Jill Dawson is one of the UK’s most reliably interesting writers. The first book of hers I read was the Orange-shortlisted Fred and Edie (2000), based on a controversial murder case from 1923. This displayed her finest qualities: a masterly ventriloquism, a handling of female roles in society without being strident or obvious, and a seamless twining of history and invention. The next novel of hers I read, Watch Me Disappear (2006), was one of my favourite books of the year. Recently I found that with her new novel, The Great Lover, she has lost none of her style, narrative intelligence and aplomb. When not being a novelist, poet and anthologist, she mentors new writers under the Gold Dust programme. She has kindly agreed to field some questions for this blog.
In The Great Lover you imagine periods in the life of Rupert Brooke. How do you strike a balance between artistic licence and responsibility to the subject?
I think each writer sets themselves their own rules. I like to do a lot of original research, just as a biographer or historian would. Not simply relying on accounts by others but going to original documents, sources, newspapers, books of the time, places. In Brooke’s case I mostly read his letters, over and over, including some which have only recently come to light and not been included in any biography yet. Did he have a relationship with a maid like Nell? No, I don’t think so. Might he have been interested in such a girl, given what he wrote about the ‘lower orders’ and girls in particular – yes. I take as my guide what I call the ‘logic of imagination’. And I’m clear that it’s a novel, not a fictional biography.
Several of your recent novels have been based on true stories or real people. Do you actively seek out historical figures or events which sound as though they might make a novel, or is it pure coincidence? Have you had other such ideas which haven’t come to fruition?
I’m not sure I seek them out. They seem to find me…. I read a great deal of non-fiction and I do get attracted to ideas and themes and want to write a non-fiction book on a subject and then discover that a novel is what I am writing. I mean, I read a lot of biography and am beguiled by it as an art-form. And yet, when I think of writing one, I know that I am very frustrated by defining statements such as ‘Rupert Brooke was clever /troubled/ misunderstood/playful etc …’ and would rather try to conjure him up for a reader and let them make up their own mind. More like meeting a person in real life, where we all have our own views.
(Any other ideas that haven’t come to fruition?)
I did write two bad novels in my twenties that thankfully remained under the bed and have since been thrown out. One was about a tiny shrinking girl (like Mrs Pepperpot, the children’s novel, if you know that) and I think some of the ideas from that one morphed into Watch Me Disappear twenty years later, and also went into an earlier novel of mine, Magpie.
Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when (and how) to stop the research and actually make the decision to sit down and write the first sentence. Has this been a problem with any of your more heavily-researched novels (Fred & Edie, Wild Boy, The Great Lover)? Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?
I do both simultaneously: research and write. It does my head in, as new discoveries keep changing things, but I can’t seem to help it.
In The Great Lover, sexuality features as a prominent theme as it did in Watch Me Disappear and, to a lesser extent, in Fred & Edie. These books also touch on how we see figures in the public eye. Is there a unifying intention here? Does sexuality define people, or provide them with their most novelistic and newsworthy experiences?
I think sexuality is certainly a theme and something too about the myths that underpin our culture – wanting to excavate these a little. Beyond that I’m afraid I’m not good at theorising about my novels. I feel that fiction is my first language, not a stand-in for something else. My task is to pick the exact word, try to get as close as possible to an atmosphere, scene or emotion that I want to invoke. But the rest is happening in the reader’s imagination and not under my control.
Watch Me Disappear pays explicit homage to Lolita. As with Nabokov, style seems central to your books, particularly when adopting a character’s voice. Do you have priorities as a writer, among plot, characters, style and so on?
Yes, I definitely start with a place, a vague idea of a character and then work hard to get a voice. That takes the longest time. The voice is most important to me. With Watch Me Disappear I embedded loads of phrases from Nabokov’s Lolita and an earlier novel of his The Enchanter. I paid Nabokov’s son (and literary executor) to use some of them, but others were just fragments and seemed to go unnoticed by reviewers, which I took as a compliment. (Phew! – could have been costly!) With The Great Lover I started with Nell. I’d an idea that the whole novel would be narrated by Nell. Then Rupert Brooke kept barging in. I heard his voice so clearly, through reading the letters that I tentatively began to narrate snippets from his point of view as well. Then they got bigger and bigger…
A non-literary question if I may. You live in an award-winning eco house designed by your husband. Can you tell us something about what led to this project and how you’ve found sustainable living in the six years since it was completed?
It’s five a.m. as I write this. I was lying in bed worrying – a very rare thing for me, but I’ve got a new novel out and that’s always a stressful time. (I’m happiest when I’m knuckling down writing one, not popping up promoting it). So I creep upstairs to my study at the top of the house. For many years (fifteen I think) I did not have a study, but worked at a computer in my bedroom. Really, that’s what this house means to me – a study. My husband meanwhile has been carefully monitoring the energy use and gleefully noting how well it has performed. It’s very well insulated (with recycled newspapers) and uses passive solar energy – that, as I understand it in my non-technical way means it makes best use of the sunlight at different times of the day and the year, in the way it is positioned.
To his frustration I tend not to be properly interested in all of that, but think of it simply as a lovely house to live in – full of light and kind of plain and unfussy. The floor is made from the off-cuts of cherry wood that people normally throw away, that kind of thing.
Can you recommend any unfairly neglected books or authors to the readers of this blog?
Not sure it’s exactly neglected, but I love William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow. Anybody know that? Small-town America and the unreliability of memory… and exquisite tenderness in the writing that makes me want to read it all over again.