Today, we’re speaking with Joanna Biscoe, an author from the UK. Joanna won a Betty Trask Award and was runner up for both the Encore Award and the Prince Maurice Prize
She is published with the esteemed Hammar/Random House publisher in the UK and Bloomsbury in the US. One of her recent novels was adapted into a drama by the UK’s ITV television studio.
Joanna has also written features, columns, and book reviews for all the major UK papers and magazines, including the Sunday Times, Times, Observer, Elle, Vogue, Mail, and Telegraph.
Ryan: Welcome, Joanna. I appreciate your time to be with us, today.
Joanna: Thank you. I’m happy to be doing this. It’s interesting to think about one’s work afterwards with a clarity and distance one doesn’t possess at the time of writing. Also, to think about what might help new writers.
Ryan: Random House is certainly a prominent publisher. How did the business relationship come about?
Joanna: Yes, it is, and I was happy to work for them. They simply approached my agent, asking if I’d like to write a Hammer novella. I was surprised and thought, why me? However, the timing was right. I was close to finishing a draft of a full length novel, and this appealed to me–plus, I immediately knew what I wanted to write about–so I said yes. I had a very tight deadline…
My editor pointed out that my novels were generally haunted in one way or another, with a creepy tension to them. As the writer, I simply hadn’t noticed or realised this in any kind of crystallised form. So they brought out the dark, the gothic, and the haunting in me even more strongly. Looking back at old reviews, I notice the word “haunting” coming up quite often!
Ryan: Once you became published, how did it change your perspective on the process of it all?
Joanna: It was a process in several parts for me. I was determined to be a writer from the age of fifteen. However, between then and the age of seventeen, I had two full length children’s novels rejected. I hadn’t realised about agents, and sent them straight to publishers’ slush piles from my home on Dartmoor, Devon.
I would advise doing something else first…getting a lot of life experience. I think, if anything, I was over-obsessed with becoming a novelist, to the point where I was somewhat blinkered and didn’t have some of the travelling, work, life experiences that would have broadened my life and work. I’m remedying that now!
My first publications were short stories in different anthologies, in my twenties, followed by a small non-fiction book, which I did essentially to get an agent. I was working for years on my first novel, between working pretty full time as a journalist. Then what happened was that my first novel won a Betty Trask Award for writers under thirty five–on the manuscript alone. This was followed by ten or so rejections… I realised that if an award winning manuscript was being rejected, it was going to be very, very tough and pretty agonising. The thrill of the award was so wonderful, because it was unexpected; the crash afterwards was just as extreme. Eventually, I had three offers at once.
The emotional rollercoaster had really started. I then realised that rather than the permanent artefact that I had somehow imagined, a book could be quite a transient thing–shelf life is ever shorter, novels go out of print, and backlists are not what they were. I also thought it would solve my life! Honestly. I thought that somehow that holy grail, getting published, would mean my entire life was miraculously transformed. Despite the excitement, and my first novel getting a lot of reviews (plus I could write big features promoting it as I had so much journalistic experience), I had to wake up to the fact that getting published is a lovely thing, and important, and validating, but it doesn’t change one’s life in the fundamental ways most people think it will. What it does do is prevent the awful frustration of not being published. However, having said that, I do wonder how crazy I’d have gone if I hadn’t eventually been published… So, it was necessary for that, but it didn’t solve all problems as I’d hazily thought it would. Of course it didn’t!
I enjoyed the process of seeing my novel turn into a physical object. I’ll never forget reading the proofs on the bus and marvelling that there were my words, printed.
Since that time, twenty-one years ago, I’ve seen publishing going through enormous changes. It’s harder than it ever was, yet conversely easier for first time novelists. The big bets are on first timers! So, in many ways, it’s great to be a first time novelist. There are even stories of established writers who aren’t selling a lot of books pretending to be debut novelists, under pseudonyms. Are these apocryphal? I don’t know. But I do know lots of novelists are dropped by about book three if they’re not making money, whereas publishers will take a punt on something new.
Ryan: What sort of writing habits or rituals do you have?
Joanna: I wish I had more disciplined writing habits to report. It’s been a struggle, over the years, to have any kind of concrete routine or strong self-discipline. But somehow I’ve written six novels, so I must have more than I think.
I think the danger can be having TOO much time, which I had after a while once I started turning down freelance journalism to focus on fiction. Some agents tell first time novelists, and even more experienced ones, not to give up their day jobs, as it can be disastrous. I agree with this, until one is very established at least. Now I have children, and I get out of the house to teach part time, I find my time is more precious. I also think it’s great to get out of home and to stop yourself going online. I go to a library where I purposely don’t have an internet password. Don’t think you need to be Tweeting instead of actually writing. That is nonsense, unless you’re doing something particularly tricksy, or in the case of some non-fiction.
