Saturday 28 May 2016

A Conversation with Joanna Campbell

Joanna Campbell’s first novel Tying Down The Lion has just been named as a contender for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize award 2015. The Guardian pioneered this award in an attempt to select a ‘reader-judged’ winner and Joanna is among 70 on this year’s list.

Born in 1960, Joanna grew up in Hayes, Middlesex. She studied at Exeter University to obtain a degree in German and has taught both German and English as a second language. Her love of reading began at the age of three and remains today. Her passion for books has led Joanna to write over recent years and her ability to observe people and remember the little details has been invaluable in her writing.

As well as having many of her short stories published in magazines, Joanna has had her fiction shortlisted in many competitions including the Bridport, Fish and the Flannery O’Connor Award. A collection of Joanna’s prize-winning short stories, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, will be published later this year.

Tying Down The Lion came from a short story Joanna had written, 'A Temporary Uprooting', which was frequently short listed in competitions. It follows Roy Bishop and his half-German wife Bridget, accompanied by their daughter Jacqueline and Grandma Nell, as they take a road trip to Berlin in the summer of 1967. Berlin at this time is divided by the cold war and is recovering from the devastation caused by World War Two.

Grandma Nell has a dislike for foreigners, including her German daughter-in-law, and Jacqueline observes and records the interactions between the family members during their travels.
Tying Down The Lion is a book about division but also about reconciliation. It shows the necessity of family love and understanding. There is warmth and humour mixed with the reality of the prejudices and bigotry which inevitably came in the aftermath of WW2.    

The following conversation gives us the opportunity to know Joanna a little better and we wish her every success with the book.

Tell us of your journey as a writer
I started writing seriously about seven years ago, but there has never been a time when I haven’t invented people. My earliest memory is staggering around the garden with a stick, pretending to be a lame, elderly man. I did this regularly for a long time, presumably wanting to discover how it might feel to be in someone else’s skin. I was always cripplingly shy and craved time alone to make up other lives.
When I was a little older, I wrote stories and poems to amuse friends because I didn’t feel I could hold their attention any other way. When I was seven, I made a guitar from a piece of cardboard, composed a dozen poems to ‘sing’ and staged a solo Eurovision Song Contest to an audience of one—the girl next door, bribed with a sherbet fountain.
As an adult, I couldn’t find a job I loved because I always wanted to work by myself. I was terrified of teamwork because if the process ever ground to a halt, I was sure I would be exposed as the faulty cog in the machine.
I was in my late forties before I thought of sending my stories and poems to magazines and competitions. An initial boost came when I was a runner-up in a competition run by Woman and Home magazine.
Although I have never written with a particular publication or competition in mind, once a story is finished and polished, I check to see where it might fit best. When ‘The Yellow Room’—a beautiful, high-quality literary magazine founded by writer and editor, Jo Derrick—published some of my first stories, I felt I had set foot on a path that I had always wanted to find and follow. It seemed to lead me to buried treasure and I haven’t been able to resist unearthing more and more ever since.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
My role is to entertain the readers; for my words to move them, either to laughter or tears—hopefully in all the right places. If even one person is stirred by what they see on the page, then that is enough for me.
It is thrilling to be shortlisted in a competition or to be one of the winners, but to hear someone say they were gripped by my story or that they laughed out loud, or shed a tear, is the real prize.
Positive feedback is the greatest accolade of all and the knowledge that I have added some value, however fleeting, to someone’s life is my favourite aspect of being a writer.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Bridget Bishop, the narrator’s mother in Tying Down The Lion, made me bristle at first. She is enveloped in her own past and preoccupied with her quest to go ‘home’ to Berlin. However, as Bridget led me deeper into her story and took me into the past, she revealed the depth of her suffering and the disconnection with her roots had damaged her ability to notice how much her new family in England needed her.
I met her as a fragmented person with a confused sense of self, and readers will find out if a more complete woman emerges in the end. What I have learned from Bridget is that we are all on a quest to establish our own identity, and should try to understand—rather than feel alienated by—each other’s missions.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?
There are two places. One is the garden of the house in Middlesex where I grew up. I’m sure it was quite ordinary, but it seemed magical when I was a small child, with its low walls and little steps that led to different levels. It was a perfect place for solitary games of make-believe and therefore endless possibilities. It is without doubt where, after inventing my first characters, I began to think, “What if…?”
The other place is a high-ceilinged apartment on the top floor of a once-grand town-house in the former East Berlin, where I once stayed on holiday. The shabby building still showed remnants of its former grandeur and the street below had become bohemian and bustling with life since the fall of the Wall. The apartment was steeped in history, evoking both the luxury of a golden era and the barbaric slicing into flats that followed during the years of communist rule. The preliminary ideas for Tying Down The Lion acquired a real shape there.
But my favourite place of all to write is my home, a small cottage in a quiet Cotswold village. If I were told I could never leave it, then providing all my family were there too, I would be content.

What is the one book you wish you had written?
I am having difficulty choosing between two, so if I may, I would wish I had written either Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons or Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. I love both these novels for their eccentricity, the rich characterisation and wry, natural humour. I have been kept from reading many a new book by my longing to return to these and re-read them all over again.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
In one word—finish!
Seriously, the first stage of writing a novel is like hanging out the washing on a bright day with a decent breeze. Every peg brings pleasure. The sheets are billowing and the shirts are swelling. The outlook is hopeful.
But after a while, the sky darkens and a storm lashes at your laundry-line. If you battle through the downpour, you will bring it all in—eventually. However, after that, worse is to come. You will actually become the wet sheets and dripping shirts as each of them is fed—slowly and painfully—through a mangle.
Beginnings are easy and full of hope, but you have to rise to the challenge when the clouds gather. Progress can be painful and slow, but it will be worth it. I spent five years writing and researching Tying Down The Lion, but a beautiful dawn chorus heralded the final words as I typed them and made every moment I spent putting myself through the wringer absolutely worthwhile.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?
I am currently promoting Tying Down The Lion and also thinking of ways to promote my short story collection, due for release later this year. This is so different from writing! I am naturally quiet and shy, so thrusting my book at people seems a world away from where I should be. However, it can be a lot of fun too and I have made new friends, both online and in ‘real life’, as a result. All my family have helped me with ideas for publicity and been so supportive that I wonder how I would manage it without them.
I am also writing a novel I started two years ago that is now nearing the end of the first draft. There will be many more drafts to come, but it is beginning to feel less shapeless. I have changed the structure three times, settling for four different viewpoint characters with alternating chapters, and I feel comfortable with it for the first time.
This new novel is about a family who experience a tragedy and must find their way through the dark times that follow. Only the reader is aware of a potential new disaster lying in wait.
The characters have reached the stage where they are leading me and dictating the course of events. I am looking forward to seeing how it ends and hope they all find what they are searching for. I won’t know until I reach their final chapter.

Thank you so much to Greenacre Writers for inviting me to join in this conversation. I have so enjoyed answering your questions.

You can follow Joanna on twitter: @PygmyProse
Tying Down The Lion is published by Brick Lane Publishing


Joanna said...

I have so appreciated being given these intriguing questions to answer. It took my mind a long way back to childhood and then all through the years that have led to Tying Down The Lion. Thank you to everyone at Greenacre Writers. I'm so grateful to have had this opportunity to reflect. x

Rosie Canning said...

It is our pleasure. I so emphathise with wanting to work on your own or just to be alone at times, and I really enjoyed reading your reflection.

Joanna said...

Thank you so much, Rosie. i think aloneness can be so rewarding, productive and also, sometimes, necessary for the imagination to come alive.