Jenny Downham - Interview Part 2 of 2

The View From Here Interview:
Jenny Downham

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by Jen

In Part One of the interview we discussed its research, writing and publication. In Part Two, Jenny shares her experience of winning prizes, an inspiring method of overcoming writer’s block, her recommended reading for young adults/ authors and her ten top tips which writers of all genres can use.

Do you write full time?

I write every weekday when my two sons are at school, and again once they’re in bed and I sometimes manage to snatch a few hours over the weekend. I do consider myself full-time. But then I also consider myself a full-time parent, so I’m not quite sure how that tallies…

In 2003 you entered and won the London Writer’s Competition- what was your entry, and how did winning change your writing or your approach to writing?

My entry was a short story called ‘You Never Know.’ It was based on two characters from my first novel (unpublished). Winning changed everything. It gave me a huge amount of confidence, which meant I dared to join a writer’s group. This provided me with a place for on-going critical feedback and support. I began to consider myself as a writer, rather than someone who did it as a hobby.

You were among four shortlisted writers for the Guardian children's fiction prize. Was winning a major literary prize "on your list" as a writer, or with this book?

As an unpublished novelist my greatest hope for the book was that it might be sold and therefore that my story would be heard. I had no hopes beyond this. I’m completely bowled over by how well the book has been received. I recently won the Brandford Boase Award (for best debut for children in 2008). The prize was a beautiful wooden box and I thought ‘literary life’ didn’t get much better than that. To be on the Guardian shortlist as well has totally stunned me.

Have you experienced an ‘aha’ moment in your writing career?

Before I Die isn’t my first novel. My first novel is in a drawer in my bedroom and took three and a half years to write.
I was at my desk feeling absolutely stuck. No-one wanted my first book and here I was attempting to write a second. I sat there for many days staring at a blank computer screen. I watched myself go through all the clichéd avoidance tactics. So I would start a day thinking, Oh, I really need a coffee before I begin, then I might see that the kitchen window was dirty and after I’d cleaned it realise I forgot to phone my mum, and then it was time for another coffee…

It began to freak me out. Our minds are powerful things and if we start believing something is true, ie, I will never write another word of any value, then it’s entirely possible that we can make it come true.

I decided the only way I was going to write was to FORCE myself. So I bought myself a kitchen timer and set it for two minutes and told myself that was all I had to do – just two minutes of writing. Then I opened a random book and put my finger on a word, and wrote about that word. I didn’t worry about quality at all, and two minutes later - I had done some writing! I realised that if I kept to a rhythm, gave myself regular timed writing sessions that I could sustain – then I could write. I did this for six weeks, by which time I had sparked plenty of new ideas.

I still use this technique. I set the timer for ten/twenty minutes and write at a chapter. I do this over and over again to generate material. I then put it in scene order (chopping bad stuff) and edit with a machete until it’s a tenth of itself.
You can write the whole foundation of a novel like this. You’ll get some wonderful phrases and some surprising characters and action. Loads of crap too. But ultimately you will familiarise yourself with your own story, see possibilities, get insights, resonances. When this is done, move to stage two which is about revision/crafting. (Jenny shares her Top 10 Writing Tips below - click on the image to see the full size list.)

At 16, what would have been among the top three reads on "your list"? And what would you hope that 16 year olds may have on theirs today?

The Rainbow (DH Lawrence), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Z for Zachariah (Robert C.O’Brien).

As for 16yr old readers now - they are so lucky! The distinctions between children’s literature, YA literature and adult literature are more flexible and loosely defined then ever before. YA novels span the entire spectrum of fiction genres and are limited only by the imagination and skill of the author. There was never such an exciting time to be a reader.

Can you share one or more books and author you think are really strong recommendations for young readers or Young Adults, or authors writing for them, and why?

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) - a semiautobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian who lives on the reservation with his alcoholic father. Poignant and funny and honest and very wise.

Story of a Girl (Sara Zarr) - how a teenager can be defined by one mistake, and how it shapes her sense of self-worth. Social realism at its best.

Bone by Bone (Tony Johnston) - a harrowing coming-of-age story that explores racial tensions in small-town Tennessee during the early ’50s. Complex and vivid relationships. The author refuses to sacrifice the humanity of any of her characters.

Granny was a buffer girl (Berlie Doherty) – A family get together to remember. Interconnecting stories, beautifully written, highly evocative.
A good children’s book can’t be created to achieve a pre-determined end result. Storytellers should give other worlds, other lives, so that readers can empathise, can think ‘what would I do if that were me?’ It’s the story - with all its complexities, with the emotional truths it uncovers, the experiences beyond the everyday that it gives – that will be the real reason why children read.

What's new and upcoming for you?

I’ve been working on my new book for a year now. I’ve written thousands of words, but most of them go in the bin. I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy and eventually I begin to see what the book is about. It’s for young adults again and I’m working with two voices this time – a boy and a girl. I don’t know quite where they’ll take me, but I have a location and a very specific event that kick-starts the action. I’m quite disciplined and sit at my desk every day and just write, but I don’t like knowing in advance where I’m going. I never plan a structure. I like surprises.

What is your idea of a perfect weekend?

My boys and a whole bunch of friends in neighbouring caravans somewhere sunny and by the sea. Swimming, talking, beach BBQ, communal childcare.

A huge thank you to Jenny Downham for her time and considered replies, to Nina Douglas, Senior Publicity Manager of Random House Children's Books, and David Fickling. Author image courtesy of Rolf Marriott, Awards images from the Branford Boase press.

To read our review of Before I Die, click here.


Stella said...

"I watched myself go through all the clichéd avoidance tactics. So I would start a day thinking, Oh, I really need a coffee before I begin, then I might see that the kitchen window was dirty and after I’d cleaned it realise I forgot to phone my mum, and then it was time for another coffee…"

That really made me smile because I often go through the same routine before I force myself to sit down and write.

Excellent interview, Jen!

Paul Burman said...

A very interesting and in-depth interview. It told me the things I'm interested in hearing about. Thanks.