She had written as a hobby for a number of years, whilst pursuing a career in insurance, but recently took a leap of faith and 'retired' from full-time work, just at the onset of a major recession.
In October 2008, her first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, was selected as the winning title of the Daily Mail First Novel Award.
Hi Jane! Welcome to my blog. Make yourself comfortable.
Hi Jen, and thank you. I have my pint of coffee and I’m ready to go...
Tell us about ‘Half-Truths and White Lies’
My working title for the book was ‘Venn Diagrams,’ born out of a request from a colleague to draw a diagram to represent my (somewhat complicated) network of family and friends. Transworld quite rightly pointed out that the phrase was coined in the 50’s and might not mean anything readers of a certain age, and that others might confuse the book with a mathematical textbook. But for me, overlapping circles remains a far better way of illustrating modern families than the traditional tree.
Half-truths and White Lies was my second attempt at writing a novel. My first, having drawn on my own life a little too often, remains buried in that special bottom drawer reserved for dusty manuscripts. The only decision I made was to write about a family as far removed from my own as possible: a father, a mother and one daughter – so I didn’t have too many characters to play around with. And then by the end of chapter three, I had managed to kill two of them off.
From this you can probably gather that I am not a great plotter. I get to know my characters and then I rely on them taking me along for the ride. This approach does tend to result in a crisis three quarters of the way through when I have to work out how to get from C to D.
There is a school of thought that tells you that must have a detailed plot before you start writing. If that was the case, I would never have put pen to paper. I choose to take the advice of authors who say exactly the opposite:
Debby Holt claims that there are plot-driven novels and character-driven novels. Hers fall into the latter category and I’m with her.
Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing: is to start with a single question and see how that idea develops. The question always begins ‘what if?’
Sir Terry Pratchett uses a method that he calls The valley of the Clouds. In the valley of the clouds there are mountains but you can only see the very tops of the peaks. It is your job as an author to work out how to get to the mountains.
As often happens when something I am working on is nearing completion, I found that someone else had got there first – except that this was not another author: it was a news report describing almost the exact same scenario.
To give you a taste of what Half-truths is about, firstly, it’s the struggle of a young woman to find her own identity after she loses her parents in a horrific motor accident. It’s also a story of two sisters who were treated very differently by their parents, one labelled as beautiful and one labelled as clever, and the impact that those labels had on them. It’s a story about that very confusing word called love, and that particular situation when we cross the line between friendship and something more, and all of the messy repercussions that follow. It’s about the choices and decisions we make and how the impact of those decisions resonate through time. It’s about the secrets between a group of family and friends, and the lengths that they will go to to keep them hidden. It’s the story of what one man will go to undo the damage he’s done. And it’s about forgiveness, because it’s amazing what friendship is capable to surviving. But, of course, there’s no one character who knows the whole truth at the beginning. And our starting point is this very volatile situation in the aftermath of the accident when the characters are at their most vulnerable and anything could give. It’s a bit like my house which is very old and decrepit: my partner Matt will start tapping a patch of loose plaster and suddenly he finds himself with a pile of rubble where the wall should be.
Chance played a great role in my route to publication. It was by chance that I heard about the Winchester Writer’s conference a week before it was held in 2008. And it was by chance that I chose to attend a lecture held by Jack Sheffield of Teacher Teacher fame. Because if those two things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have learned about the Daily Mail first novel award – two days before the deadline for entries.
How long did it take you to write?
Considering that I was working full-time, not very long at all! My first attempt at a novel took four and a half years with a very stop-start approach. Working two evenings and week and the mornings of my weekends (with occasional time off for good behavior) the first draft took me a year.
Giving up your job in insurance to pursue your writing career must have been an exhilarating and terrifying thing to do. Talk us through that.
Yes and no. It was a job I had been in for 23 years, having seen an embryonic team grow into a medium-sized business that still had a family feel, but then had to be sold to a large corporation in order to allow the Managing Director to retire. The last year had been hard – I have always accepted the need to fire people, but making a large portion of the staff, some of whom I had worked with for 20 years, redundant was soul destroying. Until I left, I didn’t realize how much the role of Deputy MD had hardened me and how much I had begun to dislike myself. So I’m a lot more comfortable with myself now and that’s a good thing.
