The wonder of the internet means that you can do an interview anywhere in the world. So today we are whizzing up through the countryside with Jane Harris, author of ‘The Observations’ and ‘Gillespie and I’ which has become my latest favourite book, with Glasgow as the destination. Whilst sipping on cups of tea, from a flask of course not that train dishwater, and maybe munching on a cupcake or two. Discussing ‘Victorian sensation novels’, second book syndrome, reading, writing and books. So grab yourself a cup of tea too and join us for a natter…
Thinking of a single sentence to describe this book is quite difficult. I’m tempted to take the Hollywood route and say that it’s “Jaws” meets “The Turn of the Screw” – but with a heart. (Simon can confirm that without their being any sharks or boats he actually knows what Jane means here.)
How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?
When I was thinking about what to write after ‘The Observations’ I went back to the box in the attic where I’d kept a number of unfinished ideas for short stories (which is where I discovered the beginnings of ‘The Observations’). On one scrap of paper, I found something I’d scribbled years ago: “Artist, 19th century, Glasgow.” This appealed to me – although I’d wanted, after my first novel, to write something contemporary and short. But this historical idea was the one that grabbed me so. . . I went with it. Initially, I had thought of writing something quite feminist, perhaps featuring one of the Glasgow Girls (a group of Scottish female artists of the time) and her struggles to be taken seriously as an artist, but once I began doing my research the story changed direction. It was particularly when I read about a particular court case that the beginnings of a psychological thriller plot began to form in my mind.
It’s a book that you don’t want to give too much away with, so that makes reviewing it and questioning you rather difficult. I think it’s safe to say that the narrator Harriet Baxter is quite a complex lead figure, how did you create her?
You’re right, she is complex and also flawed (as are most, if not all, of my characters). I like flawed characters. I had a lot of fun with Bessy, the narrator of ‘The Observations’, but I knew that in my second novel I wanted a new challenge and so I picked a character who was quite different from Bessy. Instead of an almost illiterate (though clever) Irish girl who is quite garrulous and uncontrolled in some ways, and who doesn’t know the first thing about punctuation, I came up with Harriet who, as narrator, is a highly-educated, very controlled Englishwoman, who is completely anal and who over-punctuates and uses long sentences. I had in mind one or two old ladies of my acquaintance, apparently charming, girlish-voiced old dears, whose polite manners and polish conceal a viper-like wit.
As ‘Gillespie & I’ goes on there are lots and lots of twists and turns, which of course we don’t want to spoil. Yet when reading it there are the subtlest of hints which cause the reader to become engrossed and also rather uneasy, was that a difficult situation to create? How do you know when you are sewing the right, or indeed wrong red herring, seeds of doubt in a readers mind as you write the book?
I was learning all about that sort of technique as I wrote this book and I’m still not quite sure what the answer is. I think partly it’s down to instinct. Of course, I plan everything beforehand, the major twists and turns, but I tended to seed the red herrings and clues as I went along, and kept checking that I wasn’t overdoing it by reading everything aloud. It’s only when the manuscript is finished that you can really tell whether you’ve over or under-done it. I also had a lot of help in this respect from my editor and a handful of trusted readers. As it turned out, in the initial draft, I had been too subtle, so it was a question of going back and making a few things a bit clearer.
I think it’s fair to say that both ‘Gillespie & I’ and your debut novel ‘The Observations’ are quite gothic and have the Victorian ‘sensational’ feel about them, were books by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon books that you have always loved or is this just the sort of books you naturally write?
I’m an indiscriminate reader in that I will read almost anything that is set in front of me. As a child, I would read cereal packets if there was nothing else to hand. So I devoured all kinds of books: contemporary, pre-20th century, all the novels my parents left lying around, and everything I could carry home from the library. To be honest, I think it’s an accident that I’m writing this kind of novel. When I started writing, I was coming up with contemporary short stories about my boyfriends and family. It was only in desperation (after almost giving up writing) that I decided to try and write a novel set in the 19th Century, based on an unfinished, lengthy short story which seemed to hold some promise. Luckily for me, that book caught the attention of a publisher. However, having said that, as a child I loved 19th Century novels like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Water Babies etc, and as an adult I still love Henry James, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins. However, I do wonder if I’ll return to writing about the contemporary. One strand of ‘Gillespie and I’ is set in the early 1930s, which pleases me, because at least I have a toehold in the 20th century.
After the success of ‘The Observations’ did you ever worry about that ‘second book syndrome’ or feel any additional pressure about ‘Gillespie & I’? Was this why there was such a gap between the two?
The only thing that worried me about ‘second book syndrome’ was the fact that, even before I had begun book two, I knew for certain I’d be asked this question by journalists and bloggers and it would be an effort not to betray my irritation. Ha ha! (but true).
