Heidi James tell us a bit about yourself; where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Chatham in Kent and grew up in the surrounding towns – called the Medway towns – so in and around Rochester, Chatham (on various estates), Gillingham. I left when I was seventeen and moved to London, but even though I’ve not lived there for a long time, Medway remains a potent influence.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
My mother and grandmother were avid readers, and I was taught to read and love books from a very early age; but they were busy, working class women who’d left school early so the books in our homes tended to be Catherine Cookson and romances, Mills and Boon etc. Having said that I had lots of classic children’s books and I had a couple of teachers who were pretty amazing in encouraging me to read widely. When I was teenager I skipped school to go the library in town and would read anything and everything curled up in a chair by a window that looked out over the River Medway. I read a lot of Dickens, Daphne du Maurier and Stephen King. I used to read any of the Penguin Classics, because that seemed to be a foolproof method of reading; I was hungry to learn, but hated school. I suppose my earliest influences that I was consciously reading to learn to write were Angela Carter, Plath and Sexton and John Steinbeck. I loved his work.
Why do you write?
To make sense of things, to feel less alone – but actually, in writing that I know I’m imposing a reason why, or at least, attempting to fashion a “why” out of an impulse I don’t really understand. I like reading essays by other writers where they describe their methods and reasons for writing, and I admire that articulate sense of purpose and approach to their art, but I don’t know that I can excavate or fathom why I do. I just have to, I think about it constantly. Words present themselves, impose themselves on my everyday. I wonder if it’s a distancing, a product of feeling outside the action of life. I’m always observing.
How do you choose your subjects?
It’s the characters mostly. I see and hear and feel a character and I want to explore them, and the subject or theme unwinds from the character. So Cora in Wounding came first, and I started thinking about the roles we play, or feel forced to play, and how that could unravel. For So the Doves, Melanie came first, but I wanted to write her from a distance, not from her perspective, I wanted to think about class and gender and truth and NOT have a female victim and so I built a story and other characters around her. So, it’s character first, then subject, though so closely fitted that it isn’t quite as sequential as that.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
My research and writing go hand in hand. A lot of my work happens in rough notes, daydreaming and reading other things. It seems to coagulate in my mind and then I sit down to write and it just comes out . . . if I do any prep work it tends to be about the characters. I write scenes from their past or future that won’t make it into the book. I imagine their parent’s lives etc. I think you have to get under the skin of the characters, to know them better than you know yourself. Once it all comes together in my imagination I’m anxious to get going.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m proud I’ve ever managed to write anything, and equally embarrassed about all of it.
Your views on success?
Getting caught up in thinking about what constitutes success is a mug’s game I think. There will always be someone more successful than you, and of course, less so. Having a great review in a fancy broadsheet, or winning an award, doesn’t actually change anything and yet yearning for it and making comparisons to others is a guaranteed path to misery. I consider my work a success if it has had meaning for someone, so when I’ve had messages and emails from readers (in particular this happened with Wounding) telling me the book spoke to them in a way that was helpful or created a sense of empathy, then I’m happy. I’m here, I do what I love, I have loving family and friends and I feel very lucky . . . what else is there?
Do you write every day? Do you do many drafts?
I do write everyday – even if just notes or fragments. I don’t redraft too much. I wrote one draft of Wounding, but then my amazing editors whipped it into shape, but it wasn’t a radical redrafting. I did write about five drafts of So the Doves however, getting the voice right for that was a challenge. I should probably write more.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the notes and playing with ideas for two novels . . . a horror(ish) and a historical, back and forth, epic. Though of course both experiment and play with genre/form. I love this part, where it’s still play and experiment and exciting.
Your views on book publishing?
I love that the indies are getting more traction, that they can publish work that the big guys don’t because of commercial considerations and bottom lines. We can only be richer, the more good, interesting, strange, diverse books that are out there. Stories make us . . . we need more. We need to support them too, and buy from the indies.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I’ve never read one. I totally get the convenience arguments etc . . . but I love physical books, the heft, the smell and the pages . . . I am a book vandal though. I write notes in them, or ideas or arguments. The books on my shelves become a dialogue with the author. I am always late to the party though, so I may well fall in love with eReaders eventually.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
Well, computers make it easier to redraft and research etc . . . and of course increased the scope of publishing online, so it’s enriched my writing life as a writer and as a reader. I use social media because I feel I have to, but I don’t like it. It makes me nervous. I feel like a wallflower at a party, lingering at the edge of the dancers, unsure how to join in. Twitter just depresses me.
What are your favorite literary journals?
Gorse, 3AM, Neon, Somesuch . . . There’s some exciting writing to be found.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why? To the very beginning or end of time, although even if it were hospitable, I doubt I’d be able to wrap my tiny human mind around it. But then, I suppose to us humans the moment of our birth or death would be same – the end or beginning of our time. Maybe for purely pragmatic and selfish reasons I’d go back to when I was four or five and tell my small self that it would all be OK and not to pay attention to the people who were telling me I was a worthless thing.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
My best friend Michelle, I’d love to hear her laugh just once more and she really knew how to party. Kathy Burke, I think she’s amazing and I’d love to talk to her about her work and life. Elizabeth Taylor, Miranda July and Kathleen Hanna . . . We could all get filthy drunk, talk dirty and make art.
Your favourite prose authors?
Oh blimey . . . Clarice Lispector, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Kamila Shamsie, Benjamin Myers, Lindsay Parnell . . . I could go on and on.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
Can I choose one of my own characters? If so, my fictional hero would be Melanie in So the Doves, she’s everything I wish I could be. Brave, honest, smart. In real life . . . my husband, my children, Michelle. I know some amazing women who never cease to amaze and inspire me. I’m inspired by ordinary acts of bravery or kindness – moments of honesty, of integrity, those collect and gather and become something much larger than themselves, I think. I hope. I’m in awe of all the people claiming their right to be heard, to claim a space and all those who are supporting that.
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
I’m not very good at the networking thing so not many, but the few authors I’m friends with – Ben Myers, Adelle Stripe, Ford Dagenham, Lindsay Parnell, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, Lee Rourke – I’ve known for a long time and we’ve all supported each other in some way; either by reading early drafts, suggesting books and in Ben’s case, introducing me to my publisher. They help me become a better writer by being bloody amazing and writing incredible work. They throw down the creative gauntlet. It’s great seeing my friends succeed, and they deserve even more success.
Your chief characteristic?
I’m loyal, I almost fetishize loyalty.
Your chief fault?
Fear/people-pleasing. I despise it in myself.
Your bedside reading?
I’m currently reading The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley. It’s VERY good . . . It’s actually disturbing my sleep!
I have two: don’t think, do (which I never follow), and, don’t lend what you can’t afford to give (which I do follow and it applies to more than the material). So I suppose that’s just the one then.
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