Jon Haylett Interview
Posted on 22 April 2009. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to short story writer and novelist Jon Haylett
Tell us something about your background.
Iíve written ten novels and over fifty presentable short stories. Two of the early novels were taken up by London agents but neither found a publisher, so it wasnít until Keirsten Clarke at PaperBooks published Cry of the Justice Bird in 2007 that I saw my first novel in print. My new novel, Black Mongoose, is out in April 2009. By contrast, my short stories found consistent success from the start, with the highlights being when The Crossing won the prestigious Bridport Prize in 2003 and Bendera Beach won the Royal Society of Literatureís VS Pritchett Prize in 2004. Currently Iím concentrating on short stories, where I continue to win prizes in major competitions.
Other work besides writing; ie. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own writing
Through the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association (http://www.hissac.co.uk) I have a small group of fellow writers spread across the world with whom I correspond. Our greatest pleasure is in the constructive criticism of each otherís work, and very helpful it has proved.Otherwise, I enjoy writing as a solitary process.
How did you start writing?
One evening, some twenty years ago, Iíd finished my marking and preparation for school and started, for no logical reason, a short story. Since Iíd neither thought of doing this before, nor had any experience or knowledge of writing, the decision at the time seemed quite bizarre. Yet within months I had won a short story competition and my first novel had found an agent.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I donít enjoy most novels, particularly modern novels, preferring well-written non-fiction or novels with a firm factual base. So I have difficulty in pointing at an author and saying that he or she influenced my style of writing. On the other hand, I do have some favourites, which include:
1. Books about the history of the opening up of Africa by European missionaries, hunters and explorers, for example Pattersonís Man-eaters of Tsavo, JA Hunterís Hunterís Tracks, The Washing of the Spears by Donald R Morris, a history of the rise and near-destruction of the Zulu nation, and the stories of men such as Robert Moffat, the missionary who opened Africa for people like Livingstone.
2. Novels including Lawrence Durrellís Alexandria Quartet, particularly Justine, which I first read as I hitch-hiked along the North African coast towards Alexandria, Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the story of a dog in the early days of the European penetration of South Africa, Something of Value by Robert Ruark, a novel, but sometimes described as the best history of the outbreak of Mau Mau in Kenya, and A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtmanche, a chilling story of the Rwanda massacre in 1994, because, as so often happens, a novel is first in revealing the true horror of events ignored by press and politicians.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I always knew my first novel would be difficult to place because it was written for the age-group I taught, 16 to 18-year olds, a readership which I still believe is neglected, yet I found my first agent very quickly. I sent her the novel explaining the problem and she was enthusiastic Ė yet, in the end, she failed to find a publisher.
What's the worst thing about writing?
I am, effectively, a full-time writer now, and there is little that I find unpleasant until a book or a story is ready to be presented to the outside world. With short stories, I send them to competitions, which is relatively painless, but interesting agents and publishers in a book is a gruelling battle
And the best?
That rare moment when I sit back from a short story or a novel and know that itís done, that, as far as Iím concerned, itís as perfect as Iím likely to get it. Then, of course, thereís the moment when someone else agrees.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
Iím quietly thrilled when someone says they like my work but Iím far more interested when I receive thoughtful criticism. However, Iím very careful about reacting to criticism because I do firmly believe that an author has to be true to themselves.
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