Here’s the long answer. I don’t think I felt any additional pressure for the second book. I think writing books is hard enough anyway. The first one was hard. The second one was hard. They’ll all be hard, in different ways. My first novel took me 12 or 13 years -four years in total of writing with about nine years of just lying in a box (that’s the novel, not me), so I’ve done the second book in less than half the time. The gap between the two was four years (The Observations was published in 2006 in the UK, and I submitted ‘Gillespie and I’ at the end of 2010). Both these novels are 500 pages long: that’s twice as long as the average novel, so it follows that it should take twice as long to write them. Four years divided by two is two years. The received wisdom is that a writer should be turning out a book every two years. If you look simply at page count, I’ve done that. Besides, I could have produced a book within two years, but it would have been a much worse book. In my opinion, the book is everything; some arbitrary deadline is nothing. Better to have a book that I’m proud of – a book that gets reviews like the one you gave ‘Gillespie and I’ yesterday (for which MANY thanks) – than a book which is undercooked or less ambitious.
Both of your novels seem perfect for adaptation, have there been any discussions of this, can we look forward to them on the screen?
‘The Observations’ was optioned for television but nothing has come of that so far and I believe the option may now have expired so it’s available again. I’d love to see an adaptation of ‘Gillespie and I’. I was particularly impressed by the recent TV adaptation of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I had been dreading the series as it’s a favourite book of mine and I was worried they’d make a hash of it but I think they did a fine job. So, we’ll see what happens.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?
I always enjoyed writing compositions at school, but nobody in my family was a writer, I didn’t know any writers and it just didn’t seem like a career option. In my secondary school the careers guidance woman told me that hairdressing was a safe bet. I had to take my exam results to the assistant head and ask him if they were good enough to go to university, because nobody was pointing me in that direction. It turned out my results were good enough, and so I went to university and took English and Drama as my main subjects. I loved reading literature, but got rather sidetracked into theatre and drama (the English Department at Glasgow was so dry and old-fashioned in those days that it put me off reading for years). So it wasn’t until years later, when I was 29, that I began writing in earnest, and that only happened because I was stranded in a country where I didn’t speak the language, knew virtually nobody, and had no TV and hardly any books and no money, nothing to distract me, apart from a pen and some pieces of paper.
Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?
Anne Tyler. William Boyd. Jonathan Franzen. Sarah Waters. Michel Faber. Barbara Vine.
What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?
Well, I do love leafing through my collection of back-copies of “Hustler”. Not really. Seriously though, I don’t think I have a guilty pleasure read. I love reading Victorian ‘true crime’ stories, such as the Madeleine Smith trial – perhaps that counts?
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
I begin work early, as soon as I wake up, which can be anything (under normal circumstances) from 6am onwards. I work all day, that is, I sit at my computer all day, although sometimes I’ll delete more words than I write. For the last novel, I tended to begin the day by editing what I’d done the previous day. I always read the work aloud as I write. Every few paragraphs, I’ll pause and read it back. Sometimes, I go outside and look at the garden for a breath of fresh air, but I hardly ever leave the house. I like things to be neat, so tend to tidy up the room if it’s looking too disorganised. I read a book during lunch or, if my husband is working at home, we eat together, chortling, while watching an episode of Seinfeld. Laughter is important. A chuckle at lunchtime and a chuckle to end the day (night-time chuckle is currently the fabulous “The Trip” with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). I rarely work beyond 6pm, though I will sit at the computer fiddling about on Facebook and Twitter in between bouts of writing and at the end of the day. When writing a novel, I require satisfaction-guaranteed TV in the evening, in order to cleanse my brain, so am a fan of all the most wonderful shows like The Apprentice, Masterchef, Great British Menu and America’s Next Top Model. Having spent all day in the 19th Century, trying to juggle plot and characterisation and voice and sentences, I require something to take me into a different world entirely. Plus, I can’t really go out much while writing as I find it too distracting, with the result that I’m a bit of a happy hermit.
How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?
Book blogging seems to me to be increasingly important. I think that readers and book-lovers have found a real community online in sites such as yours, a place to share opinion and hear about what people whose opinions they respect are reading. I am as much of a book fan as anybody, so I do surf sites to track various books (but after I’ve read them – I hate knowing too much about a book or film before I experience it for myself). As for my own books, I can’t help but read reviews. I know that it’s possible not to (which is the route my husband takes, as a film-maker) so I do believe those people who say they don’t read reviews, but I, for one, can’t help it.
Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?
Gosh, that’s a hard question as I’m not sure I have a single favourite book. I’m assuming that all Savidge Readers will have read Great Expectations, so I might have to plump for The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, which is still up there for me as a work of genius. (Simon is slightly embarrased to say he has not read Great Expectations, Dickens escapes him – oops!)
What is next for Jane Harris?
I’m reaching the end of writing some short stories, a bit of a break from writing novels, and about to turn my thoughts to a new book. Don’t want to say too much now as I believe you can talk a book away.
A big thank you goes out to Jane Harris for taking part in this. I was very excited and interestingly so was she, there is mutual appreciation in the air. You can visit Jane’s website here to find out more. Oh and if you fancy winning a copy of ‘Gillespie and I’ then simply scroll a little further down… after having left a nice comment here of course.