Janet Ellis: on the couch with Erin Kelly
In this very special interview, Erin Kelly - author of THE POISON TREE - speaks to broadcasting legend Janet Ellis about her debut novel THE BUTCHER'S HOOK.
Posted on February 26, 2016 in Author Q&A
Tags: author interview, janet ellis
Erin Kelly: New books always come to me first as tiny scenes – seconds long – which then spark a whole novel. I was wondering if your process was similar, especially when I think about Anne’s character. Although Anne is unconventional, to say the least, for a girl in 1783, she is very much of her time. Which came to you first; the character, or the period?
Janet Ellis: (Ahem) 1763, actually, Erin. The character definitely came first, coupled with her strange, confined existence and her sideways take on things. I knew she wasn’t a modern girl, and that she’d lived hundreds of years ago, but I was also sure that she felt and thought just as we do. Well, as some of us do. And I had a kind of ‘mood board’ of jottings and scenes that I hoped were going to fit in somewhere. I also liked what I imagined to be the look and feel of Georgian England.
EK: Anne Jacob is your narrator and the beating, if twisted, heart of the book. One of my favourite scenes was the one where she took a potential new friend back to her room to show her her ‘treasures’ – dead mice, a necklace with spittle for diamonds, and other delights. I’m really fascinated by the way you write a grotesque character without ever losing the reader’s sympathy for her. How did you manage that? Was it something you were conscious of?
JE: I may be confessing to more than is safe or proper here, but we’re all a bit weird, aren’t we? Deep down, even if we don’t act on them, we have strange thoughts and feelings about things and people, and we could all reveal some funny little habits if pushed. Couldn’t we? ( I’m beginning to feel nervous, now.) On the surface, we’re all getting away with appearing much the same as each other, but underneath……
I didn’t consciously want to keep the reader on Anne’s side, but maybe we all recognise something of our own oddness in her behaviour and admire her honesty.
EK: Full disclosure: we’ve known each other since you took a creative writing course at Curtis Brown Creative with me in 2014. My favourite line in the novel comes from Anne’s vile suitor, Mr Onions: ‘My writings – though I hardly take any time over them, they come so easily – are much admired.’ I took this as a nod and a wink to me and your creative-writing comrades. Now you’ve completed one, what do you think of creative writing courses?
JE: Glad you spotted my wink- writing a book is like the best round of ‘Killer’ ever. Obviously, I’m a fan of the one I did. I owe it, and you , an enormous debt of gratitude. (Enough fawning. Ed). I think you have to know what you want from them. Or in my case, admit what I needed. I’d previously found hearing criticism and taking correction difficult, but I knew this was my chance to get beyond that and start learning from what people said. A creative writing course can’t teach you to write (I’ve been to drama school and the same applies to acting) but it can help you build the craft and develop an objective eye for this most personal (make that : terrifyingly personal) occupation. I do wonder that if I’d done a longer one (mine was three months) ,that I would perhaps have started adjusting my writing for the course’s approval. But I am inclined to Teacher’s Pet tendencies (see fawning, above). As it was, the three months we had set me going.
EK: You’re familiar to my generation as a children’s television presenter and anyone expecting a cosy story is in for a shock as well as a treat. What’s it like writing when you already have a public profile? Was this ever something that inhibited you?
JE: I thoroughly enjoyed presenting Blue Peter, I am still great friends with all my fellow presenters (although – spoiler alert- we do NOT all live together in a little wooden house) and I’m genuinely proud to have been part of its history. Blue Peter has a unique place in the nations sitting rooms and hearts and a particular and proper childlike enthusiasm . I’ve never wanted to fight or deny all that, but it isn’t entirely a reflection of me, of course. But while I don’t feel the need to shout: ‘There’s more to me than sticky-backed plastic’, I’d be lying if I said I don’t also enjoy the various ways in which people ‘discover’ new things about me. When I first appeared on The Wright Stuff with actual opinions rather than a script, some folk professed surprise. They may not expect this story, either. But if I let their potential reactions inhibit me, I’d never get further than: ‘Once upon a time…’
EK: One of the things I loved best about your book was the dialogue – it seems alive with the spirit of the age, but uncluttered and natural with none of the prithees and forsooths that can backfire in historical fiction. How much research did you do into the vocabulary and syntax of the perid. You trained as an actor and I was wondering if you found yourself drawing on those skills when you were writing dialogue?
JE: Thank you. I did say everything aloud (with apologies to numbers 11 and 15 on either side of my house ) and I’m sure that my having done quite a bit of improvisation as an actress helped with writing the dialogue. I did consciously want each character to have a different voice. (I’ve just recorded the audio version actually, so I hope I gave them different voices in that medium, too.) Any authenticity comes as much from having read plays of the period (thank you Messrs Goldsmith and Sheridan et al) than to proper linguistic research, but I did read contemporary letters and documents, too.
EK: At the end of our time together, you were still playing with various endings so it was a huge treat for me to find out Anne’s eventual fate. As someone who always knows exactly how she wants any work-in-progress to end (although I won’t have a clue how I’m going to get there), this fascinated me. I won’t give anything away, but why did the ending you eventually chose make the cut?
JE: Some of my most creative writing went into the various synopses and endings of my book while I was on your course! I didn’t decide on where it was going until I was probably about two thirds of the way through. Then I suddenly realised what had to happen. I actually went away for a few days to write the conclusion… then filled in the rest of the story afterwards . I’m jealous of your early ending certainty mode, actually.
EK: Your next novel is set in the 1970s, which I was about to refer to as contemporary but which I have just realised with a sinking heart makes it technically another work of historical fiction. But I know that it deals with some of the same themes, that it’s another coming-of-age novel rife with sexual uncertainty… if you’ll just lie down on this couch Janet, let’s delve deep into your psyche and ask why this is such a rich seam for you to mine?
JE: Nice couch, actually. Is this fabric by Tim’rous Beasties? Yes, the Seventies are a bygone era now, with odd things like the three day week, Caramac chocolate and a thriving NHS. I was in my teens then and I think the coming-of-age theme recurs is because it’s the time in my life I remember most clearly ..mainly because I was thoroughly self-obsessed, of course. The next story is also concerned with bad behaviour and misunderstandings which I’m pretty sure happen even to this day. I’m just not quite ready to give my characters mobile phones or an Oyster card, I want their pockets jingling with loose change.
Janet Ellis’ debut novel THE BUTCHER’S HOOK is out now from Two Roads.