#OhCoBookClub Eli Goldstone’s Strange Heart Beating


Did you know we have an #ohcobookclub? Each issue, we pick a novel and invite you to read along with us. Our current choice is Eli Goldstone's debut novel Strange Heart Beating. Why don't you read along with us?

Seb's beautiful, beloved wife Leda has been killed by a swan. With a name like that, with a bizarre family history like hers, it isn't really surprising. Seb has a grip on her story and its aesthetics; he knows how it should go. Except that he doesn't. Sorting through her belongings after her death, he comes across a packet of unopened letters from a man whom Leda has never mentioned. It is a loose detail in the thread of his narrative that, when pulled, unravels the whole story of his marriage. Who is this stranger who knew her so well? Why did she flee her home village in Latvia? What happened to her as a young woman in London? Who, Seb wonders, was his wife? Floundering professionally and sunk by grief, he decides to travel to Latvia to find her. He is met, instead, with the living ghosts of her past, all of whom knew a fragment of Leda - but none of whom are willing to share their secrets with him. A darkly funny and seductive novel that confronts the black undercurrent of possession inherent in love, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing even those dearest to us, Strange Heart Beating is a breathtaking debut from an author whose vision is both acerbic and tender.


Read an excerpt here.

In London, we’re also hosting a real-life bookclub, so pick up the novel, and come and chat to us about it on Wednesday 13th September. You can find all of the details here.

If you’re heading to the Good Life Festival, we’ll be hosting a mini-bookclub there too, and if you’re outside of London, email us if you’d like to set up your own #OhCoBookClub group.  As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the book, so don’t forget to tag @ohcomelymag and #OhCoBookClub on instagram, twitter, and facebook.

Meet the author: Emma Flint discusses Little Deaths

If we’ve got dark circles under our eyes, it’s because we’d been staying up all night to read Emma Flint’s compulsive debut novel, Little Deaths. It’s a story of love, morality and obsession set against the backdrop of 1960s New York. We spoke to Emma to discover more about the book and her experience of being a debut author, as well as gleaning some advice for aspiring novelists.


Could you tell us a little about the plot of Little Deaths and why you wanted to tell this story?

It’s set in suburban Queens, New York and is based on the true story of a woman who was accused of killing her children in the summer of 1965.

My narrators are Ruth Malone, recently separated from her husband and juggling single motherhood with shifts as a cocktail waitress, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter from Iowa who’s desperate for a big story to make his name in New York.

One hot July morning, Ruth wakes up to discover a bedroom window wide open and her two children missing. After a desperate search, the police find the body of her four-year-old daughter the same afternoon, and then the body of her five-year-old son weeks later.

The police take one look at Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty bottles and love letters that litter her apartment – and leap to the obvious conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip. Covering the story as his first big break, Pete Wonicke at first does the same thing – but the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and press, and the more he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew: about Ruth and about himself.

It’s a book about love, morality and obsession: I wanted to explore the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and how most people have a sense of morality that isn’t clearly black and white.

What drew me to the story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.

Emma Flint

Emma Flint


With the true story in mind, how much did you feel you had to stick to ‘the facts’, and how much did you allow yourself artistic freedom?

I stuck to the true story as much as I could, and the basic facts of the case are the same as in Little Deaths but I’ve condensed the events between the murders and Ruth’s arrest into four months. In reality, the case stalled for over two years as two grand juries failed to indict her for murder. Then in November 1966, one of Ruth’s neighbours sent an anonymous note to the prosecutor’s office, saying she had witnessed relevant events on the night of the children’s disappearance. When interviewed by the police, she gave essentially the same story recounted on the witness stand in Little Deaths.

Most of the key characters – including Ruth Malone and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. The police officer, Charlie Devlin is a composite of several officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke and a few others are my own inventions.

I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer, you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.

Of course, I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the real investigation that my editors felt weren’t believable enough, which I then had to leave out and work around!


