By Laia Feliu.
We are very happy to welcome Clare Pooley to The Reading Corner to discuss her amazing new book “The People On Platform 5“, out now!
Nobody speaks to strangers on the train. But what would happen if they did?
Every day at 8:05, Iona Iverson boards the train to go to work. Every day, she sees the same people and makes assumptions about them, even giving them nicknames. But they never speak. Obviously.
Then, one morning, Smart-but-Sexist-Surbiton chokes on a grape right in front of Iona. Suspiciously-Nice-New Malden steps up to help and saves his life, and this one event sparks a chain reaction.
With nothing in common but their commute, an eclectic group of people learn that their assumptions about each other don’t match reality. But when Iona’s life begins to fall apart, will her new friends be there when she needs them most?
Hi Clare! Firstly, thank you so much for your time. I absolutely loved “The People on Platform 5” or “Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting” for our US readers. I fell in love with every single one of your characters, and now I constantly find myself asking “What would Iona do?”, I had so much fun reading your book!
Thank you so much! It’s wonderful when you finally share characters who have lived inside your head for so long with actual readers, and I’m so glad you love them too.
“The People on Platform 5” portrays a dilemma that I am sure many commuters have felt before: “Do I speak to the people I see every single day on the train or do I not?”. What drew you to write about the lives of Iona, Martha, Piers, Sanjay, and Emmie?
I was writing during the pandemic, and I was finding the isolation really hard. I missed friends and family, obviously, but I also really missed crowds of strangers. I found myself thinking back nostalgically to the days when I used to commute to an office on crowded buses, trains and tubes. I remembered how I’d see the same people over and over again, but we never spoke. That got me thinking: what magic might have happened if I had found the courage to talk to strangers on the train?
Your book is written from many points of view, and we discover more and more surprising things about the characters as the story unfolds. How did the idea behind this format come about?
I’m fascinated by the assumptions we make about other people, and how one person can be seen in completely different ways by different onlookers. Seeing the story from the perspectives of 5 different characters allowed me to play with this concept, which was great fun.
Queerness, racism, neurodiversity, gender, and many other very important themes are spoken about in your novel. Was the decision to touch on these topics conscious or did it happen when you started drafting the characters? Have your previous works explored these themes before?
When I’m developing characters, I always start from their biggest weakness. I find weaknesses far more interesting than strengths! I ask myself what does this person struggle with? What drives them? How do they wish their life was different? The topics come from those questions. For example, I didn’t plan to write about queerness or homophobia, but as I started writing Iona, I just couldn’t see her with a husband. It didn’t fit. So I gave her a wife instead, and that just felt right. Then the storyline followed from there.
A grape is what brings all these amazing characters together, and beautiful relationships bloom. Have you ever experienced anything similar when commuting? Is there anything anecdotal or autobiographical in this book?
You know, I was wondering what sort of incident it would take to get a group of reticent and diverse commuters talking. I remembered one early morning when I was on the London Underground, travelling to work. There was a smartly dressed man (much like Piers) sitting opposite me. He looked like he had a terrible hangover. He was green and sweating. Then he started retching. My fellow passengers all looked really nervous, but no-one said a word. Then, he picked up his leather briefcase, opened it, and vomited into it! He closed it again, stood up and got off at the next stop. All in complete silence.
So, I knew it would take more than that! A near-death experience, in fact. Hence the grape.
Your characters in your book are so wildly different from each other, and they evolve so much during the book, what perspective was the hardest to write from?
Mmm. Interesting question. I think I found Emmie the hardest, as she’s the character with the least (obvious) issues.
One of the things that touched me most was society’s attitude towards Iona and her age, especially in her workplace. How important was for you to show your readers that age is not a handicap but an advantage?
I’m only a few years younger than Iona, and it makes me really mad that women in their fifties and onwards are made to feel invisible and irrelevant despite the fact that we have so much accumulated strength and wisdom. I published my first novel at the age of 50, and writing is my second act. I want Iona to encourage every woman our age to have a triumphant second act!
I often wonder what happens after I finish a book I really enjoyed, what do you think the future holds in store for “the gang”?
Iona will, of course, go from strength to strength. I like to think that, after Bea, she manages to find another love. I don’t want her to spend the rest of her life alone. Piers will set up a string of academies, sending underprivileged kids to Oxbridge. Martha will become a well-known actress, and Emmie and Sanjay will, obviously, live happily ever after and have beautiful babies. David will become the sort of man people remember!
What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
I hope people will think again before making assumptions about a stranger, and that they’ll maybe make an effort to discover that person’s story.
Are there any books within the genre or with similar messages to “The People on Platform 5” you could recommend?
Well, I’d obviously recommend my first novel – The Authenticity Project! But also novels by Frederick Backman, Libby Page, Freya Sampson and Beth Morrey.
And last but not least, where can everyone get their hands on this incredibly moving story?
Amazon, independent bookstores and Sainsbury’s!
Clare pooley graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, and spent twenty years in the heady world of advertising, before becoming a full-time writer. Clare’s dark but hilarious memoir, The Sober Diaries, was published by Hodder in 2017 to critical acclaim and has helped thousands of people around the world to quit drinking. The Authenticity Project, Clare’s debut novel, was a BBC Radio 2 bookclub pick, a New York Times bestseller, the winner of the RNA debut novel award and a Babelio award. It’s been translated into 29 languages.
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