It all started with a name.
In the early 2000s, there was a spate of junk emails which, perhaps, were the first to be entirely computer generated. You could tell they came from a machine-author as the emails themselves were nonsensical, and the sender names they came from wildly implausible: two otherwise incompatible monikers smashed together at random. I used to receive dozens every week in my Hotmail inbox from ‘people’ such as Fortune Norwich, Mother Coconuts, and Jack Fruit. One day, an email of this sort arrived from Melody Janie, and I remember thinking that it was the most gorgeous name I had ever heard.
It must have struck a chord, for the name stuck with me. Almost ten years later, as I was walking the Cornish portion of the South West Coast Path to generate material for my second book, No Fixed Abode, I came to a particular section on the north coast. This part is a notoriously wild and elemental place with stark, weathered cliffs and rough, crashing swells – in short, a place made for drama – and I suddenly had this image of a woman standing there, on the lip of the cliffs, staring out to sea, completely alone, with long dark hair and bare feet. The moment I pictured her, that old name came back. This was Melody Janie.
When I recall that moment, I’m now fairly sure I was channelling that iconic image of The French Lieutenant’s Woman standing on the Lyme Regis breakwater. But I didn’t realise that at the time. All I thought was that, suddenly, I had a character and I had a setting.
I had been wanting to write a novel for some time, but I had always been too fearful. I did not think I had the ability to sustain my imagination, certainly not at the levels which a novel requires. Instead, I had stayed within the confines of non-fiction (which is by no means easy and comes with its own set of challenges) where I felt somewhat safer. After all, when writing about facts, all the material has already been laid out before you. You simply need to curate it.
But now I had a protagonist and I had a place. I did not yet have a story, but that did not matter so much. I hoped that, as I built Melody Janie’s world, the story would grow around it. I decided to at least try.
To begin with, the most important thing was to capture her voice. I knew Melody Janie was a unique character, and I wanted to reflect that in first-person prose. I also knew that, in order to live on that particular part of the coast (where there are no houses), she would need something a little more makeshift, something she could hide away in the woods behind the coast path, something in which she could remain out of sight. A caravan, for instance. My stepsister owned one which was small, ageing and full of character. I borrowed it, set it up on my driveway, and then for two weeks straight I went out to it every day, imagined it was Melody Janie’s home, and wrote.
It did not matter so much what I wrote, it simply mattered that I wrote as Melody Janie. I was practising her voice, experimenting with different styles until I got it right. And, even when I thought I had, I hadn’t. Feverish with excitement, I scrawled out 10,000 words over a few days. When I returned to it later, I realised I had just been aping Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I started again.
Apart from a brief story about a randy-spider dance, nothing else from that time remains in The Lip. The school holiday came to an end, I returned to my teaching job, and then life got in the way for a while – as it so likes to do – and Melody Janie was shelved for the next few years. But I kept thinking about her. I bought a small notebook and, every time I imagined something she might say or think, I wrote it down. In this way, the voice I had been searching for began to bloom and, as luck would have it, so did the story alongside it. Finally, in 2017, I was able to carve out enough time to sit and write the first draft.
Of course, the book continued to change after that. Beta-readers helped me to shape it, my agent Eleanor Birne and her colleague Charlotte Van Wijk from PEW Literary helped me to polish it, and the stellar publishing team at Two Roads – among them, Lisa Highton, Kat Burdon, Charlotte Robathan, Rachael Duncan and Cari Rosen – helped me to strip it down and rebuild it with care. The book you will see on the shelves from 18 March is far different to the one I first wrote all those years ago. But I’m very proud that, still at the heart of it, is Melody Janie. I feel like I’ve known her for a very long time, and I can’t wait for everyone else to meet her.
(c) Charlie Carroll
Author photograph (c) Michelle Dickinson
About The Lip by Charlie Carroll:
Away from the hotels and holiday lets, there is an unseen side of Cornwall, where the shifting uncertainties of the future breed resentment and mistrust.
Melody Janie is hidden. She lives alone in a caravan in Bones Break: a small cliff-top on Cornwall’s north coast. She spends her time roaming her territory, spying on passing tourists and ramblers, and remembering. She sees everything and yet remains unseen.
However, when a stranger enters her life, she is forced to confront not only him but the terrible tragedies of her past.
The Lip is a novel about childhood, isolation and mental health, told in the unique and unforgettable voice of Melody Janie.
‘All of this is Bones Break. All of this is mine.
I know every inch of it; I know it as intimately as the seagulls. I stand at dead-centre, my feet teetering on the edge of the lip. Below, the thundering tattoo of waves on rock. Wind catches the tips of my hair, lifting them above my ribs: less force than it takes to knock me down; enough to make me right myself with a step to the left, and then another back again. Here on the lip, it is vital to know where my feet are.’
‘This unsparing debut novel portrays the unromantic side of Cornwall few visitors see and which so many novelists choose to overlook. Charlie Carroll inhabits his damaged heroine completely’ Patrick Gale
Order your copy online here.