Charlotte Levin never planned to be a writer.
As a young girl she had set her heart on acting and would write short little plays so that she could give herself the main part. It was something that stuck with her throughout her formative years and it was still with her when, as a twenty-something, she attended an acting course at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Aged nineteen she made the journey south to see what was there. It took her to the Royal Court Theatre where she wrote a scene for the end of the acting course’s showcase. A quiet word from the creative director to Charlotte’s tutor left her in no doubt that she had to carry on with her writing. And she has.
Her first novel, If I Can’t Have You, now adorns the bookshelves of Waterstones, W H Smith and any other self-respecting bookshop in the land.
But it wasn’t easy getting published. For many in the sector, especially the thirty or so who rejected the manuscript, If I Can’t Have You shouldn’t have been published at all. The perceived wisdom is that you cannot have a book that is character-driven, part thriller and part black comedy.
Charlotte has proven that particular dictum false. If I Can’t Have You is a fascinating portrayal of someone unravelling as their whole world is overtaken by obsession. It is about loss, attachment and grief and just how far a human being can go to feel loved.
It starts badly for the lead character, Constance Little. The opening scene describes a woman on the London Underground wearing a wedding dress. There’s blood on her chest, vomit in her veil and she has a loose tooth hanging out. Then it goes back to the beginning to see why she ended up like that.
So how do you write a book that will interest Londoners enough to want to read it, but that you also stick to your own roots and make sure your home city of Manchester is represented? Charlotte found the answer.
“There’s a distinct lack of northern characters in books set in London and I think it is important that our voices are heard,” she states.
“I set the book in west London because it was an area I knew well, but I also wanted Manchester and my roots in there, which is why I decided to make my protagonist, Constance Little, a Mancunian.
“I’ve also (hopefully subtly) included references to class and the kinds of presumptions people make when hearing where you are from.
“The book is very much about why Constance does the things she does. Her past and her relationship with her mother are a large part of that.
“All those flashbacks take place in Manchester – there’s a scene set at the Christie, for example and there are constant references to how things are different in Manchester. It is a key theme within the book.”
However, it was two tragic incidents that led to Charlotte finding the determination to actually write the book. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, she moved back home to Swinton to care for her.
“My mum died in April 2015 and as a coping mechanism I started to write the book although I wasn’t taking it that seriously, initially. Then when wondering how I was going to get through my first Christmas Day without her, the police called to say my dad had been found dead in his house.
“I needed to find something positive to bury myself in just to get through. On Boxing Day, I outlined a whole novel and then I decided to revisit this story which I had written very badly many years earlier and rethought the whole thing. I always knew the concept was good so I started again from scratch.
“I don’t think my brain could deal with the grief, so writing was definitely an escape or a way of thinking about something else for a period of time.
“It was very much a catalyst and I mention it in my acknowledgements that the best things in my life came out of the worst thing in my life. They weren’t good times and, without wanting to sound too dramatic, writing probably saved my life.”
And Charlotte is already working on the follow up after an idea came to her during lockdown.
“I have made a start, finally,” she says.
“I had planned to have my new main character from somewhere around Manchester again, but this time I would like to have it set here as well.
“The key thing I am attracted to is good people doing bad things. In If I Can’t Have You, Constance is almost an anti-hero. She does bad things throughout the book and she isn’t particularly lovely, but I still wanted the reader to root for her. That was very important to me.”
It’s not necessarily the end of Constance Little, though.
“I miss Constance,” Charlotte laments, “and I do wonder whether I will do a sequel.”
If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin is available from all good bookshops.