Interview with Le Monde ( a crude English translation)
Text: Hélène Coutard | Images: Megan Dalton
MAY 10th, AT MIDNIGHT, EVERYTHING WILL BE READY:
Early in the night readers will be able to queue outside a church in central London set aside for the occasion, as well as outside seven bookshops across the UK. The book will be released simultaneously in 27 other countries, including France. Harry Whitaker will obviously be present in London, but it's his mother that everyone will think of:
Lucinda Riley, Irish novelist who died in June 2021, at the age of 56. Both of their names are listed on the cover of Atlas. The story of Pa Salt, the long-awaited eighth and final book in the hit saga The Seven Sisters. Because, if the mother wrote the first seven books between 2014 and 2021, the son is the author of the last.
In the meantime, Harry Whitaker, thirty-year-old with the air of a cherub, has the impression of coming out of a marathon of more than a year, spends his time writing and then answering the questions of forty translators so that everything is ready on D-Day. This is not his first book - he co-wrote four, for children, with his mother - but it is the most complicated. How can you imagine the resolution of a story that has sold 50 million copies, written by a woman in her fifties for women, when one is a neophyte young man in full mourning?
Here is the story of the seven sisters: Pa Salt, a rich and mysterious old man, dies suddenly. Each of the seven girls he has adopted then receives a clue that will allow her to discover the history of her adoption, her family and her country.
The opportunity for Lucinda Riley to transport the reader through seven historical novels to Brazil, Australia, Ireland...
Atlas: The story of Pa Salt must answer pressing questions: who is this adoptive father? Is he really dead?
In France, many are waiting for these answers: Lucinda Riley was the most read non-French-speaking author in the country in 2021 and 2022. The French publisher, Charleston, plans a first print run of 150,000 copies.
Harry Whitaker vividly remembers the day his mother came up with the idea for The Seven Sisters. At Christmas 2012, the family is reunited in Norfolk County. Harry is then a student.
"She joined us in the living room and said, 'I just had an idea for a series of seven novels.' My siblings were too young, but I loved the idea. My stepfather, who was also my mother's agent, was a little more tense."
"Launching into a series without knowing if the first book will please is risky. But mum was sure of herself. " So sure that she leaves for Brazil for the research necessary for the first volume. The author chooses her countries for the richness of their history, then builds her plot around them.
"She spent weeks researching. She was very good at bonding with people, who ended up showing her historical documents, revealing secrets to her."
"She always came back with extraordinary stories,” says her son.
Regularly, mother and son talk at length about the development of the plot.
While the author is working on the third book, in 2016, Hollywood knocks on her door. A producer wants to adapt it into a television series. But, before the producer could commit, she had to know how the series would end. “Mum hadn't thought about it yet, so she put her notes together and wrote a thirty-page document that takes the form of a dialogue between two characters and explains the main lines of the end of the story." Her son is not allowed to read this document until two years later. At that time, in 2018, Lucinda Riley's health was deteriorating. She has cancer of the oesophagus.
Also suffering from back and hand pain, she wrote the entire Seven Sisters series while recording herself with a dictaphone. At Christmas 2018, Lucinda Riley takes aside her son, who has become a presenter at the BBC. “She had just recovered from a health relapse and told me that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted me to finish the show for her. We talked about it for five hours and then we never talked about it again."
The writer will never have the opportunity to start working on Atlas, she dies a few days after the release of the seventh book. Despite four years of illness, the family did not expect it. “She had periods of very ill health, but she would recover from them. We thought it would always be like this,” whispers her son. Messages rain down from all over the world: most sympathetic, others less so. "Some readers asked: 'How dare she announce an eighth book and die?'" The young man knows his mission. All he has to help him is these thirty pages of dialogue and the memories of conversations with his mother. Months of writing follow after his days at work or in trains and hotels, when he performs at his comedy improvisation shows.
Sometimes he wakes up at night panicked, realising he got the colour of a character's eyes wrong. When he finally completes the novel, he doesn't quite manage to be proud of himself. “I have a lot of conflicting feelings."
"I made it for my mother first and foremost. If readers like it, then maybe I'll be a little proud. “While awaiting the verdict, he will take refuge in his mother's house, in Ireland, near Cork. ~ This is where I feel closest to her."