Tess Little, a Life Member of Clare Hall, reveals details of her journey to publishing a debut novel
I studied for my MPhil in Modern European History at Clare Hall in 2013–14.
After that, I sat the Fellowship Examinations at All Souls College, Oxford, and was elected as a Fellow. It’s a seven-year Fellowship, so I’m just approaching the end. During that time, I completed my doctorate — which explores the 1970s women’s liberation movement in the UK, US, and France — and I’ve been writing fiction, too. My debut novel, The Octopus, was published in the UK last August, and it’ll be published in the US as The Last Guest this October.
The Octopus begins as a classic murder mystery.
Elspeth Bryant Bell, a former actress, is attending the fiftieth birthday of her ex-husband Richard at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills. She’s expecting to find an enormous party in his honour, but when she arrives, there are only seven other guests — and Richard’s pet octopus, Persephone, silently floating in a tank beside them. By morning, Richard is dead, and his eight guests are the only suspects. So The Octopus begins as a locked-room mystery, but as the novel unfolds, it becomes something else — an exploration of power, memory, and guilt.
The reception to the novel has been incredibly exciting to see…
although the pandemic dampened this somewhat. We had to cancel the launch party, the publication date was shifted back, and events — bookshop talks and festivals — weren’t possible. But readers have been reaching out in other ways — through messages, online reviews, Zoom book clubs — and local bookshops have been really supportive too. I have all my fingers crossed that by October, when the novel comes out in the US and is printed in a new paperback format in the UK, events might run again. I would love to meet readers in person!
Writing The Octopus was a slightly strange process, in that it first began life as a short novella, which I wrote while doing archival research in Paris in early 2017, never thinking it would become a novel.
When that draft was finished, I let it gather dust for a year, then on a whim I entered it to the 2018 Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award. The draft reached the longlist of eight, so I decided to dust it off, and began the long process of expanding it to a novel.
Without the Development Fund Bursary and Research Grant I received from Clare Hall to undertake my MPhil, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to continue with postgraduate study
My advice to budding authors is simple: persevere.
The notion of writing a longer work of fiction always felt daunting to me, but once I started, it was just a matter of stumbling onward. The main thing is to not give up, even through all the rounds of drafting, editing, proofreading, getting feedback from agents, and submitting to publishers. Finding the motivation to pick yourself up again is always the hardest part.
My time at Clare Hall had a huge impact on my writing.
During my MPhil, I wrote my first proper short story — the first I’d rewritten and edited carefully — and took it to a workshop run by student anthology The Mays. I was wracked with nerves. It was the first time I’d given anyone my work to read, let alone strangers, and I thought it would be torn to shreds. In the event I received very constructive criticism, and the story ended up being published in that year’s anthology. So my time at Clare Hall led to my first ever piece of published fiction, and that gave me the confidence to pursue fiction-writing seriously.
It was also an important step in my historical work. Without the Development Fund Bursary and Research Grant I received from Clare Hall to undertake my MPhil, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to continue with postgraduate study — and as a result, wouldn’t have gone on to obtain a doctorate.
And finally, it led to friendships which I’m sure I’ll keep for the rest of my life, including friends who have supported my writing over the years.
As for future plans, I’d love to continue writing and publishing fiction. My dream is to make a living doing that, but we’ll see.
And one thing few people know about me…
Various kinds of meat and seafood are consumed in The Octopus — including the eponymous species — but I’ve never tried any of them, having been a vegetarian my whole life! So there’s the secret: my descriptions of all those carnivorous meals are mere guesswork…