Topical and conversation sparking, The Girls of Summer is a fresh take on consent, power, and how the memories we hold onto aren’t always the truth as 30-year-old Rachel is forced to confront the reality of a relationship she had with an older man in her late teens, to realise that all is not as rose-tinted as it seems.
Early reviews have seen the novel lauded as one of the hottest debuts of 2023, and picked as a summer must-read by every outlet from The Times, The Independent and The Sun, to the New York Post, Glamour, and Hello magazine. Apple Books picked The Girls of Summer as their Best of the Month, while a Booklist review compared Katie’s gripping tale to both HBO’s smash hit The White Lotus and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s Sunday Times bestseller My Dark Vanessa. It’s been something of a whirlwind for the 31-year-old since The Girls of Summer hit the shelves at the end of May.
But while Katie, who’s originally from Nuneaton, had long dreamed of publishing a novel, it wasn’t something she ever thought would truly happen.
“I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve always been a really big reader, but never considered doing it as a career,”
Katie started out in academic publishing, putting the idea of creative writing to the back of her mind. But it was an itch she felt she needed to scratch. “I started dabbling with writing a bit more,” says Katie. “I started doing a bit of journalism on my evenings and weekends, and then I started playing around with the idea of writing a novel.
Katie’s first attempt, however, proved to be unsuccessful, when she was unable to capture the attention of an agent.
“I went into lockdown feeling very dispirited,” says Katie.
“I felt like a failure with this novel, thought I wasn’t going to write one again. But because of lockdown I lost a lot of my journalism work, so all of a sudden I had all of this free time and felt that I needed to giveit another shot.”
Katie had an idea for a new novel bubbling around, and with time on her hands as the world shut down in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was able to get stuck into the writing process once again. “I really liked the idea of writing a ‘one that got away’ story set in a beautiful, romanticised location,” she says. “I’m very interested in the idea of nostalgia and memory, and how that plays with how we view these big moments in our lives.
“At the same time, it was about three years since the #MeToo movement had taken hold and I’d spent so much of that time having discussions with my friends and other women, and speaking about my own experiences. And it felt like everyone was going through this collective horror, and collective reckoning, looking back on these formative romantic and sexual experiences and starting to view them in a different way.“
I started to think about how I could use this idea of ‘the one that got away’ to explore this reckoning, and how it feels to realise that a relationship that has profoundly impacted you could be interpreted in a different light.”
In just eight months, Katie had completed the first draft of what would become The Girls of Summer. With just a few minor edits, she was ready to send it out into the world, hoping that this time, an agent would bite.
“I’d been through the process before and had the disappointment of it not working out so I had a list of agents ready but I didn’t have really high expectations,” says Katie.But after sending out the first part of the manuscript to seven agents, within a week they had nearly all come back to ask to see the full book. With offers from several agents on the table, Katie had her pick of representation. And it didn’t stop there.
“Publishing pretty much shuts down over summer, so my agent came back with a list of edits and suggested going away and working on them, ready for when things reopened up in October,” says Katie. “She called me about two weeks later to say, because the book is so topical, she was worried that someone else would pitch something similar, and that if that happened I might not get a deal. So she asked me to get the edits done by the end of the week, so we could go out on submission to publishers.”
After what Katie describes as a ‘crazy, fever dream week,” of working her two other jobs while honing the novel’s edits, The Girls of Summer went out on submission, attracting offers from multiple publishers within days. American offers and multiple translation deals quickly followed.
“It all just happened very quickly, and on a much bigger scale than I ever dreamed it would,” says Katie. “I don’t think I could really believe it; it had been a lifelong dream and I knew how difficult it was, so the whole thing was far beyond my expectations.”
The Girls of Summer’s lead character Rachel is inspired by many of the conversations Katie had around the #MeToo movement, as well as some more personal traits.
“Rachel is definitely a composite of lots of different experiences; there are definitely elements of my own life and my own personality in there, particularly the travelling and going out into the world for the first time at that age I definitely drew from my own experience,” says Katie.
“Something else from my own experience I put into Rachel was how important friendship is to her; I’ve got such a close group of female friends; my female friends are everything to me and as the novel goes on Rachel increasingly realises how important her female friends are to her.“
I did a lot of travelling and backpacking when I was a similar age to Rachel, and what always stands out to me about how that time felt is thisenormous sense of possibility, with the world feeling so open and exciting to you. I think inevitably, whatever direction your life goes in, you’re going to get that sense of possibility narrowing down because you’re making choices, settling down.
“And what I really wanted to capture for Rachel is that feeling that, as an adult, she feels quite trapped, she’s worried that she’s made some wrong choices and she’s looking back and idealising this time where she felt so free and getting very nostalgic about that.“
That’s also tied in with those elements of trauma that’s such a big theme in the novel. It’s not just that she’s nostalgic for this amazing, magical experience of youth, it’s also about the fact that she hasn’t been able to move on from that summer as a result of the trauma she experienced.
”The novel splits its time between London and a remote Greek island, which serves as the setting for Rachel’s formative, tragic teenage summer. Beautifully drawn and richly evocative, Katie builds up a vivid picture of the island itself, transporting readers to pristine beaches and azure seas with ease.“
Setting, for me when I’m reading, is just the most important thing; I love a really powerful setting,” says Katie. “The island is a beautiful, escapist place but it’s very small and very isolated; you can only get there by boat so it feels very claustrophobic at the same time as it feels like this exciting new world that Rachel is exploring.“
I was writing the novel in lockdown so I couldn’t go on a lovely research trip to Greece; I was stuck in my living room like everyone else, really wanting to go on a holiday! So I think that’s one of the reasons why I ended up setting the novel in this beautiful, escapist location because that’s where I wanted to be at the time!”
Now a full-time author, Katie is working on the follow-up to The Girls of Summer. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
“It’s been quite a difficult process, which I was a bit surprised by,” admits Katie. “When you get a book deal you feel more confident about your writing and you’ve got the security of knowing you’ve got a second book as part of the book deal.“ You have to come up with an idea for a second book really quickly, because before anyone makes an offer they want to know what your second book is going to be. So I worked on this idea for about a year, but my heart wasn’t in it; I knew it wasn’t the book for me.”
After sending her first attempt at novel number two to her publishers, Katie went back to the drawing board. “It seems like I need to be working on something else to actually have my best ideas,” she says. “The novel I’m working on now has got a lot of similar themes to The Girls of Summer, it’s going to be set in a beautiful, escapist location again, it covers a lot of psychological elements and it’s going to have that dark undertone to it that people seemed to enjoy with The Girls of Summer.”
And there are more books in the pipeline.“I’ve got loads more ideas -although you don’t know until you start writing if they’re good ideas,” laughs Katie. “But being able to writenovels full-time is just so far beyond anything I ever expected, and such a dream for me.
“I just want to be able to keep doing this forever.”
The Girls of Summer, by Katie Bishop, is out now in hardback, published by Transworld, Penguin Random House. RRP £14.99. Visit Katie’s website at www.katiebishopwrites.com