In the first of a series of author interviews over the next few months I've been talking to Mick Jackson about The Widow’s Tale, Norfolk, home-made speed cameras, Holbein prints, widowhood, and much else besides.
Sam Ruddock: First up, can you tell us a bit about The Widow’s Tale?
Mick Jackson: Essentially, it’s the story of a woman who abandons her house in London, gets in her car and runs away to north Norfolk, where she rents a cottage. We discover, quite early on, that she’s recently lost her husband, and the story moves forward from there.
SR: What was your inspiration for writing it?
MJ: It was something of a coincidence, in that I happened to be renting a cottage in one of the villages on the Norfolk coast when I read an article by Katherine Whitehorn about how her life changed following the loss of her husband. It made me appreciate that I knew next to nothing about a woman in that position. And the landscape – the saltmarshes in the middle of winter – just seemed the perfect setting for a character like that. So, to put it crudely, those two elements fused together right from the outset. I considered writing a screenplay about a woman who’d recently lost her husband, but ultimately decided that a piece of fiction would allow me to explore what she was going through a little more easily.
SR: What was it about the north Norfolk coast that attracted you to set this book there?
MJ: I’ve visited the area since the mid-‘80s. And my little trips often seem to have been in the autumn or winter. Those seasons somehow suit the place. The browns and greys. The hazy, misty quality that the air seems to have in the colder seasons. Perhaps it’s the moisture coming off the water. Then, of course, there’s the big skies and the saltmarshes which seemed to suit the story – for a sort of wintery reflection. But, really, it wasn’t so much a calculation. I just read the article and thought, instinctively, I should set a story about a widow here.
SR: Norfolk also appeared briefly appeared in Bears of England. Is this a recurring setting?
MJ: To be honest, I can’t remember in what way Norfolk appears in Bears of England, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’m very fond of the place. There are several areas in East Anglia that we keep coming back to … the coastline between Southwold and Aldeburgh … the Broads … and the villages along the north coast. I lived in Norwich for a year while I studied at UEA and I shot some short films in Norfolk in the mid-‘90s. I just feel comfortable there. And you don’t really go through some of these areas to get somewhere else, in the way that you do with lots of areas in Britain. So it feels a little out on a limb and perhaps that contributes to it being a little different and even perhaps a little magical.
SR: How did you find writing from a female perspective? What research did you do to get into her mindset?
MJ: Primarily, just talking to women who happened to find themselves in that situation. One of the great things about being a writer is that if you approach people who have the experience / knowledge required for a project – whether they’re historians or bio-chemists or, in this case, widows – then they’re often only too willing to share it with you. So I talked to a few women who’d lost their husbands in recent years. And, crucially, I happened to hear a particular voice on the radio one day (an actress, who was talking about a play or film she’d worked on) and I thought that her voice was perfect, so I sort of cast her in the part, which certainly helped in the early stages. But, at the risk of sounding arrogant, you just have a hunch that you can carry off a voice or tone and there’s always a part of writing where you just do it without quite knowing what’s going on. Then you look at it five minutes later and think, either Yes, that’s working. Or, No, that’s actually quite dreadful. And some parts of the creative process I’m happy to be a complete mystery.
SR: She is a wonderfully irascible narrator with a deliciously acerbic sense of humour. It is impossible not to like her. Yet she remains nameless. Why is that?
MJ: Well, she’s telling the story, so there’s no obvious reason why she should name herself in the text. Also, I’m not always a fan of having every element in a novel explained – partly because life’s not like that and partly because I think it leaves less room for the reader to fill in some details themselves. In the same way, we never hear how her husband died – what the circumstances were – but we don’t need necessarily need to. The readers will work it out for themselves.
SR: Did her voice come to you fully formed? How did she develop through the writing process?
MJ: I reached a stage early on where I was pretty confident about her voice. As I said above, it took a little while to get there, but once I’d written the first half dozen pages and tried out her voice on a variety of subjects I thought I had a pretty good handle on where she was coming from. It sounds preposterous, but I very quickly began to consider her as a very real person, quite distinct from myself. And so whilst I was very much aware of how I was directing the narrative and organizing the topics as they came up, I was constantly filtering these things through her and the voice I’d come up with and it seemed to work quite well.
For what it’s worth, when writers talk about characters coming to life and them just sitting back and letting the characters get on with writing the story, I think they’re rather underselling their skills as writers. Either that or their novels must be completely out of control. But there are moments when you’re aware of another part of one’s mind operating, almost unconsciously, and producing text or dialogue. And for those few moments, you do just think, Ah, well that’s interesting. Let’s try that out.
SR: Widows have rarely featured in literature, and when they have it is generally as evil/senile old matriarchs dressed in black and gazing out of the window of a country estate. Why do you think this is?
MJ: Of course, the word ‘widow’ is used a little ironically in the title. She’s not simply a widow. She’s a million other things. It’s simply that widowhood is the thing that’s preoccupying her right now. We don’t really talk about widows and widowers in the same way that we used to, any more than we talk about divorcees. But my protagonist plays around with the concept … of being some old crone, dressed in black, hobbling around the village. The truth is that she’s only in her early sixties and has got a good deal of life left in her. She’s just having to reconsider what that life might be.
