I was invited to join a couple of book groups in the last week to answer questions about Finding Jessica Lambert. They were great fun and when I join a group like this, I always hear a point of view about a book I’ve written that I hadn’t considered before.
There were a few questions in common and with questions I’ve received directly, so I’ve bunched a few common topics together below.
What inspired the book?
I was having a chat with someone who said After Mrs Hamilton was a comfort re-read for her, which surprised me because it’s quite dark at times! But she said she loved the secluded nature of the scenes between Fran and Clo, and at that moment I rather fancied the idea of two people escaping the world again, but this time, instead of a twisting plot-driven book like After Mrs Hamilton or The Goodmans I wanted to go in deep with the characters and really stay with them, getting to know each other at the same time as the reader, in a more tender tale.
Again around that time I had inspiration for the character of Jess when I was reading an article on mega popstar Rhianna. There was a terrific photo of her taken from inside a car in Paris with fans pressed against the windows. I thought it looked terrifying being surrounded by that intensity of fan fervour and had the light bulb moment of a megastar who was unsuited to life in the limelight and ran away to sanctuary with a beautiful woman who seemed the only one who didn’t know who she was.
The story isn’t a typical saviour and damsel in distress romance or a typical age-gap romance.
The story is very much about getting past preconceptions and expectations. The two main characters are given a chance to see who they really are, to accommodate each other so that they both benefit. (It actually had a working title of Expectations.) I suppose it follows the book might not be what a reader expected because of that, which is actually very satisfying!
The characters are very different in terms of age and background, but both are struggling, and yet both bring something to the relationship to strengthen each other. I think everyone struggles. Everyone’s different. And I wanted this reflected in the book.
I was also very taken with the idea that neither woman would have known each other except for that chance meeting. I wanted them to be from different generations to add to the sense that they might never have met and also making the theme of getting past expectations and getting to know someone for who they are resonate that much more. (Also from a plot point of view it helps Anna not recognise Jess if she’s not on her cultural radar – different generations don’t always recognise the same famous stars.)
That confrontation scene on the stage…
I got so nervous before writing those chapters, worrying that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I don’t think I’ve ever had that before – actually trembling before I wrote. Big emotional scenes!
The book features families for both characters. Is that a feature of your writing?
Definitely. I adore writing families. I love introducing a range of characters to a book – from all ages and genders and personalities. I know some readers want to get to the romance already, but I love the rich depth family or friendship scenes can bring. Again, personal taste.
Is Jess on the spectrum?
I wrote Jess as an introverted, seemingly high-functioning autistic woman. (High-functioning can be a misleading term in some ways because masking and the effort of having to function leads to exhaustion and burnout then temporary so-called low function). I didn’t want the book to be about autism, it’s ostensibly about anxiety and finding someone who fits you when you make the effort to accommodate them. But autism makes Jess who she is, and how it does that and what she’s like as a person I wanted to unfold over the novel at the same time Anna gets to know and understand her.
Not everything is always resolved and wrapped up and in a bow in your stories, for example Anna’s relationship with her mother.
I think it’s a reality that many queer folk have to walk away in some way from their families at some point and that kind of difference takes time to heal. I didn’t think it fitted with the timescale of the story to have that reconciliation and actually I’m not sure it would come to any great extent with Anna’s mother. Sometimes people need to draw a line even with their family and it felt realistic to write Anna doing that.
Are you a plotter or pantser?
I tend to plot quite deeply – establishing plot, character arcs, progression of the relationship and themes before I start the first draft. I had to be more flexible with this one though – there was more character work so I had to develop them more slowly as I went along.
Do your characters talk to you?
I’m quite a visual writer so I tend to see scenes either as a film or from inside a character’s head.
Why is there not an epilogue?
I’m not overly keen on epilogues, writing or reading them, so it’s purely down to personal preference. I like to leave a story so that all the main threads are resolved and leave enough of a hint of the future for the reader to have a sense of the happy ever after. I find that if there isn’t an obvious issue to resolve in an epilogue, I don’t want to see the happy couple months down the line. It stops me imagining their future if it’s explicitly mapped out. It doesn’t leave room for me to imagine for myself and the book won’t linger in my mind as long. Other readers are definitely different!
Are you badly affected by reviews?
Depends on the book and how long after publication the review comes. Older books I can see with more objectivity so the bad reviews don’t bother me and can sometimes be hilarious! Some reviews I must admit really hit hard early on and did stall my writing or put me off writing about certain areas. Reminding myself that people are different and that a review says just as much about the reviewer as the book always puts things in perspective.
Do you like writing sex scenes?
Sex scenes are tricky to write – people have such different taste in all kinds of ways and keeping it fresh and different without being wildly unrealistic is also a challenge! I don’t get self-conscious about them anymore, mainly because my focus is the emotional rollercoaster of the novel so although they form an important part of that, it’s not the focus of the novel (which takes the pressure off I think).