Lockdown Interviews: No 28 Joanne L.M. Williams interviewed by Laura Besley

Twenty-eighth in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.

Joanne L M Williams

Joanne LM Williams

Joanne L.M. Williams (No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, We/She) interviewed by Laura Besley (Story Cities).

Laura:   You write a mixture of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Do you set out to write in a particular form, or do you let the piece develop organically?  

Joanne:    When I start writing I might not always know exactly how the idea or plot is going to play out, or what the ‘ending’ is going to be, but I do know what form it’s going take, because the processes by which I write a poem, or a short story, or a flash fiction are very different. So, yes, for each piece I suppose I do set out to write in a particular form. Or rather the initial idea I have is for a piece of writing in a specific form.

I can only think of one exception to this: Before I had really heard of flash fiction I had an idea for a short story that I could never quite get to work out. It turned out that idea was supposed to be a flash fiction – and once I was introduced to drabbles, that story idea became a 100 word piece called One Hundred Years.

Laura:   Your poem ‘Gifted’ has been selected for the upcoming Arachne Press anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and focuses on the mythological Arachne. Did you draw from your background in History for inspiration?

Joanne:    Not especially – I have a history degree, but it didn’t cover the classical world. My degree is in what Oxford, slightly archaically calls ‘Modern History’, by which they mean everything from around 500 AD onwards. Ancient History is a separate department.
However I’ve been fascinated by all kinds of mythology, and especially Greek mythology, since I was quite a young child. I’ve played around with a lot of the myths in my writing before, but I’ve never written about Arachne, and this seemed a good opportunity. I really enjoyed getting under the skin of a version of the character that I imagined.

Laura:   In We/She (short stories by women from Liars’ League, Arachne Press, 2018) your story Cages is written from the point of view of a dragon. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing from unusual perspectives?

Joanne:    Very much so – although it’s perhaps less of a challenge and more of a desire to give those characters a voice. As a young reader I was usually much more interested in the secondary characters, the sidekicks and the ‘baddies’ in a story, than I was in heroes and heroines, so as a writer I often like to explore where those characters are coming from, and what their own stories are.
It’s also a device which allows me to explore the experience of being othered in various ways: Most of my central characters are marginalised, and many of them are queer.

Laura:   As well as Cages you have had several other stories performed at Liars’ League in London and Hong Kong. Do you enjoy listening to your stories being read aloud by others?

Joanne:    Usually, yes! It’s certainly an interesting experience. I tend to think of any piece of writing as a living thing, or a conversation, that’s interpreted by its readers, listeners or performers anyway, but that’s made particularly obvious when someone else is reading it to an audience in front of you. Sometimes an actor will bring out elements in something that I hadn’t even fully realized were there – often humorous moments, or poignant ones.
When I first heard Cages read out, by the wonderful Susan Moisan, she drew laughs and responses from the audience in a few places I wasn’t necessarily expecting, which was very gratifying! It was such a pleasing delivery that I have to admit, when I later read out that story myself, I borrowed heavily from her performance in places.
Still, there can be some anxiety in handing over something you care about so much. A bit of me doesn’t like giving up creative control, but that’s something it’s good for me to learn to do. I’ve only ever had one bad experience, with one group, where I wasn’t really happy with the end result – but that was a situation where I wasn’t able to speak directly either to the actor performing my piece, or to the person advising/directing. Liars League are great because they generally give an opportunity for the writer and actor to discuss the reading in advance.

Laura:   One area in which you enjoy performing is competitive dance. Do you find that movement unlocks creativity?

Joanne:    Dance definitely helps me to unlock my feelings – it’s common for me to go into a dance practice and find myself working through a mood I hadn’t even realised I was in. It’s incredibly helpful in that respect.
I do also find dancing in a style that has a formal structure and technique can drive creativity in the same way that writing in a fixed form can. I love ballroom dancing for the same reason I love metric poetry: Something about the juxtaposition between the intense emotions being expressed and having a tight form to work within has creative power. I have a very long-standing project I’m playing with at the moment, writing poems based on dances where the metre of the poem matches the rhythm of the dance, as I want to explore that similarity.

