A Conversation with Manchester Author Lara Williams
Welcome to supper club.
Tonight’s menu consists of the finest vegetables and cheeses (found in the dumpster) and baked goods (stolen from a cafe display case). It will be held at Manchester’s most exclusive after-hours venue (the poorly-guarded department store, which should really invest in a better security system).
Is it your typical dinner party? No–but that’s the point, at least in Lara Williams’ new novel, Supper Club. Supper Club tells the story of Roberta, an almost-thirty-year-old in England who starts a secret club for women determined to reclaim their bodies and their space in the world. How? By eating and celebrating wherever and however they please, social norms be damned.
I met Lara while she was in Toronto visiting from Manchester–not over dumpster-picked food during a midnight break-in, thankfully, but rather in a sunlit room at Penguin Random House on one of the nicer pre-spring days. She’d just come from a book club event, and we turn the tables from discussing her as a reader, to her as an author. “I always kind of had a nebulous idea that I wanted to do writing,” she says. “Then I did a Creative Writing Masters in my mid-to-late twenties, and it was probably only about halfway through that, that I was like, oh yeah…this is what I definitely want to do!”
Today, in addition to being an author, Lara is an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, a journalist, and a marketing copywriter, all of which, she says, has helped her as a fiction writer.
The Journey From Shorts to Novels
Her first book, A Selfie as Big as The Ritz (published as Treats in the UK), is a collection of short stories that touch on everything from loneliness to penguin fetishes. But, as Lara explains, making the switch from writing short stories to writing a novel was quite intimidating, as she wasn’t sure she’d be able to sustain an interesting narrative for the length of time that’s required. (Spoiler alert: She totally can.)
“Short stories are good in terms of the level of control they offer you as an author because you can sort of step back and see the shape of them,” she explains. “You can see the dramatic ebbs and flows, and you can see the kind of beats that need to be hit. Whereas I think you have to let go of control a little bit in a novel; there are some parts where you kind of have to just do the job of telling the story.”
Joining The Club
Supper Club was born out of Lara’s desire to write about a collective of women and the concept of transgression. “I was interested in the way transgression was often at the expense of women’s bodies,” she says. “And [how] men were often transgressing through the dehumanization of women. I was wondering what transgression would look like from a female perspective, and then I sort of decided to begin with just developing a character and thinking about what might make a person need that.”
Ironically, Lara wrote much of Supper Club–a story of women living as boisterously as they please–in a place that feels completely at odds with the idea: the Manchester Central Library’s reading room. “It’s this authoritative, patriarchal building,” explains Lara. “It’s this horribly oppressive space where if you put your pen down it reverberates around the room. But there’s something about the oppressiveness of the space that’s very conducive to work. I found that if I went to a café or somewhere nice where I was enjoying myself I wouldn’t do very much, whereas if I went into the reading room I would come out drafting 6,000 words in a day.”
Between writing, teaching, and writing some more, Lara spends a lot of her time in the kitchen. Cooking dinner is often how she decompresses at the end of the day, using it as a bridge that gently takes her from a day of work into a night of relaxation. Much like Supper Club’s Roberta, Lara sees it as leisure time rather than a dreaded task. “One of the things I wanted to write about in Supper Club was the idea of cooking as a way of moving your body and using your body,” says Lara. “I feel like cooking is a different sort of exercise; it’s just a way of being in your body and moving your body in a methodical way.”
On Connecting IRL
Just like our team at BooknBrunch, Lara believes that one of the biggest joys of food is sharing it with others. “One of my New Years’ resolutions this year was to have people over for dinner more,” she says. “There’s something egalitarian about it; people just come around to my house and it doesn’t cost anything. Nobody is precluded from that. I feel like that’s quite an important thing and I would like that it be more of a common thing.”
That desire for more real-life connections wasn’t just driven by her love of cooking, but her lack of love for the faux-connection fueled by social media, which she’s dialed-down her use of in exchange for more authentic relationships. “I’ve stopped reading Twitter recently just for my mental health. The hours spent mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Twitter…it kind of makes you feel engaged. It makes you feel like you’re participating in something, but you’re absolutely not participating in something. So I thought getting rid of that sense of I’m part of a conversation or I’m active in some way would force me to be more active in an actually meaningful capacity.”
So, what’s next for Lara Williams?
Lara is currently working on her first piece of speculative fiction, a novel set on a cruise that’s inspired by the nature of work and its increasing demands on our bodies, thoughts, and identities.
Thankfully, the journey of writing a full-length novel–with all of its ups and downs–is one Lara will gladly make for a second time. “I feel like it’s the equivalent of–I’ve never run a marathon, and I never will,” she says. “But I imagine it’s the same feeling of, Wow! That was horrible…I want to do it again!”
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Shannon Hodgen is a lifelong writer, DIY enthusiast, and homebody. She satisfies her need to put pen to paper–or, more accurately, fingertips to keyboard–as an agency copywriter, blog contributor, and freelance editor in Toronto.
Favourite Book: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Favourite Brunch Spot: Dirty Food Eatery in The Junction