I'm delighted to welcome Jessica Norrie onto the website today to share with us her insights into the writing process. Jessica has written two acclaimed novels: The Infinity Pool and The Magic Carpet, and has been featured in The Guardian.
Alex: Jessica, tell our readers a bit about yourself. Your background; where you were brought up; when you first began writing; your interests and so on.
Jessica: I was brought up in Finchley, have lived in Paris, Dijon, Brighton, Sheffield and now share my time between north east London and Malvern. The first piece of my writing anyone kept was a diatribe against Mrs Thatcher – we lived in her constituency and I was echoing my parents. Goodness knows what they’d think now… I published some magazine articles in the 1990s, but my first novel The Infinity Pool didn’t appear until 2015 and The Magic Carpet in 2019, so my writing career has been slow-burn. I was busy teaching, translating and bringing up children until then.
Alex: How would you describe your writing, and are there particular themes that you like to explore?
Jessica: Others say my writing is clear, but I know it starts off cumbersome! I edit it down a lot – I get a perverse pleasure from chopping my own words, culling paragraphs and even deleting characters. I do like using unusual words and my translators both sighed over my lengthy, complex sentences. I hope that’s improving.
As for themes – like any author I portray changing relationships and plot questions in the readers’ minds to keep them turning the pages. But what really interests me is how groups and communities interact, how they support but also misunderstand and damage each other, and then the intricate business of trying to mend that again. Oh dear - it sounds a bit like Brexit! However so far I’ve set novels in an eccentric holiday community in Greece, among families with children in the same London class, and in an isolated village in rural northern Britain. Novels need resolution and sadly I can’t imagine that for Brexit, so my agent (who dreads it) and readers are safe from me ever using that theme.
Alex: Are you a writer who plans a detailed synopsis or do you set out with a vague idea and let the story unfold as you write?
Jessica: I disobey all the accepted rules, to my cost. I tend to start from an idea – a group I’ve been part of, a theme from my teaching days, a building I’ve come across, a show I’ve seen… The initial image is strong enough to make me take the plunge into months and years of writing work. Some characters turn up quickly and obediently begin chatting, and my setting comes quite fast. I also seem to know roughly how I want the novel to end. But for me the business of getting there, working out a plot, is both tortuous and torturous (I looked up the spellings and found both appropriate). One day I may resort to a plot generator. Meanwhile the characters suggest what will happen next as I go along, but then I worry if it’s dynamic enough. That’s the hardest thing.
Alex: Tell us about your latest novel.
Jessica: There’s one in progress, set in and around the world of theatre (as it was pre-Covid). It’s limping, because I’m trying to write more commercially than comes naturally to me. However in theory I now know my craft and won’t allow this book to peter out as earlier ones did. Meanwhile my agent is still submitting my third novel, in which the ghostly and living inhabitants of a rural village meet the implications of the #MeToo movement head on. He’s had very good feedback about pretty much every aspect of it from the big publishers, but none of them actually want to buy it because as one says “it wouldn’t sell in Waitrose”. So I may have to self-publish that, like the first two, which would be disappointing, unless anyone knows any likely publishers we may not have tried…
Alex: Do you ever base your characters on people you have encountered in real life?
Jessica: Yes, but note the disclaimers! I think all authors do; it’s the most reliable way to keep characters realistic. And real people are so varied and fascinating! I mix them up though, change their features, ages and occupations, make them unrecognisable. You can blend one person’s quirks with another’s looks and the speech style of a third, while remaining true to the function you originally saw that real person as having in your novel.
Alex: How do you market your books?
It would be easier if I wrote genre fiction, but marketing literary/contemporary fiction is hard. I use Facebook a lot but I get in a tangle with Twitter and haven’t ventured on Instagram. I accept offers of guest posts (like this one – thank you!) and had a great blog tour for The Magic Carpet, which was well worth the small fee. I blog too, which is a both a distraction and a pleasure, at www.jessicanorrie.wordpress.com. I don’t want to publish any more on KDP, although it’s cheap and gives excellent royalties on a good product. But the sort of people who read my books don’t generally want to use Amazon anymore, so that’s a problem. I did join Alli (Alliance of Independent Authors) who have a huge amount of useful, practical advice which I’m very bad at using.
Alex: What are your interests aside from writing? And what do you do to unwind?
Jessica: Until March 2019 I loved to sing with others. I’m in a choir in Hackney and a chamber music group in Malvern, where I’m a soprano. I dislike singing on Zoom though, so that’s hit the buffers for now and by the time we reconvene I’ll probably be squeaking with rust. So instead I labour away at my piano, I blog, I walk on the Malvern hills, I worry about and miss seeing my adult children in this Covid world… I continue to campaign for Europe (which I maintain will NEVER be a lost cause) but mostly I just keep my head down and stay out of the way, one less patient for the NHS to deal with I hope.
Alex: Which authors do you particularly admire and why?
Jessica: The older I get, the more critical I am and the less likely to finish or concentrate on books that don’t grab me. But I can always rely on Shirley Jackson for humour and atmosphere, Elizabeth Strout for finding drama in the everyday, Helen Dunmore for poetic prose with historical interest and good plots. Popular writers like Robert Harris or Nicci French have a lot to teach about pacing – I can’t put them down. I try to read more diverse authors too. I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other and soon got my come-uppance when I tried to imitate Evaristo’s style in a blogpost! A constant writing lesson is that the easier a book is to read, the harder it probably was to put together.
Alex: Thank you so much for sharing your approach to writing so candidly with us Jessica. I do love the sound of your books, and certainly look forward to reading them.
Jessica: Not at all Alex. The pleasure is mine. Thank you for having me on.