Laura:   Like many writers, you also have a day job, in your case working in theatres in an organisational role. Do you find that a job which requires a completely different skill set allows more, or less, space for creativity in your free time? 

Joanne:    I’ve always written, and as a child had ambitions of being solely a writer, but I realised whilst I was still in my early twenties that it wasn’t something I could do full-time. I’m an extrovert and like being around and working with people too much – if I spend much time alone it affects both my mood and my productivity very negatively.
Theatre working hours can be long and anti-social, which can make fitting in time for writing, as well as dancing and studying, tricky. But at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary for me to work around people in a job I love for me to then have the emotional energy and ability to write. And even though I don’t write specifically for the stage, getting to see so much creative content as part of my job is beneficial too. Just as reading as much as possible is useful to a writer, so is watching a lot of theatre.

Laura:   When you read something that you think is perfection, how does it make you feel? Does it spur you on, or intimidate you?

Joanne:    Oh it inspires me, hugely. That’s why I want to write ultimately – the sheer excitement when you read something wonderful. I want to be able to create that sort of magic with words too.

Laura:   As writers, we have to deal a lot with rejection. Do you have a ‘tried and tested’ method, or does it depend on the mood you’re in or the piece that you submitted?

Joanne:    I don’t really have a method per se. The majority of the time rejections don’t bother me too much – I know what the statistics are like for almost all writers in terms of rejections per accepted piece.
Of course, there’ll sometimes be a ‘no’ that stings more than I was expecting it to – perhaps if I’ve grown especially fond of a piece of work, or conversely, if it was especially difficult to complete but I thought I’d cracked it.
At the end of the day though, I can always move on fairly quickly. In a way I know I’m lucky, because writing is my ‘side-hustle’ so to speak, and my income doesn’t depend on it.

Laura:   Do you have particular writing goals for the next year, or years? Do you, for example, want to write a novel or a play? Do you see writing as part of your career, or more of a hobby?

Joanne:    I’m aiming to finish the collection of poems based on dances mentioned above, and I’m also looking to write some stories in styles that are new to me. I have the beginnings of some ghost stories brewing for example, and I’d like to write more comedy.
I’ve no immediate plans to write a novel again. I attempted one years ago, completed it, got feedback and put it through several edits. I then never submitted it anywhere because by the time it was finished I no longer believed in it, either artistically or emotionally. I find I enjoy the process of writing short stories and poems much more. As for a play, the problem I have is that the thing I find hardest of all to write is realistic-sounding present-day dialogue! Of course, not all theatre takes the same form, so never say never, but it’s not among my short-term plans.
To answer the last part of the question, even though writing isn’t my primary job, and it doesn’t make me money, I do see it as part of my career, yes. I’ve always been interested in doing lots of different things or jobs; some of them pay me and some of them don’t, but they’re all important and part of my ‘portfolio career’.

Laura:   How have you been managing in lockdown? Have you been able to use this time to write more, or are you – like many others – struggling to put pen to paper? If you are managing to write, what are you working on?

Joanne:    It’s been similar to before in terms of productivity if I’m honest. There’s lots of extra time, but my ability to write fluctuates – some days I’m inspired and write in a burst, and other days are just not writing days. I’m afraid my writing habits have never been especially consistent, and that hasn’t changed. One thing I am finding useful though, is an online writing group that a friend is running for a few hours each evening – I don’t join every night, but when I do it’s a good motivator.
I’m working on two pieces – one short story and one poem – for two upcoming deadlines at the moment. They’re both inspired by, or are responses to, famous pieces of literature (respectively the novel Little Women, and a Robert Southwell poem for Arachne’s Solstice Shorts call out).
However, that’s about all my two projects have in common – they’re very different in tone as well as form. I’m also busy redrafting some existing stories, including a couple of modern fairytales, and a dramatic monologue from the point of view first Mrs Rochester.

