Paige Toon interview: My new book is a love letter to Cambridge
Glamorous locations are a huge part of novelist Paige Toon’s books and research for her stories usually sees her jetting off around the world.
But this time the Cambridge author has set her new romance novel on her doorstep – and her characters meet up around the pubs of Grantchester and paddling in a canoe down the River Cam.
In The Minute I Saw You, Hannah and Sonny meet in a (fictional) optician’s in Newnham and sparks fly after they stare into each other’s eyes during a vision test.
The book is her second to be set in Cambridge after One Perfect Summer, which she wrote eight years ago when she first moved to
Paige says: “I wanted to come back to Cambridge and revisit it again with this novel. This is my love letter to Cambridge now that I know it really well. The characters do so many of the things I love doing, like canoeing down the River Cam and going to the Orchard Tea Gardens and the pub crawls around Grantchester.
“In this case I was writing about places that were really dear to me. But it was lovely when doing the research for the book that I could say, right, I need to go to the Blue Ball in Grantchester and have a prosecco. And I really need to get back to the Green Man pub again.
“I did sit there one day and write in a corner absorbing the atmosphere and we did go down the river in Grantchester.
“It was one of the easiest books I have ever written because I was so familiar with the settings.
“We have an old canoe, just like the one mentioned in the book, and I have been down the river recently, during lockdown, when there were no punts there. That was such a surreal experience to be going down The Backs and have it almost completely deserted apart from a few kayaks – it was crazy. I am looking forward to things getting back to a bit of normality.
“It doesn’t feel right walking over King’s College bridge and not seeing any punts there.”
As a child, Paige travelled a lot following her Australian motorsport legend father, Vern Schuppan, around the world.
“We used to spend half the year in Australia and the other half of the year either in England or America depending on where he was racing,” says Paige.
“And I did really enjoy just packing a suitcase and going places. But once I was there I wanted to stay at home. I didn’t want to travel so much. Now travel is a huge passion for me and we have a camper van so I love driving around Europe and going on trips at every opportunity. We have had it for two years now and pretty much every holiday we go somewhere in it.
“I went to Norway and Rome to research my book, If You Could Go Anywhere. But it was six months before I started writing the book and it didn’t feel fresh enough in my mind. That’s what made the writing process for this book much simpler – I could go to the places I was writing about really easily.”
The Minute I Saw You tells the story of optician Hannah and her handsome patient Sonny, who is only in Cambridge on holiday. It turns out that’s fine with Hannah – she doesn’t do long-term relationships. And luckily for her, neither does Sonny. But before they can even so much as kiss, Sonny receives some shocking news and commits to making serious life changes –ones that can’t and won’t include romance. With even a short fling now off the cards, Hannah and Sonny settle for being friends – at first.
Paige says: “My character Hannah is a dispensing optician who spends her life staring into the eyes of strangers and one day she has this very good looking stranger who comes in for an eye test and there is a spark between them when they are really up close and personal. But the next time he comes in to collect his glasses he can’t meet her eyes.
“Something really awful has happened to him and part of his therapy is that he has taken a vow of abstinence because he can’t take on long term relationships and neither can she. They both have very different back stories.”
The story takes in some of the most romantic locations in Cambridge but also discusses some of the realities of the city, including problems faced by homeless people here. So when Hannah and Sonny see a homeless person step out into the path of an oncoming cyclist, Hannah suspects there might be something wrong with her eyesight.
“When they both look into it they realise that you can’t get free eye care without qualifying for benefits and you need an address to get benefits,” says Paige.
“I was quite shocked by this. My male character, Sonny, is a photographer and he comes up with the idea of photographing the eyes of homeless people really close up, so you can’t look away and you can’t avert your eyes from the homeless people on the street. He does this photographic exhibition to raise awareness for eye care for the homeless and general raising awareness about homelessness.
