The things Julia Widdows will do to avoid me. Many years ago I’d hoped to meet her at a writer’s get-together. Only she was involved in a very nasty road-accident on the way. After that, although we exchanged the occasional email when one or other of us came across something the other had written, things drifted—as they do. It doesn’t help that she lives on some god-forsaken place on the south coast.
Then she stumbled across this blog and emailed me.
Julia is one of those writers whose short stories have always grabbed me by the throat and I wasn’t surprised (green with envy, yes, but not surprised) when her short story Ami de Maison was short-listed in the Asham Award 1997 and was published in the anthology The Catch
But I was shocked to discover that she’d published her first novel Living in Perhaps in 2009. It had completely escaped my notice—even though it was a finalist in the Daily Mail First Novel Award.
The novel is narrated by Carol who, we soon realise, is in some kind of psychiatric unit. She’s clearly done something very wrong and she is expected to talk about herself and her reasons why she committed this unnamed and unknown act. Carol refuses to give the professionals an inch and plays games with them but bit by bit, she reveals her story to readers. The thing is: how much of what she tells us is true?
Carol is adopted—something she doesn’t find out until far too late. On her sixteenth birthday. Not that she ever felt she belonged. She hates her adoptive parents and despises her younger brother, Brian. She is attracted to the family who live next door who are exactly the kind of people her parents dislike and everything Carol thinks is glamorous and perfect. She spends more time with them than at home and she has to lie to keep her two lives apart. And lies beget lies and soon she doesn’t know or care about the difference.
Carol is a compelling character, both strong and achingly vulnerable, and I wondered how she came into being, This was my first question to Julia.
When did you decide that Carol would be what is called ‘an unreliable narrator’?
I knew immediately that Carol was going to be a fantasist and liar. She has a great imagination and as a child there is not much for it to feed on. Later she uses it as protective covering. Her unreliable account is part of the tension that I hope carries the reader forward. It’s really towards the end that it becomes more and more doubtful about how much to trust her. And it’s enjoyable to create an unreliable narrator; it’s quite a playful thing to do.
What dangers did you anticipate in this approach? Did you worry readers might also feel 'lost' at times--or was this intentional?
Elizabeth Bowen said that in a sense every story is a detective story. I like to read fiction that makes me work, and I’m meticulous in my reading, trying to pick up all the clues and nuances. And as a writer I believe in trusting the reader, not spoon-feeding. The danger is that readers don’t pick up what you want—and need—them to “get” from the narrative, and find it confusing or frustrating. Once a story becomes as familiar to you as it has to when you’re writing a novel, it can be hard to know whether you’re putting in too much or not enough. Living In Perhaps isn’t exactly a light, skip-though novel that can be read in 5-minute chunks before you fall asleep, but then I’m not interested in books like that. It does need concentration.
Could you briefly describe the process from finished manuscript to acceptance and publication.
It was shortlisted in the 2007 Daily Mail/Transworld First Novel competition, and although it was not the outright winner, Transworld decide to buy the manuscript anyway. But I actually wrote it about ten years before. I found an agent and the novel provoked some interest but not enough to get it out there in front of the public. I followed it up with another, written almost in reaction to Living In Perhaps, trying to address reasons why it wasn’t eagerly pounced on. This one didn’t sell either. I’ve since learned that even with a great manuscript, much depends on luck and timing, on what else is on a publisher’s current list: if an editor has just acquired a similar novel they won’t buy yours, even if it’s better!
Once the ms. was accepted, everything moved into very professional mode. I received a report from my editor with questions and comments about the manuscript – but no solutions - those had to come from me, when I delivered the final draft to a deadline. Terrifying, but I do enjoy this part of the process: it really sharpens your mind and makes you get to know your novel even better. You may think you’ve stripped it back as much as possible and focused, focused, focused, but then you have to do it all over again. A good editor will spot all those bits you think you can fudge because no one will ever notice – weaknesses of plot, characterisation, structure – and makes you do something about them. I substantially reworked the last 3rd of the novel.
How did writing a novel compare with writing short stories apart from the obvious such as length and multiple characters? Did you find it more satisfying or did you long for the sparseness of short fiction?
