The Next Great Novelist has Philip Pullman in her corner and Sophie Hannah says she’s “destined to become a literary star of the future”.
Sitting opposite her in a Leeds coffee shop she is clearly a fiercely intelligent young woman, bright and sparky and, excited as she is to have won the title of Next Great Novelist, clearly has her feet planted firmly on the ground.
“The fact that Philip Pullman even read my book is massively exciting to me,” says Sophie Coulombeau.
“But as far as the competition and the title, it’s a nice thing to have, it’s a gesture of confidence, but what’s more important is the work. I am in this for the long run, writing my first novel isn’t an isolated jolly, it’s something that I want to do for the a very long time.”
Coulombeau is the 28-year-old Oxford graduate now working at York University as an academic and the woman who last year was bestowed the title of a literary star of the future, following an open competition by Pontefract publisher Route.
The publisher, funded by the Arts Council, ran the competition last year to “unearth the most talented and promising novelist under the age of 30”.
Rites, the debut book from Coulombeau, is out now and is, as Pullman attests, a stunning debut.
It tells the story of a group of young people looking back on a defining incident in their lives as teenagers.
Four teenagers make a pact to lose their virginity away from the watchful eyes of their parents and a Catholic priest. Fifteen years on, they reflect on the past and attempt to unravel how everything went so wrong.
“I think it’s about truth and about how the nature of truth can be subjective and I thought this story would be the perfect crucible to examine that idea,” says Coulombeau.
“It’s also about how people articulate themselves and how we judge people on their level of articulacy and how the truth – or what we think is the truth – can be manipulated depending on how we receive it.”
To give away too much about the book would be to spoil the element of suspense on which the narrative relies. It is not a spoiler, however, to say that the book is incredibly well crafted and zips along at a breakneck pace, insisting you return to the start once you’ve finished to see where the cracks lie in the versions of the story you hear from a whole collection of different characters.
“I think the greatest compliment I could receive is to hear that people read the book and then argue in the pub with other readers about whose version of events they believe,” says Coulombeau.
Although she is yet to hear of that specific incident occurring, Coulombeau’s twisting and ambiguous novel has received some impressive and serious praise from readers, bloggers and reviewers already.
What makes all of this more impressive is that she actually knocked the book out in two weeks – or rather, that, ironically, is one version of the truth.
“I heard about the competition and had written 10,000 words of the novel – which is what you needed to be able to submit,” says Coulombeau.
She sent in the 10,000 and, a couple of months later, had heard nothing, so essentially forgot about the contest.
Then she had an email out of the blue from Route.
“They said they wanted to see the rest of the novel, I asked if I could send it to them in two weeks, then set about writing it,” she says.
“It was completely insane and I’m amazed I finished it. I am so pleased that Route took the chance on me. It’s obviously been through a lot of work since that version.”
One thing is very clear – here is clearly a novelist with a big future ahead of her.
Growing up in Manchester, Sophie Coulombeau studied at Trinity College Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania.
She went on to work for the British Civil Service in the Ministry of Justice in London and later for the European Commission in Brussels.
Although she thought about entering politics, she decided to study for a doctorate in English Literature at York University, specialising in 18th-century literature, where she still currently studies.
Rites, her first novel, is available from Route now.