Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Jessica Norrie
Tell us about yourself.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
I studied French Literature at Sussex University among people who would have viewed Jeremy Corbyn as a centre ground politician. (Although I must admit I skimmed my Marx.) I lived and taught in France, then taught English, French and Spanish and ran teacher training in Sheffield and London until early retirement two months ago. Hooray! I’ve published a bit of journalism, co-authored a text book, and written one novel, “The Infinity Pool”. I’m working on the second novel now, off and on and my children are in their twenties so they do the cooking.
My hero/antihero was called Adrian Hartman. Adrian is an anagram of “A drain”, because my first idea was he would drown in a swimming pool, and Hartman because he’s a therapist, very touchy feely. A woman I like a lot is Ruby because she has a jewel of a warm heart. My heroine is Maria because it was a name that could work in almost any culture, my Maria has to, and she is pushed from innocence into motherhood very quickly, like the Virgin Mary.
How do you go about plotting your book?
It’s random. Plotting isn’t my strong point, although I once went on a crime writing course and found that very helpful for showing how one thing could lead to another. But I prefer to write the characters, settings, and feelings and see how they slot together afterwards. A story will always emerge if you stay patient; it’s when you force it that it doesn’t flow.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
Yes. After I’ve painted a few walls, been on holiday, made a mosaic, planted stuff in the garden, gone for lots of walks and watched too much reality TV, I hit the computer again (sometimes I really do hit the computer) and hey presto! I find if I actually start, it comes of its own accord and I wonder what I was making all the fuss about. Blogging helps too – it keeps your hand in and makes you work to a deadline.
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
I’ve always been quite “wordy” but I’m trying to make my paragraphs and sentences shorter after my agent, translator and audiobook narrator all complained. I’m more aware of adverbs and repetition now. I guess as a professional writer you need to understand all the impressive vocabulary but not actually use it, whereas as a student knowing long words (and using them correctly) used to get me good marks!
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
Just get on with it (see above about writer’s block). Read and re-read in the cold light of day, and read your writing out loud to see if it flows. Also, if you speak another language, try translating it. If it’s contorted and tricky to translate, it probably wasn’t well written in the first place. Running it past a writing buddy works in the same way.
What/who are your writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
I love long Victorian novels but realise people nowadays have less time and patience for lots of back story and detailed descriptions so whereas I used to consciously model my style on that I’m trying to be simpler now. A shame in a way, although I did often sound really pompous! Another kind of writing I really admire is Japanese fiction (in translation of course!) , Tanizaki and Murakami, because they write very clearly and economically, showing pictures and getting to the essence of things, so I hope I’m learning from them.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
All the time. I write from the heart, so I put my feelings into all my characters, and I’m lazy about research, so I have to write about activities, places and situations that I already know, or I’ll get into trouble! But I do mix them up – my characters are composites of people I know, not exact portraits of individuals, and likewise the settings. Although I know where my settings are, I quite like to leave them unspecified in my writing. If people guess, that means I’ve done my job well, but I don’t provide signposts.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
Yes, that’s the exciting thing about writing. When a character or characters begin to come to life, you find them going off and acting independently of what you’d intended. It’s a very strange feeling, since they only exist because of you and yet you can’t control them. But that’s what makes writing so exhilarating, when it takes off like that.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
I’m not sure “enjoy” is the right word, but there’s a scene in “The Infinity Pool” when Ruby visits a newborn baby whose mother is very vulnerable. It made me cry when I was writing it, so I knew straight away it must be good.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Multicultural socially engaged fairy tale!