An interview with author Susanna Jones

Interview with Susanna Jones

In 2001, Susanna Jones published her first novel, ‘The Earthquake Bird’. Currently a lecturer in fiction writing, she is the author of three more novels: ‘Water Lily’ (2003), ‘The Missing Person’s Guide to Love’ (2007) and 'When Nights Were Cold', (which is out now). Her books have been translated into twenty languages and she has won four awards: The CWA John Creasey Dagger (2001), John Llewellyn Rhys Award (2001), Betty Trask Award (2002), Book of the Year (for the Hungarian translation, 2004). Here, Susanna kindly answers some questions about her experience and her craft:


Here she talks to Christina Cummings:


Q. Your writing has been described as “… compulsively imaginative … beautiful … and concise …” Who would you say were your greatest literary influences – both in childhood and adulthood?


As a child I loved fiction that had a strong sense of place, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books for example, Swallows and Amazons, but I read anything that appeared in front of me from Roald Dahl to Enid Blyton. In my teens I moved on to the Brontes and I stayed in the nineteenth century for a while with Hardy and Austen. It’s hard to see influence on one’s own writing, or feel its presence clearly so I’m not sure which contemporary authors have influenced me. I studied drama at university and love theatre. I’m certain that watching and reading lots of plays has influenced my approach to writing fiction.


Q. Writers seem to have quite varied and diverse work schedules and needs when writing. What’s a typical day for you when in the throes of writing a novel?


It depends on where I am in the book. In the early stages I find it hard to write much in a day so I go for a lot of walks, read as much as I can and seem to mess around a lot not really doing anything. I used to worry about this and think of it as Writers’ Block but now I just see it as part of the way things work for me and know I’ll get past it to a more productive stage. Once I’ve got a good way into the book then I can write happily all day but I don’t tend to stick to a particular routine for long. Sometimes it’s good to write late at night and sometimes on the train to work (I teach part-time and travel regularly between Brighton and London) so I go with what seems to be working at the time.



Q. Whilst you were writing your first novel, were there any moments of doubt about finishing it? And, if so, what elements helped you to succeed?


No, when I wrote The Earthquake Bird I knew quite early on that I would finish it. I had the title before I started writing properly and I knew exactly what I wanted to do, even if I didn’t know quite how I was going to do it. I ended up finishing it much sooner than I expected. I had written a novel before that (unpublished) which was much harder work and I had to force myself to get to the end but that experience of getting from the beginning to the end of a novel – even if I didn’t think much of the final result – made me feel freer and more confident when starting The Earthquake Bird. I think there’s always a point during the writing of a novel where it feels as though the novel is an enemy, on a mission to finish its writer off but, if there isn’t that element of struggle, the novel is probably too safe and not very good.



Q. All aspiring writers, (whether they admit it or not!), find solace in hearing that even successful authors have received rejections before they got the golden “Yes”. Was this true for you, and if so, how did you deal with rejection and carry on?


That first novel was turned down by a couple of agents but I already knew it wasn’t the best I could do so I just stopped sending it out and got on with the next thing. I think my advice to any rejected author would be to move forward and work on something new – because that’s what you’d be doing if your work had been accepted. It’s important not to get stuck with a piece of work that isn’t getting anywhere. You need to feel light on your feet and ready for fresh ideas.



Q. Do you have days when inspiration just can’t be conjured? What are your coping mechanisms for times when the words won’t flow?


Yes, I do but, as I said above, this is mostly in the early stages of the book. I find that going for a run or a walk always helps ideas move around and I come back with an answer to a problem or something new to work on. I always feel stuck for a while when I’ve just finished a novel and then I’ll just spend some time ‘filling up’ again by reading lots of new writers, going to the theatre, exhibitions and by travelling.



Q. Which character (from your books) seems most real to you, and why?


Whichever one I’m writing about at the time. At the moment it’s Grace Farringdon, narrator of my new book When Nights Were Cold. I finished writing the book a year and a half ago but she’s still very present in my thoughts.


Q. Once you have an idea in mind, how much of the story is organic – that is: does the story try to turn away from how you’d planned it? And if this happens, which way do you go?


I don’t plan to begin with. Once I have a sense of where the novel is going, I’ll start planning but, yes, things inevitably change during the process and I go with the changes because the plan is only ever a starting point, a means of thinking things through. The narrative structure will always go through several changes as the story itself develops so I would never close down possibilities because a plan tells me to. I do write a lot of notes and diagrams but I rarely look at them once I’ve written them down. It’s the putting them onto paper that’s helpful.


Q. As a writers’ group we share our writing, for feedback - sometimes right from its raw state. Do you think that there are some times when writing should be shielded from criticism until it is in a more mature state?


I think it depends on you and when you feel that feedback will be helpful. Sometimes it’s good to keep a piece of writing a secret and work on it until you know that it needs to be read and needs a response. I suppose it depends on the sort of feedback you’re hoping for and what the group can offer. If you want detailed technical advice that will help you shape and develop your very raw piece of writing, and your group has a good editorial eye, then it might be helpful to show it at an early stage. If you’re not ready for that then having a group correct grammar or tell you how your characters should behave  might be exactly what you don’t need. Trust your own gut feeling. Do you want someone to read this piece and what are you hoping they will give you?


Q. Which one of your novels would you say was the ‘easiest’ to write? And why?

From a technical point of view, many aspects of writing have become easier with experience and yet each novel has been difficult in its own way. There was a kind of excitement to writing The Earthquake Bird because I had no agent or publisher, no expectations from anyone except myself. I felt very free and I think that made it seem easier. Or perhaps I’m just being nostalgic...


Q. Do you find that you have, in mind, ideas for the next novel … and the next … that just won’t rest until you’ve written them down? How do you decide on ‘the one’?


I’ve always got some ideas – well, not really ideas so much as images and fragments of voice or scene – and it’s usually when some of these start banging into each other  that I can see a novel coming. It’s all fairly nebulous until I’ve done a lot of work so I can never be sure, before I start, that I really have got something. A lot of ideas get ditched or shuffled to the back for later.


Q. When, and what, was the last time you read a book that you just couldn’t put down?

I’ve just read The Siege by Helen Dunmore and it was utterly compelling. I can’t think why I didn’t read it sooner. I’m reading Sarah Hall’s short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, now and find her writing mesmerising.


Q. To a writer who falters when they’re, say, three chapters in - what three words of encouragement, which perhaps you’ve held dear in your own experiences, would you say to them?


Put chapter three down for a while and have a go at chapter nineteen or thirty-two. Sometimes working backwards is much more effective than going in a linear fashion from the beginning. It’s good to keep things messy until you really know your novel. If you get stuck at chapter three you probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about the whole novel.

Also, don’t be put off by how bad the first draft of your first novel seems. Of course it’s bad; it’s your first draft of your first novel and it’s just a lump of clay to work with. It isn’t supposed to be good and you don’t have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to. As long as you can make some improvement with each new draft, you’re getting closer to having something good.


 Q Could you recommend your top non-fiction books for learning the craft of creative writing?

A lovely book, not so much on craft but on being a writer is Sally O’Reilly’s book, How to Be a Writer (Piatkus Books). It’s full of advice and observations on every stage of the writer’s career and I recommend it.





COVER ART © Susanna Jones The Earthquake Bird