Interview with Jane Harris

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Interview with Jane Harris
 by Jen 
(author photo by James Lipman)

I met Jane Harris briefly at the Steyning Festival in 2012. Since, her latest novel Gillespie and I has been shortlisted for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and The Independent on Sunday has chosen it as one of its paperbacks of the year. This is in addition to the vast array of awards and acclaim it has already received elsewhere. In March 2012 it was longlisted for The Orange Prize for Fiction and was a finalist in the Scottish Book Awards 2012.

Jane Harris (born 1961) is a British writer of fiction and screenplays. Her latest novel, Gillespie and I, was published to critical acclaim in the UK in May 2011 by Faber and Faber. Her first novel The Observations was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007 and has been published in over 20 territories worldwide.

In France, The Observations was shortlisted for the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger (2009), and in the USA it won the Book of the Month Club’s First Fiction Prize (2007).
Waterstone’s, the UK bookstore chain, chose Jane as one of its 25 Authors for the Future. In 2007 she was also nominated for the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year and for the Southbank Show/Times Breakthrough Award. In 2011, Richard and Judy chose The Observations as one of their 100 Books of the Decade. You can read more about Jane's experiences writing The Observations in an article written for Mslexia.

“Like the manatee, I am prone to slow gestation.” Although you have had only two novels published, you are already a firmly established author. Your award winning background in short stories, film, and experience of University teaching gives the impression, that along they way you have found ways to tell stories but have now discovered your true destination. Are you now set to stay an author, or will you continue to wear many hats?

I think I will write fiction for as long as I’m able. I’m no good for anything else any more. At some point in the future I will probably do a bit of part-time teaching. I also would like to write a screenplay but it will have to wait until I’m out of novel ideas.

Regarding your writing life, let’s start with the more recent Gillespie and I, and where you started the novel - a scrap of paper from previous working notes, if I recall - with a time, place and character?

Yes, that’s all I had. I think I intended originally to write about a female artist and her struggles to be recognized but then I became intrigued by a crime story I read about in a contemporary newspaper and so the idea developed from there into more of a psychological thriller.

Your believable rendering of 19th century Glasgow ensures the city plays an important  role just as much as one of your characters. How much research did you do on the place, and when did you know to stop, and when to begin your fiction - or is everything regards place as factual as possible?

I do some preliminary research but then research as I am writing and even after the book is almost done I am still trying to get the facts right. I do try to be as factual as possible and spend a lot of time poring over maps and photographs and paintings to try and get things right. I know some authors who will stretch the facts a fair bit in order to suit their purpose and it would probably do me good to do the same – but as yet, I try to keep to the facts. One detail of Gillespie and I that I did fabricate was the interior water closet in the Gillespie’s flat. That probably wouldn’t have existed at the time but the machinations of getting people to and from an outside loo were just too tiresome so I made them a bit ahead of their time.

How do you create entirely fictional historical characters and invent their time appropriate personalities as opposed to embellishing recorded facts into historical fictional events?

I have been dealing with reasonably recent history in the 19th century and I tend to think that people haven’t changed much since then. If you read Dickens, for instance, his characters seem remarkably contemporary. I tend to immerse myself in the fiction of the period so that I feel surrounded by the characters from back then.

How long did you spend on research before you started writing The Observations and when did you realise the initial ideas would become a finished work?

It was so long ago that I began work on The Observations that it’s hard to remember how long I spent on research. I wrote a great chunk of that novel in about 1992 and then put it away for about ten years. It was only when I unearthed it in 2003 and looked at the material that I realized how promising it was.

Is your research mostly complete when you do start the story or do you research as you go along?

I do some research to begin with as I flesh out the basic idea or territory. Then I research all the way through the writing process. Once a novel is finished I tend to still be researching, trying to get the details right. 

Point of View is a subject covered in Creative Writing courses around the world. Did you naturally choose your POV or did the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia help you with choosing the point of view in Gillespie and I in particular?

