When Keith Ridgway told Laurence Laluyaux, a director at the Rogers, Coleridge & White literary agency in London, and Barbara Epler, president at New Directions, that he’d written a new book, it was something they’d been waiting to hear for a long time. A Shock, interlocking stories with recurring characters living on the margins in the streets and flats and pubs of London, is forthcoming in July from New Directions.
I spoke with Ridgway via Zoom and Laluyaux by phone. Both were in London while I was quarantining in a cottage in the English countryside, sorry that we couldn’t have met in person.
Laluyaux says she’s known Ridgway for a very long time. She was in international sales at RCW when he won the Prix Femina étranger (a French literary award for foreign novels) for The Long Falling in 2001, and she was with him in Paris when he accepted the award. That was the same year he won the Rooney prize for Irish literature (Ridgway from Dublin but he’s lived in London most of the last 20 years).
Epler admits she was “late to the game” when she first heard about “this Irish writer” in 2012. Ridgway had already published five books when New Directions published Hawthorn & Child, his sixth, in 2013, which cemented his already-notable literary reputation. “Hawthorn & Child opened a portal into Keith as well as an alternate universe!” Epler says.
But, Ridgway says, “after I finished Hawthorn, I just lost interest in writing. I did what I was supposed to do and then I got bored. I couldn’t get engaged in anything to write.”
And after Ridgway’s agent at RCW, David Miller, died unexpectedly, Ridgway says he “kind of retired,” adding, “People raised eyebrows.” He also stopped reading, though he continued to teach fiction writing at Faber Academy (which is connected to the publisher Faber & Faber).
Epler, however, kept in touch (which Laluyaux says was crucial and rare in publishing), sending him books to read (Muriel Sparks was a favorite). “Keith said he wasn’t writing again and he stuck to it, but we were waiting in the wings,” she recalls. “I was worried. Fish gotta swim. Writers gotta write. In July 2018 he sent the good news that he was writing, and in December he told me he was ‘locked in a fight to the death’ and was ‘going to finish this book.’ ”
Meanwhile, Laluyaux says, Ridgway published a story, “We Are Appalling,” in The Stinging Fly, a literary magazine, in March 2020, and “there was lots of excitement, lots of young Irish writers tweeting.”
Ridgway has long had an affinity with Laluyaux: there was their personal relationship and his admiration for the books she represented. He says he asked her, “If I send you a novel, will you read it?”
“We love you,” Laluyaux answered. “And we are always ready when you write again.”
Laluyaux also loved A Shock. She saw the manuscript in May 2020 and remembers being stuck at home reading it in the garden and “resenting having to put it down.” She found it daring, the characters stuck in their lives. “A Shock,” she says, “is about the stories we tell ourselves to organize the chaos. There’s a warmth for the characters, a deep humanity, even for the unlikable ones. Keith’s a brilliant writer.” And, as Laluyaux quotes from a review, his prose “sets you purring as it raises a hammer to your head.”
About his silence, Ridgway says he wasn’t blocked. “I don’t believe in blocked. I was not even trying but in retrospect it was not a bad thing. You can’t force interest.”
He drifted back into reading first, he tells me, and gradually got interested in writing again. “Surrounded by other writer’s words, I wanted to write mine.”
Ridgway’s inspiration was close at hand—his South London neighborhood. The pub in the book, the Arms, he says, is an amalgamation of pubs he’s known, and the characters were suggested by the local people.
“The linked stories and the people in them were always connected,” Ridgway says. “They were not different stories but emerged as one. The connections are physical, cultural, emotional. The idea of being trapped in various ways presented itself early on. The woman in the first story gets literally trapped in the wall when she breaks through the plaster to spy on her neighbors. All the characters have lives that are not quite working. They are confined by circumstances, like not having enough money, but also by their way of thinking. The characters came to me and I wanted to introduce them. I thought about the nature of fiction—the stories we tell each other, how we use fiction to negotiate the world. These characters are good people in difficult times, trying to do their best.”
Ridgway also sent A Shock to Epler, who was one of the first people to whom he had announced his retirement years before. “Barbara would send me emails asking if I was still retired,” he recalls. “I told her I had crumbled and was writing again. That was in 2018. I sent her the finished manuscript of A Shock in May 2020.”
Laluyaux and Epler were reading the manuscript at the same time, and Epler’s reaction matched Laluyaux’s. “I was thrilled and delighted and gobbled it up,” she says. “I thought A Shock was incredible from the get-go. He’s an Irish writer, but it’s all London. Keith’s books cast a spell—it’s alchemical, extra-dimensional. Everyone at New Directions was reading it and positively cooing. I’d walk down the hall and hear the oohing and aahing.”
Within a week Epler knew she wanted the book, and when Laluyaux reached out, the deal was sealed. The contract for North American rights was signed on July 30. (Philip Gwyn Jones at Picador will publish A Shock simultaneously in the U.K., his first acquisition as the new publisher.)
“Keith bamboozles you,” Epler says. And I concur when she adds, “Please, bamboozle me!”