SR: Why does she get so obsessed with the book of Holbein prints? Is there significance in it being Holbein?
MJ: The slightly obsessive nature is one of my characteristics that I attributed to her. It somehow makes the character more three-dimensional – certainly to me (which is hugely important when I’m trying to make her live) and hopefully to the reader to. So she does several things and talks about various experiences which, with a little retouching, I’ve transposed from my own life. So when I was up in Norfolk doing some research for the book (research in this context meaning having a holiday up there) I happened to see a book of Holbein prints that I thought a friend might like, but left it and by the time I decided that I was going to buy it and went back a few hours later it had gone. I made a few notes about it at the time and thought I might be able to find a way to include it in the narrative. As it turned out it worked well with one or two other elements in the book. And one of the paintings takes on some significance. Sometimes you just have a hunch that something will work and stir it into the pot, and in this instance how it might work just occurred to me as I wrote the first draft.
MJ: I’d say I try and find the appropriate tone for each book. My first book, The Underground Man, was set in Victorian Britain, so it’s written in something like a Victorian Gothic style. In Bears of England the actual prose is quite plain, despite the fact that the narrative itself is quite strange. With The Widow’s Tale the protagonist writes the story as a sort of journal, so there’s plenty of vernacular. And the fact that the whole thing is so conversational and immediate hopefully means that the reader gets drawn in from the word go.
SR: At one point she drives past a home-made speed camera, built of plywood and painted canary yellow. It’s a great moment that seems to capture the do-it-yourself atmosphere of the book. Does this speed camera really exist somewhere?
MJ: It used to. I’d noticed it on the coast road between Cley and Sheringham, and I included it, I think, just as a bit of a nod to the locals, to show that I knew the area. But it did strike me as rather amusing, so I had her notice it in the same way I did.
SR: Without giving away the ending, the Widow’s story would not seem to end with the conclusion of this book. Do you have a sense of where she will go from here? Would you ever consider writing a sequel?
MJ: This is probably going to sound a little defensive, but I rarely get the feeling that a book’s story ends with its conclusion. But I definitely feel that she’s come out the other side of something. It felt fitting to wrap things up when she leaves the village. So, honestly, I felt like my work here was done. As for a follow-up, I’d say the chances of that are pretty slim. In fact, I’d say they’re worse than slim.
SR: It seems to me that there are great similarities between the Widow in this book, and the old Duke in your Booker shortlisted debut, The Underground Man? Do you agree?
MJ: Yes, in that they’re both characters who are close to the edge. They find themselves in a tight corner, which is probably attractive to a writer. My books – or certainly the two you mention – aren’t exactly full of action, but I consider them to be dramatic. The drama comes from what’s going on inside the characters. And I seem to enjoy writing in the first person. Some writers don’t like it at all. Some readers too, I imagine. But I find it particularly rewarding, and I think it puts a reader right there, caught up in their particular quandaries, and helps then empathise with them.
SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
MJ: Pretty much yes. I’d qualify that by saying that I don’t consider it a prerogative to being a writer. A person might make that decision quite out of the blue in retirement and be as good a writer as someone who’s always wanted to write. When I was a kid I wanted to be a singer in a band, then I wrote poetry in my teens, and went to drama school where I wrote plays. And I was lucky enough to have one of those English teachers who singled me out and made me feel a little special when it came to writing creatively (and I was supremely ordinary at everything else). So in that respect, yes, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
SR: You studied on the world renowned Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. How do you look back on that experience?
MJ: With great affection. I was desperate to get onto the course because I imagined it would give me a structure in which to write, and that I’d have much more chance of being taken seriously by publishers, etc if I’d done the course. I was right, I think, in both respects. Simply having a year in which you’re set deadlines by which point you have to complete chapters / stories, and being in the company of professional writers (in my case, Malcolm Bradbury, Rose Tremain and Michele Roberts) and all the other student writers helped create a sense of real industry and allowed you to imagine that you might actually have a crack at it.
SR: What do you think are the benefits of such courses to the writer?
MJ: The real concern people have about creative writing courses is ‘How can you teach someone how to write?’ And the answer of course is that you can’t, because everyone has their own process and their own motivations. What you can do is give people the time and space to flex their creative muscles in a supportive and constructive environment. The most important thing the course taught me was to revise – something I now do endlessly. Prior to going to Norwich I would just pound out the first draft of something, without ever quite grasping how you could go back and rework it without killing the initial spark. The fact is some people will always consider creative writing courses anathema. But carpenters aren’t born instinctively knowing how to make a cabinet and there doesn’t seem to be any great snobbery about artists going to art college. I guess the one criticism I might level against writing courses is that it does sometimes engender a sort of adjectival writing – something I’ve been guilty of in the past. And it took me a while to start thinking about the reader and what he / she might be getting out of the experience. But I think that’s just typical of writers whether they’ve done a course or not. In the first instance you’re doing it for yourself and you fail to realize that there’s somebody else involved. Somebody who might also enjoy being entertained.