Gillespie and I is an interesting example for POV as I did at one stage think about narrating the story from more than one POV. I considered having many POVs, then narrowed it down to having Annie tell her side of the story. In the end, I decided to make life difficult for myself by having only Harriet narrate the story. I thought that if I could pull off that challenge then the novel would be a more special piece of work.

What challenges did writing historical fiction set in Scotland, present in language and dialogue, and how did you overcome them? How did you manage to chime an authentic historical voice with creative invention and turns of phrase?

In The Observations I was very much driven by the voice of the narrator, Bessy. It’s quite an extreme voice in many ways and it was informed by my own Irish ancestry in the main. I did a lot of research into the history of Irish slang and created a sort of internal set of rules for Bessy’s vocabulary and how she phrased things. With Gillespie and I, the narrator Harriet is a very well-educated English woman. Hence, the style of her memoir is, on the face of things, more conventional. I use a higher register of vocabulary, longer and more complicated sentences and so on. I tend to think myself into the part of the character and spout forth as appropriate. In a way, I become a bit possessed by the narrator.

Did you at any point think, ‘it’s no good’ and contemplate not finishing either novel and if so, how did you carry on?

Well, I gave up on The Observations for ten years and it sat in a box, more or less forgotten – so yes! In the middle of Gillespie and I, I had a difficult time. I was convinced I would never finish it but knew I had no choice but to finish it. It was all a bit bleak. But then, you just keep going and one day, you’re almost at the end.

Is it daunting to have had your first two novels so well received?

No, it’s absolutely wonderful. I realise I’ve been very lucky. Some novels just don’t get noticed and I’m well aware that that could have happened to mine.   

Which other authors in your opinion, do an excellent job in historical fiction as models for writers who want to learn craft?

I don’t tend to read much mainstream historical fiction as I prefer the literary end of contemporary fiction. I am a devoted fan of William Boyd, Tracy Chevalier, Julian Barnes, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Barbara Vine, Sebastian Faulkes, Carol Shields, Michel Faber.

Do you have any of your own scraps from previous workings which you hope to salvage again into something whole or have you something entirely new in progress? Tell me a little more about it and when is it coming out? (Set in the Caribbean I believe?)

After my experience with The Observations, I never throw anything away so I do have scraps which may be salvaged at some point. However, I’m currently working on my third novel which is indeed set in the Caribbean. It’s set in the 18th century and based on a true story. I don’t want to say too much about it yet, if that’s okay.

For someone who says, “it’s taken a while for me to get used to the notion of such shameless self-promotion’ you have a website, facebook and twitter presence. Do you manage them yourself and how do you balance the time spent with time needed for new writing?

Websites take a while to set up but once they’re up and running the maintenance isn’t too onerous and I pay someone to do that for me. I don’t update my author page on Facebook very often. During office hours I tend to work for an hour or so then take a ten minute break during which I will log into Twitter and dash off a post or two or do some Retweeting. It’s the equivalent of passing notes in class or chatting at the water cooler.

And so, why do you tweet as @blablafishcakes ?

It’s an homage to writer Kevin Elyot who used the phrase ‘blahblahfishcakes’ in a TV adaptation of a Miss Marple book (directed by my husband Tom).

You must be good at openings, because your first novel, The Observations, reportedly “caused a minor publishing stramash when 100 pages and a synopsis created a bidding war between publishing houses.”  (The Scotsman - Living, Peggy Hughes). Who fought and who won?  

Gosh, that was a while ago. There were three publishers involved originally then one dropped out and it was between Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) and Faber. I visited both houses and though I did like the editor who bid for the book at Fourth Estate I was very charmed by the Faber editor and the set-up there – a small, independent house, so highly respected. Everyone there seemed to have read my book and know who I was. That may all have been flattery but it worked!

How did you get Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown to take you on, or was it the other way round?

I’m very lucky to have Jonny as my agent. He sort of inherited me when my previous Curtis Brown agent moved to a different agency.

The book covers of both novels vary from stylistic silhouettes to still life objects. Which covers do you like best yourself - in English or other languages?

