Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A Conversation with Julia Forster

Image courtesy of  Alice Hendy
Julia Forster was born in the east Midlands in 1978. Although she says she regrets never becoming a pop star – her early days were quite music obsessed – she has achieved success in the literary world.

Receiving the Derek Walcott Prize for Creative Writing, while studying Philosophy and Literature at Warwick University, gave an indication of Julia’s passion and potential for the written word. She also holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Julia has been in the publishing industry for many years and has received valuable experience in many fields.  She spent time ploughing through manuscripts at a literary agency in London and was involved in marketing and publicity for the literary magazine New Welsh Review.                                               
In a journalistic capacity Julia has written for many prestigious publications including Agenda, Resurgence and the Western Mail. Now working for Literature Wales she is involved in awarding bursaries to established and emerging authors allowing them the luxury of time to write their novels. Julia was fortunate, in 2011, to receive such a bursary enabling her to begin her debut novel What a Way to Go. Although her first novel, Julia published a book called Muses: Revealing the Nature of Inspiration in 2007.

What a Way to Go follows twelve year old Harper Richardson as she seeks her identity growing up as a child of divorced parents. It is 1988, a time of great experimentation with clothes, hair and just about everything else. Harper, as she moves between the homes and lives of her parents just gets on with life as best she can.
Julia has captured, with great observation, the emotional journey of a teenager whose parents are caught up in their own traumatic circumstances after the divorce. They leave their daughter without many of the boundaries they would normally have set. It is a moving story told with humour and wit and we wish Julia every success with her debut novel.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

I began writing in 1998 when I was nineteen and at the University of Warwick. I chose a module in my second year called composition and creative writing. The author who was leading our very first session, Russell Celyn Jones, asked us to write about something traumatic; nearly twenty years later, I’m still responding to that brief in What a Way to Go.

The Warwick Writing Programme had only been running since 1996, and as such office hours weren’t well attended. I would sign up for a ten-minute session on the tutors’ doors, but I’d wind up getting a full hour of one-to-one tutorials because the other students hadn’t yet cottoned on to how useful they were. My office hours were mostly with the poet David Morley, who still runs the course at Warwick. I credit David with putting me on a poetic escalator; by the end of the first ten-week term, I had written a poem about the death of someone close to me. Not long after that, I walked past his office door, which was wide open, and he called out ‘Julia Forster! Poet!’ That anecdote still makes me giggle today. My husband calls me JFP for short now.

Funnily enough, although I went straight on to study creative writing at St Andrews after graduating, I never studied how to write novels, so I’ve learnt how to write longer pieces of fiction by picking up tips from all kinds of different text books, including books on screen-writing such as Story by Robert McKee, but mainly from reading widely. I read a lot of contemporary novels, but also plenty of classics.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think it differs depending what I’m writing. In the case of What a Way to Go, I had a strong conviction to write from a pure, emotional place about what it feels like when your parents divorce. The story took me to places that I couldn’t have anticipated. I most enjoy that I get to follow my intuition with writing. Although I have done many other jobs in the past, mainly in publishing but also in the environmental sector, this is the job which I think both stretches and surprises me the most.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

That question about the act of empathy is an interesting one. In What a Way to Go there is an elderly lady who is prejudiced and narrow-minded about her son’s sexuality (he’s gay), and there’s also a mobile librarian who patronises young Harper when she goes to borrow Forever by Judy Blume. I see it as my job to inhabit all the characters’ psyches while I write them, and to see the world from their unique perspectives; even if it’s just for one or two scenes, and even if I’m writing from a different point of view (in What a Way to Go, all the action is seen from the perspective of twelve year-old Harper). As such, I think it’s vital that I can empathise with the characters’ world views while I write them so that they feel authentic, but it doesn’t mean I share their outlook – in both cases that I mention above, I don’t whatsoever.

4. GW recently organised #diverseauthorday: do you think literature accurately reflects the diversity of culture we have today?

No, I don’t. We live in a richly diverse country and I don’t see that reflected on the bookshelves in shops. One of the characters in my book, Cassie, is adopted. She’s also black. However, I don’t make a big thing of this in the book because the story is seen from Harper’s point of view and Harper doesn’t notice skin colour until it is pointed out to her. That was exactly how it was for me, living in a diverse suburb of an east Midlands town: it was my experience that you didn’t question or even notice people’s skin colour. I take my hat off to initiatives like #diverseauthorday and bloggers like Naomi @Frizbot and Dan @Utterbiblio who are spreading the word about books by authors from different backgrounds.

5. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Twice in my twenties, I saved up my pay checks and then booked a week’s writing retreat on my own. Both times, I chose cities: the first time, Paris; the second, New York. In the latter case I stayed one cold January in a beautifully bohemian apartment which was just off 42nd Street, and it was run by artists. The cost of accommodation was kept artificially low so that artists and writers could afford to stay; I got an awful lot of writing done (I was working on a book which is still under my bed), but I also had a lot of fun.

It snowed so heavily that on the very last day of my retreat, a Sunday, my flight was cancelled. About five feet of snow had fallen in just a few hours. Instead of flying back to London, I went out for a beer with another artist who was staying there along with the son of the man who owned the apartment. We walked down the centre of the snow-filled Fifth Avenue. The whole city was choked by snow. Driving was impossible. We had a snowball fight and our laughter was muffled, as if we were playing in a sound-proof city.

If I could be transported instantly to anywhere in the world to write, I would go back there. But, sadly, I think I would also have to go back in time, as I am pretty sure the little bohemian slice of paradise in the centre of Manhattan no longer exists…

6. What is the one book you wish you had written?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

7. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

1. Silence your inner critic; there will be enough of these in the outside world.

2. Enjoy all your attempts at writing your novel – whether you fail or succeed.

3. Surround yourself with ‘can do’ positive people from all walks of life.*

*One of the people who inspired me to give this novel a go was a good friend who works for a forestry organisation. She had three children under 18 months at one stage, and yet despite spinning so many plates, she always has a positive attitude. She leaps over physical and emotional hurdles with the grace of an athlete and with an infectious joie de vivre. Novel writing is about solving one knotty problem after another; if you can get into the right mind set for that kind of challenge, then I really believe you’re half way there.

8. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have just finished a full-length radio drama which is on submission at the moment, and I am limbering up for a second novel. I’m not sure yet what it will be about, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

Thank you so much for having me to visit your blog!

What a Way to Go is published by Atlantic Books (January 2016)

You can follow Julia on Twitter: @WriterForster

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