Judy, thanks for joining us here at The Student Wordsmith and congratulations on your latest publication! It’s great to have the opportunity to share this Q&A featuring yourself and your own writing processes with our audience/readers. I’m sure they will find it a great help, especially your experiences and advice for emerging writers just like you. So, let’s get to it!
Q. What do you like / enjoy about writing?
A. I love the way an idea for a story or a character grabs hold of your arm and you’re off and running together on a journey. That is the most appealing thing about writing a novel to me. A character enters your life, sits at the computer with you, at the table, whispers in your ear, wakes you up at four in the morning with ideas for the next action- packed instalment. A novel can enter your head space and take over. But it’s less like an alien abduction and more like meeting a new best friend.
Q. What’re you reading right now?
A. ‘Tin Man’ by Sarah Winman. I’ve read her other two books and I love the way she writes. Before that, I read Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Gap in Time’ which was beyond brilliant and Ruth Hogan’s debut, ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ which I really enjoyed.
Q. For you latest piece of work where did you draw your inspiration from?
A. I started ’A Grand Old Time’ during my MA. It began with the idea that most protagonists in novels were young, certainly not in their golden years, so I wanted to create an older heroine who could still be attractive, mischievous, funny and enjoy all aspects of life. So I created Evie Gallagher to defy the stereotype of the older woman. She gambles, drinks too much, is full of naughtiness and even has a romance with a septuagenarian hunk. Many women of my mother’s age had an expectation that there was nothing for them beyond marriage and children. I so wish my Mum could have taken off in a camper van in her seventies and had adventures. She’d have been exactly like Evie, the main character – full of fun and mischief.
Q. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning?
A. I researched Evie’s journey by doing it myself several times, so I knew the locations visually. Then the more I wrote, the more details I needed to research. I visited care homes, betting shops, all sorts of new and interesting places, checked out the cost of buying a camper van. The minute you undertake the writing of a novel, research parallels everything you write. Thank goodness for the internet.
Q. It’s published by Harper Collins isn’t it? How did you come to know about them as a publisher?
A. I have a wonderful agent who did all the work. She spoke to a publisher at the London Book Fair who was interested in the character and the story. Like magic, really.
Q. How did it feel when it was accepted for publication?
A. A bit surreal, absolutely incredible and yet, in some ways, it was the next step which I’d always been working towards. I’d hoped readers would enjoy the story. So I was delighted and yet very grounded, ready to keep on writing.
Q. What are common traps for aspiring writers and what advice would you give to someone to try and avoid these?
A. I have friends who pass me their chapters all the time and ask if they can get a novel published. I believe they all can. I usually suggest to them that the three main ways to avoid pitfalls are, firstly, making sure you have time to dedicate to writing: setting a timetable and being focused, determined to do it, as some people begin a novel with enthusiasm and then run out of steam.
Then it is important to write for the reader. A common pitfall is to write a bit indulgently, for yourself. If a writer enjoys creating their own work with entertaining the reader as the primary focus, then the reader is more likely to enjoy it.
Thirdly, one pitfall is to try to write using overcomplicated language or to tell too much, rather than show. It’s important to write cleanly, so that the reader has an impactful and powerful experience of something visual and emotional, something which enables them to empathise with the characters and to be guided through a story which has pace and tension, twists and thrills.
Q. If you had the opportunity to go through this experience again would you change anything? If so what would you change?
A. No, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have a great agent and the publisher and support team at HarperCollins are totally lovely. I’ve been really lucky and the whole experience has been so exciting. I love talking to people about the novel – and I enjoy the editing process, which is nothing like as difficult as I’d heard it would be. I really feel that I’m being supported to create the best novel that I can.
Q. Do you feel you have developed any skills since becoming a writer and working with Harper Collins?
A. Yes, and I’m still improving. I’m better at predicting what is most suitable now in terms of the market and the genre. So when I’m writing, there’s a little voice in my head which says ‘how is the character feeling now?’ or ‘can I push the action a little further to give the reader more tension or comedy?’ It’s been really useful, learning to boldly go…but it’s something I’ll keep working at. I’m always trying to improve.
Q. Now just a fun one now to end the interview. If you could go for dinner with anyone dead or alive who would it be and why?
A. This is such a brilliant question but it’s so difficult to settle for one. It’s hard to choose between Lemmy, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Hendrix, Bob Marley, Etta James, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dostoyevsky, Aphra Benn, D H Lawrence, Oscar Wilde. Or Stephen Hawking.
But that wasn’t the question. One person. Right. I think I’d pick Vincent Van Gogh. He was a beautiful soul, so talented, prolific and with hidden secrets. I’d meet him for lunch at a café in Arles. We’d sit outside in the bright sunlight, and I’d ask him to tell me in French about his life, over a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. I’m such a sucker for stories.
‘A Grand Old Time’ is being published by Avon Books UK, an imprint of Harper Collins.
Judy Leigh graduated with a Master’s in Professional Writing from Falmouth University in 2015. Before her MA, she taught Drama, directed plays and produced Shakespeare Festivals. Now she writes a column for a newspaper, blogs, writes short stories, newspaper and magazine articles and anything else she can find that inspires her to write. You can find out more about Judy and her work here.