I like all the covers I’ve seen. It’s hard to choose between them. Faber have been very reasonable when it comes to covers. If I haven’t liked a particular design they have listened carefully and come up with new ideas. There are constraints driven by the market – such as the notion that a book by a female writer should have a picture of a woman on the front. That can be a bit frustrating and it’s something that is driven by the supermarkets. I am happy with the covers that I’ve ended up with but I think if I was a male writer the covers would have been very different.

Your titles seem well chosen to be readily translatable around the world. Was this a conscious choice in today’s increasingly global market for stories which can cross borders?

I didn’t think of that for a moment when I chose the titles. In fact, I think the titles are difficult to translate. It would be a factor in what I choose in future though, since I’m more aware of it.

Half a manatee's day is spent sleeping in the water. What do you do in a typical day/week/month to get words on paper?

I don’t do much sleeping, that’s for sure! I wish I could sleep more but I can’t. I’m an early riser. I just tend to get up early, get on with it, keep going while taking frequent breaks.

Are you a restless soul, a globetrotter or ever feel you have no roots? Born in Northern Ireland, you spent your childhood in Scotland and currently live in England - where is home and what places matter to you most if at all?

I love home and I love being at home. Having said that I have moved around a lot in my life – which is perhaps why I love home so much. Home is where I live -  my flat.

As a couple with a background in film, do you ever discuss storylines and plots at home?

We constantly discuss whatever projects we happen to be working on. Tom is the first person to read my work, and I talk through the story outlines with him. I tend to read the scripts he’s considering directing, I watch casting tapes with him and rough cuts. I read drafts of any script he is writing himself. It’s a big part of our relationship.

And if you were to be portrayed in a film of your own life, who would you most like to play you and Tom?

Ha ha – I can’t even think about that, it seems so unlikely. But if we have to answer – Tom is suggesting Beyonce and Jay-Z. No, we’re going for Orson Welles and Bette Davis. Ho ho ho.

Desert Island time: what would be your chosen one luxury (inanimate) object, book (aside from great religious works) and favourite (at the moment) piece of music?

I’ll say a piano – I don’t play but I would teach myself to play it. Book would have to be something big and challenging in order to keep me going so I’ll say War and Peace. Piece of music is difficult. My favourite recent download is a piece called Hollow Talk by Choir of Young Believers.

What’s currently at the top of your To Be Read pile?

A pamphlet on growing sugar cane written by a plantation owner in 18th century Grenada.

Thank you for your time and consideration.
Thank you.


More about Jane Harris: 

Harris was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent her early childhood there before her parents moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1965. On leaving school she studied English Literature and Drama at the University of Glasgow, then trained at East 15 Acting School in London.  After years of trying different careers, Jane worked abroad, variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and an English language teacher. She began writing short stories during this period, while confined to bed in Portugal with a bout of flu.

On her return to Glasgow, her short stories began to be published in anthologies of new Scottish literature. She went on to undertake an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and then completed a PhD at the same university. During the same period, Jane wrote a number of short film scripts. Several of these scripts won awards, including two BAFTA nominations, for "Bait" (1999) and "Going Down" (2000). In 1999 and 2000, Jane was shortlisted for the BBC's Dennis Potter Award.

After UEA came a two-year stint as the Arts Council Writer-in-Residence at HMP Durham (1992-4). Following this, Harris worked as a script and novel reader for film companies and for The Literary Consultancy, and as a script editor. She also taught Creative Writing for many years, principally at the University of East Anglia.

Harris currently lives in East London and is married to the film and TV director Tom Shankland.


You can follow more about Jane and her books via:
Her website or her Author page on Facebook or you can also follow me on Twitter. I tweet under the name @blablafishcakes ("But beware - my Tweets can be a bit saucy and sweary.") You can follow me here:


The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy said...

Great interview and look forward to reading some of Jane's intriguing work.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

Sounds great - glad you liked it! Thank you. :)