Jill Dawson is a author of eight novels including Fred and Edie, The Great Lover, Lucky Bunny. Tell-Tale Heart published 2014.
The first time Jill Dawson showed up on my reading radar was with her novel Fred and Edie in 2000 (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year and the Orange Prize and long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC award.) Since then I have loved reading what Jill writes – her writing is beautiful, evocative, tender.
The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of Patrick, a fifty-year-old professor of American Studies, drinker and womaniser, has been given six months to live. In a rural part of Cambridgeshire, a teenager dies in a motorcycle accident. When his heart is transplanted into Patrick’s chest, two strangers are forever conjoined. Patrick makes a good recovery, but has the strange feeling that his old life ‘won’t have him’. Discovering that his donor was a local boy named Drew Beamish, he becomes intensely curious about Drew and what shaped him, from the ancestor involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 to the bleak beauty of the Fens. Patrick longs to know the story of his heart.
Tell me a little bit about where you got the first glimmer for Tell-Tale Heart?
I watched a documentary about a woman who wanted to meet the man who had received her dead son’s donated heart. Of course, she asked him if she could listen to her son’s heart beating in his chest. It was such an extraordinary moment, so moving, and such an astonishing mixture of modern science and mystery….I knew I wanted to write about it (and that scene is in the novel).
In the Tell-Tale Heart there are several moments where time ceases and the ghosts of the past seem to invade the present. Have you experienced any supernatural occurrences while writing or is that just the imagination at play?
All my work has time slips where the past (and sometimes the future) appear in the present. In The Great Lover it’s when Rupert Brooke first kisses Nell and the ghost of her father moves between them. In Watch Me Disappear the fourteen year old Tina is rescued by the appearance of her forty-year old self. In Lucky Bunny Queenie shudders as she passes the house as a little girl that she is going to live in as a grown up. To me (and this might take some explaining if I’m not to sound mad!) these are quite ordinary occurrences….little rents in the curtain of reality that normally prevails….that’s how it feels to me. Not quite ghosts but more imaginative and emotional shifts where a glimpse of the future or past is very strong. I’m surprised reviewers don’t notice more of these ‘supernatural’ occurrences or time slips in my novels (in the Tell Tale Heart Willie Beamish also sees the future, sees Drew on a motorbike two hundred years away) but they are just embedded in the ordinary, I suppose, and not always that noticeable, which is how I experience them.
Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process?
Aha! I don’t write every day and I hate it when writers say you have to, to be a ‘real writer’. I had a child at 26 and another at 39 and then at 50 suddenly an unexpected but much loved adopted daughter…so, my domestic life has always been a little complicated and routines have been hard to find. Plus I’ve supported myself financially since the age of 21 by writing and teaching so there is earning my living to factor in, too. I have days that I block out for writing and I’m very intense on those days and can get a lot done – 2000 words or more. But of course it needs rewriting later. I touch type pretty fast. I often write listening to music, and I need a certain rather concentrated emotional state to write well.
What is your favourite place to write?
I have a lovely study in the top of the house with views to Ely cathedral and a comfortable sofa for sleeping on. My husband designed this house (he’s an architect, Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects) and it won a lot of awards. It’s a gorgeous place to work. But I wrote my first five novels in the bedroom of the council flat/squat I lived in, so…I have written under very different circumstances. I tell my writing students not to fantasise about the perfect study but to start today, in the kitchen if need be, as Tillie Olsen (American author of Silences), did.
Are you pen and paper or computer – what tools are essential to your writing?
Computer. Typing is much more in tune with the rhythm of my thoughts. But in between times I also write in my diary longhand. And if stuck I ring up my novelist friend Kathryn Heyman for a brilliant, inspiring chat!
Hemmingway apparently considered 400 words a day a good writing day. What constitutes a good writing day for you?
I think a good day is a lot of words – about 2000 as I said above. But I also have valuable ‘thinking’ days and these should not be under-estimated in importance! I tell my family defensively that I might appear to be doing nothing, or just going swimming, or eating Percy Pigs (gummy pig-shaped sweets from Marks and Spencer, I’m addicted to them)…but the novel might be forming, just under the surface, and I’m thinking about it. Essential stuff.
You said, The past is not past in recent podcast, that is indicative of your writing in many ways (Fred and Edie, The Wild Boy, Lover). What is it about the past that attracts you?
I live in the Cambridgeshire Fens and just glancing out of the window at the flattened fields in neat stripes of black and green (it’s drained land, that a few hundred years ago would have been under swampy water)…it’s impossible not to be aware of Faulkner’s quote that the ‘past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past’. And the Littleport Riots that I describe in the novel happening 200 years ago, well that took place in a village near to us ,where five people were hanged and many others deported to Botany Bay. Black Horse Drove is a strange lonely place, and Littleport to me still has an atmosphere of depression. When you talk to people you realise at once that neighbours haven’t forgotten the betrayals, which families lost sons, which families escaped justice.
As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?
I loved spooky stuff. My first attempt at a novel by a teenager was about kids and a Ouija board. I remember reading Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and novels with American settings and landscapes were very appealing too, as well as the usual Enid Blyton and Anne of Green Gables, that sort of thing, with a strong moral undertone that my mother probably hoped would straighten me out.
What three books do you feel have influenced your writing?
Wow, that’s a hard one. I do love Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles and reading that at sixteen made me want to write. As a young woman it was the brilliant Sula by Toni Morrison and Surfacing by Margaret Atwood.
What sort of writing excites you?
The trick of the best novels is to tell a secret and keep a secret at the same time.
If you could spend a day with any character from a novel, who would you choose to meet?
I think someone adventurous like Huck Finn would be good fun. Or a naughty wench like Moll Flanders.
What are you working on now?
I’m just about to deliver a novel called The Crime Writer to my publisher (Sceptre), set in Suffolk in the 60s and about the novelist Patricia Highsmith – author of The Talented Mr Ripley ,Strangers on a Train, and Carol. I’m deeply immersed in Highsmith’s novels (there are 22 of them) which I’m busily re-reading. It should be out in 2016.
To find out more about Jill Dawson and her work, her website is http://www.jilldawson.co.uk