Today’s guest and I met in London last weekend, and I am thrilled she has agreed to be interviewed on the blog.
Welcome, Jane. Let’s get to learn more about you …
What is your genre? Why did you choose it?
Joanne Harris deals with this question very smartly by saying that she doesn’t insult her readers by assuming that they just like reading one type of fiction. A growing number of indie authors, including Linda Gillard, are selling themselves as a brand. Although it has to be done at the point of publication, categorising fiction is always a thorny subject. It’s something publishers insist upon and that readers are a little less interested in. The book clubs I visit enjoy a huge variety of fiction, but aren’t interested in categorising it, except in terms of quality. I must admit to being uncomfortable with the term ‘literary’. It can be off-putting to readers who associate it with a difficult or inaccessible read. Lit-lite was a useful buzz-phrase a couple of years ago, but seems to have fallen out of use. My readers tell me that what they like about my books is that they are all different. In the past month, reviews have compared me to Joanna Trollope, Dylan Thomas, Tracy Chevalier, Audrey Niffenegger, Dorothy Koomson and Rachel Hore. The sub-categories for literary fiction are more useful. I currently have one e-book in the religious fiction chart and one in the historical fiction chart.
Do you work on more than one manuscript at a time?
I confess that I find it very difficult to start a new project until the last has been put to bed. At the moment I have written three chapters of what I hope will become a novel, but I’ve shelved it while I approve the final proofs of An Unchoreographed Life. I immerse myself in my characters’ lives so deeply that it’s hard to move on when there is unfinished business. Just as with finishing a good book, it feels only right that there should be an inevitable period of mourning. This time can always be filled with research and promotional work.
Do you work with a writing/critique group?
Not currently, but it is something I have done in the past. Being a superstitious sort, I don’t like to discuss work in progress, but the experience of reading your work aloud to a group of like-minded people can be invaluable. Not only is it very good for flushing out errors but reactions are not always what you would expect. Unexpected laughter can be very telling, especially when humour wasn’t intended.
Can you remember your first reading book?
I have an appalling memory. I spend years telling people that The Owl Service by Alan Garner was one of my favourite books when I was growing up, but I recently re-read it and it wasn’t the one I thought it was. I can remember many books, but I would be lying if I said that I could remember my first.
Do you nibble on snacks while writing? If so, what is your chosen treat?
Although the crumbs on the table suggest otherwise, I try not to snack. Far from being someone with will power, I can’t be trusted with an open packet of dark chocolate hob-nobs. My solution to this is not to buy them. I do seem to need carbs in the morning, so my lunch can often follow closely after breakfast. Then I can keep going until my evening meal. However, there is always a box in the living room which contains whatever chocolate we have in the house. It is supposed to be for after-dinner treats, but it calls to me.
Tidy desk or a bombsite? Describe your writing area with us.
Bombsite, I’m afraid. My desk is our dining room table. It goes without saying that my trusty old Toshiba laptop is in front of me. Having written five novels on it, I’m reluctant to part with it, but it has a missing F8 button (which I really haven’t missed at all) and the ‘n’ is worn away. To my left are a note book (open at a page of scribbling from my trip to the London Book Fair yesterday), a nail file and a partially completed W-8BEN tax form. There are two appropriately bookish mugs (‘Happiness is a cup of coffee and a really good book’, and the white rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) Both are empty. In front of me are two paperbacks that I have reviewed this morning (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Haweswater by Sarah Hall.) Hiding behind my laptop is Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn and a very worn moleskin address book. There is a cheque from Barton’s Bookshop for banking and a ‘While You Were Out’ delivery notice from DHL who clearly hid behind the front wall and waited until I left the house deliver the first printed proof of An Unchoreographed Life.
Currently self-published, previously published by Random house, but not via the traditional route.
My first novel (now hidden away under lock and key) earned me the services of a literary agent and the praise, “Jane, you are a writer”, but not a publishing contract. My second novel had been sitting in my overworked agent’s ‘in’ tray for several months when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference in June 2008. It was there that I learned about the Daily Mail First Novel Award. With the closing date for entries only two days later, I had nothing to lose. My incentive for entering wasn’t the thought of winning. It was the simple promise that all entries would be read.
