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.”
Click here to read the first part of this interview.
5. You interviewed me recently for your blog – something I really enjoyed, by the way. You asked me whether I’d taken the creative writing course route and, whilst I wasn’t completely negative about it, I did make it fairly clear that it wasn’t for me. I now see, of course, that you have an MA in creative writing and would very much like to hear your thoughts on this. How did you find it?
Yes it’s great to be interviewed! I find that I often don’t know what I think about something until someone asks me the question and I can access my thoughts and bounce ideas around. Also, having interview questions to answer seems less self-aggrandising than simply blogging about these topics.
I loved the MA, but I understand that it’s not for everyone. I am an academic and having that certificate was important to me, to my self esteem as a writer as well as to further my academic career. It was also very good to have the community of other writers. Alys, my partner, is a writer and we do share a lot with each other but having a wider community is important I think. We both studied the MA together but at first we were in different groups. Writing can be such an isolating pastime, so it’s important to have compatriots. The course encouraged buddying and I’m still in contact with my buddy now.
The MA was conducted online and seminars took place in chatrooms, assignments uploaded to a forum for peer review. It was my first experience of chatrooms and forum posting, and peer critiques as well! All very exciting. It used to be that distance learning meant posting handwritten assignments but with modern technology all learning could have an element of off-campus activity. This was about 8 years ago so that was quite new and innovative of Manchester Metropolitan University, and we were the first cohort. There have been many similar courses sprouting up recently. They probably use podcasts and skype now. Blended learning is a very interesting area and I think that giving students control over their learning experience is a good idea, it promotes autonomy. There I go with the essay again!
Since completing the MA I have found writing sites which replicate that aspect of the course in terms of the community and peer review. Youwriteon.com was one that I was very involved in a couple of years ago, and I’ve recently joined Litopia. Although I still believe that if you want to learn something, the best method is to have a combination of teacher support and just going out there and doing it, if you weren’t particularly interested in attaining a paper qualification but were looking for the experience of honing your art in the company of other writers, the best thing you can do is to join one of these sites and perform some reciprocal feedback. They are free and it would give you the experience without having to commit to a course. I found that the act of critiquing someone else’s writing helped me to develop critical skills which enabled me to look at my own work with more distance. So as well as getting the feedback from other people on my work, I gained by critiquing theirs. It’s a win-win situation, so long as everyone is fair and respectful.
As well as working on the novel, the MA got me into studying the act of writing and the work of other writers, and got me interested in narratology that I was talking about earlier. We had academic assignments, which were interesting to do, and for my dissertation I studied e-books. I uploaded the final project to my website afterwards and it still gets a fair number of hits. A lot of what I said about e-books then is starting to come true so I’m quite pleased that I was able to do that study.
6. We also recently discussed the whole perceived/expected “political” aspect to our writing – me being a “disabled writer” and you a “lesbian writer”. I have a feeling that you, like me, don’t much care for being told what you should or shouldn’t write. Yes?
Absolutely! I work within such prescriptive guidelines with my academic work that when it comes to writing fiction I really want to be free. I hate to be told what I should or shouldn’t write as I believe that we should all be able to express ourselves as we feel. As with any other art form, sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do what you’ve been told to do as a commission to earn money (and many would be grateful for the chance to do that so I try not to grumble). I see my fiction writing as the area in which I can work where I can really ‘be myself’ without thinking about the money, as, let’s face it, there is very little money in it for most authors outside of the big name lists. Legend are a great publisher for this as they don’t prescribe, which is rare I think! Like you said in your interview, we are lucky to be Legend authors. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to this, in that I think that something written from the heart, and not formulaic market-driven pap, is far superior. However, if it’s going to make money, then most of the time it has to be the pap I’m afraid. I feel the same about most TV and I’d rather not engage with it.
In terms of the ‘issues’, I heard an interview with Meera Syal recently where the interviewer suggested that she must be pleased to be playing roles where her race was incidental to the character or story. I think it’s important to see minority characters in books and films where the story is not about them being a minority, only then can we say that we have a truly equal or egalitarian society. However, it is also important to see those characters within their minority setting and to portray the unique nature of their culture and the particular problems faced by people in this culture. Otherwise we will be heading towards a homogenised society where everyone is expected to conform to a set pattern. So what I’m saying is that we need a whole spectrum in art which reflects society as it is as well as having the opportunity to see it as it could be, utopian or dystopian, and how it was in the past.
I have mixed feelings about being a ‘lesbian writer’ or my books being ‘lesbian books’. On the one hand I really don’t like to be put into a box and I wouldn’t want this label to put anyone off reading my stories. I am so much more than a lesbian! I have so many other interests and avenues to explore. On the other hand, I went through a phase in my reading as a young adult where I only read lesbian and gay books and would only look on this section in a bookshop. My loss, I later realised, but this makes me realise that in not marketing myself as a lesbian author, I would risk losing a niche readership. The LGBT community is very supportive and loyal, so this was as much a marketing decision as any assertion of my gayness or individuality. There is a similar kind of debate that goes on about authors not wanting to choose a genre. The authors hate to be seen as genre-restricted as this somehow seems inferior but the booksellers and readers really appreciate knowing where the book should sit on the shelves! In Wales I went on the Welsh interest shelves which was possibly due to my name, the book setting or me living in Cardiff, but I imagine that it will migrate to the LGBT section, if there is one.
I think Sarah Waters has obtained a happy medium in this, in that she has always been a lesbian author and her first books were lesbian books, but these have transcended into the mainstream and are received as literary fiction. She did receive some flack for her latest book The Little Stranger (which was bloody fantastic by the way!) because there weren’t any openly gay characters, and there were mutterings among the lesbian community that she’d sold out. I disagree, I think that she’s enough of an icon to not have to push the lesbian agenda in every book and writing about non-gay characters was logical to the plot in this case. There’s no point shoe-horning a gay character into the story just for the sake of it. That would be trite. That she has written a book narrated by a straight man demonstrates more acceptance of the lesbian writer as a valid and equal contemporary to other writers than if she only wrote lesbian niche books. Sarah Waters is an historical novelist, a mystery writer, and a lesbian, and she waves the flag superbly, but some people do seem to want her to be only lesbian which is a shame.
I have written several children’s novels which I find quicker, easier and more pleasant to write than an adult novel. One of the reasons for this is that I have a young son who loves reading, another is that most of my writing buddies are children’s authors due to the BBC competition. I also don’t tend to draw a distinction between children’s and adult fiction, and often read children’s and YA books myself. Although my usual themes do sneak in, the sexual elements are more toned down when writing about children than in my adult writing. However, I don’t believe that I’ll ever be published as a children’s author now that I have a name as a lesbian writer, unless things change drastically, I publish under a pseudonym, or I become as famous as Jeanette Winterson who has written a lovely magical children’s picture book. I am not being defeatist and will continue to write children’s stories because I love them, but I think that the modern publishing world obsession with branding authors, and the problematisation of visible lesbian relationships as non-suitable for children’s space will prevent my children’s stories from finding their true audience. This is a shame as there are many children living in lesbian headed families who are not disturbed by their parents loving each other, only by other people’s horror that this should be the case.
7. Your short stories have been featured in the Legend Press Short Stories Reinvented Series – Seven Days (2007), Eight Hours (2008) and in the forthcoming 10 Journeys (2010). Would you like to tell us a little more about the featured stories? I’d also be interested in hearing how your approach to writing short fiction differs from writing long fiction – if it does.
They do look impressive when you list them like that. It’s great that I’m in the 2010 collection and I’m looking forward to seeing the other stories and authors. My story in Seven Days was Sunday, about an elderly lesbian living in a residential home and reminiscing on her life. The remit of the competition was to write a story which took place in a single day, so I played a trick with the reminiscing in that I was compressing the whole of this woman’s life into one day. I had originally thought of this story years before when I was working in a nursing home. I thought of the tedium that the people there went through, how they must be so bored and were probably lost in their own pasts and cut off from others. The Legend competition asked for 9000 to 12000 words which is quite long for a short story so it needed a meaty plot. When I read the remit of the single day, this was the idea that I picked from my ideas bag. At the time I was writing a lot of short stories and entering a lot of competitions, determined to get somewhere. Out of nineteen submissions in three months, this was the only one that bit.
Following the publication of Seven Days, which was very exciting – my first publication in book form – Legend quite quickly announced the competition for the following year. Again it was a single character and a long wordcount, but this time a single hour. I rose to the challenge and selected a sleepless teen, the hour being between 5 and 6 am. I find that this is the situation in which time passes so slowly and so much can go on inside your head. Actually I was lying awake worrying about what I was going to write for the competition when the idea came to me! I wanted it to be a very different story from Sunday, and made the character young because of this. My story was selected to be the first in the subsequent collection, Eight Hours.
I entered the 2009 competition, which resulted in the publication of Nine Rooms (I wonder if you can guess what the remit for that was?) but my story didn’t get selected. So I was quite apprehensive this year after entering the 2010 competition as I realised that there is never a guarantee. Again it was a longer wordcount than the usual short story but slightly less this time at 7000 words and the remit was to write about a journey. It could be a physical or metaphorical journey and I chose both. I often think it is the case that when you undertake a physical journey, another transformation can take place and this is what I was attempting with this story. It is a gradual realisation on the part of the narrator and the reader but it culminates in a quite disturbing climax. Well it disturbed me to write it anyway! This is another of those times where I realise that I have attempted to avoid the usual themes but they crept in surreptitiously anyway. I could be irritated about that but I actually like the way it unfolds, and the fact that the violent element wasn’t intended or deliberately placed probably makes it more effective. The launch for this book is set to the end of May and I hope to go down to London for this and meet the other authors. This is all part of the fun and does make some good pictures for the blog.
How I approach writing short fiction? It used to be that I just started writing whatever came into my head to write and it would either become a short story or the synopsis of a novel. I’ve also written a few plays. Some story ideas are better suited to different mediums and I can usually tell within the first thousand words or so whether the story is going to be condensed enough to stay short or whether it requires more wordage. I tend to write shorts now only for commissions or competitions, so there is nearly always a remit and a minimum/maximum word limit. The approach becomes more similar to my academic writing in that I am working towards a specific goal which is easier in many ways. I have tried to use this approach with my novel writing as well and did succeed with a short children’s novel I wrote last year. But I would rather not write to formula, that’s the snob in me again. I think the trick is to get my own formula to work with, where I’m comfortable enough with the restrictions while leaving myself plenty of scope. So far the Legend stories have worked well and I’d like to write more shorts in future.
8. And your literary influences? Favourite writers? Did they shape you as a writer?
Oh so many!! When I was growing up the only children’s books I had access to were written by Enid Blyton. I progressed from Bimbo and Topsy (lovely dog and cat) through Pip the Pixie to The Secret Seven and Famous Five. Mallory Towers gave me an unrealistic expectation of boarding school. Although as a teen I was beset by white middle-class guilt and tried to distance myself from these books, I have more recently rekindled my love for Enid. She was my first influence and if seen as a product of her times with her own set of problems, then she can be respected for her plotting and productivity. Other than Enid Blyton, my biggest reading passion as a child were comics – Beano, Dandy, Topper, Whizzer. I’ve got a massive collection of annuals which now reside in my son’s bedroom and are loved all over again. The first book I began to write was when I was eight in an exercise book, including illustrations. It was about a group of children who broke out of a children’s home and went wild. In retrospect I can see that it was heavily influenced by Enid Blyton and the Bash Street Kids but it was all my own work!
As I got older there were very few ‘teen’ books in the UK. I read US authors Judy Blume and Paul Zindel, both of whom were also great influences on my writing. These were my first ‘issues’ books and they made me realise that it was okay to write about bullying and problem parents. While I was reading Dickens and Shakespeare in school (and enjoying these but resenting being told I had to read them), I gorged myself on this American teen lit. I also went through the local library’s trashy shelves of westerns, detectives, Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian, Sherlock Holmes, anything I could lay my hands on. I was still writing but only for schoolwork, I didn’t start to write with a view to publication until I’d left school.
I started to get into British sci-fi, especially John Wyndham and Douglas Adams. I loved novels and short stories alike and read Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. I think these and John Wyndham’s short stories have been my biggest influence in the shorts genre because I don’t seem to be able to write a short without a twist or hidden plot. Most of the authors I loved were male which might say something about my tastes or the fact that the female authored books available for me to read were the sort of romance or horse books that I would rather have died than be caught with. I think I read one Catherine Cookson because I’ll try anything once. In my late teens I discovered the feminist and lesbian books that had been excluded from my environment and suddenly felt as if I’d come home. Marge Piercy, Fiona Cooper, Suniti Namjoshi, Margaret Atwood, too many to name. I went through a period of only reading female authors including literary classics, political and non-fiction but also a lot of trashy lesbian romances and detectives. This was when I really started to write with the intent for publication.
In my early twenties I made a quest out of educating myself with classic texts, mainly because I didn’t have the money to buy new books so was borrowing, stealing and buying second hand. I was writing and writing but not really getting anywhere at this point. There was always a novel on the go but I didn’t seem to be able to get past the first few chapters before I’d lose interest and move on to the next project. I think that part of the problem was that I didn’t take my writing seriously enough, probably because my partner at the time didn’t value it, or me. When Alys and I got together eleven years ago, I finally had the space and encouragement to write and it took off from there. Our son was very young and I read a lot and wrote a lot and it all came together. During this time I was reading a lot of children’s authors, sci-fi, fantasy, crime and historical fiction, classics, again anything I could get my hands on. Having a child to discover reading with, I went for children’s classics like Black Beauty and Treasure Island. I was finally able to buy new books without feeling guilty and, Alys being a big reader, I had a vast collection at home to choose from. I also read some of Alys’ favourite books that she recommended and this way discovered all sorts of children’s and teen fiction that I’d missed due to my own prejudices against ‘girl’ stories as a child.
When I’m writing I try not to read too much fiction as the style can be influenced. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction lately so a novel is a treat for me. My favourite authors now are Terry Pratchett, Sarah Waters and Alexander McCall Smith. I try to keep abreast with the latest literary and bestseller books but will never get through the exponentially rising number of books that Alys puts on the shelves. The biggest influence on Silence was Sarah Waters, not for style but audacity. The success of Tipping the Velvet made me realise that the world was ready for explicit lesbian sex in a non-pornographic setting, as incidental to the actual story. For a long time I’d had a desire to write a ‘real’ lesbian novel, about real lives and real relationships with all the ups and downs, which in my experience have as much to do with friendships, careers and cats as sex. I never imagined that a book that didn’t prettify the lesbian experience would be accepted for publication due to it falling between lesbian invisibility and the move to promote positive images to combat prejudice. Finally we are no longer invisible, although I do get criticism from people who seem to think I should just shut up about it (well, why don’t they shut up about their heteronormative lives?). Finally we don’t have to pretend our lives are perfect to avoid people saying that lesbianism is a mental illness, although this still happens as well.
9. Finally – following on from the last question – your Desert Island Book? You’re shipwrecked and, before the ship goes down, you get to grab one book out of the rather well-stocked ship’s library. This book will be your only companion on a blob of sand in the middle of a vast ocean. What will it be?
That is the simplest question. It would have to be a book entitled ‘how to survive on a desert island’. I may seem like an ivory tower kind of person but when it comes to surviving a harrowing experience, I’d like to think that I’d be very practical. If that book had already been taken by the person who went before me, I’d have a great deal of difficulty in deciding between Terry Pratchett and Sarah Waters.
To visit Josie’s website, click here.
Buy your copy of Silence here and check out Josie’s short stories in the Legend Press short story collections.