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The day to day of long-term love isn’t usually given the same attention in literature and movies as the thrilling adventures of new romance. But in Diana Evans’s new novel, “Ordinary People,” she explores the reckoning two relationships are facing now that they have “passed the infatuation stage,” as it’s put in the John Legend song the book is named after.
At the center of the book, which is this month’s Lily Lit Club pick, are two couples in contemporary London — Michael and Melissa, and Damian and Stephanie — who are struggling with the realities of the lives they have chosen to live together.
The Legend song continues:
From her London home, Evans talked to The Lily about why she wanted to write about this moment in the couples’ relationships, what’s missing from literature and who her ideal reader is.
The Lily: “Ordinary People” can be eerily familiar and chilling at times. What made you want to talk about the challenges of long-term relationships in such an ... ordinary way?
Diana Evans: I essentially wanted to write about the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s a very simple story and I was influenced by novels I was reading at the time by John Updike and Richard Yates. In fact, I think about this book in some ways as an adaptation of “Revolutionary Road” [by Yates] in that this is about the deterioration about the relationship between a man and a woman. It contains so much about the way we live as it relates to gender and personal politics. I see it as a study of a human relationships and what it means to be a human being. Most of all, I felt this type of exploration hadn’t been done in the context of black British life. The themes we see around black lives are so often negative and I wanted to write about something ordinary and normal.
TL: “Ordinary People” opens right after Barack Obama’s election in America, and closes with Michael Jackson’s death. What was it about these two events that you felt would make a good time period for us to glimpse into these couples’ lives?
DE:  was the year in which I was beginning this novel. That was my contemporary point in time. But also the election of Obama was such a huge moment and I felt it needed to be documented in some way. It was the same with the death of Michael Jackson. Both of these events had such a huge impact on the world of politics and the arts.
I was thinking of “War and Peace” and the way [Leo Tolstoy] opens his novel at the point where Napoleon invades Russia. It gives a political edge to the window that we are viewing this group of people through. In the case of “Ordinary People,” I saw the election of Obama as that kind of global political edge into this moment for the British black middle class.
TL: Can you talk about the juxtaposition of Barack Obama’s election and the reality of everyday life for these two couples at that moment?
DE: The Barack Obama moment was a global universal moment. The beginning of the novel starts with his election and then we go into a journey from universal to domestic. It goes narrower and narrower into a small, domestic world. The Obamas are meant to be a reflection of Michael and Melissa. The Obamas, and Michael and Melissa — even though there is this incredible distance between their different lives; they are worlds away — on the face of it they are two black couples. A lot of the world would see them as the same. It was a way of showing the diversity within blackness and the black experience and hinting at that.
TL: John Legend’s “Get Lifted” was the soundtrack to my senior year of high school, so I was particularly intrigued by the connection you make to it both in the title and throughout the book. What prompted you to do this, especially the chapter in which Michael connects each song on the album to his personal love life during his commute into London?
DE: I think it was partly from being a music journalist in the past. And I love writing about music. It’s such an interesting album in that you hear and experience one man’s journey throughout. Some of it was an experiment to see if I could do a bus trip and do a music review and do a journey of a relationship in one chapter and I think it worked. The character that John Legend writes in the album ends up being a reflection of [Michael]. It was just thrilling. After that, the John Legend presence just took off.
TL: I love the way “Ordinary People” paints London. What’s your relationship to the city and why is it important that your books take place here?
DE: It’s partly because I am a Londoner and I have lived here most of my life. I see writing as painting in a way. I am describing the world around me. London has always been my canvas. It’s so rich in different lives and diversity, and I feel like I have this endless well of content here.
TL: Do you have a character in the book who you enjoyed writing the most?
DE: Stephanie. She is the only one who is really content in who she is and where she is. I enjoyed writing the two men, but I really enjoyed Stephanie’s lack of existential anxiety. In some ways she is probably the least interesting character and she doesn’t quite fit into the group but she just has this absolute lack of discontent. In a novel of extreme existential crisis, she is a bit of relief.
TL: How did you think about motherhood in “Ordinary People” as it relates to both Melissa and Stephanie?
DE: [Melissa and Stephanie] are poles apart. They are two different approaches to motherhood. Melissa has this ambivalence to motherhood whereas Stephanie is all-accepting and has devoted her life to it. One of the most important strands to me in the book was exploring this in the context of modern feminism. There are so many questions women face about the choices they make or don’t make.
To some, you can’t be like Stephanie and be a feminist at the same time, but I don’t see those two as mutually exclusive and I am trying to make a point with that. Women should be able to make their own choices about how they live.
I am a mother myself and I never imagined that I would find myself writing about it. Dealing with small children, I found myself living in such extremes octaves. There was a sense of conflict. In this case, I wanted to explore the impact of motherhood on a woman’s identity and how it changes a woman’s identity.
If I have an ideal reader, it is the new mother. The kind of emotions you have being a new mother are so piercing and belonging to such a small world. It can feel so trivial, but when I was feeling that way, it gripped my whole being. It felt very important to describe them and really dissect them so that somebody else who had young children and was really feeling the unique pressure of young motherhood could read it and feel understood.
That’s a really crucial element to me — for my reader to feel understood in these pages.
TL: Is there an author that makes you feel understood in their pages?
DE: Jean Rhys’s novels do that for me. They are intense, emotional experiences for me. Also Candice Carty-Williams’s “Queenie,” which is out next year, for its portrayal of female black British sensibility. I have always loved Alice Walker and Toni Morrison because of the way they make black people seen. There is still a real lack of that in the literary canon.
There are also the books and authors that haven’t satisfied me that helped me write this novel. In Updike and Yates, I don’t feel seen. The women are glossed over and misunderstood. I wanted to write those women.
TL: You mentioned your past as a music journalist. What’s the soundtrack of this year for you?
DE: Aretha Franklin. I miss her.
TL: What’s next for you?
DE: I am working on a children’s book at the moment. Writing “Ordinary People” was really hard. I thought this would be easier, but it’s not [laughs].
Reading “Ordinary People”? Join us on Instagram by following @lilylitclub to share your favorite quotes, participate in discussions and offer up your #15SecondReview.