I left my job of twenty-three years the following September, jaded from having had to make so many colleagues redundant. Every time I turned on the television there was more talk of financial doom and gloom. Then came the call from Transworld announcing that I had won.
It was surreal. Because I was at home on my own, I had no one to ask, “Hey, did that just happen?” I had to phone back just to be sure.
The following weeks were heady. The Bookseller included me in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Joanna Harris, an author I greatly admire, described me as a ‘promising new writer.’ I signed hundreds of books. Interviewers said to me, “So from now on, it will be a book a year.” I was going to be The Next Big Thing.
Except that I wasn’t.
In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well. Told that the publicity would be taken care of, I did what I had always done. I wrote. Then in 2009 came my reality check. Although I had no ongoing contract with Transworld, entitled to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel (an early edit of what later became A Funeral for an Owl) they turned it down. It was beautifully written, I was told, but it was not ‘women’s fiction’. Extremely naïve, I hadn’t realised (and no one had thought to tell me) the implications of being published under their Black Swan label. I had been pigeon-holed – and my work didn’t fit.
I continued to write, continued to submit my work to agents. My agent and I parted company and I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing was not for them, they read, but with my credentials, I was bound to be snapped up. And for a while I believed them.
Over the next four years, I produced two further novels, work I am particularly proud of. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines, but I was not. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. I Stopped Time is both a tribute to my grandmother (who lived to the age of 99), and an homage to the pioneers of photography. These Fragile Things is my reaction to aggressive atheism. Although I am not religious, I feel it is just another way of stifling personal freedom.
By 2012, I was touting three novels around the market. Believe me, this is not a position you want to be in. There are only a finite number of agents, and they all talk to one another. I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same writing conference year after year with a slightly different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
That same year, I attended two conferences. The first, given by Writers’ Workshop, offered the opportunity to submit the first chapter of a novel, an enquiry letter and a synopsis for critique on the day. Ashen-faced and red-eyed people traipsed out of their consultations, carrying manuscripts covered in red ink. With one of the last appointments, I offered a shoulder to cry on while I waited in line. When I took my place at the table there was no red ink on my copy. “You didn’t like it,” I said. “No I didn’t,” was the reply. “I loved it.” The advice was that it was sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. I was not to change a single word, but I was to work on my submission letter. I came away from the day with five agents offering to read every word I had written. One by one, they all rejected me.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had resisted for over 3 years. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas day. I made the decision how to present the work. The designs of covers and the interiors were all mine, as were the mistakes. Neil Gaiman refers to Gaiman’s Law. If there’s one typo, it will be on the page your new book falls open to the first time that you pick it up. I ironed out the mistakes and, in the summer, I released paperbacks. The second time around, I was aware that I needed more help. As well as a structural edit, I used a copy editor and expanded on my army of beta readers and proofreaders. I also had more time to think about cover design. In November that same year, I released A Funeral for an Owl. For my forthcoming novel, An Unchoreographed Life, I have used even more paid services. The readers who discover me tend to read everything I have written, so I owe it to them to get it right.
Who would you say have been the three most influential authors in your reading/writing life?
Of the top of my head in the order that they come to me: Thomas Hardy, John Irving and Maggie O’Farrell.
If the movie rights to your novel are purchased, who would you like to play your main characters?
In my forthcoming novel, Alison is a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes and single mother. I think the most interesting actress of her generation is Ruth Wilson who plays Alice Morgan in Luther. I saw her play the lead in Through a Glass Darkly at the Almeida Theatre, which is a small venue in Islington. Her presence was nothing less than electrifying.
For Belinda, Alison’s six-year-old daughter, I’d be looking for a quirky-looking unknown.
And for Collette Andrews, I’d choose Sarah Parish.
I was on my way to the supermarket, when … Do you have a tale to tell relating to an everyday, boring event?
Elaine’s next supermarket experience was not at all like the one Paula had described. After discovering a variety of new products she wanted to buy (wasn’t it amazing that pasta now came in all sorts of shapes and sizes?) Elaine stood in a gradually shuffling queue at the checkout.
