It's a great pleasure to have Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, as my guest here today. When I met Suzy back in February and heard about her book, I knew straightaway that it was one I was going to enjoy and that she would be the perfect interviewee, and I'm glad to say I was right on both counts as you'll see from my short post on the book and from our conversation here:
Reading the novel I noticed recurring themes which create patterns in the narrative - there's motherhood, for example, and escape, surfaces and what's beneath them, displacement and belonging, travelling, moving towards or away from something ... and then there are what you might call motifs such as the many references to birds and feathers, bicycles, words and making a mark; did you start with those ideas in mind and then find characters and events with which you could work them out on the page, or did you just find that they were emerging in the natural course of things as you told your story, almost as though they were present subconsciously but only discernible later?
Looking back through early notebooks I can see now that I collected a lot of ingredients, as it were, of the story but I don’t think it was conscious. Whenever I got stuck I wrote a list of things that inspired me: seagulls, bones, bicycles, maps, bird-bones. I drew lots of maps because they are fun to draw. I collected images that somehow seemed important to the story but I didn’t know why, and I ‘freewrote’ pieces of prose that were very much trying to capture certain feelings – isolation in the desert, trying to get home, terror of looking after a new baby, worry for a sister – but were not tied into specific scenes. Then, when writing the first full draft I forgot about all of that and just got on with the story. It was quite a revelation to me to discover what a huge role the subconscious plays in weaving and knitting things together. Amazing, really. I picked up a trick from reading a book called The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie-Francoise Allain. She was a young French writer (beautiful, of course) and she convinced him to open up for the first time about his writing process. She asked him about first drafts and he answered: “So a book is put together little by little, in a painstaking fashion while the unconscious is simultaneously at work....I re-read my morning’s work just before bedtime, to stimulate my unconscious – or my subconscious if you prefer – in the hope that it will sort out the problems. In practice the unconscious, faced with secondary difficulties (stylistic or structure in any given chapter), accomplishes its task like a good parent, one who has first inspired the book and now sees it through to the finish”. In my experience, this is true.
Then, as you say, linkages between the two stories presented themselves – motherhood, escape, fleeing, tension between movement and home – and it was a big job working out how these worked in relation to each other. Was it opposition, reflection or parallel stories? Ouf, it was hard work.
You've obviously done a great deal of research for the book by travelling yourself, both in remote regions - where things were not exactly peaceful, as you relate in this short video - and closer to home. The novel has a very strong visual force, it brings clear images to mind, and I wondered whether your research involved photography as the primary method as well as note-taking? I ask that because it reads as though you used that very direct medium - you've certainly captured something of its immediacy on the page - though perhaps your own visual memory is acute and your skill at translating those pictures into words even more so!
I’m hugely drawn to photography, both practising it myself and photographic theory and history - particularly women photographers - and so you are right, and well-spotted! I took lots of photographs in Kashgar, lots of photographs of Eastbourne. I try to photograph every day out and about, noticing things, framing things, thinking visually. I also draw – pretty badly – but I enjoy it.
For reasons of tying in with later events in the plot the historical strand of the book is set in the early 1920s, and yet it has the feel of an earlier period about it - the 1870s, say (some of Isabella Bird's writing came to mind as I was reading it). In a book which is partly about being adrift, you've given to that half of the narrative a suitably floating, fluid sensation. Was that 'timelessness', that relatively unfixed mood, deliberate? Either way, it's a very effective means of underscoring the isolation of Evangeline, Lizzie and Millicent and the vast distance between them and the 'modern' world, and thus giving them freedom from so many of the constraints of society at home.
Yes, the timeless quality that you pick up on actually comes from the biographical detail of the English missionaries although by the final edits much of that earlier biographical detail had been taken out of the main thrust of the story. I wanted them to feel not particularly rooted in ‘England or Englishness’ because they had moved a lot as children, drifting around the continent with parents whose families were half French and half English. So, what I was hoping to achieve was a sense of dislocation, and that they were products of a post-Victorian era and yet geographically rootless.
When asked about the progress of the Guide she is writing Evangeline says, "I have these ideas, and memories and images, but it's a problem ... sorting it into a meaningful whole." Was that Suzy the author speaking through her character?! Please do tell us a bit about the whole writing process - your routine, if you have one, whether you plan everything in advance in broad outline or in greater detail, or whether it's much more following an idea and seeing where it leads. Whichever method you adopt, do you tend to need just a draft or two before you have the finished work, or does it require much more refinement than that, and if so, how do you know when to stop?
Someone else highlighted that line too. Maybe it was me speaking through and the pesky subconscious was up to its tricks again. My writing process with this book was very disjointed. I wrote it not knowing if it would get published whilst doing a challenging job that required a lot of international travel. I wrote early drafts in hotel rooms and airport lounges. I wrote on maternity leave when I had my first – then second! – baby, battling through sleep deprivation and nappies. Then I moved on to the endless revisions. I realised that if a book is ever going to get finished then you have to write when you’re knackered, when you’re sad and when you just want to watch TV or hang out with friends. Consequently, I have a rubbish social life.
Writing involves actual writing and also working out your process and that took me a very long time with A Lady Cyclist. This book I’m working on now I’m hoping things will be quicker and smoother but I’ve already realised that a different book requires a different process (damn!). Instead of the inconvenience of childbirth this time I have the distraction of publicising my first book, of promotion, events, talking about myself non stop and it’s all so noisy. Instead of wondering if this book will ever get anywhere I now have an agent and an editor. I even have a New York Editor! I now have Amazon rankings to obsessively check. A whole new world of intrusions, some welcome, some less so.
I have learnt a few things that seem to work for me though. The first is that I write an ‘exploratory draft’ rather than a first draft. This is freer, (the words ‘Chapter One’ freak me out) and it involves scrapbooks and photographs and drawings and dreams and writing anything I want. It’s very creative and lovely and sets my brain into a certain groove so that I am open to stories and writing. I try to combine that open-creative head-space with the technical research that I am doing for my book so that the two things move forward hand-in-hand. It’s a difficult balance, but I like it. I realised, recently though, that I’d stretched this period for too long – it’s so seductive – and that I needed to crack on with a ‘first draft’ which is real. This is where I am at now and it’s the word count-obsession phase, the whacking out of a draft and a story. Once I get to the end of this draft I will then start what is in fact the real story – what happens in relation to language and the architectural form of the novel and begin editing properly. This is possibly a very laborious way to go about things. I don’t know how else to do it, though. We just have to find what works, I guess.
This is your first novel, and yet success with an earlier project (your non-fiction piece, Laila Ahmed) meant that agents approached you, rather than the other way round, and so the path to publication was perhaps smoother than it is for most new writers. What advice would you give to anyone embarking on writing a novel with the serious aim of eventual publication, or to someone who is sending out their finished work and finding they are hitting only brick walls?
Several things. Firstly, you wouldn’t write an opera, film, or put on a sculpture exhibition or a photography exhibition or any of these things in isolation, would you? Nor would you do a PhD without tutorial supervision. Find a form of framework that works for you which involves getting feedback from somewhere. One mistake that many writers make is sending their novel out to agents at too early a stage. They are, understandably, sending it out for validation. It’s such an insane undertaking to write a book that will probably take you some years and so psychologically you need someone to tell you that it is ok. You don’t need to hear it’s wonderful, perfect or finished, but you need to know there is potential, which is another word for hope. So find a way of getting someone, somewhere to pat you on the head and say ‘well done’ or ‘keep going’, enough to give you sustenance to get you through the next long leg. It might be a writer’s group, online forum, Arvon course, writing retreat, MA, local community group, just one person whose opinion you trust or you may even pay someone for a critique, whatever works. Just do this BEFORE you send your manuscript to an agent.
Secondly, it might appear that I had a smooth path to publication – my husband called it a path strewn with rose petals – but I have in fact been writing since I was fifteen, did a BA in Literature and Creative Writing, wrote short stories, attempted novels and poems for years then an MA in Creative Writing and the book has just come out and I’m at the grand age of 37. That’s 22 years of slog. Keep going, never stop and make your writing as good as it possibly can be.
Your second novel is under way - may we know a little about it, what stage it has reached and when it is likely to be published? Or are you, like many writers, superstitious and wary of saying too much too soon?
I’m not going to say much, not for superstitious reasons but because I realised that by talking about it the essence of the book is draining away. I believe that when you are working on a big project – whatever it is – in order to keep the momentum and energy up you need to keep quiet and just get on with it. Talking about it bleeds away the edges. So, I will just say it’s a novel. It’s about flying and Palestine with some photography. And I’m thinking a lot about chalk, light and sculpture. Will stop now!
My thanks to Suzy for submitting to my questioning, and for discussing aspects of the novel and of the writing process in such a stimulating way. I'm already looking forward to her next book, and of course wishing her great success with this one.