I write both in a similar way, in that I don’t rush through a first draft of a novel just to get it down and then go back and work on it. I don’t like to produce too much rubbishy writing; I find it dispiriting as it’s so easy for everything to go completely downhill from there. But if I can look back at the previous day’s work and find the tone from it then I’m okay to go on. I work through both short and long fiction editing all the time, so I’ve no idea what an actual first draft is. My main challenge with a novel is to find the best way to tell the story I want to tell (structure, voice etc) whereas usually with a short piece that is just obvious from conception, and much simpler.
Are you a planner or do you start writing and see where it takes you?
I find that too much pre-planning kills an idea, a character, stone-dead. I write almost exactly like a reader reads, if that makes sense, to find out what is going to happen, to find out more about a character and where their story is going.
With Carol in Living In Perhaps, I came across a small scrap I had written in her very particular voice, inquisitive and observant, opinionated and naive. It seemed funny, engaging and full of energy, worth continuing with. I was driven to follow that up and find out why? Why is she like that, and what is it going to make her do? At that stage I didn’t know if I had a short story or something longer. When I wrote: ‘I’ve been talking to someone recently. In here. Here’s another story. I’ll get round to that one, in my own good time’, I literally didn’t know what ‘here’ meant or what this other story was. Soon I understood her present circumstance, in the psychiatric unit where she is busily evading telling her therapists anything useful, whilst buttonholing the reader and letting them in on her secrets. I knew that something bad had happened to put her there. I had to work out what it was, and unravelled her childhood to find the story.
I am a composter: I try to let ideas stay in my mind for as long as possible before putting anything down on paper. Sometimes I’m so keen to get started that I do begin to write, but if it’s too soon the story can run out of energy and get stalled. With novels I keep a notebook so that I can write down scenes I’ve written in my head while I’m meant to be sleeping – no good leaving it till morning, everything will be gone by then – and ideas, names, things I need to do. At some point – usually 2/3 way through - I will do a chapter-by-chapter plan to organise the whole thing, to see what must be moved, where to, what gaps need bridging, and what needs to be done to get to the end point.
Adoption is the major theme of this novel plus questions of identity. How did this shape the novel?
Thinking that you’re actually adopted is quite a common childhood fantasy, and I wanted to see what happened if that fantasy collided with reality. I grew increasingly interested in how, living in a very ordinary family with low horizons, it is easy to get pigeon-holed and stuck. Stories are usually about a person who is special in some way, who gets lucky or finds opportunities. Carol thinks she’s special—surely we all think that of ourselves?—but everyone around her resolutely fails to spot this and she doesn’t know how to make herself noticed or break out of her small world. I was very mean and took away from her all the educational and personal opportunities I had when I was growing up. And I gave the Hennessy family all the breaks, and then some.
Another theme is that family culture which is very different from one family to another. You spend your childhood discovering this as you’re more and more exposed to other people’s way of doing things, and it can be liberating, or it can be very disconcerting.
I often write about art, so making the Hennessys a family of painters allowed me to have fun contrasting Carol’s untutored opinions with theirs, and to look at that mythic monster, the creative male persona, in Patrick Hennessy, and the thwarted creativity of his wife Tillie.
What have you learned along the way about writing and publishing a novel?
• There is a lot of sitting down. Your bottom will spread and spread.
• Another cup of coffee isn’t a bad idea. Internet shopping is.
• You need massive self-discipline. Where can I buy some? Not over the internet, that’s for sure.
• When pushed, in the final edit, you can still pull stuff out of your brain even when you don’t know how you’re going to do it, where it’s going to come from, if it’s any good. Sometimes those last desperate solutions are the best things.
• Reading your manuscript in book form (at the stage when you’re sent an uncorrected proof copy) is very different from reading a stack of page proofs, which is too similar to the stack of white A4 you’re totally familiar with. With the book your eye tracks from page to page just as a reader’s will, and you notice where the thing doesn’t flow properly, sticks or drags, and at that point it’s almost too late. But not too late, thank God.
• It is fantastic to walk into a bookshop and see your novel on the shelf or even the front table, with your name on it. Like a proper novel. By a proper writer. That moment actually is as good as you imagine it might be.
What a positive thought on which to end! Thank you, Julia.
Living in Perhaps is published by Black Swan at £7.99.