One of the many things that we love about our lifework community is the diversity of interesting jobs that our members do. So welcome to our new series Meet a Member, and allow us to introduce you to Lucy Barker, who joined lifework in May.
Lucy was the runner-up for the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize with her debut novel The Other Side of Mrs. Wood, anirresistible historical comedy about two rival mediums in Victorian London, inspired by the real-life rivalry between famous spiritualists Agnes Guppy and Florence Cook in the 1870s. It's out now in all good bookshops.
1. You have a masters in Victorian Studies, what is it about women from this period that draws you in?
Victorian women are fascinating. History has left us viewing them as this homogenous type: either oppressed, repressed or abused, but this just isn’t true. Victorian women were as diverse, creative, innovative and driven as we are today, just in a different way. Yes they were doing all that within a society that didn’t offer much opportunity to working- and middle-class women, but they were still doing it. I want to celebrate these women who were living their lives with similar wants, needs and anxieties, my goal is to make them relatable so we don’t forget that our ancestors were as extraordinary as us.
2. Your brand new book is already hitting recommended lists for 2023, when did you begin writing it, and can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
I began Mrs Wood in 2019 as a competition entry. When Curtis Brown Literary Agency announced their First Novel Award for unpublished writers, it was a kickstart for me after a few years noodling around with stuff and not progressing anything. I’ve always written – like always – but after years and years of nothing coming of it, I was feeling tired and jaded. When I saw the announcement, though, I told another writer friend and she bullied me into getting something written and submitted. That was the first few chapters of Mrs Wood. A few months later I found out I’d come second and was offered representation by Lucy Morris, one of Curtis Brown’s up and coming agents. That was a gamechanger. I didn’t have a novel, I had 8k words. But now I’d been signed, I had no excuse not to finish it! It took just over two years around working full time, lockdown and two under 5 to get it to a point where it was ready to fine tune, and then Lucy and I polished it to go out on submission to Editors. This can take a long time in itself as Editors are so busy, but I was amazed that within a week, it went to auction and it was won by Fourth Estate in the UK, and then it was pre-empted by Harper Books in the US in a separate deal. As Lucy had forced me to get it into such good shape, it was ready to go to print quite quickly and was published almost a year to the day that Fourth Estate pitched to me. The book now is nothing like the few chapters that I submitted, apart from the opening séance which is pretty much the only thing that survived four complete drafts.
3. Along with Mrs Wood, what other summer reads can you recommend for our members?
THE HOUSEKEEPERS by Alex Hay is a brilliant late Victorian heist novel where the women downstairs set out to fleece the upstairs poshos. Think Downton Abbey meets Oceans 8.
THAT BONESETTER WOMAN by Frances Quinn is another immersive historical: warmly written it’s about an oddball woman who wants to be a bonesetter in Georgian London.
Recently, I flew through TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin – a story of love, friendship and gaming. It’s brilliant.
For pure escapism: Ruth Kelly’s absolute joyride in THE VILLA.
And Gillian McAllister’s WRONG PLACE WRONG TIME is winning accolades for all the right reasons. It’s a mindbending thriller.
If you fancy some non-fiction, Hallie Rubenfold’s THE FIVE is a fascinating and fresh study of the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper that places them front and centre of the story and reveals the truth about their lives as unique individuals. It’s a few years old now, but unmissable.
4. When did you join, and what do you love about lifework?
I joined in May and come once a week when I can – my promotion schedule has kept me away for a bit which is annoying. I really love the space I get when I come to Lifework – both figurative and literarily. It’s calm, light-filled and welcoming and being able to drive there feels like a commute which is exactly what I need to get into the right headspace for writing. Nothing is too much for the team, and I even had a cup of tea made for me while I edited which was an absolute treat!
5. Last of all, what’s your lifework balance? (what do you love to do outside work/writing?)
We recently moved to Bath so I love exploring the city. My children are 6 & 7 and the wealth of brilliant parks we can walk to which also have great coffee has changed our lives from the relative rural isolation we were living in before. Having kids, though, means that balance is tricky. My eldest has autism so homelife can be a bit demanding, which is another reason why I love retreating to Lifework. It really is my sanctuary.