Lisa Harding’s repertoire includes acting and writing plays, short stories, and, most recently, novels. Harvesting, her debut novel, was published in Ireland by New Island Books in 2017. It went on to win awards and acclaim and has been optioned for film by Michael Lennox, director of the TV series Derry Girls. Her second, Bright Burning Things, was published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury in March to stunning reviews.
“The reception here was amazing,” Harding’s agent, Clare Alexander, of Aitken Alexander in the U.K., tells me. “We’re so looking forward to its publication in America.” In December, HarperVia will release the novel in the U.S.
Bright Burning Things is the story of a woman whose glamorous life as an actor comes to a halt with single motherhood and a serious addiction to alcohol. Told in a powerful first-person voice, the novel is heart-wrenching and terrifying as the narrator, Sonya, spirals out of control despite being responsible for her young son Tommy and their rescue dog Herbie.
In a scene at the beach in which a stranger questions her leaving Tommy and the dog while she swims out into the ocean, Sonya’s internal voice reveals her conflict: “I’m shaking with something else now and it’s rocking me deep inside. My voice is huge and swallowed and I’m scared of what might happen if I release it. Breathe in, out, in, out.... I knock the phone out of her hand and grab my son out of her arms.... I feel repulsed by this old woman: her proximity, her bossy intrusion into our happy, happy world.”
Sonya desperately loves the boy, but the bottle is strong competition, and when she realizes she might lose custody of him she faces a “come to Jesus” moment. Add in her withholding father, a hateful stepmother, a caring nun, and a counselor with an agenda, and you have a volatile stew of a tale.
Harding had a bestseller in Ireland with Harvesting and had no representation when Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, her mentor at the Arvon course, a weeklong writers’ residency in England, introduced her to Alexander. “Ellah knows my taste and how much I love strong voices,” Alexander says. “ I took Lisa on as a client in 2017 based on half of Bright Burning Things.”
After signing with Alexander, Harding revised the manuscript, changing the point of view and the title, which Alexander helped come up with. “I was a publisher for 20 years before I became an agent,” Alexander says. “I’m an editorial agent. The title Bright Burning Things reflects the heroine: she’s a firework, beautiful and dangerous.”
Alexander sent the manuscript out to U.K. publishers, and Alexis Kirschbaum at Bloomsbury UK preempted it. The deal for U.K. and Commonwealth rights excluding Canada, plus translation rights, was sealed in late 2019.
An edited first draft then went out widely to U.S. publishers in 2020 and Tara Parsons, associate publisher at HarperVia, bought North American rights in September. Alexander recalls that Parsons told her, “ ‘It would be a privilege to introduce Lisa’s work to North American readers,’ and I knew we had found the right editor!”
Parsons says the manuscript came with a great pitch and a caveat that it was a tough book. “I read it at night,” she recalls, “during lockdown with a glass of wine, and I thought, do I want to read this? I have kids, I’m drinking wine. Will it be too dark? But I started reading and couldn’t stop. I didn’t see it as too dark because of the writing. The character of Sonya is so three-dimensional.”
Parsons expands on this to note that the reader doesn’t have sympathy for Sonya. “It’s all reserved for the son and the dog,” she says. “They are both at her mercy. You’re reading and holding your breath. Are they going to survive? The book feels timely. Lockdown is ending and people are seeing themselves differently. We’ve been drinking more, indulging ourselves with self-care. This can be a cautionary moment.”
HarperVia usually does books in translation, but it also publishes “books written originally in English but with a global feel,” Parsons says. “Bright Burning Things has the lyricism of the Irish novel.” She bought the novel for “a good amount,” drawn to the strong point of view and its commercial and literary appeal. “Seeing it after it had been edited in the U.K.,” she says, “was the icing on the cake.”
As for Harding, she tells me she came to London from Dublin to be an actor, and when it wasn’t working out, she started writing plays, several of which were produced. “My acting career was unsatisfying,” she adds, “and I discovered I had a voice. I started writing short stories. This was about 10 years ago. A novel felt beyond me, but when I won a story competition I thought, I can do this.”
Harding returned to Dublin and did a master’s of philosophy in creative writing at Trinity College. She started to look at writers from the point of view of voice. “I was good at first person because of my acting experience,” she notes. “When I started Harvesting, about sex trafficking [she had worked for a sex trafficking advocacy organization after graduation and had heard firsthand accounts], I originally thought it would be a play and started by writing monologues. But it became a novel with a first-person-present interior voice, a composite of two girls I had worked with who took over my head. It was a hard sell, underage sex trafficking, but I sold it and was thrilled when it did well.”
She says, “This book is closer to home. Addiction is not just drugs and alcohol. Actors are addicted to the high of attention. It’s not so different from the feeling of being pissed. I was really nervous when I gave up acting, even though I gave it up willingly. There was a terrible withdrawal.”
Harding adds that “Bright Burning Things, too, was tricky to sell. It was raw, unfiltered, unattractive—but Clare was wonderful. We did seven or eight drafts and dialed down the trauma and brought in some light and shade. The boy’s voice is absent, which made the book more powerful. The reader is worried for him.”
Harding is thrilled to be with HarperVia and Parsons: “She loved the book, and people either love it or hate it—like Marmite!”
For my part, I hate Marmite, but I do love this book.