The book finishes (without giving too much away) without the satisfaction of justice done. Why did you want to end on a note of ambiguity?

Partly because that’s how I felt about the real case on which the book was based. Although there was a conviction, there were three trials before a final verdict was reached, which indicates in itself that the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.

And also, that’s how real life is: it’s rare that all the ends are tied up neatly, and it’s rare that the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys live happily ever after. Whatever the legal outcome in a murder case, the family of the victim are still left dealing with their grief and with the absence of their loved one: I imagine that any feeling of justice is always tempered by that sorrow.


You capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of a New York summer in the 1960s perfectly. Can you tell us about the research you did to get the period right?

Thank you very much. I read two excellent books about the original case, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.

I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.


The public hear about the murders – and by default Ruth – via newspapers and gossip. How would you think the judgement on her would play out today, with rolling news and the internet?

I imagine it would be similar, but more intense. News changes more quickly now – we can see photos within minutes of them being taken, or hear news as it happens. I think you only have to look at how Kate McCann or Amanda Knox have been judged on social media to see what would have happened if this particular story had played out fifty years later.


Little Deaths is your debut novel. How did you fit writing it around ‘regular’ life? What does it feel like to have it out in the world?

It took a long time and a lot of sacrifices. I started writing in 2010 and I gave up my permanent job in 2013. I was lucky that I worked in an industry with a lot of contract opportunities, so I could work for 5 to 6 months, then take time off to write. I didn’t have a holiday for six years, and I had to pass on a lot of evenings out and weekends away. It was hard. Writing can be very isolating – you’re the only one living in your fictional world for a very long time.

Seeing Little Deaths out in the real world is incredible – and quite surreal. I never believed it would be published, but I was determined to finish it. I knew if I gave up I’d regret it. And now it’s out there, existing independently, and being read and thought about by people I’ve never met. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t imagine ever getting used this feeling.


On your blog, you write about the experience of being able to declare yourself ‘a writer’, and the associated insecurities in doing so. What gave you the confidence to believe that about yourself?

Recognition and acknowledgement from other people whose judgement I respected: other writers, my agent, and then my editors.


What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. Read as much as you can, as often as you can. Find writers you love and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.

Find a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.

Find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.

And don’t give up. Writing is a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.


There’s a long tradition of women writers being the masters of the crime/thriller genre – Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and through to today – do you have any thoughts on why that might be? Why are you drawn to it as a genre?

Recently we’ve seen a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women, and I think this is down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well – but specifically in relation to female crime writers: more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.

I think most of us like to experience extreme emotions ‘safely’: whether that’s terror when we watch a horror film, or falling in love / lust when we watch a rom-com, or a creeping sense of unease when we read a psychological thriller. It’s the same for writers: a lot of us choose to explore extreme emotions, or emotion in extreme situations, and I happen to like writing about the darker stuff! I’m interested in the point where love becomes obsession, or fantasy takes over real life, or when someone chooses to act on one of those moments of fury we’ve all had. I guess I’m interested in how someone gets to that point of no-return – and what happens afterwards.


Who are some of your favourite writers?

My favourite writers are ones who write about crime and about history: those are the subjects that interest me most, which is why I read about them and why I write about them.

I love Megan Abbott and Tana French, who write novels about crime, but who I don’t think are crime writers in the traditional sense. And I’m a huge admirer of Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel who both excel at recreating history and making it immediate and real.


What are you reading at the moment?

I’m working on my second novel, which is set in England in the 1920s, so I’m reading lots of fiction written in that period and non-fiction about that period. I’m trying to immerse myself in the social conventions and language of a very different time, and understand a society that was still reeling from the aftermath of the First World War. 

Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Emma. 


Little Deaths by Emma Flint is published by Picador. 

