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Get to know our 2021 debut authors

We speak to the writers behind some of our best debuts of the year, to learn more about their lives and how they write.

We know it can be difficult to decide what to read, but we also know that you want to be ahead of the game, finding new talent and reading books that everyone will soon be talking about. 

So here, we’ve picked 16 authors with debut novels out this year, and spoken to them about their books, their inspirations and more. 

Black and white photograph of Ashley Audrain, smiling at the camera wearing a white shirt and light trousers, with her legs crossed.
Ashley Audrain. Image: Barbara Stoneham

The Push by Ashley Audrain (7 January)

Ashley Audrain started writing The Push when her son was six months old. She’d been considering how society conditions people to assume motherhood will be an idyllic experience, when the reality for most people is very different.

"Fear and anxiety are a natural part of motherhood, and yet we don’t often make space for those conversations,” says Audrain. "I wanted to explore some of the darkest of those fears: What if a mother didn’t love her child? What if a child did something she couldn’t forgive? What would that feel like? The characters of Blythe and Violet were born from there.”

Photograph of Hafsa Zayyan looking at the camera, smiling.
Hafsa Zayyan. Image: Bhavin Bhatt

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan (21 January)

Hafsa Zayyan has perhaps had a longer wait than most writers for the release of her debut novel, and her readers have too: Zayyan won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers' Prize in 2019 for We Are All Birds of Uganda, and her highly-anticipated book was due out in 2020. But it was moved because of the pandemic.

The Merky competition asked for stories that weren’t being told, and Zayyan responded with a tale of South Asian expulsion from Uganda in the early 1970s, something she’d learned of shortly before beginning work on the novel. 

A photograph of Elizabeth Lee
Elizabeth Lee. Image: SWJ Photography

Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee (22 April)

Elizabeth Lee hadn’t planned on writing a historical novel, but the tragic true story of the Pendle Witch Trials cast a spell on her. “I became fascinated by the situation of the family involved – they were poverty-stricken and outcast, yet also feared because they were believed to have a great power,” she says. While Cunning Women isn’t directly about Pendle, Lee wanted to capture that atmosphere of suspicion and superstition in her 1620-set novel. “We don’t often get to hear the voices of the accused in these cases,” she says, “and so I wanted to give voice to that perspective too.”

Lee, who is from Warwickshire, won the Curtis Brown Creative Marian Keyes Scholarship but that didn’t mean working on her debut wasn’t a juggle. “I wrote the book during a particularly busy time in my life – both my teenagers were still at home and I was working two jobs, so it was really a case of fitting in writing whenever I could,” she says. “I mostly squeezed out a few words sitting at my kitchen table while I was supposed to be cooking the dinner – we had quite a few burned meals at that time!” As a result of winning a place on the scholarship she found an agent. “Finding an agent, and then an editor, that had the same vision for the book as I did was a truly wonderful experience,” Lee says. “All their notes were so in tune with what I wanted Cunning Women to be that the editing process was actually quite exciting and I really felt it helped to make the book the best version it could be.”

Black and white photograph of Caleb Azumah Nelson, smiling at the camera and wearing a white shirt and black trousers.
Caleb Azumah Nelson. Image: Stuart Simpson

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (4 February)

There are great loves, and then there’s the love in Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water. It’s the story of a photographer and a dancer, whose connection is instant. But as they navigate being Black in a hostile world, and come to terms with grief and loss, their happily ever after is challenged.

Azumah Nelson, who cites Zadie Smith as an inspiration (her novel NW and her writing in general is referred to multiple times by the characters), lost three grandparents, his godfather and an aunt in the year leading up to writing Open Water. He was also working on a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, from music to art to mourning.

Close up photograph of Tish Delaney.
Tish Delaney.

Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney (18 February)

In Before My Actual Heart Breaks, Tish Delaney wanted to tell a story about the "very ordinary lives being led behind the headlines of The Troubles in Northern Ireland”. 

"I thought an unusual love story, set in the deep dark countryside of a County Tyrone border town, would be a good way to do that,” says Delaney.

The book’s central character is Mary Rattigan, who wants to leave Northern Ireland behind to pursue her dreams. But 25 years later, she’s got five children and has missed the steps leading to the life she hoped to live. 

A photograph of Karla Neblett
Karla Neblett. Image: Sophie Davidson

King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett (25 March)

Before she wrote her incendiary debut, King of Rabbits, Karla Neblett worked with vulnerable young people, such as those who had drink and substance misuse issues and as a Young Carers’ Officer. At 30, though, “I realised I was as miserable and skint as I was at the age of 19 so thought, 'Fuck it, I might as well try and become a writer because I literally have nothing to lose”.