A pleasurable sensation of touch drew her attention to the fruit in the basket at the end of the conveyor. Strange that the hand holding it was wearing a wedding band not dissimilar to her own, that she wasn’t the only person who left her engagement ring by the kitchen sink. Coincidental that the sleeve of the jumper above the hand was identical to hers, down to the snagged pale, blue wool, caught on a nail in the under-stairs cupboard. Dimpled like an orange, bright green in colour, the skin of the fruit was cool, its flesh firm. Only with its smooth shape – not unlike a pebble that demanded to be skimmed – sitting comfortably in her palm did Elaine make the connection: her wedding band; the snagged sleeve of her jumper.
Another hand, larger than hers, circled the basket, hovering above the neat fold of the newspaper, finding nothing to halt its progress. Elaine heard a voice that could be described in the same terms as a full-bodied red say, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to unhand my avocado.”
Elaine found herself being grinned at by a good-natured face above a collar and tie. “Is that what it is?” she asked.
“You haven’t tried one?”
“Never.” Elaine weighed the situation, judging it safe: the man, she estimated, was older than her by a good ten years and Elaine didn’t consider the possibility that she might be attracted to older men. “What does it taste like?”
“It tastes of… avocado.” Holding out a palm, he raised his eyebrows as if reprimanding a dog or a small child.
“You’re teasing.” She released her grip reluctantly.
“I am not!” He held the forbidden fruit between thumb and middle finger as easily as Elaine might an egg. “You’ve put me on the spot.”
The checkout lady scanned her price list with customary disapproval. “It says here it’s a fruit. Blimey, love, you’ve got expensive taste!”
“It might be a fruit, technically.” When he turned to Elaine she was surprised that, unlike most people she encountered, he didn’t look straight through her. She also saw that he was younger than her initial estimate. The grey hair must have arrived prematurely, providing the perfect match for his soft grey eyes. “But it’s not sweet. Just clean-tasting.”
“Creamier than that. I like mine filled with prawn cocktail.” They had become the focus of gawpers. The man’s discomfort apparent, he leaned towards Elaine, confiding, “To be honest, I’m hardly an authority. I had my first avocado last week at a business lunch.”
“My husband doesn’t eat shellfish.” Elaine said, feeling a dip of disappointment.
As she was about to enquire about the price, the checkout lady gave a knowing look: “I’ve got one at home with a weak stomach.”
“It’s not that they don’t agree with him.” Elaine shook her head. “I don’t think he’s ever tried prawns.”
“Never tried prawns? I’d sack him if I were you,” the man recommended.
Compelled to defend Graham, she replied, “Being cautious is hardly a crime.” But cautious was not how Elaine would describe the new Graham. Now might be the time to plant a few in his egg salad.
“I’m afraid have to disagree.” The grey-eyed man counted the coins in his palm with small dips of his head and tipped an avalanche of silver into the cupped hand of the cashier.
“They do get set in their ways if you don’t give them the occasional boot up the you-know-what.”
“Hang on!” the man protested. “Who’s this ‘they’ you’re talking about?”
“Husbands,” she said, with a disparaging wrinkle of her nose.
It was obvious that his laughter drew more attention than he had bargained for. “How do you know I won’t be offended by that sweeping generalisation?”
“You’re not a husband!” the checkout lady proclaimed. “You wouldn’t be doing your own shopping for starters. And I’m guessing from this little lot that you live alone.” The self-declared expert on men stretched her mouth into the shape of a smile and then, just as quickly, retracted it, dropping change into his hand from a safe height.
“I have been married, you know.” His flinch suggested he regretted his choice of words, as he packed his carrier bag with the ingredients for his lonely dinner under the predatory gaze of middle-aged women. Elaine resented the fact that they appeared to judge, some turning their backs, resuming weather and child-related chit-chat, others watching his every move as if he was someone to be wary of. When it came to the avocado, he launched it into the air and caught it, firm-gripped, like a cricket ball. “Here.” He turned towards her applause and, executing an extravagant gesture, said, “A present.”
“I couldn’t.” Elaine’s hand reached for her mouth and brushed the lips that had remained unkissed recently – except when Graham anticipated sex was on the cards.
“Live a little.” He threw the words over his shoulder, as though, having tried both, living alone was infinitely more attractive than married life.
Links to buy e-books:
Half-truths and White Lies: http://goo.gl/0h73RG
I Stopped Time: http://goo.gl/yNPb2s
These Fragile Things: http://goo.gl/oU6KQ0
A Funeral for an Owl: http://goo.gl/XnoavX