Cafe at 46 Old Street: backgrounds, origins, themes, faq
For those who have already read and finished Cafe At 46 Old Street, this post is for you (if you accept it). Here’s a lengthy post of all things CA46OS related – from its background to its origins to character development and even themes, all the way until frequently asked questions...
Spoilers are possibly ahead, so if you’re not a big fan of that I advise you to finish reading the book before proceeding. <3 THANK YOU.
I didn't think of writing something like this, especially because now that the book is out in the world, it is not entirely mine anymore. Everyone will pick out something from it on their own terms, for their own liking, or disliking. And nothing is really up to me. It's odd knowing this and being so hyper-aware of this, but I also feel pride and comfort in sharing something with other people, whether they know who I am or not.
Even if it is shared now, the way readers will perceive the book will be so very different from how I perceived it as I created it, and how I perceive it now that it is done. Something that continues to be very dear to my heart is the fact that my first original novel-length piece of writing is this story about Cafe At 46 Old Street.
For those unfamiliar with me or my work – I usually share poetry, not prose. In all reality, I'm a big fan of prose, and not just reading it. I've attempted writing about twenty-something novels before, but Cafe At 46 Old Street was the first that I was really proud of and felt very timely for me. Usually I would grow out of my ideas, even those that feel recent, but I really let the story and the characters brew this time. (Ha. See what I did there?)
CA46OS is told in an alternating third person past point-of-view, a format that conveys the thoughts and emotions of the four main protagonists named Hanh, Winston, Clementine and Alexander. It was first plotted and brainstormed in a coffee and tea shop in Soho, London, in 2017. (I talked about it here: Behind The Scenes of Cafe At 46 Old Street — Hannah Cao)
BackgroundI know the story is cliché, I mean strangers meet at a cafe and become close, platonically and romantically and in minor or major ways change their lives.
In its barest sense CA46OS is a cliché. Anyone who knows me a little bit knows well that I have an obsession with coffee and coffee shops alike, so it’s only expected that the first story I ever pushed myself to absolutely see through from beginning to end was one that involved coffee and love and found or chosen family – three of the most wonderful gifts bestowed upon to mankind, in my humble opinion!
I'd like to think that it’s more than the cliché at first glance but a story about individuals and family, rather than a cup of coffee with a bit of romance on the side. When I wrote the story, I knew it was going to be character-heavy, not very plot-heavy. Instead of focusing on falling in love, Cafe at 46 Old Street deals with loving or accepting yourself first, and letting everything else fall into place and doing what your heart desires, even if some sort of loss is inevitable in the process.
But I digress.
In this sleepy cafe hidden by a construction site, works the owner Clementine and co-manager and friend and baker Alex, who've got secrets and worries buried in the nooks of themselves. Winston is a regular seeking refuge from his job and his ex and his grief at home, and Hanh has just moved to London after leaving her family and ex-boyfriend behind.
They can keep their lives to themselves and they’d be none the wiser, they can run away from whatever they're running away from and just ignore the way their lives had been put into pause, happily spending their days inside the cafe with each other as company.
But life is rarely like that. You can never just run away from everything and bury yourself in your routines. And this story shows you why and how in the blink of an eye, things can change. You can suddenly fall in love with a person you never thought was for you, and suddenly you have to decide between the only family you've got left, and love. Suddenly your sadness follows you into your new room in the new city and your plans don't actually happen. Suddenly you are dealing with grief after grief. Suddenly, your livelihood is on the verge of being taken away from you. In dealing with keeping their cafe and little lives whole, they discover not only bits and pieces about each other, but themselves as well. And since I love this very line so much from the synopsis, I’m going to use it again to end this part of the post: Slowly but surely, they all find their way back home.
OriginsThere were many variations of asking me what inspired me to write Cafe at 46 Old Street, and answering the question hasn’t gotten any easier.
Everything inspired me to write this story. From the people in my life, both strangers and friends, to the thoughts that come unbidden because of my surroundings, and to events that seem to upturn not only my life but those close to me too – these are all pieces to Cafe at 46 Old Street's bigger picture.
It was born from my longing for the city after I moved back home to Germany, after my very life-altering time living in London, and the heart-shattering fact that the cafe I used to go to so often closed down due to the pandemic.
At first, I wrote about feelings and thoughts I had overheard during my many afternoons sat in that cafe, and knowing fully well that others might understand, knowing that the people saying them out loud weren't alone. Because in all honesty, they sounded very much alone at the time. Then the backdrop: The baristas making them smile from behind the counter, recognising their faces, showing curiosity about their lives.
The characters were inspired by baristas and customers I have met there for brief moments in time. I made them up with all the little details I caught of them, of many different people, compressed into these four main protagonists.
ThemesThis is the first time I will ever attempt to dissect Cafe at 46 Old Street this way, so hopefully I give it some justice. I grappled long and hard on this one, limiting the actual themes of the book to just three; anyone who has read the book might agree with me that each Part sort of has a mini-theme of its own, but I attempted to get down to the nitty-gritty bigger picture and came up with just four main ones, thankfully.
1. Your dream doesn't have to be something grand. (Winston)
2. Small things can be big things. (Clementine)
3. The right way to live is to live for yourself. (Alex)
4. Forgiveness can be key to inner peace. (Hanh)
Frequently Asked QuestionsI’ve answered most from all my rambling up there, but here are some that I didn’t know where to place:
1. How did you decide on character names?
I have a list of favourite names, and the combination of these four sounded fitting. I also thought the sound of their names matched their personalities.
2. What's with the title, does Cafe at 46 Old Street really exist?
Nope! It was indeed inspired by a tea shop I would go to often but it closed down so it doesn’t exist at all anymore. The street was made up and so was the number.
3. What was the hardest part about writing a novel?
I think the hardest part was removing whole parts and chapters during the editing phase.
4. How did you get published?
I self-published! More on being an independent author will be coming soon.
5. What did you want your readers to take away from the story?
Everybody takes away something else from a story; I suppose it will be the same with mine. All in all I hope my readers feel comfort when they are finished reading. And then my job is done.
Thank you so much again for your love and support. I remember the days when I used to write with a pen name, and now I am so proud of myself and the little community that supports me in all the small and big ways (all the ways are BIG to me). Thank you for giving me this chance. I love you.