It’s a topical subject, this winning the lottery business, what with Colin and Chris Weir of Largs having just banked a shade over £160 million after scooping the jackpot in the EuroMillions draw. But topical subjects are something that Keren David, author of the award-winning When I Was Joe and its acclaimed sequel Almost True does particularly well. Caroline Sanderson interviewed her for Books for Keeps.
‘My background is in news and comment journalism, says Keren David. ‘It’s how I’m trained to think. But it’s also provided me with a nice way of getting into writing fiction. It’s been a natural progression.’
16-year-old Lia Latimer, the eponymous heroine of David’s thoroughly enjoyable new novel, Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery doesn’t win anything like 160 million smackers. But the mere £8 million that lands in her bank account is quite sufficient to turn both her life and those of her dearest and nearest totally topsy turvy.
With her previous two books centring on the issue of witness protection, David was keen not to be pigeonholed as ‘gritty crime woman’, and started writing ‘Lia’ almost as soon as she had finished Almost True. ‘I had been watching a programme on TV about a syndicate that had won the lottery, and one of the winners was only 18. And it also started me thinking about the ages at which you can do things. At 16 you can buy a lottery ticket. And you can have sex. But you have to be 17 to drive, and 18 to vote. That’s in the UK. Other countries have different laws. There’s a whole question here about how we see the concept of adult responsibility legally. Who decides what age is right?’
David’s research for the novel took her to Camelot, operator of the UK National Lottery who were, she says, fantastically helpful. ‘They invited me in for a meeting with their winner advisors, who told me some interesting stories of previous winners, and outlined some of the issues they face.’ In the novel, Lia receives quite a lot of help and advice from such professionals, not all of which she ends up ignoring. ’In practice, Camelot will provide even more support than Lia gets, and will continue to do so for years if necessary.’
David cites the case of 16-year-old lottery winner, Callie who won £1.9 million and blew it all, with a considerable slice going on drugs and bad boyfriends. ‘One of the things that Camelot told me was that a lottery win tends to exaggerate what you have already, so that if yours is a relatively stable life, then it won’t change that. But if it’s a bit of a mess, it will make it more so. I thought that was a very interesting and exciting idea to explore.’
How did she arrive at the figure of £8 million for Lia’s lottery win? ‘It had to be enough to cover a big house in London, and still leave change, but not so much that she could spend, spend, spend and have loads of money left over.’
With Lia’s love interest, the mysterious Raf cast spoofily in Robert Pattinson mould – ‘Raf was an angel. Or a vampire. Something special, anyway’ – David’s research also led her to read lots of paranormal romances. ‘I quite enjoyed some of them. But I really don’t like their fetishisation of death; the idea that “all the cutest boys are dead”. I thought I’d send that up a bit.’
David also wanted to provide her readers with a bit of low-down on economics and personal finance. ‘If you have always had money, you are generally good about knowing how to look after it. But if you suddenly come into a large sum of money, the first instinct is often to set about blowing it as quickly as possible.’
That’s not to say that David shies away from the positive aspects of such a windfall. Whilst the idea that such sums of money can be used to help the less fortunate is championed, the book is never worthy, and a realistic amount of wonga gets fairly satisfyingly blown on designer clothes and beauty treatments, taxi rides and singing lessons, just as you might expect from two teenage sisters and their mother . ‘I absolutely thought; this is a good thing as well. I wanted Lia to make the most of it. I hope the book is life-affirming in that sense, but it also asks the question: “right, now I’ve got this money, what opportunities can it give me?”’
It is also to David’s credit as a writer that at no point does the idea that a 16- year-old girl could win £8 million on the lottery seem implausible. ‘The thing about being a journalist is that you constantly meet ordinary people to whom extraordinary things have happened. Perhaps you get a rather skewed view of the world. But essentially I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a boring Middle England kind of life. We’ve all been touched by extraordinary events, both good and bad.’
David admits to playing the Lottery herself when there is a large jackpot. What would she spend a big win on? ‘Well it would depend how much. I’d take a lot of advice. But there would be a nice holiday. And a new house, I think. One with a writing room.’ Not an altogether surprising fantasy given that David is fast approaching the delivery deadline for her fourth book: a third novel about Joe, entitled Another Life.
She loves the official UK Lottery site. ‘They email me if I win anything. I got one in the middle of a school visit the other day, and I had to wait until I got home to check how much I’d won. It was £5.80! But at the very school I was visiting, the librarian’s 20-year-old niece had once won £500,000.’
I check out the site myself and discover that Mrs F from Kent has just won £10. Let’s hope that both she and the Weirs of Largs take some advice from Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery and don’t spend it all at once.
Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery (Frances Lincoln, 4 August, p/b, £6.99, 9781847801913)
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor and the author of Kiss Chase and Conkers, a book about traditional games.