David Fickling talks to Jenny Downham about her new novel, Unbecoming, which he edited.
It has been four years since your last novel, You Against Me, was published, and eight years since your debut novel Before I Die. Can you describe the creative process you use to plan your writing?
I know very little when I start writing a book. I have a few ideas, but they are often abstract, as if I know the tone of the piece but nothing more. I use free writing techniques. This is a bit like improvising in theatre – throwing words down and not planning anything in advance. I write every day, treating it like a 9-5 job. I have to be really disciplined because there’s no one telling me to do it. I start with themes or relationships, sometimes a voice or a triggering event. I write thousands of words, approaching the work from many angles. Most of it goes in the bin, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy me and eventually I begin to see what the book might be about. It’s a slow process.
Tell us about your new novel, Unbecoming.
Katie is seventeen and in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal. Her mother Caroline, is uptight, worn out and about to find her past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, is back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything,’ despite suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Every morning Mary runs away. She’s desperate to find something, says it’s imperative, but when questioned, can’t be more specific. Katie wants to know what Mary’s looking for. She also wants to know why her mother seems to detest Mary. What was the nature of their original estrangement? It makes Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.
So – three women at different stages of life bound together by a web of lies that only the youngest can untangle.
Oh, and it’s a love story too …
Which character did you find easiest to write/relate to the most?
Mary. This is odd, because I have never been an eighty-year-old woman with memory loss. But I loved writing her. She made me laugh and I never knew what she was going to do next.
As both a mother and a daughter yourself, how much did you draw on real-life experience to write Unbecoming?
This is undoubtedly the most personal of my books. I have been a teenager and a mother and some of my own experiences are in there. But perhaps most importantly, my own mother had Alzheimer’s and became very unwell and died while I was writing Unbecoming. I hope I was a better carer and daughter as a result of writing this book. Certainly, I found it very cathartic to try and imagine how my mother might have been feeling as she faced the erosion of her memories. There’s a lot of my mum in Mary.
Katie, Caroline and Mary all grapple with mistakes they have made – do you believe in making mistakes?
Of course. How do we learn a thing if we don’t make mistakes? The most interesting days are full of them and the most fascinating people have made hundreds of them …
Misremembered memories and the stories that we tell ourselves form a vital narrative thread in Unbecoming. Was this a conscious theme?
I don’t really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I’m more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I start with them and see where they lead me. Having said this, I also need to make sense of what I write, to see if anything coherent is emerging.
There’s a writing exercise that suggests authors try summing up the novel they’re currently working on in a sentence. It’s supposed to help them understand the heart of their story and of course, it’s a useful thing to have under your belt should anyone ask (as people so often do), ‘So, what’s the new book about?’ Here are some of my attempts when I was in the middle of writing Unbecoming: It’s a book about family secrets/It’s an exploration of identity/It’s a story of oppression – how we oppress one another and ourselves/It’s a study of memory/It’s a book about sacrifice, about giving up all that matters to you/It’s a love story …
As you can see, there were a lot of threads! The story spans sixty years and is told in two voices and there’s a mystery at its heart and several secrets to be unveiled en-route, so it was often a complex juggling act to keep everything moving forwards. About six months before I finished writing, I realised that one of the major threads was storytelling itself – the ones we tell within families that pass down generations as well as the ordinary ones we tell every day. We unveil ourselves with stories, making choices about how we represent ourselves and what we choose to divulge and what we keep hidden. So I went back to the beginning of the novel and polished those threads so they shone a little brighter.
Your debut novel, Before I Die, was published when you were in your 40s. Did you always see yourself as a writer, or did it come as a surprise to you?
I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller. As a child, I knew I wanted to be either an actor or a writer. I was always reading, but I also loved performing. I was in all the school plays, but my favourite subject was creative writing. I went to university to study both drama and English, then I went to drama school, became an actor, but never stopped writing.
In the mid-90s I was working for Tellers Theatre – a community theatre company based in London. We used improvisation techniques to take stories to young people who wouldn’t normally have access to them – in prisons, hospitals, young offenders’ units, youth clubs and housing estates. I spent seven years putting myself in imaginary situations and playing all sorts of people I had absolutely nothing in common with and would never normally be cast as. It was a wonderful way to learn what held an audience’s attention and about structure and narrative drive.
I gave up acting when my second son was born because I couldn’t take two kids out on the road with me. I began to write more at that point because it was my only creative outlet. Writing a novel seemed like a very natural progression after years of telling stories on my feet.
Before I Die was made into a film – how closely were you involved in the process and did it change your perspective on the text?
I was sent drafts of the script for comment, but that was about the extent of my involvement. I had nothing to do with casting or production at all.
I think the film remains true to the spirit of the book. I was determined to avoid sentimentality and I wanted the book to be darkly funny, terrifying, tender, sexy and truthful. The film strives for this too.
The film’s certification (it’s a 12A) meant that some scenes could not be too graphic, whereas in the book some of Tessa’s experiences are more deeply explored. I thought that was a shame, but it didn’t change my perspective on the original text.
Which writers have inspired you?
As a young reader I devoured poetry, folk and fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen), and stories from the Arabian Nights and Ancient Greece. Now I love Raymond Carver, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Maggie O’Farrell, Tove Jansson, John Irving and Kate Atkinson amongst many others. I try to read as a writer might – with one eye and half my brain looking for just how this author make this character so believable, or that sentence so beautiful, or this story such a page-turner …
What can I look forward to editing next?!
I’ve started a new project, but have no idea where it will take me. Inspiration comes from everywhere. I watch the world for stories in a very energised way –newspapers, overheard conversations, etc … anything can be used. I don’t like knowing in advance. I never plan a structure. I like surprises. I’m quite disciplined and sit at my desk every day and just write.
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham is published by David Fickling Books, 978-1-9102-0064-3, £14.99 hbk.