In a review I once described the novels of Julie Hearn as ‘happily unclassifiable’. Her narrow terrace house in the market town of Abingdon, just below Oxford, is rather the same. Nineteenth-century brick walls co-exist with an added on kitchen. Outside, at the start of a long garden, there is a separate writing shed, painted in pink and green and furnished with a day bed, chair, desk and much-needed electric fire. It is a nice but somewhat pokey space for a fully-sized author, but Julie had got the measurements slightly wrong when commissioning it and this was the result. Its walls are lined with favourite children’s books from her own childhood. There is also a framed notice recording the fact that her previous novel, Rowan the Strange, had been shortlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Medal.
Wreckers, her latest story, is placed in the not too distant future, describing a Britain stripped of all modern technology – a practical setting for an author who admits to being none too conversant with the intricacies of today’s technology herself. But this is not simply a Luddite reaction. Julie’s eyesight is poor due to a hereditary condition and it is not getting any better. The historical research that made her other novels so extra convincing comes harder now. Not that you would ever guess when meeting her that she has problems with vision or indeed with anything else. Always seemingly on the edge of laughter, she exudes a continuing zest for life that lightens whatever company she keeps. Exactly the same quality can also be found in her utterly personal and beautifully written novels.
So how did her writing start?
‘My father was in the services so we were always moving about; I lost count of how many different schools I went to. Whenever I got to a new one the only girls who wanted to be friends straightaway were the left-overs who were either a bit weird or fat! But if you keep having to leave everything behind, you can always take your imagination with you, and that’s what I did. I was so in love with the world of books, particularly the Laura Ingalls Wilder stories because her family always seemed to be on the move too. And I used to write my own stories, sew the pages together and then show them to my mother. I remember presenting one story to my primary school teacher about a psychedelic dragon – you can tell I was a child of the sixties – who longed just to be plain green. She handed it back later with some words of praise but I quickly found out that she hadn’t read it. Poor woman – it was on the last day of term when she must have had so much else to think about. But I was still furious with her, and I remember cramming the story into my satchel and vowing that I would never, ever, put my heart and soul into something I had written again and then risk the same sort of disappointment.’
In fact, Julie did not start writing novels until eight years ago when she was in her early forties. Before that she had led a wandering life, spending time in Australia and Spain after training as a journalist where she learned shorthand and typing – useful skills when it came to finding temporary jobs abroad. After the birth of her daughter she started teacher training aged 30 at Westminster College, Oxford, where she was greatly encouraged by Philip Pullman, at that time on the staff. But following one particularly disastrous maths lesson with Year Six she switched to studying English and then took a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies. One day she came across an eighteenth-century fairground handbill urging the public to visit ‘The Changeling Child’, described as a tiny girl with no teeth and possessing a ‘face no bigger than the palm of one’s hand’.
‘I decided that when I finished the course I would give myself a year off and try to write a novel, with the girl as a main character. Unlike my other novels I had everything plotted out before I began. And then I met my future agent at a party, and eventually became a published author after my book actually went to auction. And when it came out I experienced such a feeling of relief – it was as if I was finally filling my shoes.’
The novel in question, Follow Me Down, revolves around a modern boy with a sick mother. Unwillingly staying with his grandmother in central London, he finds he can travel back in time to Bartholomew Fair, once held in exactly the same area. His mission is to rescue Astra, the midget girl, from the cruel tyrant who exhibits her every day but now plots to kill her and then sell her corpse to a fashionable anatomist. Astra and the rest of the wretched ‘monsters’ are meanwhile kept locked up in a stinking and grimy cellar. This image of childhood at risk crops up in future novels too.
Are all your other books plotted out before you start?
‘Absolutely not. I often don’t know myself what’s going to happen. And sometimes it goes wrong. In Rowan the Strange I originally had the boy escaping from the mental asylum and getting involved with the D Day landings. But I got less convinced as the story went on, and finally had to unpick it, just as you do an old jumper. After that, everything was better, but it was still a hard book to write, given it describes mental illness and in war time too. So for the next book I wanted something more light-hearted and adventurous. So I came up with this plot which was something like ‘Five Children and It Meet The Da Vinci Code’. A gang of kids discovering a secret box that could have catastrophic results if its contents were ever let loose on the world.’
This book is Wreckers, out this year and a rich stew of a novel, mixing Greek myths and magic from the past with police state conditions in the future. But light-hearted? Surely not.
‘You’re right. But I can’t stop going into these deep, dark spaces once I get going. And I realised that the worst thing that could be released from the box would be hopelessness itself. Because if you haven’t got hope you’ve got nothing.’
But in typical Julie fashion, even the imp in the bottle that stands for this hopelessness releases something good in the lonely boy who looks after him. So nothing is ever going to be made simple in novels that are always multi-layered, with extra meanings and symbols sometimes only becoming clear after the story is finished.
So what’s your favourite out of your books?
‘Definitely The Merrybegot. It was my second novel and I now had the confidence to write as I really wanted to. And I had studied witchcraft at my course in Oxford and knew what I was talking about.’
A merrybegot is the name given to a child conceived on Beltane morning, otherwise known as May 1. Set in 1645 when the Witch-Finder General Matthew Hopkins was searching out women – and a few men – suspected of witchcraft, Julie’s story then leaps to 1692 when a surprise confession finally puts an ancient injustice to rest. Piskies still live in the hedges, co-existing with ordinary society and even the odd appearance of Charles II. This mixing of magic with the everyday is typical of many of her novels. Is this how she experiences life herself?
‘In a sense. I like living in an old house surrounded by ancient things. I get some sort of vibration from them which helps when I write. I’ve never seen a ghost, mind. I like to think of the possibilities of things. I think all my books have that implicit question – what is out there? What is beyond us? As a writer, just sticking to one reality all the time, well, it wouldn’t be much fun.’
My own favourite novel is Ivy, an at times achingly sad story about a beautiful red-haired model who sits for a rich Victorian painter and eventually becomes involved with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Addicted to laudanum from an early age and at risk both from a murderous artist’s mother and the criminal gang who brought her up, Ivy’s prospects look bleak until the very last page. For while Julie is unflinching in her descriptions of past cruelties she is also a novelist more interested in ultimate hope rather than despair.
So does writing come easily, or is it hard work?
‘Hard work. More and more I have to catch my books by surprise. Sometimes I work in my office, sometimes in my bedroom, sometimes here in the kitchen. I’m working on my next book now, but it’s very slow. Everything is taking me longer now, from putting on my socks to crossing the road. And not being able to drive any more is a real nuisance.’
Even so, the next book when it finally appears promises to be something else. The supernatural will come in again, and there will also be some ancient standing stones and a nod towards the whole concept of the Lord of the Dance. Readers who have responded before to the intensely imagined stories of this fascinatingly unpredictable writer are in for another treat. Those who have yet to sample her works should prepare themselves for something not just good but really different as well.
(published in paperback by Oxford)
Follow Me Down, 978 0 19 275595 7, £5.99
Hazel, 978 0 19 279214 3, £5.99
Ivy, 978 0 19 275431 8, £5.99
The Merrybegot, 978 0 19 279157 3, £5.99
Rowan the Strange, 978 0 19 272920 0, £6.99
Wreckers, 978 0 19 272929 3, £6.99
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.