Anna, thank you so much for answering some questions for my blog about your amazing upcoming debut novel - The Truth About Julia (published by Allen & Unwin – 07 April 2016).
Q : Firstly, could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself and what enticed you into writing a novel, is it something you always wanted to do?
I had wanted to become a writer ever since I was a teenager, but then I got sidetracked and became an academic instead. I often came up with plots for novels, but kept hesitating, and never put any of it to paper. Now that I look back on it, it’s clear that there was a part of me that must have known when the time would be right for me to sit down and write. It was only in my early thirties. A few years ago, I wrote a novel about a female artist – a painter – who lived through many of the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century, but when it was finished I decided to put it to one side. Quite soon after that I had the idea for The Truth about Julia and, when I was about half way through it, I enrolled on a Faber and Faber writing course. This course was enormously helpful, as I received wonderful feedback on my early drafts.
Q : You work at the University of Kent as a Reader in Comparative Literature, how did you find the time to write a novel – can you give us a ‘typical’ writing day?
I generally write for about two to three hours in a day, and I try to write every day. I am at my best in the mornings, and try whenever possible to write from 9am to about 12, as these are my most alert and creative hours. But the recent arrival of my 10-month old daughter has complicated this a bit further. During the day, when I teach and deal with admin and other university things, my characters stay with me and develop further in my mind. I often write little ideas in a notebook that is always in my handbag.
I also write non-fiction, and enjoy switching between creative and academic writing, which are entirely different beasts but feed into one another in unexpected ways. When I am stuck with one project, I can always turn to the other, until the blockage dissolves. While I wrote The Truth about Julia, I was also working on a cultural history of exhaustion. The strong sense of political and spiritual exhaustion that Clare feels, and her anxiety that all her life’s work has been in vain, are definitely indebted to my other work.
Q : How did ‘The Truth About Julia’ develop as an idea into a novel? The subject matter of The Truth About Julia is very prevalent in current society, did you find it a sensitive or tricky subject to research and write about?
Ours is the age of terrorism. A few years ago, I found myself intrigued by the ways in which commentators tried to explain the growing number of Western youths joining ISIS, and why it is that people from educated and seemingly stable homes can become radicalized to such an extent that they end up committing terrorist atrocities. I felt that the various explanations for political radicalization ultimately remain limited and unsatisfactory. Political disenchantment, bad parenting, cultural alienation and socio-pathological tendencies, as well as ‘corruptor’ figures praying on the vulnerable – these only ever illuminate aspects of what is a highly complex problem.
ISIS and the premises of radical Islam, however, are so utterly alien and unacceptable to Westerners that I wanted to explore these questions in a way that makes them more relatable. Julia White, the terrorist in my novel, does the wrong thing for (potentially) the right reasons. She crosses a line, and drags someone down with her who has become dangerously disenchanted with the conventional ways of bringing about political change. Clare Hardenberg, who narrates Julia’s story and interviews her friends and family members, is an investigative journalist who feels increasingly angry and frustrated that her writing has not led to political change. As a writer and an academic, I, too, often worry about whether any of what my colleagues and I are doing is meaningful and impactful even in small ways, and I fear that it may not be.
I grew up in Germany, and vividly remember ‘Wanted’ posters pasted all across my hometown when I was a child. These posters displayed the photographs of a number of intimidating-looking female terrorists associated with the left-wing Baader-Meinhof gang. The figure of the female terrorist – women who kill for their political beliefs – has fascinated me ever since.
Finally, I also teach and write on modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and William Faulkner. I have always liked the wider implications of multi-perspectival narratives, the idea that there is never just one definitive ‘truth’ out there but only different ways of seeing the world.
Q : You recently completed a Faber Academy writing course, do you feel the course helped The Truth About Julia become a reality?
Absolutely! It was extremely motivational. We were taught by a fantastic editor at Faber and Faber and a literary agent, and benefited enormously from our tutors’ insider knowledge. Although I have been working on literature all my professional life, the course introduced me to a completely different aspect of the literary world. I felt a bit like a restaurant critic who for the first time ever tries to cook a meal herself, and realizes just how difficult and complex that is.
Q : What will you be doing on publication day (07 April 2016) to celebrate?
Have champagne and go to the seaside!
Again, thank you Anna for taking the time to share your thoughts with The Very Pink Notebook and congratulations on a fantastic, different and thought – provoking novel.