A chemist who becomes a trailblazing TV star. A love story set in an Italian town ran by the mafia. A passenger ship trapped afloat in a war-torn future. There are many brilliant stories waiting to be discovered in our stand-out debut novels of 2022, and what better way to hear about them than from the authors themselves?
Here we get to know 12 Penguin writers in that most exciting of career moments: waiting to release their debut novel into the world. Here, they discuss how they got their ideas, which other authors inspire them and why their book might just be your favourite breakout read of the year.
Bonnie Garmus – Lessons in Chemistry
After a meeting at work left her in a bad mood, 64-year-old Bonnie Garmus decided it was time to finally put pen to paper: “I sat down and felt like Elizabeth was there with me and I began to write my first chapter.” The result was Lessons in Chemistry, a story about 1960s America in which Elizabeth Zott, a talented chemist, is forced out of her research job and becomes the star of a popular cooking show. But instead of teaching housewives how to make dinner, she teaches them how to change their lives.
Another inspiration for the Garmus was rereading Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic The Feminine Mystique, which prompted memories of her mother and inspired her novel’s setting. “I could remember these housewives having to do so much work and take care of so many kids, and it was never recognised as work,” she says. As a mother of two daughters, she wanted to write something that has resonance for women today, too: “It occurred to me that my daughters weren’t going to have the same job opportunities or be paid the same as men. And they would always, always have to walk home looking over their shoulder. And that’s still true in every corner of the world today."
Ayanna Lloyd Banwo – When We Were Birds
It’s not often a debut novel wins comparisons to a release as momentous as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, but Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s atmospheric When We Were Birds has done just that. “It’s about two young outsiders: Darwin, who has recently become a gravedigger, and Yejide, who will inherit a family's affinity with the dead,” says the writer, who is from Trinidad & Tobago. “They're connected to the dead as much as they are connected to each other and find that their lives and the lives of the whole city – the living and the dead – intertwined with their love story.”
The 41-year-old moved to the UK to study creative writing, and while she started the novel in 2018, she didn’t land a publisher until 2020, while she was separated from her partner by the pandemic (she was in Norfolk; he was in London). “It was extremely odd. We wanted to celebrate but we didn’t feel comfortable getting on the train, so I just sat in my flat and had a cup of tea!”
Taymour Soomro – Other Names for Love
Other Names for Love is Taymour Soomro’s debut, but it isn’t his first attempt at writing a novel. That honour belongs to a self-described “terrible book” he wrote when he was younger that he says was “thankfully” never published.
“It was a terrible book, in part because I had not come out to my family at that point. I was really afraid, terrified of outing myself in my fiction, so I wrote as far away from myself as possible. It wasn't really until after I came out to my parents that I gave myself permission to write more freely.”
That artistic freedom brought about his beautiful new novel about a powerful landlord who takes his sensitive teenage son to a country estate in rural Pakistan to toughen him up. There, in Soomro’s words, “the father ends up learning the limits of his own power, and the son ends up falling in love with the son of a neighbouring landlord; it's about the father and son’s relationship, but it's also about a romantic relationship, and maybe how romantic relationships push up against family relationships.” Part coming-of-age tale, part love story, Other Names for Love will appeal to anyone who’s ever had to navigate the narrow path between family and selfhood.
Susan Stokes-Chapman – Pandora
Susan Stokes-Chapman has held a life-long interest in the Georgian era, something she puts down to Andrew Davis’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. “Initially, it was all about the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth” she recounts, “but you also see this glimpse of the seedy underbelly of society, and of course, Jane Austen had a lot of dark subject matter disguised amongst the smelling salts and finery. That was what started to appeal to me.” Setting her own novel, Pandora, in the Georgian era was a no-brainer.
Weaving in the ancient Greek myth of the same name, Pandora follows Dora, who becomes suspicious of her uncle’s secretive behaviour after a Greek vase is delivered to their antiquities shop. Enlisting the help of a young scholar, Dora begins to unlock the secrets to her past and the world as she knows it. “Pandora's box is something that's fascinated readers for years,” the 36-year-old says, “and any sort of story that puts a woman in a bad light from a male point of view draws me in. I just knew it was something I wanted to explore.”
Sarah Daniels – The Stranded
It was a startling image of ships packed with people fleeing Europe during the Second World War that prompted archaeologist-turned-author Sarah Daniels to wonder: “What if those people never found anywhere safe to go?” From this grew The Stranded, a thriller set in 2094 on a cruise ship fleeing a war-torn Europe, stuck off the coastline of a country called the Federated States. Onboard are Esther and Nick, who are willing to risk everything to reach dry land.
"The people on this ship include multiple generations who have been affected by events that are completely out of their control”, the 40-year-old explains about the gripping – and timely – story. “I try to imagine what it would be like to live through that situation, and hopefully readers will be able to do that too."
Charmaine Wilkerson – Black Cake
For American journalist Charmaine Wilkerson, it was the death of her father that galvanised her to realise a lifelong dream of writing fiction. “Black Cake is a multi-generational story,” she explains from Rome, where she lives. “In the present, the story revolves primarily around Byron and Benny, a brother and sister who hadn't been getting along but are forced to come together in the wake of their mother's death.” Their mother has left behind two things: “a black cake sitting in her freezer, and a long voice recording in which she shares a series of shocking revelations.” How can the siblings move forward, now their lives have been turned upside down?
“I tend to write as it comes to me, out of chronological order,” says Wilkerson, who is 59. “The hardest part was finding a compromise between my vision, which is like a wheel in which I can see all the different characters and timelines, and coming up with a story that can reach out to another reader.” Given that Black Cake’s twisting narrative has inspired Oprah to adapt it for a television series, we’d say Wilkerson’s succeeded.
