Interview conducted by Laura Reilly
Q: Let’s start with your university experience. You completed a BA in English Literature at Oxford University. In an interview with The Guardian, you noted that ‘the whole business of thinking about texts – something [you] loved – was reframed as a pursuit full of risk and without pleasure.’ Do you think this fed into your desire to write your own texts?
I think so. I think I wanted the liberation of being in charge of the way I was engaging with a text. I think sometimes as an undergraduate, it felt like there was a particular style of essay writing that I had to aspire to, and I could never quite get it. Often, lots of these ideas were things generated by me, not even from the lecturers, I think because I came from a school environment where there was a clear sense of ‘this is what a good essay looks like’ and I was still in that frame of mind. Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for that level of independence that comes with university! But I definitely think that the regularity with which we had to produce essays and the contained nature of essays, regardless of your writing style, you were going to feel constrained occasionally. When I started writing fiction, I felt much freer, and I enjoyed the looseness and possibilities of the novel form.
Having said that, I now write articles for The Guardian, and I suppose in some ways, those are mini-essays, but I really enjoy writing them! Largely because they’re a break from writing fiction and because I can be less personally invested in them. I know they’re going to be rigorously edited and they’re really short; they’re the kind of thing people engage with quite fleetingly. However, with my fiction, you would hope that the reader will have a more sustained engagement. Writing reviews also means that I’m constantly thinking about literary craft— what works and doesn’t work, which I can then apply when editing my own work.
Q: During your time at Oxford, you belonged to many writing groups and societies. Would you say this has influenced your writing today?
I think it has in various ways. With the Poetry Society especially, we had lots of different events where authors came in and read their work. That was influential to my own writing because it made being a writer feel achievable. It’s so important to have someone who does this mysterious thing called writing being in the same room as you, telling you about the reality of writing and being made aware that it isn’t this strange, monastic activity that’s only for an elite few.
With Oxford’s Writing Literature Society, we often did workshops—sitting in a space with other people who were writing and getting feedback on my work. That process of having people look at my work really prepared me for the creative writing master’s that I did and for the editorial process when it came to publishing my first novel. My agent and editor had all sorts of opinions on things to cut and I wasn’t fazed by it because I’d been through so many similar experiences in the past.
Q: You’ve been described by HarperCollins as a ‘powerful new British literary voice’ and selected by The Observer as the New Face of Fiction for your 2018 novel, Hold. Tell us a bit about it.
Hold begins in 2002 and we meet Belinda, a maid in a large suburban house in Kumasi, Ghana. Belinda is assisted in her house duties by 11-year-old Mary. The two are like chalk and cheese: the diligent, hardworking, sensible Belinda and the naughty, boisterous and rebellious Mary. The beginning of the novel is animated by the contrast between the two characters and their affectionate, sisterly bond. However, this bond is threatened when the two people that own the house that Belinda and Mary clean have some Ghanaian friends visit from London, Nana and Dr Otuo. They fall in love with Belinda. Back home, they have a Ghanaian daughter, Amma, who is around Belinda’s age (18). She used to be an A* student but recently, for reasons unbeknownst to them, she has started behaving rebelliously. Nana decides to bring Belinda to London to teach Amma the correct way to behave. Thus, the main part of the novel is about Belinda coming to London and trying to befriend Amma. Simultaneously, it looks at her attempts to keep her connection to Mary and her home alive. Belinda also starts to think more about her past, her time in the village before working as a maid. And then, of course, something dramatic happens towards the end, which I won’t spoil!
Q: Some authors are renowned for their use of setting, others for their language, and others again for their form and structure. Is there a stylistic consideration that is particularly important to you when writing?
I often talk about the centrality of characters in my work. This might sound a bit general but what I mean is that my creative process always begins by looking at a character’s psychology: their past, experiences, desires, and ambitions. This all comes before plot, setting and form. Making characters complex, whole, strange, and unpredictable— that’s my priority. All of the other aspects come from my understanding and development of the characters.
Q: So, how do you create your characters—do you base them on people you know?
Generally, my characters are an amalgamation of different personality traits from people that I know, plus a lot of imagination. Often, I’ll take a characteristic from a friend and extend it. I’ll consider what that personality trait might look like in different environments.
Characters also change the more that a plot develops and the more you begin to understand them. For example, with Belinda, I realised quite early on in the writing process that although I envisioned her as a passive and obedient individual, that doesn’t necessarily make for the most exciting read. So, I introduced glimpses of more dynamism into her character to make her a richer and fuller individual. It’s important to understand that you might start with fixed ideas on what a character should look like, but as you put them into the plot and setting, it’s likely that you will need to expand these ideas.
