I recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow Legend Press author, Josie Henley-Einion. Josie’s first novel, Silence, is “an examination of sexual violence and its repercussions. It questions the right of the media to scrutinise and pronounce judgement on a person’s life choices.”
1. Your first novel with Legend Press, Silence, was published back in 2008. Was this the first novel you wrote?
No it wasn’t! It hardly ever is, from what I can gather from other authors. The first novel I wrote to completion is a trashy lesbian detective novel which will remain unpublished for a number of reasons. I wrote a lot of stories as a teen and in my early twenties and also began a number of novels but this one was the first that I finished, and wrote it when I was thirty. Following that I wrote a children’s novel for a BBC competition which was shortlisted and got optioned but never published. I believe that this novel has potential but will probably never get published due to it coincidentally having too much similarity to Harry Potter (I say coincidentally because I’d never heard of Harry Potter when I wrote it and hardly anyone else had either). Sigh. The experience of being shortlisted (six out of 4600 entries) spurred me to taking my writing seriously which was when I decided to study for an MA in Writing. I’m also still in contact with the other finalists who are my writing gang which is great. It was during the MA that I wrote Silence. Since then I’ve written another two novels to completion and started countless more!
I recently listened to an interview with Sid Fleischman on the Litopia podcast, who used the phrase ‘nothing was wasted except the paper’ when referring to an early novel that he destroyed without publishing. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to destroy my first writings but that trashy detective novel will serve as a reminder to me if ever I become too arrogant about my abilities! I see those early novels as valuable experience and agree with this ‘nothing is wasted’ concept, especially as Jackie (one of the main characters of Silence) is a writer and goes through similar experiences with the formulaic writing.
2. Recently, you mentioned to me that your own experiences have had a pretty direct impact on your writing. Would you like to tell us a little more about this?
I was bullied pretty badly and I was quite badly behaved myself as a teen and had some extreme encounters, so I tap into these experiences as a resource. I think that every writer does, either deliberately or unconsciously, and especially in the early parts of their writing careers.
One of the reasons that I think the lesbian detective novel I wrote is pretty awful is because I’ve never worked as a detective or been involved in any related work, like police work or journalism. The scenes that do work well are those involving lesbian social life. One of the ‘rules’ of writing that people talk about is ‘write what you know’, in other words that you should write about things of which you have a knowledge and understanding. I generally don’t like writing rules and would never try to be the writing police, but at least when starting out I thought this one sounded quite sensible. After all, it would be bloody difficult to write about something of which you have no idea. Of course, there’s research and once you’ve done the research then it becomes something of which you do have a knowledge and understanding.
When people ask me how long it took to write Silence, I usually quote the three years of the MA (plus another three years of attempting to get it published, and editing each time before resending). But I also say that I’ve been writing this book all my life. There is a hell of a lot of me in there, but only people who know me very well can work out which bits are fictional and which aren’t. What I really mean though is that every time I pick up a pen or open a Word document to begin a new story, no matter what the topic, characters, setting, or intended audience, I always seem to write the same basic story. The same themes come through: the outsider who is or has been bullied or abused, taking revenge or making some sort of statement and often destroying themselves in the process. Domestic abuse and sexual violence usually rear their ugly heads. It used to annoy me and was one of the main blockers that stopped me from seeing a project through to completion. But there came a point where I decided to embrace it and thought, well if this is my ‘brand’ then so be it.
Silence started out as a sort of ‘writing as therapy’ project where I thought I could get it all out of my system and then go ahead and write ‘proper’ books (like trashy detective or sci-fi) but then ahead of me came the misery memoir fashion and I realised that this was what I had written – a fictional misery memoir. I quite like thinking about all the different ways I can make a story miserable yet still readable. That may sound perverse but what I mean is that I find it a challenge to put my characters into impossible and awful situations and then see how they deal with them. I really wouldn’t like to think of myself as jumping on the misery memoir bandwagon, and my life is hardly as traumatic as those who get turned into ghostwritten books, which is why Silence is fictional. I see it as a challenge to come up with a completely new and different story each time I begin to write, which explores the same themes and issues. There is a niche in this and people do want to read about others’ suffering, as expressed by misery memoirs and before this ‘true crime’ going back via Shakespeare to Greek Tragedy. I think the critics of the misery genre often forget this natural aspect of human nature. The point is not to be gratuitous, as with anything else in literature. Use of gratuitous suffering in a novel just becomes another form of pornography.
3. Something I found myself thinking about a lot whilst writing my next novel was, how autobiographical is semi-autobiographical? Once we commit to including some part of our lives into the work, it’s sometimes – I found – hard to know where the fiction starts and ends, as bizarre as that may sound to some. Did you find that difficult? And how do your readers usually view it?