The lack of money, the lack of a monthly pay packet was another thing. I am not one of life’s natural risk-takers. I like security and I have what I think of as a healthy fear of poverty. I had grown very fond of adventurous holidays and L K Bennett handbags. I have since found that neither of these things is essential.
My contract prevented me from working for the competition for two years, so I planned on giving myself a two-year sabbatical, with the challenge of trying to get my work published. With only vague memories of the word Recession, a few weeks in, with doom and gloom in every news report, the honeymoon period was well and truly over. I began to think that I had made a serious mistake. And then on 15th October, two days before my birthday, I got the call that changed everything.
Where were you when you heard you’d won the Daily Mail First Novel Award? What went through your head? Who did you tell first? How did you celebrate?
I received the call from Transworld when I was at home on my own and, because I was alone, I wasn’t quite sure how to react. There was no one to ask, ‘Did that just happen?’ I can completely understand the sentiments of Myrrah Stanford Smith who, at the age of 82, signed a three book deal with Honna. Receiving the news by telephone (as I did), she says that she was 'Gob-smacked. She insisted on putting down the phone, pulling herself together and ringing them back to make sure it was true. She had expected the manuscript to be returned with a rejection letter. Myrrah also summed up what it means to see your work in print beautifully. She said "To have my book, my words, in my hands as my very own book - it was wonderful."
I tried to phone my partner who was in a meeting. I phoned a friend who I thought would be at home, but wasn’t, so I left a message. Even my mother was out. But word soon spread through the wonders of modern technology and the phone started ringing. And there was champagne. Quite a lot of champagne.
Which bookshop did you first spy your book in?
I wasn’t the first. Even before the book signings on the first day of release, my sister Anne was visiting our nieces in Brighton and spied it in Waterstones. She texted me a photograph to prove it.
What’s your ‘writing routine’ – if such a thing does exist.
I am used to long days at work so I try to treat writing as if it is a job. A typical day will be half an hour’s reading over the breakfast table – at the moment Karoo Plainsong by Barbara Mutch - on goes the coffee pot and then a good four hours work, a five-mile walk to get more oxygen to the brain and another four hour session. At the moment I am editing rather than writing, which is perhaps not so enjoyable, so this is where the discipline acquired through my working life comes to the fore.
I notice that you say your music collection is threatening to take over your house. Do you find music influences your work? Who are your favourite artists?
Music if one of those things that instantly transports you to a time and place in your life so, although I find I difficult to work with any background noise, it is a source of inspiration. At the moment I’m working on a piece based in the 80’s so my playlist has consisted of The Cure’s Just One Kiss, Japan’s Nightporter, Eurhythmic’s Here Comes the Rain Again and INXS’s Need You Tonight.
In terms of favourites, so many to choose from but David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel (my favourite male vocalists), The Sundays, Kate Bush, The Cure, Dr John…currently Elbow (God bless you, Guy Garvey: you are a poet), Radiohead, Goldfrapp, Florence and the Machine, Two Door Cinema Club (makes me feel 14 again), XX. I’m off to see The Specials at Brixton the end of the month which I’m very excited about. For once, I may not be the oldest person at a gig.
You put a lot of quotes about reading/bookselling up on your blog. Give us some of your favourite ones.
I think the one from Churchill (apologies, Sir, if I misquote you) – Give me four hours and a blank sheet of paper.
On my Book Forum, we have The Book Tree, where members choose their favourite book, and post it round to other members. Everyone writes comments in the books as they read. If you were to pick a book for The Book Tree…
Just one book? Surely that’s torture? The book that I have returned to most often is The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. If you have seen the film, forget it – there is no way that this epic story could have been successfully condensed into 2 hours of screen time. This is beautiful writing, rich and soulful and heartbreaking. It transports you instantly into the mind of its narrator and the deep south.
What are your plans for the future?
The fact that the publishing world is in turmoil is beyond my control, but these things are cyclical, so I will simply keep writing and build up a body of work that I feel proud of in the hope that I will be well-placed when the planets come into alignment.
You can find 'Half-Truths and White Lies at your local bookshop (and via Hive).