MJ: I’ve written several drafts and everyone involved seems happy with where we are. But film production is largely about organizing the money with which to make the thing (something thankfully I have nothing to do with), so we shall see. It may well never happen. Probably the less said about it right now the better.
SR: What are the major differences between writing fiction and screenplays?
MJ: The glib answer is that fiction takes longer. But since I’ve been working on one particular screenplay (on and off) for about four years now, that appears not necessarily to be the case. Of course, you’re always trying to think in terms of visuals in one medium (although it’s worth saying that a novel without some sense of the visual would be a pretty dull book). But I think the real difference is that with a novel you can take the reader right into the characters’ thoughts and elaborate on the most idiosyncratic observation, whereas with film you’re always striving for some representation, in tone, etc.
SR: Where and when do you do most of your writing?
MJ: I have an office, so I tend to do a five day week like most people. I put on my coat and hat and cycle off to work. Personally, I find the mornings the most creative, so I try and do any original composition then. But I can work until quite late in the afternoon, as long as I have regular breaks to drink tea and eat cake. And as long as I have a little catnap in my armchair after lunch.
SR: What do you write on/with?
MJ: Any ideas I have when I’m at home or out and about I just scrawl down on scraps of paper, or in a notebook. Then I collate them on the respective file on my computer at work. From those accumulated notes I begin to block out the narrative. But when I’m actually writing a draft I tend to do so by hand (with an HB pencil, since you ask) … but I’ll stop and type them up onto the computer every hour or so. Once it’s on the computer, I print off a hard copy and work on that in red pen.
SR: Are you working on another novel at the moment? What is your next project?
MJ: I’m just at the note-taking / idea-gathering stage of the next novel. Unfortunately, I’m too superstitious to share what it’s about with anyone other than my editor and agent. And, frankly, at this stage it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. All I have is a gut feeling. The writing of the book is my way of working that out.
SR: What books do you remember reading while growing up?
MJ: I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. I was – and still am – a very slow reader, but I now claim that it’s to do with my appreciation of the writer’s craft. So I read the usual Enid Blyton – I have very fond memories of a story in which three or four kids getting marooned on an island and digging up potatoes. And I liked the Secret Seven. Also there was some series, I think, about a circus, which had a rather exotic, Italianate name. But, no, I didn’t really get into reading until I was a teen and I jumped straight to adult fiction. I tried some of the British fiction, like Room at the Top, but found it unbelievably dull and not remotely dangerous or sexy. Then I read Catcher in the Rye, which was passed down to me by my older siblings. And it was as if a whole new world had been opened up to me. Not just the fact that it was American, but the fact that it sounded as if it had been written by someone in the 20th Century. Then I started reading other modern American fiction.
SR: Which writers do you admire?
MJ: Richard Brautigan is probably my all-time hero, for his eccentricity and his wit and the sheer individuality of his voice. I’m also a great admirer of Jonathan Raban, the British travel writer. His books are just full of heart and self-deprecation and ideas. I feel cleverer having read him. He’s also seemingly incapable of writing a dull sentence. Geoff Dyer seems to have devised a way of working that is unlike anybody else. And I’ve long been a fan of Hilary Mantel. She has this wonderful way of writing whereby something quirky or unique will trip you up in every line. There are plenty more. Richard Mabey, the nature writer. But I admire all these writers because they each have their own unique style.
SR: Are there any up and coming writers you are particularly excited about?
MJ: No. I’d actually rather appreciate it if everyone else, and in particular young people, stopped writing henceforth. There are already far too many brilliant books out there so it’d be great if all the new, brilliant writers put down their pens so that us old-timers can continue to try and carve out a modest living.
SR: If you could meet one literary character, who would it be and why?
MJ: Curiously, I don’t have any desire to meet any literary characters. Possibly because if they’re believable in the pages of a book then I feel as if I’ve already encountered them in my mind.
SR: What are your favourite books?
The Tokyo-Montana Express by Richard Brautigan
Coasting by Jonathan Raban
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
SR: Finally, are there any questions I should have asked but didn’t? Is there anything more you would like to say but haven’t had a chance to?
MJ: All I’d say is that when talking about writing, as we have been doing, it’s always tempting to reach for the more cerebral and overlook just how big a part humour and wit plays in a reader’s appreciation of a book. And as soon as we begin to talk about humourous books we tend to imagine a very particular, superficial type of book, full of jokes. The fact is, I think, that any book worth it’s salt needs humour to make it real … to make it human. Whilst The Widow’s Tale is about loss and grieving I also think it’s one of the funniest book I’ve written. The central character is utterly unapologetic. She doesn’t give a damn what people think. Which makes her, I think, great fun to be around and rather compelling. Like being with a friend who’s had a little too much to drink at a party. Someone who’s utterly benign, but you find yourself thinking, Oh this could be fun.
SR: Mick Jackson, thank you for this fascinating insight into The Widow’s Tale and your life as a writer.
This interview was conducted by Sam on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich as part of the Summer Reads programme launching in June. For more information, please see www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk