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12 September 2019

Janet Ellis: ‘My writing is very character driven and the stories start when I hear voices’

Janet Ellis, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Janet Ellis was our 16th former student to secure a book deal. After taking our three-month course in London in 2014 she was signed by Curtis Brown literary agent Gordon Wise. Her debut historical novel The Butcher’s Hook was published by Two Roads in 2016. Her second novel How It Was was released this August.

We caught up with Janet to find out more about her latest book, her time studying with us and her advice for aspiring authors …

You worked on your debut novel The Butcher’s Hook, on our London novel-writing course back in 2014. How did your time studying with us impact your approach to writing?
The course had a galvanizing effect on me. I had one chapter, an idea and a bag full of nerves and resistance when I started.  I also had a burning desire to write but I’d become good at putting up barriers. My excuses/reasons for not just getting on with it were legion and i knew I needed lots of help. After only three short months, I had the framework for my novel but, more than that, a good idea of how to edit and appraise my work.

You’re still in touch with many of your CBC course mates. How important was it for you to find trusted writing friends?
It was through work-shopping other people’s work that I began to see how I could approach my own. Without any official agreement in place, we found a unilaterally positive  method of approaching each other’s writing. It’s hard to describe how nervous I was when I had to share mine – I can’t actually remember being that nervous before or since. But the insight of my fellow students, coupled with generosity and kindness (they were nervous, too!) made the experience not just bearable but genuinely revelatory. The fact that we’re all still in touch is a wonderful bonus-  they’re supportive, smart, good writers and huge fun: what a lovely bunch! With the fabulous Erin Kelly as tutor and the unwavering support and good council of Anna Davis, I felt blessed- and ready to go.

Your debut novel was set in the 1700’s and your second novel How It Was takes place in the 1970’s. What was it like writing in these two very different settings? Did you face any challenges specific to either time period?
I’m not wedded to doing much research – I  suspect it would give me yet another ‘how to put off actually writing’ excuse, but I do know that if I’m reading something set in a different time, I hate metaphorically stubbing my toe on something not quite right, let alone wrong. I do feel I have a responsibility to fact-check and of course in the process of investigating I inevitably come across nuggets of information that are too delicious or weird or just plain essential to ignore.  Writing is  a trust exercise in part and if your reader doesn’t trust you, even for a few pages, it’s hard for them to reconnect with your story.

In a way, recreating the world of 1763 was easier than the more recent past. Georgian London is well-documented and there are either specific places to read up on it or places to visit. The recent past (certainly that of small town Kent and the lives of a teenage girl  or a woman approaching forty)  is, mostly, in my head. Which makes it both vivid and vague.  I had to fight a tendency to include absolutely everything I could remember, from television programmes to sweets and comics, because once I’d taken myself back there , I became immersed. But as with any research, either physical or imaginary, I think it should be a secure background not a foreground presence. You need to know it, you don’t have to show it.

The bonds of family take centre stage in How It Was, can you tell us a bit more about your latest novel?
I’ve always been fascinated by the mother/teenage daughter dynamic. Marion and Sarah’s relationship isn’t based on my own with my mother or with my daughters –  honest! Although each time I say it, I’m aware it sounds more defensive- only through repetition, I promise. But of course there are echoes of things I could imagine feeling or the feelings that friends hinted at. It’s no one’s actual story but I relished creating this family, examining and then dismantling it.

It’s also about the invisibility of older women. We hear a lot about becoming invisible as you get older but I think, for many, it’s a chosen state. In Marion’s case, conceals the past not just from outside interrogation but from herself. It allows for only minimal introspection. Until she’s forced by circumstance to remember, she’s left the past largely untouched, unwilling to re- examine what happened and increasingly covering up her emotions with protective, unreadable layers.

As she sits by her dying husband’s hospital bedside, she recalls an affair, long ago, that involved both her and her teenage daughter. It did not end well…

How do you start a day of writing, do you have any routines or rituals?
I’m a fully paid up member of the Writer’s Procrastination Club, but nevertheless once I get going I can lose all track of time. If the stars align, I walk the dog early then write until lunchtime. I’m not one of those people who forget to eat ( as one glance at me will confirm) and rather enjoy stepping away. It’s a chance to revise and analyse before starting again. More often than not, though, I fit writing around other commitments. Other people have a lot more going on than me and I’m frequently amazed by the fact books get written by anyone who doesn’t live, hermit like, in a cave, stepping out only to observe their fellow man and get a coffee. No one goes without coffee, do they?  No rituals but I’m surrounded by happy, comforting chaos. Oh, wait- the dog walk is essential. I couldn’t work out my plots without it. The dog gets a bit disconcerted when I recite dialogue, though.

You seem to be creative down to your core – you’ve had an impressive career as an actress, television presenter and writer – when did you know that you wanted to be an author?
Thank you for the ‘impressive’ bit- I’ve never had a career plan and am delighted and surprised by the way things have turned out! From the earliest time, I announced my intention to be an actress and headed that way pretty single-mindedly. But I’ve always written- stories, poems, diaries. It’s my way of making sense of the world . It took me a while to confess that I had a burning desire to write novels. Once I’d admitted it, it made sense of how I’d been viewing the world. The older I got, the more actually writing a novel seemed essential yet almost unobtainable. Mind you, I see to have always chosen professions which,  when you tell people what you want to do, are met with frowns, raised eyebrows and a chorus of ‘Well, it’s very difficult. Hardly anyone makes it as an actor/gets published.’ I chose to see that as a gauntlet, not a barrier. Twice.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to pass on to aspiring authors?
Treat nerves as a useful aid . When I first started acting and felt almost paralysed by first night nerves, a lovely ( experienced) actor said to me that feeling nervous is a privilege and a form of excitement. It means you’re challenging yourself in a way few people  are able to. When you write, you’re revealing your inner thoughts and private fantasies.  No wonder you’re nervous!  But if you stayed where you felt safe, what would be the point? Like the lady said, feel the fear and do it anyway. More than that, relish the fear. It means it matters to you.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing?
My writing is very character driven and the stories start when I hear voices. I can hear one now- it’s someone young and vulnerable. Their voice is getting louder and they’re also tugging at my sleeve to get my attention. I can’t put this little person off much longer – although there are some kitchen cupboards to tidy…

Read How It Was

If you’re currently writing a novel, and want to study with us like Janet did applications are open now for our three-month novel-writing course in London led by Charlotte Mendelson. Or, our three-month online novel-writing course taught by Suzannah Dunn.

We also run six-week online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.

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