One of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year has been Left and Leaving by Jo Verity. It’s a great contemporary novel set in London, in a winter which mutes that hectic city, and is as much a story about the random connections we form as well as the more problematic relationship between a daughter and her widowed father. It’s a terrific wintry read.
Happily, Jo lives in Cardiff and we’ve since been able to meet up and talk writing and her latest book. I’m going to post the interview in two parts, today and tomorrow, when I’ll also be giving away a signed copy of Left and Leaving, so be sure not to miss tomorrow’s instalment.
Jo, your writing break came about thanks to watching daytime TV while ill. Can you tell me more about that?
It was October 2002. I’d been writing for about 2 years. I happened to be off work with food poisoning – whiling away the time watching the Richard & Judy Show. It was the last chance to enter their short story competition (this was long before the Richard & Judy Bookclub started) and I happened to have a story ready to go. I posted it off and forgot all about it. A couple of months later I got a call to say that my story was in the final 15 (from 17,000 entries) and could I go up to London the following week when the winner would be announced live on air. It was very exciting. Martina Cole, Suzi Feay and Tony Parsons were the judges. I was flabbergasted when they picked my story – Rapid Eye Movement – as the winner especially as I’d sent the same story out to a couple of competitions and it had done nothing.
The prize was to have the story published in The Independent on Sunday.
I suppose I assumed I would be inundated with offers from agents but the weeks went by and it all started to fade away. Then I got a letter from Janet Thomas at Honno Welsh Women’s Press congratulating me and asking if I’d written anything longer as ‘books of short stories by unknown writers simply don’t sell’. I’d just completed my first novel – Everything in the Garden. I sent it to them and, two years later, they published it.
That was my break – the bit of luck that every writer needs. Thanks, Honno.
Can you tell me a little about your writing process? Are you a planner or a pantster?
I’m certainly not a planner. I really do make it up as I go along – a bit like knitting without a pattern. Stitch after stitch, row after row. If it starts to look too bizarre/boring/saggy or if it feels too scratchy, I unpick it and start again.
Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do you have a daily word count target? A favourite place to write? What’s your writing routine?
In my life life I’m a morning person and I assumed it would be the same with writing. Not so. Getting up at 6am to write but it doesn’t work for me. I’ve pondered this and come to the conclusion that human beings are my ‘raw material’ and I have to remind myself what they’re like before I start my writing day. Wordsworth needed his daffodils. I need the two builders leaning on a skip eating breakfast pasties.
I write or edit for 2 or 3 hours every day but I don’t have a rigid routine. I’m delighted if I produce 500 new words a day but that rarely happens. No point in churning out 2000 words if they’re the wrong ones or if they drag my characters up a blind alley.
My default writing place is a corner of the spare bedroom. It looks cramped and chaotic but notebooks, paper, pens and pencils, laser printer etc. are all to hand. I have a firm work chair with a headrest and good lumbar support. I take regular breaks. (Has anyone else noticed how time speeds up when you’re writing?) Hunching over a keyboard for hours on end – not good.
I don’t own a laptop so when I’m away from home I write by hand – always in black pen – and I do like my Pukka pads. I write faster and more fluently by hand but I also tend to ‘overwrite’. When I transfer this to my PC I give it a ruthless edit.
Where do your short stories or novels begin? Is it with a character in search of a story, a theme you want to explore, or a place or situation?
Always people. I’m a nosy parker. I spend far too long people-watching. If I weren’t a writer I reckon I’d make an excellent private eye. There’s nothing I like better than watching a stranger in a cafe or on a bus or in the queue in M&S. Why are they here? What are they thinking? Why are they looking sad/happy/bored. Why do they bite their nails. You get my drift. I keep a notebook to hand ready to jot down overheard conversations or descriptions of tattoos. Train journeys are excellent for that sort of thing. Fellow passengers are captives – animals in the zoo.
The protagonist in Not Funny, Not Clever (Elizabeth Giles) grew out of a woman I saw on a local train – elegant, cool, melancholy, detached somehow. I reached the conclusion she was frightened of getting old, scared that the future held nothing new for her. So I made jolly sure it did!
And finally, what’s next? Can you tell me anything about your current novel?
Next? I’m 40,000 words in to what I thought was going to be a love story. But now it seems more about mistakes and second chances. I’ll only know when it’s finished.
Jo Verity lives in Rhiwbina, Cardiff, and has worked as a graphic designer and medical graphic artist. Jo has published five novels with Honno since she started writing in 1999: Left and Leaving, Not Funny, Not Clever, Everything in the Garden, Bells (which was awarded a commissioning grant by the Welsh Books Council) and Sweets From Morocco. You can follow Jo on Twitter.
Left and Leaving is currently available from Amazon UK until the end of December 2015 for only £1.99 in the Kindle Monthly Deal or you can come back tomorrow for a chance to win a signed copy of the paperback.