King of Rabbits was the result: an extraordinary debut, it tells the beautiful and poignant story of Kai, who lives on a rural council estate in Somerset. Kai’s father is a criminal who leads his mother into crack addiction, and while he is raised with love by his grandmother and sister, it is the wilds of the woods that offer him refuge from a life of almost inevitable tragedy.

Neblett says she was “determined to write a book that my brothers and semi-literate father could pick up and read, with simple language, and with characters and an environment that they would recognise and that would resonate within them.” 

Black and white photograph of Megan Nolan, with her hair down and wearing a black top with white writing on it.
Megan Nolan. Image: Lynn Rothwell

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (4 March)

"I had exited a string of unhealthy romantic dynamics in my mid-20s and felt totally traumatised and blindsided by the way that both my partners and I had behaved,” Megan Nolan says about the time leading up to the writing of Acts of Desperation.

"Because I was so hurt by them it was easy for me to cast myself as the victim, but when I calmed down and really thought about them it was almost as though neither party had acted with any considered agency; it was more like this perfect storm of circumstances and defensive reaction that led to the hurt, rather than one person being the aggressor and one the receiver.

Photograph of Anna Bailey, wearing a dark jumper and blue and white striped scarf, in front of some rocks, looking off to the right.
Anna Bailey. Image: Salt & Sea Photography Co

Tall Bones by Anna Bailey (8 April)

Anna Bailey’s Tall Bones opens at the tail end of a party taking place in the woods above a small town in Colorado, America. It is a location informed by the time Bailey spent living in the US.

"I lived there for a few years in a very claustrophobic environment, full of religious fundamentalism, deep-seated intolerance, and huge dusty landscapes that left you feeling alone on the edge of civilisation,” Bailey says. "It was beautiful and terrifying. I was trying to reconcile myself to it because I had decided to live there and was far too stubborn to admit I’d made a mistake, but I was a closeted lesbian hiding in some very pro-Trump communities, and I got to see a really dark side to that country. When I eventually got away, I knew I had to write about this, if only to try and make sense of things.”

A photograph of Catherine Menon
Catherine Menon. Image: Penguin

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon (8 April)

Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters is completely fictional, but it is based on her own family’s experiences in Malaysia during the Second World War.

"When I was small my father used to tell me stories about his childhood in Kuala Lipis, which I found fascinating,” she says. "It was only as an adult that I realised the significance of some of these stories: Kuala Lipis was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang, following the invasion of Malaya. 

"I began researching in the British Library, reading memoirs and interviews with people who’d lived through the invasion. Several of these narratives described the same events from completely different perspectives, and I became intrigued about how we choose our own truth when we recollect our histories. 

"It was this idea of slipperiness – of a constantly shifting past, subject to our categorisations and curations – that inspired the dual narratives of Fragile Monsters.”

Fragile Monsters is about Durga and her grandmother Mary, a difficult woman to love. Stuck together in the rising heat on a visit Durga makes to Mary, the pair are forced to confront their family’s past and the secrets they’ve been hiding, including what happened to Durga’s mother, and why so many of the family disappeared during the war.

A photograph of Jodie Chapman
Jodie Chapman. Image: Lee Robbins

Another Life by Jodie Chapman (1 April)

Jodie Chapman has always been a keen observer of romance. Before embarking on her finely captured debut novel, Another Life, she spent 10 years as a wedding photographer. The novel is ostensibly the story of Nick and Anna, who fall in love young, and then out of it. When tragedy brings them back together, they must contend with the baggage of adulthood as well as their feelings. The novel has won Chapman comparisons to Sally Rooney and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and discussed on BBC2 Between the Covers.

Chapman was inspired to write the book, she told Penguin.co.uk, from an unlikely place: watching her two “very different” sons play and observing the dynamic between them, as well as her own lived experience. “Nick and Anna’s story arrived fully formed, and although Anna is fictional, I drew on my upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness,” she says.

A photograph of Natasha Brown
Natasha Brown. Image: Penguin

Assembly by Natasha Brown (3 June)

If you’ve loved the BBC drama Industry, about graduates making their way in the city, then Natasha Brown’s Assembly should be at the top of your reading list.

The novel’s narrator is an unnamed Black British woman who has been navigating the world of investment banking, her boyfriend’s political ambitions and her friend’s lean-in feminism, until one day, she faces a life or death decision.

"I was trying to capture the claustrophobia of the narrator’s world, and the hostility of it – how it felt for her to exist, and to succeed, as a black woman working in the City,” says Brown. "That stifling, pressurised entry point propelled the novel, and its narrator, forward.”

