Friday 3 June 2016

A Conversation with Josie Pearse

Josie Pearse gained her PhD from Cardiff University with her thesis, Writing and Not Writing on the Cusp of Life and Fiction. She specialises in helping writers make books from life experience.

Josie has taught creative writing for most of her life. She has been a writer in residence and has worked at all levels of skill. As co-founder of Pearse & Black, she runs 
closed groups which support writers working on long projects and runs site-specific one-off workshops.

She bases her approach simply on the principle that you learn to write by writing and guidance. And for a writer at any level of skill, the knowledge of your process – including what your block might be trying to tell you – can be an essential tool for sustaining the writing of a whole book. Josie helps each writer master his or her process.

Josie Pearse lives in London and has written 3 historical novels so far. La Basquaise and Undressing the Devil were published under the pseudonym Angel Strand by Ebury Press. The third is sitting on a shelf having a rest after it’s eigth rejection.

Thank you to Josie for taking part in A Conversation with... and we wish her well with her novel writing and future publication.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

In New York city in my twenties I joined a small writing group in a poet’s loft, just to see if I could do it. I read out my first story and the poet told me ‘never underestimate the power of what you write’. I felt like a fairy godmother had tapped me with a wand. I’d found something I could do. As a teenager, I’d been asked to leave school, so hadn’t had much of an education and I thought I was pretty stupid.

Writing always mirrors my self back to me… and it took ages for me to like what I saw then… I was very timid as a writer when I was young.

Also, I was mute for a year as a child. I had been in a children’s home, and then adopted, lost my own mother. I think my silence gave me a private place I could form my own narrative.

Writing is not being silent but somehow it equates. My writing comes from silence and I need to listen - and scribe what I hear under the surface. My PhD was 100,000 words long… a lot of listening to myself.

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

I like communicating how-its-done to people, encouraging writers - and helping them move their ideas forward. Everyone’s voice is an orphan until someone really hears it.

I really enjoyed being a Writer in Residence at a migrant and refugee charity a few years ago. Sometimes I would scribe for people who could not read or write because they hadn’t been to school. Maybe there just wasn’t a school in their village. They’d speak of things that would blow your mind - or at least overturn a few preconceived notions. I’d like to do that again. We published collections of them when I worked at a college a long time ago. Finding the money to do that these days isn’t easy. Some manage it though.

I don’t see my own writing as playing a role. I just follow it, put one word after another. At some point, most days, I end up at the desk, typing nonsense.

I used to be more idealistic about it…even writing Black Lace. Most people think that was just commercial but I, and other women I knew, were writing the female experience of sex which, in the early nineties, was new to the mainstream. Yes that’s the 1990s I’m talking about not the 1890s! I really wanted my writing to give women courage to speak from their own experience, and not have to fit, all pert, into the male gaze.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
That’s happening right now. I’m working on an adaptation for television. I’m modernising a nineteenth century short story and the lead character is…she’s difficult to like. I was just wondering whether I really want to live with a character I don’t like. Perhaps I’ll find a way in to her through something stronger, like disgust which is an intense emotion at least. Intensity is good for writing.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I have a thing about wanting to represent adoptees in a realistic way…I get fed up of every TV crime show having a care-leaver or adoptee as the serial killer. In life 16% of serial killers are adoptees. What about the other 84%? No one studies them! I’d like to see a drama about one of the 84%. Just imagine it… ‘he came from a completely normal family,’ said the psychologist. The questions you’d be left asking would be much bigger. Paradoxically, in this case, diversity is about taking the negative gaze off a minority.

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

Kandy in Sri Lanka - a side road near the Temple of the Tooth. About three months in a shady office overlooking the street, with an open window. I’d go over to the hotel across the street for a beer at the end of the day. Why? I can’t think of a reason why not.

What is the one book you wish you had written? 

What advice do you have for would be novelists?
The only ‘would be’ novelist is the one who hasn’t put any words on the page yet. Put words down. Make sentences. Now you’re writing a novel, if that’s what you want. Otherwise it might be a short story, a script. Whatever…you’re writing. That’s great. Keep going.

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

I’m working on a series of historical novellas. I finished the first one. But the second is going slow. We’re on a ship going across the Atlantic, one of the characters would probably be diagnosed as depressed now, or bi-polar and she’s made the crossing bigger to write than I thought it would be. It’s her behaviour and the the other passengers reacting to her that needs a lot of thought at the minute. In fact, in the first novella, her mania was very ugly. She’s exactly the kind of character you asked about before. I can’t say I like her now but I have tapped into a source of deep compassion for her, so she’s become more complex which is more rewarding to write.

Meanwhile you can read this if you like, I like this story The Woman Who Makes Love to Storms

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

When I was tiny I liked Tom, who became a Water Baby (by Charles Kingsley) I was fascinated by the idea you could grow gills. And I had a beautiful book based on the Russian myth of the Firebird. I wanted to fly. I lived in the back of a second hand shop and so much of my reading was from the for-sale rack. When I began to choose my own I read a lot of adventure books with ‘chaps just out of uniform’ as the hero. Pulp, I guess. Until I discovered Monica Dickens and then I was back to wanting to be part animal. But my headmistress told me I would look like a horse if I kept reading Monica’s horse stories. So I started on Enid Blyton and liked George, of course, the adventurous one who wore shorts.

You can follow Josie on Twitter: @jojowasawoman

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