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Interview: September 8, 2017

Eva Woods has written two women’s fiction novels, as well as crime fiction under her own name, Claire McGowan, all in the UK. She makes her North American debut with SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY, which finds the two main characters --- one of whom starts out the book cynical and depressed, and the other of whom is initially positive and upbeat --- embarking on a remarkable mission: One hundred days. One hundred new ways to be happy. In this interview, conducted by's Megan Elliott, Woods talks about how her own experiences at a young age influenced the writing of her book, her struggle to balance the more uplifting parts of her story with the harsh reality of her protagonist’s illness, and the message she would like readers to take away after turning the last page. There are two main characters in SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY: Annie, who starts out the book cynical and depressed, and Polly, who is initially positive and upbeat. As a reader, I definitely identified more with Annie’s bleak outlook, and I’m curious about you. Are you more of an Annie or a Polly?

Eva Woods: I'm definitely more of an Annie. Being positive and upbeat is something I have to really work at. I am Irish, after all. We love bad news and having a good moan.

BRC: When the book opens, Polly seems to have an almost unbelievably accepting attitude about her looming death, especially compared to Annie’s more despairing attitude regarding her own life. What is it about Polly that allows her to see her terminal illness as an opportunity to live life to the fullest rather than choosing to “just go through the motions of dying,” as she puts it?

EW: I think Polly is partly in denial about what's happening to her, but also her illness has given her a lot of clarity on life, and she feels frustrated seeing people around her wasting the time they have. She's determined to make as much impact as she can in the time she has left.

BRC: Family plays a big role in SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY. Annie has basically lost her entire family, while Polly’s family seems picture-perfect on the outside, but has some pretty serious underlying dysfunction. I really enjoyed watching as both these women create a new kind of family and community for themselves. Did you intentionally set out to explore the idea of what makes a family, or is that something that arose naturally in the course of your writing?

EW: I definitely wanted to explore the idea that other people's lives always seem perfect. This is a huge effect of social media, and it's so easy to look at your own and decide it's no good. Most people's families aren't perfect, but if you're lucky you can grow to accept them and also build your own.

BRC: You’ve faced some personal struggles in your own life that are similar to those encountered by your characters. Can you talk about how your own experiences influenced SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY?

EW: I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 24, but luckily it was very early stage and I made a good recovery, but I understand a little of what it's like to be suddenly ill and in the hospital all the time. Like Annie, I also got divorced in my early 30s, which was a really difficult time for me. Both of those experiences have definitely gone into the book.

BRC: Have you done the #100HappyDays challenge yourself? Are you encouraging others to do it?

EW: I'm actually doing it now, and once I got over my initial embarrassment, I am finding it really rewarding. It reminds me how good my day-to-day life is, and stops me always wanting more and thinking about the next thing I have to do.

BRC: I loved that your book embraces the idea that changing your outlook can have a meaningful positive impact on your life while at the same time not denying that bad things sometimes happen, no matter how happy you try to make yourself. As a writer, was it a struggle to balance the more uplifting parts of your story with the harsh reality of Polly’s illness?

EW: Yes, definitely. I knew that she wasn't going to make a miraculous recovery, and I really didn't want to trivialize some of the big issues both Polly and Annie face. I hope that I've captured something of real life, which is a mix of happiness and sadness. I think that nowadays we have a lot of awareness about depression, but we sometimes forget that sadness is not the same as that. If something terrible happens, it's normal to be sad for a while.

BRC: You also write crime fiction under the name Claire McGowan. How is writing women’s fiction different from writing mysteries/thrillers?

EW: The main difference is the tone. Thrillers nowadays are nearly always really dark and nuanced, leaving out the lighter side of life, and they often have quite bleak endings. With women's fiction, I think you have to offer something a bit more uplifting. And, of course, people expect a twisty plot with crime.

BRC: Most of SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY takes place in Lewisham, a part of London that some readers, especially American ones, might not be familiar with. What inspired you to choose that part of the city to set your story?

EW: Mainly because I live in that borough, and it's true that there have been massive building works for years now, which make it a rather depressing landscape. It's also quite poor in places and extremely diverse. I'm sure it will be great when it's finished, though. Perhaps there's a metaphor in that, too: You have to make a mess to have something good?

BRC: Each chapter in your book represents one day in Annie and Polly’s #100HappyDays challenge. Did choosing that format for your novel present any challenges when writing? Did you write the book day by day, or did you skip around and later go back and fill in the blanks?

EW: The main challenge was how to write a book of 100 chapters that wasn't incredibly long. Once I decided that some days would be very short chapters, it all fell into place. I wrote bits of it as they came to me, and sometimes moved the days around to get it all to fit.

BRC: In addition to writing fiction, you teach writing. What’s the most important piece of advice you have for aspiring novelists?

EW: I think it's that you have to finish it to have any idea what the book is about and what shape it's going to be. If you have three pages, there's no point trying to make them perfect as they will probably change later on. So I try to write a bit every day --- usually 1,000 words --- and somehow it just comes together like that. I never edit or even fix typos until I have a solid chunk of book.

BRC: SOMETHING LIKE HAPPY is definitely a tearjerker, but it ends on a hopeful note. What kind of message do you hope readers take away after they put down your book?

EW: I hope it's a little reminder to live life to the full, as much as possible, and with the understanding that we can't live every day like it's our last (no one would do any housework or pay bills), but that life is too short to be miserable for a long time.

BRC: What are you working on now?

EW: I've already written the follow-up, which is also about a woman facing a tough time in her life, and about family, memory and the important days in our lives. Now it's time to start writing the next one! I currently have pretty much no idea what that's going to be about but am looking forward to diving in.