Finally, less is more. Try to work in short, intense bursts if you’re having trouble with self discipline, or you set yourself up to fail. The “Pomodoro” technique of doing twenty-five minute bursts, with short breaks, is a good one.
I make sure I can work anywhere–I take a small laptop with me, and work on buses and in cafes. I can block out sound, unless it’s one audible conversation going on right beside me. Not having a study isn’t an excuse I’d ever listen to.
Ryan: Is there any point in your writing career that you wish you could have changed or done differently?
Joanna: Oh yes, definitely. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time on the one novel of mine that wasn’t published. I also think that after Sleep With Me (the novel of mine that has sold the most, sold globally, and was adapted as a drama), I should have kept in that vein and not taken so long on my next novel. The list goes on… I think we all have regrets.
Ryan: For your book Touched, how did you come up with the idea behind the unsettling house and the overall story?
Joanna: I was commissioned to write a novel for Hammer Books, and I was immediately inspired by a setting. I had revisited the village I lived in till I was four years old, for the first time in adulthood, and it was so pretty, it struck me as a place where I had to set a chilling novel. What was the darkness beneath all the beauty and light? I wanted to go the opposite way from the normal haunted or gothic tale, set in bad weather, in mist and darkness. Mine is all bright sunshine, a beautiful cottage, and a sense of darkness and intrigue and disturbance beneath.
I was also inspired to write about damp and how it can take over. Looking back, I think this was inspired by my bath leaking! Prosaic but true. I was lying on my bed seeing how the small leak had worked through the ceiling, making rust coloured stains, almost digging up the plaster. I thought about a pretty cottage in rebellion because of what the new owners had done, the cottage itself apparently protesting against their actions. But it could also be psychological projection. Who knows? The cottage becomes a presence, an unstoppable one, and it manifests in characters’ emotions.
Ryan: How does your pleasure reading color the way that you write (if you feel that it does)?
Joanna: Oh yes, I certainly do, and I think really that all writers are passionate readers. Well, they should be. I do find that some students simply don’t read enough. They’d rather write than read! I’m suspicious of this, because you can learn so so much by reading. I was always a huge reader, and re-reader, and nothing has ever matched childhood and teenage reading for intensity. I think that that very early reading influences me above all–there is something of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Lolita that is always somewhere in my subconscious creative mind. I try to read wonderful work while I’m writing, because it’s a good influence, whereas bad writing can start rubbing off too. Knowing that there are so many greats out there is both thrilling and overwhelming. I love novels more than any other art form.
Ryan: What is the strangest research you’ve ever done?
Joanna: It has to be when I watched a face lift being performed, for my second novel, Skin. This was a critique of the beauty industry. I was so appalled and saddened that (primarily) women would put themselves through something so violent, dangerous, and painful for an accepted notion of female beauty that I created a character who had a string of facelifts. Watching it, I fainted briefly. I will, of course, never forget the sheer horror, brutality, and bizarre, degrading nature of this. This is foot binding for a modern age. What would someone from Mars think of it?
Ryan: What was something that surprised you about being a published author?
Joanna: That it didn’t get easier to write! A naïve hope, I now realise.
Ryan: Are there any other bits of advice that you would offer the newer writer?
Joanna: There is so much, but first of all, write. Just write. Stop reading this. Write! And don’t try to do too much, or you set yourself up to fail. Your worries are normal worries. Honestly, everyone has the same ones. You are absolutely not uniquely troubled, here. That inner critical voice has to be turned off, or at least muted, or you never get anywhere. It’s useful later, for editing, but if you tell yourself you’re rubbish, you’ll just give up. Remember any writer worth their salt thinks this but has learnt to mute or ignore that voice. Think about plot. Don’t think a series of beautiful sentences or episodes will make a novel. We all want to read a good story. Forget that perfect novel in your head: the novel you write won’t match up to it, but it will be something different and take on a life of its own. It’s hard. It’s hard, hard, hard. Accept that and push on.
Ryan: Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming release of Touched in paperback?
Joanna: Well, I’m very excited about how good it looks. I love the jacket–both the image and the typeface–and it’s covered in lovely quotes because I really did get some amazing reviews for this one, far more than I expected for a short novel, and the quotes from them make me proud. So, it’s a lovely product. It’s one of my favourite jackets. It so suits the novel.
Ryan: The cover is beautiful. It also has that haunting quality about it. Again, thank you for your time. We’re glad to have you on. Readers, join me in checking out Joanna’s book, Touched. You can also catch her on Twitter.
Joanna: My pleasure. I also have a website, Joannabriscoe.com , but I admit that I haven’t updated it as I should… What I say to readers as a final thought is that novel writing is a marathon. It truly is. Don’t expect to get there quickly, and don’t be put off by your own lack of self-confidence or by some rejections, which are pretty much inevitable. Some rejections are valid, but others are just a normal part of the process. So pick yourself up and keep learning. Now go off and write.
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Image courtesy of Pauline Mak via Flickr, Creative Commons.