I believe that all writing is autobiography and all biography is fiction. The boundaries are too blurred to make distinct divisions. We have to decide what to leave in and what to miss out when we write a story or when we tell an anecdote about our own lives, and in doing this we have already created a narrative. As writers we are probably more aware of this, and more self-aware, than most people, but everyone constructs these narratives on a daily basis. Children pick up how to tell a story very early in life, so that they know the formula and conventions and can tell you what happened to them in the park today with a perfect beginning, middle and end, hero and protagonist and other elements common to the stories they hear every day. It’s part of our socialisation.
I am interested in narrative theory and narratology, how narrative shapes our culture. We have a self-replication of culture and the narratives we construct become our truths so that the memory of an actual incident becomes blurred by the stories we have told about it afterwards, or the lens through which we viewed it at the time. We might see today’s world knowledge as a construct of the stories that are being told us by the government and media, which at some point in the future we will see in a different light as we are beginning to now view the whole ‘weapons of mass destruction’ period. Even though at the time it was blatantly obvious to some that there were no WMD and it was a smokescreen for a financially and politically motivated invasion that had been planned for some time, we told each other the story of WMD and we came to believe it. Endless debates, discussion and jokes centred on WMD and so it has become part of our history.
On a lesser scale the same thing can happen in our own lives when we may have believed a certain ‘fact’ about our parents for many years only to find out that we had misinterpreted something early on, or even been lied to, which shaped the whole picture. In my teens I was lent a book which detailed the number of historical figures who were gay. I was overwhelmed by the lies and cover-ups which led to young people like myself believing that being gay was extremely rare and destructive. Sorry, this is beginning to sound like an academic essay! I do find the area of life writing interesting, but I am more interested in fiction which mimics life writing – as I have done with Silence – as it is easier to manipulate from the author’s point of view. This has a healthy history in the novel, with fictional memoirs such as Fanny Hill and Tristram Shandy being popular in the early days of novel experimentation.
With my readers I get different reactions. Some people assume that it is basically autobiographical and react to me as if I have had all of the experiences that I put my characters through. This can be a bit annoying, for one thing they might be pitying and patronising and another that it makes me think that they don’t see me as capable of writing fiction. Others assume that because it is a novel it is purely fictional, and as I’ve worked with abuse survivors this is how I have gained an insight. Most people just don’t ask! I think that reflects how people generally react in our society when faced with an abuse survival story – they would rather not talk about it. The complexity of the reality is that I don’t even know all of the details of which bits are directly from my life and which are projections of my life, amalgams of character or what could have happened. I can’t be specific unless I am asked very specific questions. If someone pointed to a particular passage and asked, did that happen to you? I might be able to describe which bits came from me and which bits are fictionalised. There is also an element of the blurring of my memories which makes it more difficult!
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is autobiographical but it is also fiction, even with the main character being named Jeanette. I would not have named Jackie Josie, and I deliberately made changes to her physically and in characterisation because I thought that she was too close to being me. I am probably more like Jimmie, Jackie’s partner. I did briefly consider putting in a cameo character of myself but decided against it. Too many J’s!
4. You have an academic background in psychology and linguistics, and have worked in health and social care. Having a layman’s interest in psychology myself, do you think this and your health/social care background help you understand/sympathise with the characters you create more effectively? Or do you avoid thinking about such things too deeply when you’re writing?
I try not to let my academic interests and concerns take over my fiction writing as the fiction is designed to be entertaining first and informative as a bonus extra. At least that’s how I like to read and presume that most readers are the same – not wanting to be lectured to. I do find that my background helps me to understand and empathise with people generally, but it is an unconscious thing so it’s not something I’ve nurtured specifically for my writing. I think that the biggest influence in having a health and social care career background is that both Jackie and Jimmie are working in these kinds of jobs and having an insider knowledge helps to make it real. My latest story is set in academia which reflects my current occupation of PhD student. As with what I said above about the themes and issues that keep creeping back into my writing, I just let it flow. Past experience tells me that if I try to force myself to write something different than what comes naturally then it won’t happen and I’ll get frustrated. So I allow it to happen and I’m interested in the results almost as if it were written by someone else. It’s not quite automatic writing but sometimes it feels as if I’m channelling the ‘inner me’ so that I’m often surprised at the resultant story. That probably says more about the disassociation between the real me and the public/surface me than it does about my writing! I write in a stream of consciousness style because of this, but only for the first draft – the dross does get edited out.
Part two of this interview will follow shortly. Watch this space.
To visit Josie’s website, click here.