Image source: harpercollins.com
Ellie's debut novel 'The Divines', a story set in the final days before a shocking tragedy forces and elite boarding school to shut its doors for good, was published earlier this year and we had the pleasure of asking her a few questions about it.
Click here to see our reviews.
The girls of St John the Divine, an elite English boarding school, were notorious for flipping their hair, harassing teachers, chasing boys, and chain-smoking cigarettes. They were fiercely loyal, sharp-tongued, and cuttingly humorous in the way that only teenage girls can be. For Josephine, now in her thirties, the years at St John were a lifetime ago. She hasn’t spoken to another Divine in fifteen years, not since the day the school shuttered its doors in disgrace.
Yet now Josephine inexplicably finds herself returning to her old stomping grounds. The visit provokes blurry recollections of those doomed final weeks that rocked the community. Ruminating on the past, Josephine becomes obsessed with her teenage identity and the forgotten girls of her one-time orbit. With each memory that resurfaces, she circles closer to the violent secret at the heart of the school’s scandal. But the more Josephine recalls, the further her life unravels, derailing not just her marriage and career, but her entire sense of self.
Suspenseful, provocative, and compulsively readable, The Divines is a scorching examination of the power of adolescent sexuality, female identity, and the destructive class divide. Exposing the tension between the lives we lead as adults and the experiences that form us, Eaton probes us to consider how our memories as adults compel us to re-examine our pasts.
What was the process like in creating, and then layering the characters who make up The Divines? Would you say you based them on particular stereotypes?
I had the voice of my narrator early on, her accent—rounded out at the edges, as she reflects on her days at a British boarding school. I knew that as a character Josephine was in limbo, living outside of her homeland, but feeling the gravitational pull of her past. The other Divines—Skipper, the twins, George—followed quickly after, and form a kind of composite of the teenage female experience, those all-powerful girls from our adolescence who eclipse every other memory. Lauren and Gerry are the outsiders of the book, both through their class and sexuality, and burst the rarefied bubble of Joe’s life as a Divine. The stereotypes I’m playing with are largely those of class, the idea of town versus gown, and how old institutions like St John’s serve to perpetuate that divide.
Have you had any instances like this personally? Where your memory has potentially aided or tampered with your recollection of a particular time or moment? Do you think hindsight impacts our level of glorification of our schooling days?
Memory can be such a strange slippery thing. Kaleidoscopic is perhaps a better word, our recollections increasingly fractured over time. As keepers of our own history, I think we’re all pretty unreliable. A few years ago I came across a social media post written by a contemporary from school, one of those terrifyingly acerbic ‘mean girls’ who used to strut around the campus, flicking her hair. The post was a very exposing account of her childhood trauma, the sanctuary our school had provided away from the chaos of her home life. How vulnerable she’d felt, how grateful for the community of friends. It made me question everything I’d known, or thought I knew, about that person. I began to wonder how malleable memory might be, particularly of those teenage years when we’re our most narcissistic, and how we often reframe our past, glorifying it as you say, making ourselves the heroes and heroines of our own stories.
How would you describe yourself at school? Would you say you were like Josephine, or any of the other main characters?
Ha! Depends who you ask. My recollection is of being quite invisible, a bit of a chameleon I suppose. I was too bookish, a scholarship girl, to be considered cool, but I smoked and drank and kissed enough boys at bus stops to avoid being labelled a square. That said, my sister once sat next to a man at a dinner party who met me back then, and described me as intimidating. Which I mean, really doubles down on the themes of the book. My best friend from school recently unearthed a stack of old photos from the attic. I barely recognise myself in those pictures. Apparently at sixteen I was going for a whole David Foster Wallace vibe, a memory I’d thankfully managed to suppress.
Having your debut novel be released during a pandemic is certainly an experience, we're sure. What has been the biggest challenge involved with it coming out during this time?
I feel guilty about moaning about being published during a pandemic because I feel incredibly grateful to have a book out in the world at all. It’s like a bomb went off last March, and there are the first responders and doctors who rushed into the flames, and families grieving, and by comparison, I’ve like, broken my toe. It hurts, but I’ll be fine. And on a positive note, the situation forced me to strike up conversations online and to seek out other debut writers in the same situation, people I never would have been brave enough to contact otherwise. I’m so grateful to these writers—Emily Layden, Micah Nemerever, Dantiel W. Moniz, Torrey Peters—for making me feel like I’m part of a cohort. Props also to Liv Stratman (whose book Cheat Day you’re going to be hearing a LOT about in May) for being the patron saint of lonely neurotic first time novelists everywhere.
Both of us were very satisfied with the ending of the book, which was refreshing because it can so often be the downfall. Did you know how you wanted The Divines to end early on in the writing process, or did you write the story chronologically?
I knew that I wanted to blow the whole school up, so to speak, and was always building towards that narrative arc, but it took me some time to work out what the catalyst for it would be. The actual final scene—the moment you’re talking about—took me a while to get right, because I had to really resist the temptation to tie the novel up in a neat bow. We’re living in this era of self-improvement, the notion that if we put in the work we can develop into these perfectly balanced, rational, fully-formed adults. I’m pretty sceptical about that whole ideology to be honest and when I come across it in fiction it feels like wish fulfilment. What I wanted to show, in the closing chapter, was the fact that you don’t have to dig very deep beneath the surface to see how as adults we all still wrestle with the less appealing aspects of the human experience: jealousy, rivalry, insecurity, pettiness.
For each review we post, we give 3 words we personally would use to describe that book. We'd love to know what 3 words would you use to describe The Divines?
To quote Liz Phair: Girls! Girls! Girls!
(but failing that…irreverent, raw, hypnotic?)
Thank you to Hachette Australia for sending us a review copy of this book.
You can find more information about the book and purchase a copy here.