Filling in the Blanks with Laura Olin

From annoying flatmates to secret crushes, there's always someone you'd like to say something to. In issue 32, we enlisted the help of Laura Olin's brilliant new book Form Letters to do the hard work for us. Out now, it's a book of blank letter templates that can be applied to almost every person and event. Laura - who is behind the cult Everything Changes newsletter and handled social media for Barack Obama's (and now Hillary Clinton's) presidential campaign - knows a thing or two about effective communication. 

We asked Laura to fill us in on a few of her communication secrets...


How did you come up with the idea for the Everything Changes newsletter? What did you want to achieve with it?  

I work in politics as a digital campaigner, so I've run a lot of email programs, written emails signed by the President (no, he doesn't write his own emails), etc. A few years ago I was thinking about all the cool things you can do with email that you can't really explore in politics because political email usually has the very focused goal of fundraising. So I thought a newsletter that changed every week would be a fun way to experiment with the form and give myself a creative outlet at the same time. The name comes from the Twitter profile of a friend of mine, Tim Carmody. He has a couple sentences in there that I've always loved: "Everything changes. Don't be afraid."


Tell us about some of the different themes. Which did you especially enjoy? 

I think my two favourites were what I called a "Thought Clock" - I asked people over the course of a few days, at different times of day, what they were thinking about right at that moment. Then I compiled everyone's answers into a 24-hour catalogue of thoughts for every hour of the day - Thought Clock! My other favourite is when I asked people how they've made, or are making, the decision whether or not to have kids. People sent in such thoughtful, amazing responses. 

I also have a lot of fondness for the week I did form letters, because that led to my book! One week, I thought it would be fun to apply the idea of filling in the blanks in a standard form letter to something you actually want to say to someone in your every day life - maybe helping people find the words to say awkward or hard things, and have a bit of fun with it.

Do you have a favourite letter in the book?

I think my favourite is the "To my dog"/"To my cat" spread.

Do you know of anyone who has used them yet?

A friend of mine actually used one to get one over on me on Twitter about a friendly argument we were having. That was humbling. 


Tell us about the RTW newsletter. We love the tagline of “For women who want a more equal world”!

Thank you! As I work in politics and I'm a woman, I have a lot of thoughts about the place of women in our society and how we can improve it. RTW is a little step toward getting people information that might help them make concrete positive steps toward gender equality in their own lives, and unite people for that cause.

How did you get the gig working on the Obama campaign?

Luck and timing. I happened to know the people who had the job of running the digital team of the 2012 campaign thrust upon them rather suddenly. I was a competent person they could call on and was in a good place to take that job - I was actually living in London at the time so it meant moving across the world to Chicago at short notice, but it was very worth it. 

Are there any moments that you are particularly proud of?

My favourite part of the campaign was actually not dissimlilar to what I regularly do on the newsletter - asking people what they think about stuff, then sharing their stories (with their consent of course). That bread-and-butter stuff was part of the heart of our digital campaign, I think - reminding the country of the real people around the country who had an enormous stake in that election and its outcome.

What are the main differences between the Obama campaign and the Hillary one?
The dynamics are so different because she's the first woman, and Trump is the first… Trump. After 10 years of working in politics, this year has just been unbelievably surreal to see. On any given day, something happens that we'd be talking about for a month in any regular campaign cycle. It's like the 2012 election was on earth and the 2016 election is on Mars.

Back on earth, what newsletters should we be subscribing to?
I really love Julia Carpenter's A Woman You Should Know, which introduces you to an amazing woman from history every day, and Carrie Frye's Black Cardigan, which is lovely and literary and doesn't have anything to do with politics at all. 

What do you think is the secret to getting people to pay attention to what you are trying to say?
Having something meaningful to say that no one's said before, or said in quite the way you're saying it.

Seeing as you used to live in London [Laura did her Masters at London School of Economics], do you have a secret about London that we may not know already? 
I'm sure Londoners know about this already, but whenever I have an American friend who's visiting, I tell them to go to Sir John Soane's Museum near Lincoln's Inn Fields - a preserved house of an odd and lovely man who lived there 100 years ago. It's like walking through someone's amazing, artistic, curious brain, highly recommended.

