Back in 2020, at the very peak of lockdown, my mind was desperate for an escape from the forced fun of Zoom quizzes and the familiar scent of banana bread that wafted through my flat on a far too frequent basis.
I’d heard about a brand-new book by Salford-based author, Charlotte Levin and took myself on my government-approved daily walk to Waterstones where I picked up a copy of her coveted debut, If I Can’t Have You.
The book is an honest portrayal of the qualms of love and loss. The story follows northerner, Constance as she moves to London after the death of her mother. She begins working as a secretary at a doctor’s surgery where she meets the alluring doctor, Samuel, in which they start an unsolicited fling.
The novel is an intense, sometimes sinister read that leaves you grappling with your moral compass and empathy towards the characters. Constance is fascinating, and If I Can’t Have You is full of unexpected twists and turns, something that Levin first developed in her writing as a drama student.
“It was all about the acting for me when I was younger,” she began. “For a final showcase at a course I did with the Young People’s Theatre at the Royal Court in London, I wrote my own scene to perform. Afterwards, my teacher passed on a message from the artistic director telling me I should carry on writing. That planted a seed, but I was extremely naive and after writing an entire play, I sent it off to the National Theatre, which I wasn’t really looking for a response to!
“They then sent me this lovely reply saying that I really can write, so I decided to do a couple of local courses, but it wasn’t until my mum died in 2015 that I thought about actually giving writing a proper go.”
Levin’s mother passed away from cancer in 2015 and it wasn’t until July 2020 that If I Can’t Have You came out, the product of a whole five years worth of work and distractions from her heartbreaking loss.
During that time, Levin also lost her father and struggled with anxiety and agoraphobia – so, our conversation quickly turned into how she kept so creatively motivated despite her devastating obstacles.
The Creative Process
For Levin, her honesty is one of her greatest traits, as she best showcases when talking about how she stays creative: “It’s hard for me because I see pictures of people’s perfect setups that often feature lovely offices and natural lighting – but that’s just not how I work.
“I honestly write the best from bed. It’s an unhealthy habit I know, but it works for me and that’s what matters. I’ve also got a really short attention span, not helped by being a self-proclaimed Twitter addict, so the best way I’ve found to help with that is doing writing sprints. I usually set a timer for no longer than 20 minutes, but it means I spend that time concentrating solely on my work.”
If I Can’t Have You took five years to form, as Levin grappled with the death of her parents and immersed herself in the story of Constance and Samuel. She explained that the ‘feeling’ of her work is important to her, with her mind becoming overwritten with emotions and thoughts before even thinking about putting pen to paper.
But with this comes the dreaded burnout, something that has only been heightened over the past couple of years. It’s something that many of us have grappled with, especially after two years of COVID-related lockdowns. Being confined to the constraints of overpriced rentals and over-stimulated by heightened social media and Netflix addictions, alongside the sheer panic of the pandemic itself, it has sometimes felt impossible to get back into the so-called ‘swing of things’.
“I put so much into my books that they consume my whole life and I find myself working around the clock, especially if deadlines are looming,” explained Levin.
“But it’s important to have a few days off sometimes and just be lazy and watch rubbish on TV or read books you want to read. Otherwise it becomes counterproductive and you’re too tired to produce good work. I struggled to do that enough on book two, which is set to be released in March next year, and it felt awful. So I’m determined to have a better balance when writing my next one.”
How to Unlock Creativity
A lot of people don’t know where to start when it comes to exploring their own creative output. There’s been tons of research into how creativity can have a surprising impact on mental health, by increasing positive emotions, reducing stress, decreasing anxiety and even improving the immune system response of some people, but where do you begin?
Levin explained the power of consumption: “In no way should you copy,” she said, “but read and watch everything, even if you don’t like it. It will trigger different ideas or teach you about processes that don’t work for you or things that you might want to avoid.”
She also cited the work of Robert Mckee as being hugely helpful to her writing. Mckee is an author, lecturer and story consultant who is most well known for his ‘STORY Seminar’, which he developed as a professor at the University of Southern California.
The STORY Seminar was designed to help master key principles in storytelling, going beyond the essential mechanics of writing. It aims to elevate writing from an intellectual exercise to an emotional one, transforming the craft into an art form.
“I remember just immediately realising ‘ok, so this is how a story works’,” she said. “I also watch things on Youtube all of the time. I think it’s a really powerful and creatively accessible tool for those looking to make a start on their artistic journey. I’m always wanting to better myself, and there’s so much on there to help you with progression. I truly believe you don’t have to spend lots of money on expensive courses to improve your craft.”
Staying Authentically Northern
Levin also draws a lot of inspiration from the outside world, everyday interactions and her experience as a Northerner. Her work is one of the truest depictions of Northern culture I’ve stumbled across, and it’s something that you sense she is extremely proud of. She was born in Blackpool, but has spent most of her childhood and later adult life living in Salford, a city she has a particularly close connection to.
“It was really important to me to depict Northern culture in its truest form in the book, as I wanted to convey how I felt when I moved to London when I was 19. The whole thing just felt very different and I wanted to get that across.
“In a way, I think like I was, people almost patronised Constance because she’s a Northerner and was seen as lesser by some of the other characters – but that shouldn’t be the case at all. The whole of If I Let You Go is set in Salford and it almost felt a bit radical to choose it as a location, which is silly! I’m from here, so why shouldn’t it be?”
Book 2: If I Let You Go
Set to be released in March 2023, Levin has spent the past two years working on second book ‘If I Let You Go’.
The premise of book two focuses on cleaner, Janet Brown. Every morning, Janet goes to work, cleaning offices. The order and neatness of her routine calms her. All the things she cannot change in her life fade away momentarily under a damp cloth and a splash of bleach. However, the guilt she still carries about a tragic incident eleven years ago, cannot be erased.
Until the night of her daughter’s eighteenth birthday when she’s involved in a life-changing event which appears to offer her the redemption she seeks. But as Janet knows all too well – grasping a window of opportunity can lead to devastating consequences.
“This one is quite emotional, there’s a lot of suspense and twists. It’s about grief and redemption, but it wasn’t an easy writing process at all.
“I suffer badly from agoraphobia and health anxiety, so add a pandemic to that and it isn’t a good mix. I found the whole writing process a lot more difficult this time round, however, in a way it was good because I had something to focus on and achieve during lockdown. It wasn’t wasted time, as I’ve now got a book that I’m really proud of.”
Levin’s second book If I Let You Go is out on March 2nd 2023.
You can buy If I Can’t Have You from Waterstones