Q&A with Julia Rampen, author of The Bay

Posted on August 15, 2023

To celebrate the release of Julia Rampen’s award-winning debut novel, The Bay, we asked Julia in this exclusive Q&A to talk more about how the book came about, and why she chose to base it on a true incident: The Morecambe Bay cockling disaster of 2004.

What inspired you to tell this story in particular? 

I used to visit Morecambe Bay a lot as a child, as my grandparents lived in Grange-over-Sands. I read about the 2004 tragedy in the news, but I didn’t actually make the connection until a few years later, as we always just called it ‘the bay’. By the time I started writing, I was already aware of the hostile environment as I had visited a detention centre where I saw first-hand the fear and despair this policy induced. I wanted to explore how the deepest human dramas can happen in plain sight, without us really seeing them.

You’ve worked as a journalist for many years. How did you find writing a novel compared to writing reports and features?

As a journalist, you can only report on established facts and visit locations with permission, but as a novelist you can wander into the characters’ minds and open any door you please. Also, most articles are only a few hundred words long, so you rarely get the chance to really explore a subject or place. In some ways, however, I tried to be like a journalist – a good reporter is like a pane of glass that you can watch the world through, and I aimed to do the same with my prose.

What impact has your work with IMIX (a charity that connects refugees and journalists) had on the way you told Suling’s story?

At IMIX, I spend a lot of time supporting people affected by the immigration system to tell their stories, but, counterintuitively, this made me very cautious, because one of the first things you learn when working with people who have been through trauma is that what might seem like an innocent question can bring back horrific memories. My understanding after reaching out to some people close to a survivor was that they felt they had told their story enough times, so I tried to piece together this experience through a combination of earlier testimony, reports from undercover journalists like Hsiao-Hung Pai, memoirs, and interviews with undocumented migrants who had gone through similar experiences.

Another thing I know from my work is that most people don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to them. That’s why it was important for me to show Suling’s strength, resilience and sense of humour as well.

The two lead characters in The Bay, Arthur and Suling, are complete opposites: Arthur is an elderly widower who grew up in Morecambe Bay, whereas Suling is a young woman who’s trying to survive in England after making the journey from China without papers or money, and with debt collectors hunting her down. Their unlikely friendship is quite special. What was your favourite part of writing about their friendship?

We have this tendency to assume that people of other generations are totally different to us, but then you see a picture of an older person when they were young, or read something they wrote, and you realise you actually could have been friends if your ages were closer together. I think Suling and Arthur are alike in some ways – they are both quite ambitious and stubborn, and also afraid of the powers-that-be for different reasons. Both can see something vulnerable about the other which holds their worst impulses in check. The novel alternates between their viewpoints, which was fun to write, as it gave me a chance to play with some of their assumptions about the other character.

Who inspires your writing? What books do you enjoy reading?

I admire mid-20th century writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell and Eileen Chang for the lucidity of their prose, but I also love writers who create their own worlds, from Philip Pullman to Margaret Atwood and Cixin Liu. More recently, I’ve been reading a lot of nature writing. While researching the novel, I read Karen Lloyd’s The Gathering Tide and the memoirs of Cedric Robinson, and I am a big fan of Robert Macfarlane and Nick Hayes.

The Bay is out now. Get your copy here.