Q: The theme of the festival this year is ‘deconstructing the self.’ How does ‘the self’ manifest in your work?
The self in all of my work is a very flexible concept. The self is a thing that is constantly shifting and developing; it is unstable. It is something that even in one particular situation, can be doing multiple things. I have an issue with this ‘concrete truth’ that the self is a complete thing. I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that, unfortunately, so lots of my characterisations try to show that people are layered and complex. For me, the self is something slippery and difficult and the idea of a unitary self is something to be wary of.
Q: You have previously mentioned that some of your inspirations are Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison. Is there something in particular that these authors do that has influenced you?
I love Smith’s ability to offer enormous wisdom about what it means to be human. She moves between profound observations about the human experience and then takes us to somewhere much smaller and more joyful. She also has an impressive ability to capture a place in all of its fullness; celebrating a place for what it’s like, as well as being able to critique it. I think these influences can be seen in Hold through my depictions of London and Ghana. I was keen to pay the same amount of attention to them both because I think there’s an expectation that in ‘postcolonial’ novels the ‘other’ place will be exoticized but I wanted both south London and Ghana to feel vibrant, odd and rich in detail.
Toni Morrison demands a lot from the reader, especially with novels like Beloved and Jazz. They really require alertness from the reader, and I really respect the expectation that the reader will do the work and be rewarded for it. I’m also struck by the linguistic experiments that she’s involved in, she pushes the sentence as far as it can go, and I think that challenges what the novel form can do.
Q: As well as a writer, you are a teacher, teaching English. What is your favourite A-Level text to teach and why? And which text do you wish you could teach?
Teaching A-Level is my favourite thing to do! I love teaching Othello, partially because of sentimental reasons. I did it at A-Level and it was one of the texts that got me thinking about how amazing it would be to study English at university. It’s so open to a vast range of critical interpretations, whether that’s Marxism or postcolonial or feminist readings, it has the ability to spark some fascinating conversations with 16-18-year-olds, when they’re starting to be really attuned to injustices and issues within the world.
A text that I’d love to teach is The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore. It’s about the witch hunts of the 17th century and focuses on the relationship between one young woman who is accused of being a witch and the witchfinder general. It’s really, really brilliant. The novelist is a poet first and you can see all of that rich poetic attention to detail in similes and precise descriptions which makes quite a dusty period of history feel new and very alive. I think it would start really interesting conversations in a classroom and that for me is the most important thing for any A-Level text.
Q: Do you find that teaching has influenced your work?
I have an interest in depicting the classroom in my novels. In Hold, there are loads of classroom scenes. In my current novel, the main character is a teacher. The educational setting is a really attractive one to bring into a fictional space, largely because there are so many questions about power and performance. There’s lots of room for energetic and dynamic dialogue because young people, if you have the right relationship with them, say some really powerful things that make for excellent reading. In a slightly more abstract way, being an English teacher means that most of what I’m doing is thinking about how to communicate complex ideas in an accessible but interesting way, and this is exactly what I’m trying to do in my novels too.
Q: As a teacher, you function as a mentor to young students. How important has mentoring been to you throughout your writing career?
Really important! The mentoring that I received around 2014/2015 was the reason I got published. It was part of the now ‘Escalator Scheme’, where new writers are paired with someone in a position within the literary world (publisher, editor, agent, etc). They work with you for 6 months to help develop your writing skills. I worked with a wonderful translator and editor, Daniel Hahn—he made me feel confident to make radical changes to my manuscript. In our first meeting, I had my 100,000-word manuscript ready to go. He read it and suggested cutting the first 30,000 words. Initially, I said no, I’m not doing that! But then we talked about what could be gained from losing those 30,000 words and he made me realise that the beginning might be brisker or it might enable the reader to do some more work.
I think it also made me feel confident that the novel had enough structural integrity that it could withstand being brutalised! I took away the 30,000 words and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still worked. I think this really helped with my confidence as a writer, to take risks and experiment more.
To learn more about Julia’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to buy Our Wives Under The Sea, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
Enjoyed this interview? Let us know what you think in the comments below, or start a discussion on our social media accounts.
About the Author:
Laura Reilly is currently in her final year of her English Literature with Creative Writing degree at the University of Surrey. Laura is particularly interested in reading and writing poetry and aspires to one day publish some of her work. This is her first year with the festival as she assists with conducting author interviews. In her spare time, Laura is likely to be found in watching a musical in the West End or singing along to Taylor Swift!