Liz Jensen, creative writing consultant and author of eight acclaimed novels including the Hollywood-adapted The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, The Rapture and The Uninvited in conversation with JJ Marsh and Karen Pegg. http://www.lizjensen.com./
The way you genre hop is a joy to many writers who resist being boxed. Did you set out with that determination or was it an organic development? Have you ever experienced external pressure to write more of the same but different?
The reason I switch genres is that a lot of writers find themselves writing the same book over and over again. I wanted to avoid that. I’m an impatient reader and an impatient writer, so I just kid myself that I’m not writing the same thing, even though I do have certain themes and preoccupations.
I thought I would carry on writing comedy, I wasn’t expecting to write a dark novel. But when I wrote The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, I realised I was breaking new ground. The novel has two first-person narrators, one a nine-year-old boy and the other an adult man.
As I was writing the adult character, a coma specialist, it struck me that he was the first real 'grown-up' character I had ever written, because in all my previous novels the adults had been children in disguise. He was really hard to write: I didn’t really know how to deal with him. But I liked the challenge.
I had moved into psychological suspense and I was enjoying it. When you write a book it’s constructed, just like an object. It’s a bit like building a ship. Every element has its place, and all the parts must fit together so it can sail. It’s a cliche but it’s true: writing is 99% perspiration and one percent inspiration. Craft is fundamental.
That said, I don’t plan everything out beforehand. I like to be surprised, so I often don’t know how my books are going to end. Though I am pretty sure my subconscious has an idea.
|Photo credit Djbril Sy|
Much of your work reaches beyond the boundaries of what we might expect. Not just a what if... but in that world of what if, another what if... is that a product of a restless imagination or do you push yourself to look over the next horizon?
Some readers say to me: ‘the way you see the world is so weird’. All I can say is, it’s not weird to me. I see the world the way I see it and put in my books that way. I like asking the question ‘what if...’ because it’s so fundamental. It forces you to take a situation to its logical conclusion. I’ve been thinking about climate change for the last ten years and writing about it in the last two books, in a tangential sort of way. We’re in an era of ”what if?” so of course that’s the question I ask.
I also think ”what if?” is brilliant if you’re constructing a character. What’s the worst situation I can put this person into? What if the only person capable of changing events is the one least likely or worst equipped to deal with it?
From the internal world of Louis Drax to the wide ranging potential dystopia of The Uninvited, you evoke entire landscapes of the mind or the future with great attention to detail. Would you describe your creative process?
My creative process. Hmm. I start with reading the newspapers. I need to get fired up about something. I’m very theme-based. Character is important too but I can’t come up with my characters until I know what my theme is going to be.
The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is about buried memory.
There was a tragedy in my own family, long before I was born. It was all over the newspapers at the time and it scarred my mother psychologically for ever. Her father had died not long before, but in 1937 she lost two more members of her family in the space of four days, under very strange circumstances.
Her mother had taken her and her two brothers on a summer holiday in the Swiss Alps. The oldest brother, who was 19, had a row with his mother (my grandmother) and stormed off into the mountains. He was still missing four days later. By then the weather had turned so the search parties were called off but my grandmother was desperate, and she insisted on continuing alone. The next morning her body was found at the base of a cliff. The double mystery of uncle’s disappearance and my grandmother’s death were never solved. So my mother and her two remaining brothers were suddenly not only orphans, but bereft of a much-loved older brother who was never seen or heard of again.
Fast-forward 70 years, there I am writing a story about a small family going into the mountains, one member disappearing and the other falling off a cliff. The weird thing is I didn’t realise as I was writing The Ninth Life of Louis Drax that the inspiration came directly from that story which I’ d first heard as a six-year-old child. It’s so obvious, in retrospect.
Apart from that example, I don’t use my own life or family history in my novels. Mostly inspiration comes from the world around me. It can be a news story, an event or something as simple as a conversation. The book I’m trying to write now came out of a conversation I had with a glass-maker, ten years ago. Some things take a long time to gestate.
When I sit down to write, I wouldn’t describe it as a creative process because often it’s almost clerical. I enjoy rewriting possibly more than I enjoy writing. You’re applying your editing brain whereas actually writing something new can be like squeezing like blood out of a stone. If I’m working well I aim for a thousand words a day. Any more than that is a gift.
The book I’m writing at the moment I’m doing differently from the others. This time I’m not going for a gold standard chapter one. I’m writing fragments. I think of it as a patchwork quilt. I’m just doing these squares, I don’t know what order anything goes in, but I have great faith in my subconscious. Something in there is working on it. It’s what Stephen King calls the boys in the basement.
I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’ve abandoned quite a few novels over the years, two at the 60,000 word mark, because they simply weren’t working. Many writers have had this experience. You just have to keep faith with yourself.
You’ve experienced many different cultures. Do you see the influences of each on what you write?
Not all of them yet, but I’m waiting for Hong Kong to pop up, and Israel. After 30 years Taiwan appeared in The Uninvited in a key scene. I knew I wanted to do a global ghost story and when I went to Dubai to teach, I decided to incorporate it as a setting. I’ve set novels in France and Denmark because they’re countries I know well, whose languages I speak.
How far did the experience of journalism shape you as a writer?
My experience in radio was the most useful. Through the producing, interviewing and editing process I was learning all about dialogue and about how to shape a story. This was in the pre-digital era when you physically cut tape with a razor blade and shifted things around. So you were shaping something with your hands as well as your brain.
We met while we were guest tutors in Geneva and you're now teaching at A Chapter Away. Participants enthuse about your inspiring teaching. Do you enjoy helping other writers develop?
Well that’s very gratifying to hear! I have always received a huge amount of support from other writers, and still do. The thing about teaching is that you are also learning. So it’s not entirely altruistic. I like mentoring too, which I do through a wonderful company called Gold Dust, set up by Jill Dawson. It’s very rewarding to go deep into someone’s work, one-on-one, having conversations and giving notes, and seeing someone’s work blossoming.
There’s a dark vein of humour pulsing through your books. Can you always see the funny side?
Yes. It’s a almost a duty. Some of the best jokes are told at funerals. We need laughter more than we ever needed it. These times are the darkest I can remember. Humour does a crucial job. Laughter helps us deal with the hardest things in life. Make no mistake: humour is deeply, deeply serious.
An adaptation of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax appears in cinemas worldwide from September.
Liz Jensen will be teaching a Speculative Fiction course at the Arvon Foundation in November and tutoring at the residential course A Chapter Away July 1st - 8th 2017. (www.achapteraway.com)