Could you pass the toughest exam in the world?

Tess Little at Hindringham Hall, near Walsingham, where scenes from her first novel The Octopus are

Tess Little at Hindringham Hall, near Walsingham, where scenes from her first novel The Octopus are set. Picture: Maili Little - Credit: Maili Little

First novel for Norwich author and one of the few to pass notoriously difficult Oxford exam

Tess Little at The Book Hive, Norwich, with her first novel The Octopus. Picture: Maili Little

Tess Little at The Book Hive, Norwich, with her first novel The Octopus. Picture: Maili Little - Credit: Maili Little

Tess Little was just 22 when she won an Oxford fellowship after sitting an exam famous as the most difficult in the world. This week her first book is published.

Tess, now 28, grew up in Norwich and was a pupil at Heigham Park First and Avenue Middle schools and then the City of Norwich School before winning a place at Oxford to study history. Her first novel, The Octopus, is a murder mystery, set in the Los Angeles hills and in Norfolk. We asked Tess about the her first novel - and that exam.

Why a murder mystery?

The Octopus by Tess Little

The Octopus by Tess Little - Credit: supplied

I’ve always loved murder mysteries. Agatha Christie novels were the first “adult” books I read - I even dressed up in a swimming cap, fake moustache, and tweed jacket as Hercule Poirot for a fancy-dress World Book Day at Avenue Middle! I find it an interesting genre as a writer too: it allows the author to peel away at characters’ layers, to explore their relationships and uncover buried secrets. But I would also say, without giving away too much, that although The Octopus begins as a typical murder mystery, I don’t think it ends as one.

When did you start writing The Octopus?

In early 2017, while I was doing archival research in Paris. I put it aside for about a year, then on a whim I entered the draft for the 2018 Deborah Rogers Foundation Award. When it reached the longlist of eight, I decided to pick it up and work on it again, expanding it into a novel.

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Can you tell us a little about it?

Elspeth Bryant Bell attends her ex-husband Richard’s 50th birthday party expecting to find his LA mansion bursting with guests, but she instead discovers only seven other guests, with Richard’s pet octopus, Persephone, watching over them. In the morning, Richard is found dead. As the novel unfolds, Elspeth’s memories of the party, and of her marriage to Richard, are interspersed with the investigation into his murder. During the investigation, Elspeth becomes increasingly obsessed with Persephone. Just as the octopus tank sits at the heart of the house, so does Persephone, both symbolically and literally, sit at the heart of the story, which is why the novel is named after her.

Where is the novel set?

Although the novel is primarily set in LA, I wanted to include a slice of my home county. During their honeymoon travels around Europe, Elspeth and Richard visit a country house in Norfolk, which I based upon Hindringham Hall. It’s a place which has stuck in my mind ever since I visited with my family a few years ago; the architecture is unique, and the gardens are idyllic. Elspeth organises a surprise picnic for her new husband there, packed with Norfolk produce: asparagus, Cromer crab, a punnet of strawberries.

The idea to set the novel in LA came from the origin of the story itself. I was interested in octopuses and discovered they’re occasionally kept as pets. I began to think about the kind of person that would keep such an intelligent, beautiful creature captive - someone extravagant, but perhaps more creative and controlling than a Las Vegas tiger-owner. That character became Richard, a British film director. Naturally, he lived in LA.

When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?

I think I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I could read. I’ve always loved disappearing into other people’s worlds and wanted to create the same experience for others. It might seem strange that I went on to study history at university, but history is, fundamentally, about uncovering and writing stories (even if they’re not fictional).

How did you come to sit the most difficult exam in the world?

You’re eligible to sit the All Souls Fellowship Examination if you did your first degree at the University of Oxford or are currently registered for a postgraduate degree. I’d just finished a master’s at Cambridge and an internship at Reuters, and was applying for all sorts of jobs at the time. I thought I might as well give it a go! I never expected to be successful.

What is an examination fellow at All Souls?

All Souls College is unique in that it doesn’t accept cohorts of students like other Oxbridge colleges; it’s a college of fellows. Fellowships are normally for more senior academics, and so it’s unusual to be elected as a fellow at a young age. Examination fellows are elected via an exam. There are usually around 100 candidates each year. They answer two specialist exam papers and two general papers with questions like: “If this were the last piece of paper on earth, what would you write on it?” One of my general paper questions was “Is hip-hop/rap more political than the Eurovision Song Contest?” The top five or six candidates are invited back for an oral exam on their papers in front of the entire college - an incredibly daunting experience. The fellowship lasts seven years and comes with a salary, an office and accommodation, meals and an allowance for research expenses. It’s an amazing opportunity.

What have you been researching for your PhD and did you find any Norfolk links?

My PhD thesis investigates the 1970s women’s liberation movement. I came across mentions of Norwich women’s liberation activism in archives in Paris, North Carolina and Leeds, which were amazing moments for me. The women’s liberation movement was more ambitious and wider-reaching than many people might assume - and activity in Norfolk was no exception to this.

What’s next?

I’m getting close to submitting my thesis, so fingers crossed I’ll have a PhD in the not-too-distant future. After that, I’ll probably try to turn my thesis into a book, and I’m working on a second novel too. My dream career would be to continue writing novels for the rest of my life, but whether I can support myself financially that way is a different question.

The Octopus by Tess Little is published on August 20 by Hodder and Stoughton.


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