Lianne Dillsworth – Theatre of Marvels
For Lianne Dillsworth, it was a powerful quote by Toni Morrison that kept her motivated to write her debut, Theatre of Marvels: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ “There aren’t many books featuring Black British heroines,” she explains, “and certainly not historical ones. I wanted to play a part in addressing that.”
The idea came to Dillsworth while she was researching Victorian popular culture, in particular so-called freak shows. “At that time there was a real fascination with difference – to modern sensibilities there’s something so discomforting about the Victorian gaze,” she explains. “I wondered what the performers were thinking while the audience ogled and gawped at them.” From this sprung her unforgettable protagonist Zillah, who plays the role of African warrior on stage. When another act goes missing, Zillah embarks on a mission to save her: “It takes her across London from the high-society drawing rooms of Mayfair to the slums of St Giles. Will Zillah find the woman, and in doing so, find herself?
Nikki May – Wahala
Once a “proper London girl,” 56-year-old Nikki May moved to the West Country nearly two decades ago – but she still goes to the city to find the best Nigerian food. And it was there, at what she calls “a very long, very loud lunch with Nigerian friends,” that the idea for Wahala came to her: “As I boarded the slow train home, I started sketching out these three characters who were mixed race, and I’d written the first scene before I got to my stop.”
From there, main characters and best friends Ronke, Simi and Boo developed lives of their own, and Wahala – which translates to ‘trouble’ – was born. According to May, “people refer to Wahala as ‘Sex and the City with a killer twist’, and I quite like that. But to me, it's a modern, subversive, dark take on friendship, family, culture and race – and it’s underpinned by a rather epic revenge story.”
Tom Hindle – A Fatal Crossing
After two years spent cooped up at home, readers will love the premise of Tom Hindle’s rollicking debut A Fatal Crossing, a golden age murder mystery set on a 1920s cruise liner. Or, as the author himself puts it, “Think ‘Agatha Christie meets Titanic’, and you’ll be on the right track.” According to the 28-year-old Hindle, he first had the idea for the book over ten years ago while a sixth former in Leeds and watching a lot of Frasier and Jeeves & Wooster: “I was hoping to strike a similar sort of tone,” he says.
The small screen influence on A Fatal Crossing doesn’t stop there, either. “The story takes place entirely on board a ship crossing the Atlantic,” Hindle explains, “but we hear quite regularly about a gang of criminals who are up to some really nasty stuff in both London and New York. I’m a huge fan of Peaky Blinders, and I think my love for that show really bled over into those sections of the book.”
Claire Alexander – Meredith, Alone
Sometimes, a debut novel comes to a writer fully formed; other times, they must work painstakingly, chipping away at the story to perfect it. For Claire Alexander, the 44-year-old Scottish author behind the tender, hopeful debut Meredith, Alone, it was a case of the latter: “I tend to get a vague sense of a character, and then it kind of just slowly comes to life. It’s almost like I have to sort of coax a story out of them; I really spend time in that space, let it happen and then help it along.”
In this case, the character she helped along – smart, charming Meredith Maggs, who hasn't left her home for a very long time (1,214 days to be precise) – provides a powerfully relatable central character for anyone who has experienced trauma and looked – or is looking – for a way back. “Meredith says she's happy the way things are,” Alexander says of her protagonist, “but then things change, and Meredith has to figure out: Can she overcome what happened in her past, to enable her to leave her house?”
Lizzie Damilola Blackburn – Yinka, Where is Your Huzband?
“I like to describe it as the hit TV show Insecure meets Channel 4's Chewing Gum, meets Peckham,” says Lizzie Damilola Blackburn of her debut novel, Yinka, Where is Your Huzband? It’s an intoxicating, heady and undeniably fun combination, in which the titular character attempts to take her “hot mess” of a love life into her own hands, and hatches a plan to find a date ahead of her cousin’s wedding.
Blackburn’s lovable Yinka started out as a short story character the author created when she found a distinct lack of mainstream fiction featuring Christian characters. “That's why I decided to write one,” says Blackburn, who is in her early thirties. “But also, my dear mum was pressuring me to settle down. So I used all that as inspiration to write a story about a British Nigerian woman in her early thirties going through the same thing. In addition to being a love story, it's also a story of self-discovery, which Yinka goes on with the help of her amazing friends."
Kat Delacorte – With Fire in Their Blood
Kat Delacorte’s With Fire in their Blood is a seductive contemporary fantasy with a romantic spin, or to put it in the author’s own words, a story that is “gothic, sexy and action-packed”. It follows Lilly, a teenage girl who relocates with her father from the US to the isolated Italian hilltown of Castello, where two rival mafia clans burn witches at the stake and she becomes entangled in a love-square between the rebellious Liza, the sensitive Christian and brooding Nico, who all have secrets to hide.
It draws on Delacorte’s own experiences moving to a remote Italian town aged 11. “There was so much beautiful dark, old architecture” she explains “and I started to imagine, what else could be going on here?” Despite being welcomed into the small community, there was part of herself Delacorte felt unable to share. “I could never tell any of them that I liked girls. It was a very confusing experience and I feel I spent my childhood trying not to make myself ‘other’ on purpose because I was afraid of rejection.” It was an experience that also feeds the character of Lilly, who “feels much more comfortable about who she is. That is something I wish I had at her age.”
Photography: Stuart Simpson and Desiree Adams / Penguin