Few people present a public face that fully matches their private one. Clare Pooley understands that better than most, and it prompted the thought that would provide the theme for The Authenticity Project, her debut novel, publishing from Pamela Dorman Books in February: “What would happen if everyone stopped lying about their lives and told the truth about what was really happening?”
A former advertising executive with a successful husband, three healthy children, and a beautiful West London home, Pooley was living a perfect life, or so it seemed. In 2015, she created an anonymous blog titled Mummy Was a Secret Drinker. She revealed herself to be the author in 2017, once she had landed a book deal. Her memoir, The Sober Diaries, published that year by Hodder in the U.K., examined her drinking problem and how she had started with a glass of wine in the evening and later found herself downing seven to 10 bottles a week.
The Authenticity Project was a more laborious effort. Born out of a writing workshop, the novel follows six disparate characters (most of them Londoners) brought together by a diary that falls into each of their hands by happenstance.
Acquired in England for six figures by Transworld after a six-way auction, the novel was nabbed in an equally competitive situation in the U.S. Pamela Dorman bought it in a two-book deal, for her eponymous imprint at Viking, for a sum rumored to be in the high six figures. Describing The Authenticity Project as “The Rosie Project meets Love, Actually,” the imprint has announced a first printing of 75,000 copies.
But it was that blog, really, that started Pooley on her current literary path. Writing it helped with her feelings of loneliness, showing her that she wasn’t the only one with problems. Within a year, her blog had gotten more than one million hits.
When Pooley was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2015, the blog also proved a support tool. “All the people I’d been helping with the blog started helping me,” she recalls, her eyes welling with emotion. “It was amazing.”
But before a career as a novelist was on her mind, the drinking was front and center. “I rarely looked drunk,” Pooley says in the sunny and uncluttered upstairs sitting room of her house. Her two border terriers, Otto and Alby, are amusing themselves in the kitchen. “I could drink quite a lot without looking drunk,” she adds as she pours fresh-brewed coffee into a mug with “Mummy” hand-painted on the side. Her eyes are bright and her skin is clear. “I come from a privileged background, had a perfect lifestyle, three lovely kids. But underneath, it was all going tits-up. That’s what I started becoming interested in—the things that are going on in peoples’ lives that you never know about.”
The daughter of a diplomat, Pooley was educated at one of Britain’s foremost boarding schools and studied economics at Cambridge, graduating in 1991. “I thought studying English would spoil my love of reading, and anyway I was interested in how the world works,” she explains, adding that she was at Newnham, an all-women’s college within Cambridge, which lacked the drinking societies that were a feature of men’s colleges. “So me and my friends set up the Newnham Drinking Society. That probably started the rot.”
Pooley joined the ad agency J. Walter Thompson as a graduate trainee. “I wanted to be in a creative industry, and I met some phenomenal people who I’m still in touch with,” she says. She left 20 years later as a managing partner, a third baby on the way. “I was a suit, running big accounts like Nestle, Shell, Unilever, Rolex. I got to the stage where the juggling was just too much; I couldn’t sleep because I had so much going on in my head. I was going to be a stay-at-home mum for a few years and do one thing well rather than everything badly.”
But as Alice, one of the characters in The Authenticity Project, suggests, that wasn’t easy either. “Alice was really the story of my life,” Pooley says. “When she thinks she has mastitis and sends her husband, Max, out to buy her a cabbage”—as cabbage leaves slipped inside a bra are thought to ease the pain of mastitis—“and he comes back with brussels sprouts... that happened to me, although in my case my husband came back with a cauliflower. I chucked it at him!”
Pooley recalls, “I felt for a long time that I’d lost myself. I was only defined by my husband or my children. When I stopped working everyone just referred to me as Mrs. Stevenson-Hamilton, or John’s wife, or my kids’ mother. That’s the sense Alice has—that you just lose yourself.”
Writing a memoir as therapy was one thing, but turning an idea into a novel was another. Lacking confidence, Pooley applied for a place in a writing course offered by the Curtis Brown literary agency, where she says the peer-group approach was transformative. “I wrote the first draft while I was in the course, 55,000 words. And then I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote before I showed anyone anything. I had a general idea of the structure and the characters.”
Julian the aging artist came first, the idea evolving from her view of the real-life Chelsea Studios, a haven for artists, from the top deck of the bus. “It was built in the 1930s by an Italian sculptor who wanted a place in London that looked like his place in Florence,” Pooley says. “I became obsessed by it and wondered what would happen if someone had lived there since the 1950s or ’60s and Chelsea had changed around him while he’d remained exactly the same.”
So it’s Julian, a longtime Chelsea Studios dweller, who makes the first entry in a green notebook: “Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead?” He leaves the notebook, now titled The Authenticity Project, in the Library, a book-lined coffee shop on the busy Fulham Road.
Owner Monica is the first to read it and, taking Julian’s advice to heart, adds her own story. So too do a disparate bunch of characters into whose hands the notebook falls. Among them is Hazard, who works in finance and takes the journal with him to a remote Thai island where he’s gone to have a monumental drug-and-booze-fuelled bender before getting sober. There the journal is passed to Riley, an uncomplicated Aussie en route to London. Thus begins a chain of events that will bring together a bunch of Fulham Road locals who would not otherwise have shared the time of day.
“Riley is the only character who isn’t like me,” Pooley says. “He’s very happy and straightforward and he has no fatal flaw—the others all have an issue. There’s a Leonard Cohen quote at the beginning, ‘There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in,’ and they all have a crack, apart from Riley. He’s a sort of mirror to everyone else. I didn’t like him as much—flawed characters are always more interesting.”
With all of the others, Pooley shares some traits: Alice, the not-so-perfect new mum; Monica, the career girl and feminist who formerly worked as a corporate lawyer; and of course Hazard—“He’s my addict-self, and, like him, I’d given up many times. Hazard falling off the wagon was the hardest bit to write, but it had to be done.”
Some of the 29-and-counting publishers who’ve bought the novel wanted a different ending, but Dorman stood with Pooley. Some still want a sequel. That’s not in the offing yet, though the author is at work on a second novel.
“When I quit drinking I thought my life was over—that it would be miserable and colorless and boring,” Pooley says. “It was my punishment. What I wasn’t expecting was a completely new life and a second act.”
Liz Thomson is a journalist and author in London. Her biography of Joan Baez, 'Joan Baez: The Last Leaf', will be published in fall 2020.