The Making of a Pioneer

Charlotte photographed by Bex Day

Charlotte photographed by Bex Day

 

Charlotte Philby, writer

In partnership with Toast

What does it take to walk out on a family? This was the question that Charlotte Philby wanted to explore in her debut novel, The Most Difficult Thing. This wasn’t just a hypothetical question, it was something she’d been grappling with since childhood. As the granddaughter of Kim Philby, the MI6 special agent who defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Charlotte was interested in exploring her own family history. She wanted to investigate what kind of person makes a decision like that and what impact that action has on the family unit.

As a child, Charlotte remembers being aware that there was something different about her Grandfather Kim. “I had one set of grandparents in Somerset who we’d drive to see and I had my Grandfather Kim and his wife Rufina in Russia,” she explains. “We’d have to get on an aeroplane and then be met on the other side by men who didn’t speak English, they’d ferry us to a car, put a light and siren on the car and then fly us down the motorway.” As a child, this was all rather exciting. But as Charlotte has since had her own family she’s started to consider the interior and emotional elements of this life. “A lot of the focus was on his actions, his deceit and his betrayal in terms of his country and his countrymen but no one ever really talks about the family that he left behind.”

This thought was the spark that ignited The Most Difficult Thing. For Charlotte it inspired a new way of looking at the spy/thriller genre without following the usual tropes. “I’m not interested in seeing the violence or the action,” she says. “I’m interested in what happens before or after the action, I wanted to take that idea and flip it.” She was also interested in creating a complicated female lead. “My grandfather chose communism in the face of the rise of fascism to the detriment of his family,” Charlotte says. “I wanted to look at what would happen if a woman left her family for her ideological beliefs. How does she do that? Where does that leave her?”

She does this through the story of Anna, a wife and mother who walks out on her family at the beginning of the book and descends into a world of espionage. She’s a complex character with a traumatic background and a very uncertain future. One of the observations of the book questions whether Anna is likeable, this is something Charlotte pushes back on. “It’s interesting that some people have said, ‘Oh god I didn’t like her,’ but why does she have to be likeable? I don’t know think male characters are judged in such basic terms.”

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Veering away from anything expected can raise eyebrows but Charlotte isn’t interested in conforming to any expectations, “I was very clear with myself from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a book to fit a certain mould…invariably if something’s different it won’t be for everyone, but that’s OK, good even. I think it’s really important to remember I set out to do something bold and hold true to that.”

Charlotte trained as a reporter and worked at the Independent for 9 years before making the leap into writing fiction full time. Although the process of writing short form is a lot different from crafting a novel she acknowledges that the training came in useful, “Training as a news reporter teaches you to just write whether you’re in the mood or not. I actually quite like writing when I’m tired or hung over—the times when you’re supposedly not as productive—because I’m not constantly questioning myself.”

Traditionally crime fiction has been seen as a literary ghetto, but Charlotte is inspired by the amount of women crime writers who are bringing new ideas and perspectives to the often staid genre. “Brilliantly, there has been a sudden explosion of spy novels by female writers, from the meticulously researched A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott to The Secrets We Kept by Lara Preston, which tells how Dr Zhivago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union. I also really admire is Louise Doughty who perfectly demonstrates how smart good thrillers can be.”

Charlotte’s currently in the final edits of her second book and in the process of writing her third. These follow up titles will be stand-alone books, but they’ll also work as a trilogy. Writing three books in two and a half years while having three children to juggle is a mammoth task. We talk about taking time out and resisting the urge to do too much in an age of endless distractions. “It’s so easy to expend ourselves. Being tired and busy is often seen as a badge of honour but it doesn’t work long-term,” Charlotte says. “For me the trick is learning to consciously take more time over the process of writing, taking more time to be with friends and family, to cook, to listen to music, to read a book; to ‘be’ rather than do.”

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Above: Charlotte wears Toast cotton tee and dog-tooth trousers and Toast Ikat dress. www.toa.st/uk

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All photography by Bex Day.