Lockdown reading: The Cormorant by Clare Owen

Collateral damage from Covid-19 has been having to delay the publication of Zed and the Cormorants, by Clare Owen. It was a tough decision but, it turns out, the right one; and next year we will be able to put together a really strong campaign to support the book.

In the meantime, here is Clare reading her short story from An Outbreak of Peace, The Cormorant which was very much a calling card for Zed, sharing, as it does, a location and character names, although not characters, unless you count the cormorant!

 

 

lockdown interviews: no22 J A Hopper interviewed by Sarah Lawson

middle-aged woman in sunglasses

J. A. Hopper (We/She, No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book) interviewed by

Sarah Lawson (Vindication, The Other Side of Sleep, Departures.)

Sarah Lawson

Sarah:           Did you always want to write, or did the urge come to you later in life? Was there an early influence? Was there a moment when you said to yourself (if not to many others) “I am a writer!”? (Or has this moment yet to arrive?)

Jane:             I always loved to read, and fooled about with poetry a bit when I was a teenager, like lots of people do, as well as keeping an on-off diary over the years. I read everything when I was younger: romance, thriller, literary, nonfiction, but started getting into short stories on my maternity leave, because when you have a newborn in the house you’re never more than half an hour away from being interrupted. And then when my daughter started sleeping through and I had a bit of time in the evenings, I thought I’d have a go at writing something. That was in 2015, so with some stories now published in actual printed books I can start to call myself a writer, but sadly it’s not a full time job.

 

Sarah:           Apart from spiders, what subjects attract you?

Jane:             Most of my stories are about or inspired by parenthood or kids. Write what you know! And also there isn’t a huge amount of short fiction out there about the lonely, funny, weird experience of first-time parenting, or not much that I’ve found, so I thought that could be my “thing”. My spider story for No Spider Harmed was inspired by the Anansi stories I read as a child, which my daughter also loves.

 

Sarah:           Some writers need special circumstances to inspire them to write – solitude or public places, home or abroad, an attic workroom, a cabin in the garden, the kitchen table, a corner of a library, a pen and paper or the latest Apple. Do you have any ideal requirements for writing?

Jane:             I use a laptop because I type faster than I hand-write, but that’s necessity really. The main thing is that my daughter must be out of the house or sound asleep. That’s all I need, but boy do I need it! Nothing creative can get done, by me at least, with an energetic, demanding kid in the house. Special circumstances, the right sharpness of HB pencil and any other requirements are wild luxuries. Joyce Carol Oates said that the great enemy of writing is interruption, and she’s completely nailed it. Uninterrupted time is all I need: everything else is superstition and window-dressing.

 

Sarah:           Have you found memories a useful source of material? Childhood memories, perhaps, or some experience in the more recent past?

Jane:             I think a few childhood memories creep in to my writing sometimes, like remembering the Barbies I played with as a little girl for We/She, but usually I write about contemporary, current, personal stuff: the things that are right in front of me.

 

Sarah:           Do you like to read your work to an audience, or even “perform” it? (Actually, I am not sure what “performance poetry” is, except that one must read it in a dramatic way. I don’t think I am a performance poet, although I quite like to read to an audience.)

Jane:             No! The idea brings me out in a cold sweat. I love listening to stories and audiobooks, but I’m not a good reader-aloud myself at all, which is why I sent some of my first stories to Liars’ League. They get actors to do it, which is much better for everyone.

 

Sarah:           How do you picture your readers? What response would you hope them to have when they read your work?

Jane:             I hope anyone can enjoy my stories, but especially that they appeal to stay-at-home and working mums like myself who are doing their best and sometimes feeling the stress. I love funny stories and think there should be more of them in the world, which is why I try to write them: I want readers to laugh and to relate. I might also find a select audience in women who’ve developed a mild crush on Daddy Pig through watching too much Peppa Pig. His voice is definitely too sexy for children’s TV.

 

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