All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow interview: 'I'd be happy for more autistic writers to be celebrated'

With All the Little Bird-Hearts longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow about why she set her book in the 1980s, and writing whenever there’s an opportunity to do so

Read interviews with all the longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning the prize mean to you, especially as a debut novelist? 

It is a real honour to be included on the Booker longlist. I am very appreciative that being longlisted has enabled All the Little Bird-Hearts to find readers it may otherwise not have found. Whichever novel wins the Booker prize in November will be transformed to an even greater degree; the critical endorsement provides the author with an unparalleled increase in reader interest and readership. The winning book will reach so many new readers and will get the most life a novel possibly can. There are enormous freedoms and opportunities for the winning author in terms of their post-award writing. It is a truly life-changing award. 

How long did it take to write All the Little Bird-Hearts, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing? 

I wrote All the Little Bird-Hearts over two and a half years. I did not have the luxury of writing when I felt inspired but rather wrote whenever I could, whether that was at my laptop, on my phone or in longhand. I had significant caring responsibilities during this period, and I knew there would not be fixed times available in which to write uninterrupted. It was actually a useful restriction as it disciplined me to write enthusiastically whenever there was an opportunity. The one thing I could do consistently was think about the book and arrange it in my mind. I constantly made little notes to myself, so that when there was time I had material waiting to be written up and did not simply sit and get lost in thoughts about what I might write. 

Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like? 

I write wherever the quietest place available is. My children would find it very amusing if I thought myself grand enough to require a working space of my own. 

The novel began life as your creative writing PhD submission. At what point did you think it could be a published work, and what were your expectations in terms of how successful it might be? 

I thoroughly enjoyed the PhD process and I worked hard on my thesis, but I was not writing with any expectation that the work would be published. When I finished the book, my supervisor, Amy Sackville, recommended her own agent, Jenny Hewson at Lutyens and Rubinstein, who then signed me. As a debut novelist, I did not have particular hopes for what success the book might have but was extremely excited when it found an Italian publisher first. 

Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

I hope that some of the joys of the condition, as well as the challenges, are evident to readers of my book. And I hope too, that other autistic writers might read my work and find it authentic, even if it does not directly reflect their own experiences

All the Little Bird-Hearts is set in the Lake District in the 1980s. What made you set it in that decade? 

There were two reasons for setting this book in the 1980s. Primarily, the era is recent, yet it usefully predates the dominance of the modern ideology on autism. The contemporary narrative on ASC [Autism Spectrum Condition] is largely built on external and empirical observation by neurotypical theorists and not on authentic experience. The result is a language and set of beliefs which serve the industry of autism, rather than the autistic community themselves. If I set my book in the current era the first-person narrative would naturally endorse that neurotypical philosophy on autism as my protagonist, Sunday, is not in a secure or privileged enough position to challenge the authoritative bias of present-day representation. Setting the book in in a period when the depiction of autism was less fixed and pervasive allows Sunday an autonomy of expression which is vital to her eventual self-acceptance. 

The setting was also informed by two other characters, Vita and Rollo, who embody the unashamed and showy excess of the 1980s. If the book had been set in another time, this couple would have necessarily been more subdued in their lifestyle and behaviour. Vita, particularly, is defined by her possessions and image to a degree that is specific to that decade and her studied 1980’s aesthetic is a helpful narrative distraction from the ugliness of her more covert tendencies. 

It’s been reported that you left school at 16 with no qualifications. But were you always interested in reading and writing fiction, even as a young person, or did that come later? 

I found school challenging and never attended regularly, but I have always loved books more than anything else. I enjoy non-fiction as much as fiction, and Shirley Jackson, David Sedaris, Edith Wharton, Carlo Levi, and Penelope Mortimer are among my many favourite writers. I began writing when I started studying literature as a mature student and I was fortunate that it immediately felt like an entirely familiar and natural practice. 

All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

One of the many stereotypes surrounding autism is that autistic people are more drawn to STEM subjects than art or creative writing. To what extent do you think your own work might help change those perceptions, or open doors for other autistic writers of fiction? 

I think the stereotype of autistic people being more able in STEM subjects than the arts is largely due to the masculinisation of ASC by industry theorists. Autism is commonly depicted as a condition which is more common among men or even as the expression of an ‘extreme male brain.’ Such theories are an unhelpful oversimplification of a diverse community of people and misrepresentation deters many who do not fit the profile from seeking a diagnosis. I did not want to write autism in a way that conformed to such a narrative. 

I hope that some of the joys of the condition, as well as the challenges, are evident to readers of my book. And I hope too, that other autistic writers might read my work and find it authentic, even if it does not directly reflect their own experiences. There are many autistic writers producing good work and I would be happy both to be included in this number and to see more autistic writing being celebrated. 

Which book or books are you reading at the moment? In particular, are there any other debut authors who you think deserve more recognition? 

I have just finished my first book from this Booker longlist and am looking forward to reading them all, including those by fellow debut authors. 

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why? 

I have many favourites on the Booker lists. I immensely enjoy the originality and haunting quality of both History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Booker shortlisted in 2017) and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Booker shortlisted in 2009). Another favourite is Alan Hollinghurst’s novel, The Line of Beauty (Booker winner in 2004), which I particularly admire for the immaculately crafted and descriptive writing. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro was a Booker winner in 1989 and is an immersive and affecting read. 

What are you working on next? 

I am writing a novel about a widow whose family have a peculiar and powerful legacy. 


Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow