Julia’s debut book, Cuckoo is out on 3rd March 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to sneak an early look, and you can find my review here. It’s a brilliant debut, and I urge you to take a look!
My thanks to Julia, who took the time to answer the following questions for me.
Q. To start off, can you tell us a little about your debut book, Cuckoo?
A. It’s a psychological thriller with a domestic setting – I sometimes describe it as a ‘nasty Aga saga’. Rose and Gareth have spent two years doing up a wreck in the countryside, and are just beginning to live the perfect life they have carved out for themselves when Rose’s best friend Polly calls from Greece to say her husband has been killed in a car crash. Rose invites Polly and her two sons to come and stay, and that is her big mistake.
Q. Where did the inspiration for the story come from, and are the characters based on anyone you know?
A. I read a Tessa Hadley short story about two women lying in the sunshine and that sparked a scene that no longer exists, but which proved to be the starting point for the story. I also listened a lot to Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, based partly on his affair with PJ Harvey, and I wondered about the woman who could inspire such a dark passion. Finally, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, her fictionalised account of when Jean Paul Sartre introduced a girl into their relationship, and the ways in which De Beauvoir dealt with this.
Of course, like most writers I am a sponge, and I draw on whatever people tell me. But all of the characters and events in Cuckoo are fictional. There may be a bit here and a bit there that might be a part of someone I know, but they are entirely constructed out of my imagination.
Q. Is the book set in an area you know, and if so, is it easier to write about what you know?
A. I like to start with real settings. The house in Cuckoo began as the house of some very dear friends of mine. But, over the writing, it got bigger, acquired an Aga and an attic floor, and rooms got shifted around to suit the story better. Having the topography grounded in something real was a great help for me. It was like a film set that my characters could move about in quite freely. I am careful not to locate Rose and Gareth’s village – it is entirely made up, an amalgam of many different villages in many different counties.
I get quite detailed about settings and narrative. I like to make a calendar for my story, so I know at what time and on what date a certain thing happened, and I’m a great fan of maps and ground plans. I can spend hours on them.
Q. As this is your debut, have you always been a writer, or is it something you’ve recently discovered?
A. I used to write and devise plays with actors, and I have written a couple of unproduced screenplays. But when my three children were little, I just wasn’t able to spend any time doing anything other than being their Mum or doing my paid work. When my youngest started school, I did an MA in Sequential Illustration and wrote and illustrated a couple of children’s books. While these weren’t published, they made me realise that what I really needed to do was to write. I then did two Open University Creative Writing courses, and that set me off. I would say that I have been a writer in this part of my life for five years.
Q. What previous careers have you had, and have they influenced the way you write?
A. As a devising theatre director and playwright, I developed a really keen ear for dialogue, quick editing and economical storytelling. We would start a six-week rehearsal period with no play and a six-month tour waiting at the end of it. Definitely something for your twenties, I would say. Then, while my children were young, I retrained as a graphic and website designer, which is all about giving form to content, so I really developed my analytical, structural thinking. They are all very visual careers, too, and that certainly informs the way I write.
Q. Are you now a full time writer, and is this something you enjoy?
A. I am, and most definitely, yes! There is not greater feeling than the anticipation of a good day’s writing as I skip down the railway sleeper stepping-stones to my shed workplace at the end of my garden. With the CUCKOO publication happening this week, I am also beginning to do quite a few public events, which I really enjoy. It’s a good mix – a lot of time on my own, sitting in my room making stuff up, then regular outings so that I remember what it is like to wear something other than my writing uniform of leggings, big jumper-tunic and slippers. Today I went out and bought three new frocks, and for once felt quite justified in doing so.
Q. Do you think it’s useful these days for authors to have an online presence?
A. Oh yes, There is no quicker way to get your news out and make contacts. I have made and maintained friendships all over the world thanks to Twitter and Facebook. I really enjoy reading other writers’ blogs, and have tried to make mine both interesting and useful.
Q. As most writers are also keen readers, what are your favourite books and authors?
A. I love twisty tales, simply told. My current top favourite is AM Homes, who manages to combine pared-back language with page-turning story. I also love Tove Jansson’s adult novels and stories, which are gradually coming out in English translation over here (by Sort Of Books). Fay Weldon was a great influence in my early days – like me, she finds the darkness in the domestic – and a recent find is Patricia Highsmith. I also love Jean Rhys. But I read all the time, and I do find myself being swept away very easily. If there’s a new Ian McEwan, I can’t wait till the hardback comes out, and I just finished Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which had me up nearly the whole night. What a vivid, gut-wrenching story.
Q. Is there a book you wish you’d written?
A. My second novel!
And Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, because that is about as perfect as a novel can get. I once adapted it for the stage and I think it was the best theatre thing I ever did.
Q. Can you tell us anything about your next book, and how is it progressing?
A. My next novel looks at marrying too young, grand passions and big secrets. It’s about an English family who move to Upstate New York for a summer while the husband has a go at saving his flagging acting career by playing the lead in a summer stock theatre company production. But things don’t exactly go to plan…
It’s going very well at the moment. I’ve nearly finished the second draft and the story is a cracker – I have been honing it by telling it to my family, and I can keep them rapt all the way through until the end, when they gasp. So it can’t be too bad.
I have to deliver the manuscript by the end of March, and I’ll certainly be ready for that. The only problem is Cuckoo coming out at the beginning of March. I’m finding it quite distracting….
Cuckoo is published in Hardback on March 3rd 2011, and will also be available for the Kindle.