“I wanted to mention the Cambridge charity Jimmy’s because it’s a local charity and it didn’t feel right about writing about homeless people and charities without trying to do something myself for Jimmy’s.”
After learning more about the difficulties homeless people face with eye care in particular, she has been doing a series of auctions of her signed novels to raise money for Jimmy’s.
“We’re lucky there are so many homeless charities in Cambridge but Jimmy’s is the one that stood out to me and a friend has volunteered there so it was good to get a bit of insight from them.”
Of course, she ended up knowing much more about eye care than the average person but research is a necessary part of the job, says Paige. “I did speak to one of my readers as an optician and she gave me loads of inside tips and I took my kids for an eye test, something I didn’t really know kids should do regularly. I thought you only did it if you were worried about whether they could see properly but as it turns out it was something I didn’t know you should do regularly because they can pick up other problems too.
“Sometimes I get so bogged down in research and I learn so much and only a small bit goes into the book, but I think it is really important. With my book The One We Fell in Love With, one of my characters rock climbs. I can’t think of anything worse, but I learnt all about rock climbing – I learnt all about the different finger grips and knots you need to tie as well. I didn’t hardly any of that for the book but I find it hard if you don’t really understand where the characters are coming from and what they do and why they love it. You really need the research to put yourself inside their head and see things from their perspective.”
This book addresses darker themes than most of her other novels, says Paige. “It’s both the most joyful and the most dark – there’s a chasm between those two things that is wider than ever with this one,” says Paige.
“There are things that happen to both of the characters in their past that they are still dealing with now. Ultimately, I love a forbidden love story so to have that reason and to be able to write about the chemistry when they can’t take it anywhere – because both of them are used to having short flings – was great.
“In this case even a fling is off the cards, which is very frustrating for Hannah because she didn’t want a lasting relationship with anyone. Being able to write about a budding friendship which grows into something much deeper without anything physical being allowed to happen between them was really nice.
“I really enjoyed writing that and the chemistry was just off the charts. It’s much more exciting if they can’t be together. That is the kind of book I like to read myself so I write what I like to read.”
And she reckons the perfect leading man in any romance novel should be a bit damaged.
“For me, yes, he needs to go on a bit of a journey over the course of the novel. So much of the time there is a reason why my characters can’t be together straight away. There has got to be that friction there and a bit of conflict, so in some way one or the other is damaged.
“I think it’s a bit more interesting to read about a guy who has been through something. I think it makes you care more about the characters if you have been on the journey with them.
“I think these are two of my favourite characters and it’s because they go on such a journey of ups and downs. I really came to care about them.
“I hope the readers will connect with them in the same way.”
Looking forward to her next novel, Paige is unsure how the after effects of the pandemic will affect her storytelling when she starts to write.
“I have the next idea for my book pretty much mapped out and I have been wondering if there needs to be any mention of the pandemic or if it is something I can get away with.
“The next book is set partly in the past as well as the present, so certainly in the past I don’t have to mention it at all. And the book is mostly set in the Yorkshire Dales, which is a place I’m very familiar with because my husband is from Yorkshire and I have gone there so many times in the last 20-odd years, so that book is OK...
“Going forward, I was only thinking the other day about how it might change romance novels if you are supposed to be socially distant. I was thinking about people who are single and trying to meet people and what it must be like. What do you do? Is Tinder going to be a thing of the past? Is it going to be illegal? You know you can’t meet people on Tinder because you won’t be socially distancing? I don’t know.
“It’s the strangest position to be in and time will tell over the next year as it unfolds. I haven’t really made my mind up yet about where I stand with it.
“I do like my books to be realistic and rooted in real places and situations and love and loss and not necessarily happy endings depending on what feels real for the characters that for me has always been really important. Knowing me, I probably won’t be able to steer away from mentioning it but we will see when I come to write it.”
The Minute I Saw You is out in paperback on August 6, priced £7.99. Visit www.paigetoon.com to find out about her charity auctions.