Photograph of Sara Jafari, wearing a yellow and white checked top.
Sara Jafari.

The Mismatch by Sara Jafari (24 June)

For decades – centuries, even – large swathes of people haven’t been represented in romance novels. That’s slowly changing, with writers including Talia Hibbert, Justin Myers and Kevin van Whye. Joining their ranks is Sara Jafari, whose novel The Mismatch came about because she never felt seen in books.

"I very distinctly remember searching Amazon as a teenager for books with Iranian protagonists, exploring being between two cultures, and I came up with nothing,” she explains. "Even today, I still feel there aren’t anywhere near enough books by British Iranians being published, and I think it’s so important to see yourself reflect in the books you read. I recently read a book by an American Iranian author and the experience of feeling ‘seen’ for the first time is so special. It’s my hope that my book helps other people feel seen too.”

Miranda Cowley Heller sitting back on her hands, wearing a light blue denim shirt and looking at the camera.
Miranda Cowley Heller.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (8 July)

Miranda Cowley Heller knows what makes a good story. As senior vice president and head of drama series at HBO for a decade, she oversaw and developed television shows including The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. And now she’s turned her attention from finding great stories by other people to writing a great story herself.

The Paper Palace began because of the author’s musings with some artists about painting and plasiticity, leading Cowley Heller to think about the difference between what we imagine something is and what it actually is.

A photograph of Pip Williams
Pip Williams. Image: Andre Goosen

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (4 April)

It’s almost irresistible, while reading Pip Williams’ vivid debut, not to try and look up the history that informed it. For bookish people, dictionaries are something that just always have been such a part of the furniture that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. It was, of course, written – and perhaps more recently than you think. Williams takes us back to Oxford of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to explore the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary – and whose voices were not included or deemed worthy of making the cut.

“I was talking about women and women's words and experiences not being seen or heard,” Williams tells Penguin. In Australia, where Williams lives, the book became a bestselling sensation, something she thinks has to do with the fact that the pandemic year sharpened a sense of underlying social inequality.

Photograph of Jo Hamya, wearing a one shouldered black top.
Jo Hamya.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (8 July)

When Jo Hamya began Three Rooms, it was a very, very different to novel to what it is now.

It was, says Hamya, "originally meant to be a psychogeographical bildungsroman about a cohort of boys who would grow up to be allegories of the neo-Conservative politicians prominent in Westminster since 2010”. 

At that time the rooms of the title were Eton, Oxford and the Houses of Parliament. Hamya found, however, that she couldn’t sustain an interest in the plot, but was still "interested in the question of how certain rooms and buildings breed either privilege or its reverse in England”.

So Three Rooms is now the story of a young woman as she moves from a rented room while working at Oxford University, to couch surfing as a casually contracted worker at England’s last society magazine, before ending up, jobless, on a train back to her childhood bedroom. But it still contains some of the thoughts and ideas of the book she first began.

"Much of the news cycle between 2018 and 2019 revolved around questions of nationalism, class, and how individuals should inhabit room or land allowed them by the former two,” says Hamya. "I was also dying to write a novel that could be formally inventive and true to how digital technology and social media arrange people’s thoughts.”

Rachel Yoder
Rachel Yoder. Image: Penguin

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder (22 July)

It’s not entirely clear if life imitated art, or art imitated life for Rachel Yoder, so much as life and art colliding in a book so provocative, honest and challenging that it is already being adapted into a Hollywood film starring Amy Adams. Yoder’s titular Nightbitch is the canine-like creature who emerges from an artist and young mother who struggles to make time for her own needs.

“I stopped writing for two years after I had my son, sent into a sort of creative shock from the intensity and mind-numbing monotony of being at home with an infant and toddler 24/7,” Yoder says. “When I began to write again, I was determined to draft a book and publish it, determined to claw my way out of the sludge of motherhood and get back to my writing self which I had missed so desperately. Nightbitch was motivated by my own experience of early motherhood: the loneliness, isolation, and lack of support.”

Victoria Mas
Victoria Mas. Image: Astrid di Crollalanza

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas (17 June)

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. So French author Victoria Mas found after stumbling upon The Mad Women’s Ball, an actual soiree that took place at the Salpetriere asylum in the late 19th century, where the Parisian elite mingled with the women who were recuperating there. “I was surprised that the real 19th century events were very little-known, if not at all,” says Mas. “I wanted to shine a light on those women and tell their story.”

As Mas explains, the novel tells the story of Genevieve, head nurse at the Salpêtrière Hospital in late 19th century Paris, who has been watching over hysterical women for 20 years. “The arrival of a new patient will change her convictions and her fate.”

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