I am very excited to have had the opportunity to interview author Jill Dawson. I recently read her most recent novel The Great Lover as part of a TLC Book Tour (my review here). As a lover of historical fiction, I was impressed by the research that went into Rupert Brooke's life and the historical setting.
Jill Dawson was extremely gracious - I hope that you enjoy her thoughts as much as I have.
I learned that you performed a significant amount of research on Rupert Brooke’s life prior to writing The Great Lover, which included travel to locations where he lived and visited during his life. Can you describe your research process and your favorite surprises about his life?
I think of my research process as a little like method acting. Or a kind of immersion technique. So it’s not all about books, documents and archive material (although that too, of course). It’s also about swimming in the River Cam (as Rupert did) seeing honey being ‘spun’ (as Nell does), making beeswax candles (Nell again) swimming in the sea off the coast of Tahiti (Rupert) – you get the idea. I don’t think all writers should work this way; a novel is after all, a work of imagination. But for me the research is such fun, I find it hard to stop! Some lovely surprises about Rupert was to be offered his diary to hold by the man who owns the Orchard where Brooke lived. Also, that after the novel came out someone told me they had met Brooke’s daughter in the 1970s (she died in the 90s) and that I was right to believe she existed. Then there was the cache of sexy letters between Brooke and Phyllis Gardner that had only recently come to light, and has not yet been incorporated into any biographies or scholarly works on him.
After the novel was finished I took my family to the Greek island of Skyros where Rupert is buried and visited his grave, which is on a lonely and bare part of the island. Another surprise for me was how moved I felt. How well I felt I knew him. I wondered if his mother had ever travelled there to visit him and learned that she had, but many years later.
I was intrigued by your quote in This Side of Paradise in the About the Book section of The Great Lover: “Novelists thrive on the gaps in a story, the murky places that only imagination can illuminate.” Which biographical gap in Rupert Brooke’s life would you say had the most impact on The Great Lover?
Hmmm….I’m not sure now! Perhaps one thing I was thinking of was that Rupert wrote lots of letters but was so clever and funny and witty in them and so good at dissembling that it took a lot of unpicking to figure out when he was being serious, and what he might really have meant to say. Also, his time in Tahiti, which seemed to have such an impact on his writing, but was documented in only a few letters and poems.
I felt that Nell was an excellent compliment to Rupert Brooke’s character in The Great Lover. How was her character created or inspired?
I’m glad you liked Nell – I found myself liking her immensely. I think she embodies the characteristics I always admire: plain speaking, an ability to look squarely at her own self (eventually, anyway!) and practical domestic skills (which I don’t have at all) of making a home, cooking, sewing that kind of thing. My father’s mother was a maid in service, but I didn’t know her well. So I think Nell may have sub-consciously been based partly on my sister Debra who has great warmth and a knack of making any house she lives in or visits seem homely and welcoming.
I wanted to suggest that Nell’s talent was to love. She is The Great Lover of the title in the end – she loves her bees, she loves Rupert, she loves her father (despite his lack of warmth towards her), she loves her job, her family back home, she loves her son. To me to love well is a gift that few people have, but Nell definitely does.
Have you given thought to what type of life Rupert Brooke may have led if his life had not been cut short?
I love his prose writing – supple, witty, ironic, playful – and I’ve wondered if he might have become a novelist. He did say in one letter that he wanted to write a novel about his Tahitian love, Tatamaata. So I did it for him….
What have you found to be your favorite part of publicizing your books?
Travelling! I’ve just come back from Hong Kong, Beijing, New Zealand….there’s something special about meeting people in countries and cultures that I’m not familiar with, who have read my books and want to talk to me about them. Does writing travel? Does imagination travel? I’ve just come back from a conference here in the UK debating those ideas. My strongest sense of this was taking part in a project in Russia where 150 academics were reading (and teaching) my second novel, Magpie. I did feel touched that they ‘got’ the novel. There is a Russian saying which someone translated to me as: ‘what comes from the heart reaches the heart.’ Over and over they told me that. I felt highly complimented.
I read a writewords.org interview where you commented that you approach your writing as if you are writing for a stranger, and that you do not need to know what people think. For this reason, do you avoid reading reviews of your work? If not, do you incorporate review comments into your future works?
Yes I still feel I’m writing for a stranger, even though I meet my readers very often, and I do read reviews. It’s just that the writing mode is a different one than the publicising mode – writing is almost done in a trance state and I feel that reading a novel is best when it’s an intimate experience: one human voice echoing in your own head. I later incorporate into the book I’m working on my editor’s comments and my husband’s comments and my agent’s comments – and that’s it! I can only cope with three.
I learned that you are the current director of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme for writers. Do you have a favorite moment from this experience, or a time where you felt that you had an impact on a young writer?
I love mentoring. One of our Gold Dust mentors, novelist Jane Rogers, was my mentor when I was just starting out – she taught me on an MFA in Creative Writing that I did. I know how valuable the right word at the right moment, from someone you know is well-regarded and serious about writing, can be. It felt to me as though Jane gave me permission to write the novel I was working on, and a few practical tips – such as use a map to get the sense of place right – and then a whole lot more: confidence, optimism. It really pleases me that now under the scheme I set up she mentors other new writers. We have sixteen mentors of a very high calibre, all published and many of them short-listed for prizes like the Booker or the Orange. http://www.gold-dust.org.uk/
You are currently adapting Wild Boy for the screen. Do you enjoy the screenplay writing format? How is the process different from your prior writing experiences?
Yes, I do enjoy writing screenplays because I tend to think in scenes, and to have one central character that I’m following, a device which works as well in film as in novels. What is different is that having written a script, the process of being ‘in development’ is long and nightmarish.
I read that you will be traveling to Sri Lanka in 2011 for the Galle Literary Festival. What is the most enjoyable traveling experience that you have had in relation to your writing career? Do you find inspiration from your travels?
That’s easy. A few years ago I went swimming with hump-back whales in the Caribbean as part of research into the life of a marine biologist, for my novel Watch Me Disappear. (I also wrote a piece for The Times which you can read on my website www.jilldawson.co.uk on the journalism page). The humpback mothers and calves were the most extraordinarily impressive creatures and being under-water with them was spooky and awe-inspiring.
What do you have planned next?
I’ve just finished and delivered an early draft of my seventh novel, Lucky Bunny, about the life of Queenie Dove, a contemporary Moll Flanders…..should be out in 2011, fingers crossed!
Thank you Jill for taking the time to answer my questions. I will be looking forward to Lucky Bunny next year!
Jill Dawson's Website: http://www.jilldawson.co.uk/
Gold Dust: http://www.gold-dust.org.uk/