Critics are calling it ‘the literary event of the year’ and today sees its UK release. Felicia Yap talks to Julie Vuong about her debut Yesterday, a high concept thriller that’s already got Hollywood knocking on her door
Not many first-time novelists win a ‘healthy’ six-figure deal, turn down a Hollywood director for the book’s film rights and sell to 14 territories worldwide, all before the book has even hit the shelves. Felicia Yap has achieved all this in a whirlwind year, and today marks another milestone, with the UK release of her debut Yesterday.
Dubbed by her publisher Wildfire as ‘the biggest high concept thriller of the year’, the pre-launch buzz has lived up to the hype. Glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and Newsweek in the US agreed, fanning the publicity flames, while on this side of the Atlantic the British media also fell under Yap’s spell; most notably The Observer who named her one of its Rising Stars of 2017. Yap has fast become this summer’s most talked-about new author. What’s more, she’s a one-off. Born in Malaysia, her CV includes Cambridge historian, radioactive-cell biologist, journalist and catwalk model. Now, living in London, Yap’s staking a claim to be this year’s biggest publishing success story.
New voice, new imprint
Ahead of Yesterday’s launch, I met Yap at Hachette’s Carmelite House in the Wildfire office, alongside Ella Gordon – one third of the editorial team. Yap is in between media engagements and photoshoots, anticipating today’s launch with excitement. "I feel incredibly lucky," she says with genuine warmth. Yap’s path to published author sounds rather Hollywoodish itself.
Having enrolled on the Faber Academy’s novel-writing course under the tutelage of Richard Skinner, her book-in-progress gained interest from agents before the course wrapped up. "Momentum began after I read an extract at their Agents Reading Day," she recounts. "On the last day of the course, questions from agents came in: are you done? When will you be finished? Being put on the spot, I gave myself a deadline. I booked myself into a hotel at London City Airport for five days, and on the last day at 5pm I sent it off." Yap picked eight agents in total, chosen from a pool of 24 who had shown interest. "To my complete surprise, Jonny Geller, joint ceo of Curtis Brown, called the following morning and said he’d already read half of it. Three weeks later, I had a book deal."
Yap touches on this period of her life with humility and surprise. Even though, it turns out, Geller rejected a pre-emptive offer by a large publisher and took her manuscript to a heated auction. It ended in a final three-way auction, won by Wildfire, a new imprint from Headline. Her rise dovetails with that of her publisher’s, which saw its official launch in March. "Yesterday went out on submission at the same time we set up Wildfire," Gordon says. "Alex Clarke, our publishing director, was keen to secure Yesterday, believing it would set the tone for our entire venture."
Yap happily concedes that serving as Wildfire’s statement of intent sealed the deal. "That really swung it for me," she says in agreement. According to Gordon, Wildfire has a start-up feel with all the benefits that brings. "Alex was here for a month before I joined, then senior commissioning editor Kate Stephenson came along. The advantage for authors is the flexibility we can offer and that they don’t have to slot into an existing structure."
To the book itself: how do you solve a murder if you can only remember yesterday? "I was on my way to a dance class (Yap is also a ballroom dancer) and I couldn’t dislodge the question from my mind," she begins. "It intrigued me. I wanted to see if it was interesting enough to keep me reaching for my laptop."
Set in Cambridge, Yesterday’s world is an alternate reality where humans lose normal functioning memory at 18. Thereafter they are split into Monos, who can only remember the last 24 hours, and Duos, a superior class who can recall the last 48 hours.
It’s a twisty, sexy psychological drama that bears familiar hallmarks to the ‘grip-lit’ genre, but according to Yap and Wildfire, Yesterday goes beyond the normal tropes. "Calling it grip-lit doesn’t do it justice," Gordon insists. "It’s not an intense one person experience but different narratives that build. While it’s certainly a commercial book, it has strong literary themes. Also, we ensured the cover looked different to the standard thriller." What it can aim to emulate is the commercial success of previous summer blockbusters. "It has some similar elements to predecessors like The Girl on the Train and Before I Go to Sleep," Yap admits, "but hopefully it offers something new."
Hooking in the reader
In Yesterday’s world, characters rely on technology to document their lives in order to fill in the blank spaces. "It is intended to hold up a mirror to ourselves," Yap says. "I wanted to explore the slippery nature of memory and how it is connected to self-delusion. Apparently, 80% of what we remember isn’t actually what happened. That’s why in Yesterday, iDiaries are used to record the past – but even then, is it fake or fact? I’m interested in the lies we choose to tell ourselves to cultivate the life or past we prefer."
This theme has been a huge draw for the Eastern market. "Readers in Asia absolutely love technological side of the story," she says. "It’s interesting because we’re increasingly reliant on Google searches and Wikipedia entries, which paradoxically makes it harder to remember." Elsewhere, Americans are obsessed with the class divide between Monos and Duos, while in the UK, readers are more interested in Hans, the detective and underdog. "I guess it shows Brits love a story about struggling against the odds!"
Another central theme is love. Yap describes how Geller encouraged her to flesh out this aspect. "I thought, he is actually asking me to answer what is love all about! My take on love that it could also be completely instinctive. But accumulated memory; kind acts and the sacrifices people make feed into our idea of love."
It isn’t just the bestselling book charts that Yap is watching closely. Yesterday is already finding a place outside of print. Actor Rory Kinnear and Game of Thrones star Indira Varma have voiced the audiobook, while Hollywood directors are lining up for the filming rights. "My agent is already turning down offers!" she says, stunned. "Right now, I’m holding out for the right team." In the meantime, Yap is on track to release a prequel to Yesterday called Today, which centres on detective Hans at the age of 17 before he loses his memory.
Alongside this, Yap recently announced a funding programme in partnership with Curtis Brown, called the Yesterday Creative Scholarship. A grant of £3,000 will go to one person for whom at least one parent did not go to university. "Someone with a generous heart made a real difference to my life fifteen years ago and opened the path for me to eventually write Yesterday. In keeping with the wonderful principle of paying forward, I would love to do the same today (albeit in a very small way) for a writing star of tomorrow."
Yesterday, published by Wildfire, is released today in hardback and audiobook