The timing of Helly Acton’s first pregnancy isn’t, she admits, completely ideal.
Due in late 2020, she spent her first trimester locked down, the second attending her appointments without her husband and now, in the weeks when any expectant woman would be justified in wallowing under a duvet with a tub of ice cream all day, she’s frantically putting the finishing touches to her second novel.
Acton has every right to be frazzled, but is actually happier and more content than ever. In the last few months, she’s quit full-time work in favour of freelance life, moved to the country and, aside from a gruesome interlude this morning when her dog brought a disemboweled mouse into the kitchen, is thoroughly enjoying the nesting period.
It all sounds like the perfect narrative for a romcom. But if Acton seems an unlikely cheerleader for the joys of singledom, don’t be fooled. Just a few short years ago, she found herself divorced, living alone in Australia and, shockingly, loving every minute of life on her own schedule.
And it’s that revelation, rather than romance, that inspired Acton’s debut novel The Shelf, described as “utter perfection” by none other than Marian Keyes. Lighthearted and hilarious, the novel skewers a host of dated life tropes, from romance on reality TV to the enduring love, marriage, baby carriage narrative. Underneath the surface of what appears to be a classic beach read, however, sits an exploration of so much of modern womanhood. From the pressure to settle down and procreate, to gaslighting, abuse and fat-shaming, it’s as powerful as it is approachable.
Today, she sits down with The Flock to discuss her inspirations, her own chequered romantic history, and her overwhelming desire to turn happy ever after on its head…
The Shelf seems very firmly focussed on debunking the myth that happiness depends on finding another half. What is it that drew you to the subject of relationships and the highs and lows of them in that way?
I suppose it’s just personal experience. I’ve had terrible relationships and I’ve had great ones as well. Obviously, I’m in one at the moment with my husband! But in terms of The Shelf, really that came from the fact that, as I was approaching 30, I got married to the wrong person because I felt in a rush to do so. It was the classic tale of all my friends are doing it, I need to follow suit. If I don’t, I’ll get left behind and look like such a loser. It’s such rubbish, but that’s how I felt at the time. I left that marriage after six months when it dawned on me that, actually, it was a terrible decision. And then I had a spell of being single and being really happy about it.
Did that surprise you?
At the time, it sort of did, yes. I’d always been a bit scared of being single, because I think you’re made to feel by society that if you’re single there’s something wrong with you. TV shows, reality shows are always about finding the one, finding love, finding romance. So, I just wanted to write a story that, if I had read it at that time, would’ve made me feel really positive about being single, that acknowledged that it’s okay to live life at your own pace and in your own style.
You’ve spoken before about coming to view your divorce as “a fix, not a failure”. How hard was it to make that change in thinking?
It took quite a long time, actually, because I’d been fed that rhetoric, that idea that being single over 30 meant it might never happen and that would be bad. I actually fell into another long-term relationship very quickly because I was scared of being left on the shelf. And I mean, that was a terrible decision, based on that idea it’s better to be in a couple with the wrong person than to be single. I think it was probably at the age of 32, having always been sort of been a serial dater, that I found myself single and living alone and suddenly realised how excellent it was.
The book centres on a fairly horrific reality TV show in which women are dumped before being moved into a televised, all female house where they’ll be taught how to not be left on the shelf. Where did that idea come from?
I know that reality TV is bubblegum for the brain, pure escapism, but it also tackles really important topics too, which is what I wanted to achieve – something lighthearted but meaningful. The Shelf began with a conversation on holiday about reality television and how far they’re going to take it. I began to think about how so many reality shows are about finding the one or finding love. Why aren’t there any about finding yourself and finding that the one is yourself? What would that look like? I imagined the flip would be, instead of going on a TV show to couple up with someone, you’d go on a TV show and get dumped. So, then the idea of this reality show called The Shelf was born.
That importance of female friendship is a key message of the book. Was that a very deliberate thing?
Yes, it was. It was important to me not to bow down to that typical idea of a group of women living together all becoming gossipy and catty. That’s not how women behave, unless you’re in Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I wanted people to be able to relate to the characters as individuals and as a group and see that friendship dynamic, and also to show that you can come from all sorts of backgrounds or different walks of life and get on with people. None of the characters are similar at all, yet they can find common ground – not only in the fact that they’ve just been dumped on live TV, but also just with their experiences with men and relationships.
You’re working on your second novel now. Will it be exploring similar themes?
It’s called The Couple and it’s set in a post relationship world, a sort of alternative reality where it’s normal to be single and taboo to be in a couple. So, I’m kind of flipping the narrative of how single people can often be made to feel in our world, slightly alienated or ostracised. And it’s about two people who meet and have to decide whether their love for each other is worth the risk of going against that norm.
So there are definite similarities in the message, in the idea that you don’t have to be in a relationship to be happy . You don’t need a partner to make you feel worthy, and you don’t have to rush into the situation that you think you need to be in, like a marriage or a long-term relationship, just because everyone else is doing it. I know it sounds a bit fluffy, but what’s meant to be will be. Maybe you’ll meet someone who’s great for you. Maybe you won’t, and you’ll be fine just as you are.
Frankly, I’m just hoping I can get it finished before the baby arrives, because I don’t know what my baby will be like. I mean, hopefully we have a really sleepy baby, but I don’t know anything about babies to be honest. We’ll see!
The Shelf, by Helly Acton, is out now, published by Zaffre (£12.99). Buy your copy here