Having really enjoyed The Things We Learn When We’re Dead when I read it earlier this year, I was delighted to receive an invitation from R&R Book Tours to join the blog tour for Charlie Laidlaw’s book. You can read my review below but I also have a fantastic Q&A with Charlie with some serious – and not so serious – questions.
Do look out for posts by the other great book bloggers taking part in the tour for more reviews, interviews, guest posts, book extracts and giveaways.
About the Book
With elements of The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead shows how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, and how sometimes we can get a second chance.
On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions. It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… Or does God have a higher purpose after all?
At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decision to make and that maybe she needs to find a way home.
Format: Paperback (501 pp.) Publisher: Accent Press
Published: 26th January 2017 Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Find The Things We Learn When We’re Dead on Goodreads
Q&A with Charlie Laidlaw, author of The Things We Learn When We’re Dead
First some serious questions…
Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Things We Learn When We’re Dead?
It’s literary fiction, and a modern fairytale. It’s about the power of memory to shape us. In the book, the central character is involved in a car accident and begins to remember her life in a slightly different way. It’s a book that asks: if you could remember your life differently, would that change you as a person?
How did you get the idea for the story?
To be honest, I have no idea. The initial idea came to me out of the blue on a train from Edinburgh to London. I suppose it was an apt place for inspiration because Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its central railway station after a book.
Do you have a favourite place to write or any writing rituals?
I write in my home office, although I do always carry a notebook. In a sense, I write everywhere because the main part of writing (apart from editing) is thinking about writing!
What’s your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?
I enjoy the creativity, and finding the right words to describe something. I enjoy it when a main character tells me that what I’ve written is gibberish because he/she would never say or do that. In a way, I am always being guided by my characters. When it’s going well, they write the book – not me.
Conversely, sometimes they don’t speak to me and it can be a bit of a struggle!
Which authors do you admire and enjoy reading?
I enjoy reading mostly contemporary literary fiction. Joanne Harris, Kate Atkinson and Fay Weldon are authors that spring to mind, so I suppose that I like accessible fiction.
Now some silly quick-fire questions that will, I hope, raise a chuckle from those who’ve read the book and intrigue those who haven’t…
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars (except for the prequels which were rubbish).
Carpet burns or sand in your knickers?
Being Scottish, I don’t wear knickers. My wife wears knickers, and they wouldn’t fit me.
Lamb cutlets or beef & horseradish sandwiches?
Lamb in the evening, beef sandwich at lunch. That said, I rarely eat either.
Greek beach bar or North Berwick seaside?
I love North Berwick, because it’s home. But, given the weather, I’d rather be in a Greek bar right at the moment. Greece is my most favourite foreign country.
Titanic or Four Weddings and a Funeral?
Titanic I’ve seen twice, and couldn’t watch again. Four Weddings is one of those films that I could watch again and again.
Tinman, Scarecrow or Lion?
They’re all in my book for readers who want to seek them out. I would have to say Lion because I have hopes for Lorna in that direction…
Transition or stasis?
I quite welcome change because, frankly, change happens. Staying still isn’t much of an option unless you’re a goldfish.
Lorna, Suzie, Irene – Snog, Marry, Avoid?
The only character I could possibly snog is Irene, because she might be persuaded to be anyone I wanted her to be.
As Lorna adapts to her new surroundings on the spaceship, random objects she sees – M&S underwear, lamb cutlets, even a hamster – trigger memories from her past life. At first these are fragmented, incomplete and often confusing. Some are pleasant memories: childhood holidays, family picnics, games with friends, the first stirrings of interest in the opposite sex. Others are reminders of loss and grief.
Many of Lorna’s memories revolve around exploits with her stylish friend, Suzie, and Lorna’s relationships with men that, it has to be said, have not been entirely successful. I confess to feeling a pang of sympathy for poor sweet, stolid Austin (described at one point as ‘a rather dull dog with very few tricks’). As the book progresses, the reader sees that actions do indeed have consequences, even if unintended, and may set in motion a chain of events that can end tragically.
In the book blurb, the publisher describes The Things We Learn When We’re Dead as having ‘elements of The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones’. Personally, if looking for cultural references, I would say the depiction of the stranded HVN spaceship draws more from Star Trek than anything else with its transporters, holographs and replicators. I enjoyed Lorna’s pleasure at the small, surprising miracles on the spaceship, like the ability of a chilled glass of wine to stay chilled even when drunk in the bath.
When it comes to The Wizard of Oz, certainly there are characters described as lacking courage (the Cowardly Lion) and not having much of a brain (the Scarecrow). However, I think someone reading this book in the expectation of it being a strict retelling of The Wizard of Oz may be disappointed. What they won’t be disappointed in is the quality of the writing, the quirky humour and the authenticity with which Lorna’s childhood and young adult experiences are described.
I really enjoyed The Things We Learn When We’re Dead. As someone who reads very little fantasy and reads science fiction only occasionally (and then more of the dystopian variety), I wasn’t that disappointed that the extra-terrestrial element takes more of a back seat as the book progresses. The ending didn’t particularly surprise me but I found myself wishing Lorna well in the future choices she makes.
I received a personally inscribed review copy courtesy of the author in return for an honest and unbiased review.
In three words: Quirky, engaging, fun
Try something similar… for more space-based fantasy, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar (click here to read my review)
About the Author
Charlie Laidlaw is the author of two novels, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) and The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press).
Charlie writes: ‘I was born in Paisley, central Scotland, which wasn’t my fault. That week, Eddie Calvert with Norrie Paramor and his Orchestra were Top of the Pops, with Oh, Mein Papa, as sung by a young German woman remembering her once-famous clown father. That gives a clue to my age, not my musical taste. I was brought up in the west of Scotland (quite near Paisley, but thankfully not too close) and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. I still have the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so it could say anything.
I then worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. I started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics. I interviewed motorbike ace Barry Sheene, Noel Edmonds threatened me with legal action and, because of a bureaucratic muddle, I was ordered out of Greece. I then took a year to travel round the world, visiting 19 countries. Highlights included being threatened by a man with a gun in Dubai, being given an armed bodyguard by the PLO in Beirut (not the same person with a gun), and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa. What I did for the rest of the year I can’t quite remember.
Surprisingly, I was approached by a government agency to work in intelligence, which just shows how shoddy government recruitment was back then. However, it turned out to be very boring and I don’t like vodka martini. Craving excitement and adventure, I ended up as a PR consultant, which is the fate of all journalists who haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize, and I’ve still to listen to Oh, Mein Papa.
I am married with two grown-up children and live in East Lothian.’
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