write after Even in Paradise.
Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
CP: Really think about why you write. If it’s because you’ve already picked out a pen for the thousands of signings you’ll one day travel to or because you’ve finalize what stars are in the cast for the blockbuster film version of your first novel, these reasons won’t sustain you.
If you let it, writing can be a soul-crushing, heart-wrenching business. Successes are fleeting; criticisms are inevitable; and hard work is mandatory. Really, it’s the quieter joys (finding the perfect word, revisiting memories, getting a message from a fan) that make the hours of solitude and early mornings worth it.
Having a book published will not change your life—but writing, living bravely so you have experiences to write about, will.
Thanks to Chelsey for taking the time to answer my questions!