The most surprising thing about Francesca Segal was that she was in her 30s before she published a novel. Aged three, her imaginary friend was the secretary who would take dictation for her. When she was six, Segal would hand stories she had written over to her father — Erich Segal, the author of Love Story — to take to his publishers.
Yet despite writing for a living as a journalist, and being desperate to publish a novel, Oxford- and Harvard-educated Segal was not in a hurry to write her first book.
This was partly because she wanted to wait for the right story to come into her head. But also partly because as reviewer of debut fiction on the Observer, she knew the best new novels tended to be written by more mature authors.
When the idea for a book eventually came, however, it was clearly a good one. Her first novel, The Innocents, has won not just the Costa Book Award for new fiction, but also the American National Jewish Book Award for fiction — previous winners of which include A B Yehoshua, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
The Innocents is a reworking of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, set in the north-west London Jewish community in which Segal was brought up and still lives. Sitting in a Hampstead cafe, within a mile or two of where most of the action takes place, Segal recalls the moment that she came up with the idea.
“I was in New York re-reading Wharton. There’s that opening scene in The Age of Innocence where they are at the Academy of Music. Faust is playing and the most adored soprano of the day is reaching this climactic aria. Yet no one is remotely interested in her — they are just interested in one another, what they are wearing, who is sleeping with whom and what is going on. It just so reminded me of what happened at synagogue during the chagim.”
Thus the opening scene of Segal’s novel is set in synagogue on Kol Nidre. She continues: “When that thought came into my head I just had to do it. I saw that all the central dilemmas and pressures in Wharton’s novel were the same as those in the Jewish community and I had questions of my own which I could also work in. I kept the skeleton of the plot but I didn’t want to write a facsimile. I wanted it to be a live contemporary novel. I put The Age of Innocence away and didn’t read it again until my book was finished.”
She is at pains to point out that, while set in the heart of the Jewish community, this is not really a novel about the community per se — that in Golders Green alone there are dozens of different communities, all interwoven but completely separate from each other.
She also feels that, while the dynamics of the plot demand the book be set within a small, enclosed community, it did not have to be a Jewish one.
“I did not set out to write an anthropological guide to Anglo-Jewry. It is a very small, specific facet of one community which is true to the way that I observed it. What I was so excited about was not that it worked so perfectly in north-west London, but that it could equally have taken place in somewhere about which I’m not best qualified to write, like a Muslim community in south London, a Hindu community in Ealing or a small village in Wales. Also, I don’t feel it’s caricature. The characters are fictional but the social climate was one I’m familiar with.”
The community she describes in the book, largely from the point of view of protagonist Adam, who is torn between his conventional fiancee, Rachel, and her rebellious cousin, Ellie, is a warm but claustrophic one.
“All small communities have that feel about them,” Segal says. “But what is in the novel is Adam’s perception. He is not right about everything. He is not right about Rachel and he is not completely right about the atmosphere. One of the things I value most about this community is that there is space for people to be different and still to be part of things.
"In fact, it was very hard for me to think of something Ellie could do that would be considered sufficiently shocking. There’s not much – we’re pretty liberal. In the end all I could think of was here appearing in a porn film. I think that it’s a very elastic community and that is something to be proud of.”
Yet she can also relate to Adam’s misgivings about the community. “There were points in my late 20s when I was still single, thinking to myself, I know everyone — who am I going to marry? I thought I knew everyone there was to know.”
There is an element of irony in The Innocents being set in a Jewish community, given that Edith Wharton was a notorious antisemite. Segal laughs, but Wharton’s hatred of Jews is something that she has wrestled with.
“I went to this beautiful house that Wharton built in Lennox, Massachusetts. It has been preserved as a museum. While I was there I felt this palpable air of disapproval. I do think she’s probably spinning in her grave but there’s no revenge attack intended.”
Segal points out that, if anything, Wharton was even more antisemitic than has been assumed. Her biographer Hermione Lee wrote that Wharton’s early editors amended her letters and journals in “a chivalrous way”, removing many of her worst excesses.
So does this prejudice take away from Wharton’s literary greatness? Segal ponders: “It’s a hard one to navigate. What I’ve reconciled myself to Wharton, whom I love, is that her era was pre-Holocaust. She was very much a product of her times. That’s not to excuse it. It’s an ongoing debate. For example, I won’t read Kingsley Amis because he was modern and post-Holocaust. Somehow his antisemitism offends me more.”
Segal has been immersed in literature since she was a tiny child. She thinks this has less to do with being the child of a famous writer and much more to do with being raised in a household in which literature was exalted. Books were almost the defining feature of her childhood.
“My father being famous? I had absolutely no idea about that. But his being a writer was important to me because I was a nice Jewish girl who worshipped her daddy. I wanted to do what he did. When he read me bedtime stories it would often be poems for adults but with cadences and language that children would enjoy. My father was a classicist and that, even more than the fact that he wrote novels, informed the atmosphere in our house. Etymology was for him important enough that he would leave the dinner table to find something, read it and explain it.”
Francesca’s world was books. Because her sister is nine years younger than her, she was for a long time an only child. So she would spend most of her time reading. She recalls reading as she walked down the street to school, her mother guiding her in the right direction.
She always assumed that she would grow up to be a novelist but that ambition led to a terrible anxiety. What if she wrote a novel and it was rejected?
“There was this Jewish neurosis. If no one publishes the book then I have to train as something else. All I ever wanted to be was a writer. It is who I am in the secret life in my head. To put myself out there and be told that I was not good enough would be a negation not just of what I wanted to be, but also of who I thought I was.
“Of course there was also the good fantasy. Not about winning awards, which I never contemplated, but about having my novel published — with a jacket — by a real publisher.”
In the event she need not have worried. Segal already had an agent, who sent the manuscript out to publishers. There was an auction for the rights both here and in the United States, where sales have been going very well. And the television rights have been snapped up by the production company which makes Downton Abbey.
Nonetheless, when she was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, she confesses to being “flabbergasted. Once I was on the shortlist, the prospect of winning was there. But even then I was surprised when I did win because it was such a great list.”
Segal describes the moment when she discovered she had won the award. “I was away in Thailand with my husband. It was to be announced on Front Row on Radio 4. So there we were crouching outside a cafe at 2am trying to get wifi, being eaten alive by mosquitos, and listening to the presenter, Mark Lawson, make the announcement. And I won.
“Suddenly the mosquitoes didn’t seem to matter anymore.”