Jill Dawson Interview
Posted on 15 November 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to multi-award-winning novelist Jill Dawson, whose fifth novel, Watch Me Disappear, comes out soon.
Tell us all about your writing background- what youíve written, what youíre currently writing
Iíve just finished my fifth novel, Watch Me Disappear. Itís about a ten-year-old girl who goes missing in the Cambridgeshire Fens in the 70s. Thirty years later, returning to the same village, her best friend Tina Humber tries to reconstruct what happened. Tina thinks sheís come as close to knowing as is humanly possible. But so much remains impossible to verify Ė simply an adult re-writing of a childís understanding.
I live very close to Soham and although itís not about the Soham murders, the novel was prompted because the children in our village were all very upset about Holly and Jessica and had to contend with a surfeit of memorial services and media intrusion. I wanted to write about children struggling to make sense of such things as rape and murder when they can barely yet make sense of sex.
At the moment Iím writing screenplays. Iím adapting Watch Me Disappear for film and working on an original screenplay Ė a period drama - with another producer. And my fourth novel, Wild Boy is being adapted for film by the novelist Caryl Phillips, which is a project Iím going to be co-producing.
Iíve done every kind of writing: journalism, poetry, short stories, novels, screenplays, and non-fiction. Thatís because writing has been how Iíve earned my living for twenty years. Iíve edited five anthologies, Iíve taught Creative Writing in various settings from adult education to residential courses, to MAís in writing, culminating in the MA at UEA. But Iím finally taking a break from it and have to admit itís a joy not to be thinking about other peopleís writing and only concentrating on mine, for a change!
How, when and why did you first start writing?
I can never remember a time when I didnít write. Diaries as a child, stories in school. When I graduated from University in my early twenties I came to London and began trying to publish stories and poems and one terrible novel. Generally trying to make my living as a writer. Apart from related jobs such as tutoring in Creative Writing and writersí residencies and fellowships, thatís all Iíve done, ever since.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Margaret Atwood, William Maxwell, Raymond Carver, Caryl Phillips, Nabokov, Toni Morrison. I like writers with something to say. Also the ones who care about every word, every full-stop and write lyrical, elegant, stunning or surprising prose. I donít like writers who are clever or tricksy but with no ear, no musicality or rhythm. And I want to be challenged and made to think; I donít want an easy read that slides over me without leaving a mark.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
I first published a piece in Honey magazine when I was eighteen. I sent it and had it returned with a note that it Ďread like a school essay.í Not surprising since Iíd been writing a lot of essays at that point. But I re-wrote it, sent it off, and the next thing I knew a cheque arrived in the post for fifty pounds. I mention this story because of course the moral is: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!
My first agent came when I asked Bridget OíConnor, a fabulous short story writer, and the only published writer I knew, who her agent was. Bridget told me and said Ďyou should send something to her, sheís great.í I did, and she sold my first novel, getting me a two-book deal on the basis of the first three chapters. She sold it to Carole Welch at Sceptre who has remained my editor on a further four books, although my agent has changed.
Whatís the worst thing about writing?
Itís definitely lonely sometimes.
And the best?
Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing
Iíve realised that Iím writing for a stranger, and thatís the way I like it. I donít need to know what people think Ė itís something private that sort of happens in their head like an intimate conversation.
I love the feeling when you wake up and have had the most incredible, long-lasting dream and feel as if you were transported somewhere else and the dream clings to you all day. I aim for that with my novels Ė to cling to people.
What was your breakthrough moment?
I think when I was short-listed for the Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel prize for Fred & Edie. Although that was my third novel, and seven or eighth published book, the nomination for prizes got me a lot of attention and made a big difference to the offer I got for my fourth novel.
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