Thanks Laura! Form Letters: Fill-In-the-Blank Notes to Say Anything to Anyone by Laura Olin is published by Abrams Image. See more Form Letters in issue 32 of Oh Comely

What we're reading: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

In our adventure issue, we wrote about books we read while visiting the place they were set: London, The Cairngorms, the French Riviera and Toronto. But there were plenty of loved tomes we couldn't squeeze onto our pages. Here's one said outtake. Not read where it was set, but read on the move. Which is, more often than not in the busy city we're based in, where we do the bulk of our reading. Our lifestyle editor Liz Seabrook shares her thoughts on Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

It took me a little over four months to read Midnight’s Children. I realise this doesn’t sound overwhelmingly positive, but let me explain. I can only read when in transit, and – as I usually cycle – sitting still with nothing to do is a rare luxury. My time spent with my nose among pages tends to be limited. 

Midnight’s Children tells the story of three generations of a family, starting with the conception of the protagonist’s parents, to his own conception and his life up until it catches up with his present day. The history of India and Pakistan are charted alongside personal histories, journeys are taken, houses are moved out of and people are lost. The plot – though for the most part chronological – is dense and interwoven with heady descriptions that conjure each and every scene in technicolour. 

In the course of reading the book, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, saw my sister graduate, travelled through the Alps to Austria to visit an old friend and made new friends who I’ve since lost touch with. For those four months, I had a much needed travelling companion in the shape of a midnight blue, 500 or so page paperback. In that time our stories intertwined; as I sat curled up in a train carriage in Austria with Sigur Ros playing in my ears, my mind was transported to watching a boy in Bombay cycle about trying to impress a girl six months older than him. 

As I turned the last page, my heart sank; I was losing a friend. I didn’t start to read another book for a while after that. Partly because I was back in London, riding around, but partly because I was scared nothing would measure up. I’m still unsure if anything has. 

Image and Words: Liz Seabrook


To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here


What we're reading: Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

For the adventure issue, four of our writers shared reflections on books set in the very place they read them. Frances Ambler fell in love with London decades after Colin MacInnes did so in Absolute Beginners, but found very little had changed in the years since its publication--the city streets still paved with grime and gold.


Frances Ambler on Absolute Beginners

Written in 1958, and set over that year’s hot summer, Absolute Beginners shows London’s stiff upper lip and seedy underbelly through the eyes of a 19-year-old photographer. As a fresh arrival to the city, the book captures the thrill of experiencing London for the first time. 

Spending hours mentally cataloguing the style of those strutting the streets around me, I loved the book’s descriptions of “grey pointed alligator casuals” paired with a “pink neon pair of ankle crepe nylon-stretch”, and the city cool of its slang and its coffee bars. I escaped into music and I discovered that in the 1950s it was jazz clubs where “not a soul cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door”.

The city gave me space to be different. In Absolute Beginners, the unnamed narrator has left his family’s home in a run-down corner of Pimlico for an even more dilapidated bedsit in Notting Hill. His neighbours are those who are on the fringes of society in the 1950s – whether
for reasons of sexuality or race – who can find a relative liberty amid the poverty. Except, as violently demonstrated by the final section set in the Notting Hill race riots, London isn’t always that tolerant. 

I’m amazed how Absolute Beginners – at almost 60 years old – still captures London. It’s always shifting – like the narrator, I find myself marvelling at yet more “big new high blocks of glass-built flats” going up – fed by a constant influx of people. Even now, after over a decade of living in the city, I sometimes catch my breath at the cinerama of the Thames – where the “show’s never, never twice the same” – and the realisation that I call this place home. I’m with the narrator as he affirms, “My god, I love this city, horrible though it may be, and never ever want to leave it, come what it may send me”.


Image: Liz Seabrook, Words: Frances Ambler

To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here