a head full of stuff – a five minute interview with Janice Galloway at the EIBF

Yesterday I was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) and lucky enough to interview the wonderful Janice Galloway, a writer I hugely admire.

The interview started in her hotel, continued in a taxi and finished in the EIBF tent shortly before her event was due to start – yes, that is longer than five minutes!  I am so grateful to Janice for finding time in her busy schedule to squeeze me in! It was a pleasure to meet her: she is a very generous, clever, erudite person, who laughs a lot and is a pleasure to be with. As a reader and a writer, and a human being, I  found her thoughts on what it is to be a writer in the 21st century fascinating and downright encouraging!

The actual EIBF author event itself was also very enjoyable. Janice read from her latest book, All made Up, her second memoir about being a teenager growing up in Scotland. Ian Rankin says of the book in a review in The Guardian:

“Sometimes, the three central women in All Made Up, circling each other in their claustrophobic attic digs, resemble the cast of a Harold Pinter play. Their world is constrained, their relationships seldom anything but fraught.”

The place was packed and she called us a “complainy” audience  – there was an issue with wobbly microphones for a brief while and the sound was a bit iffy and the audience, me included,  were having none of it, hence the “complainy.” Ha ha ha!  Her words when spoken out loud are even more lyrical and beguiling than when read on the page and she is the most engaging (and fun!),  “serious” writer I’ve listened to. I’d urge anyone to go and see her if you ever get the chance (it goes without saying I also recommend reading her books!).

Here is my 5 minute/5 question interview with Janice Galloway (with apologies to Isobelle for not getting all her questions in. The next time!).

Me: The American writer Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would essentially describe it as an act of courage.” How much courage did it take to write your first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing*, which is about a woman coping with and recovering from a breakdown, very much a taboo subject then – and possibly still is! And how much more courage did it take to talk about your family in This Is Not About Me and All Made Up, your two memoirs about growing up, given that when you were growing up you were blatantly discouraged from having opinion or  from calling attention to yourself and your family.

Janice: Ha ha ha! That’s really four or five questions. I’ll try and answer them as best I can. Cynthia Ozyk perhaps found she needed a certain kind of courage to write. I think there are many kinds of courage. The first thing I do in an interview, Marianne, is quibble with its terms. So, what do you mean by courage? The Olympic Games are just coming to a close and “courage” has been talked about a lot. On TV the other day the cyclist Bradley Wiggins talked about how absurd it was for people to say he’d been courageous – he was talking to a soldier who’d been fighting in Afghanistan.

I think where we stand on things and when we judge, we must try not to think what it is costing us. Every job we take and every role we take on, has a price to pay for all of us. We stumble into things, and then have to deal with the demands that role in life makes. Being a mother, for example has a price – anyone who has a teenager knows that – but it also has great benefits and extraordinary rewards.

Everything takes courage. Something as simple as walking out of your front door takes courage. Getting out of bed takes courage. It is the same for all of us. That is what The Trick is to Keep Breathing is about ie: how do we keep going? If we don’t keep going, we collapse and die and we don’t collapse and die! It’s the same for all of us. Something keeps us going.

The act of writing is more of an act of joining for me. About joining people together. You were talking about my household and you said I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion. I wasn’t allowed to talk full stop. My sister’s mantra was “you’re not entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to shut up”. I wasn’t allowed a voice. Someone in my audience pointed out to me that my sister didn’t read any books by women. One day I brought back this book by Edna O’Brian – I didn’t know Edna was a girl’s name, I assumed it was a man’s. My sister was raging, she was purple with fury that I had done such a thing. I think this was something to do with what she perceived women should be – I think she couldn’t bear to think that there were women talking about how they felt. She threw the book across the room. My sister had a price to pay in her jobs, in the roles she played. The price was she wasn’t entitled to an opinion, so for her it wasn’t on the cards that others did: writing was not something a woman should be doing.

The courage in writing for me is not something I think about. I started writing because my head was full of stuff. I started writing to get the stuff out of my head. I don’t think I was courageous. I acted not so much out of courage as out of desperation. If people asked me why I was writing, I’d say because I didn’t know any better. I started writing to get stuff down just to get it out of my head. I stumbled into it really. It’s a bit like everything we do in life, you stumble into roles in life and then have to deal with the demands they bring.

Me: And does this apply to writing your memoirs as well? Are they about this need to get stuff out of your head?

Janice: Oh yes! Absolutely. Although I never thought I’d be that open about the source of my material. I didn’t know this where it came from. I really didn’t know. It was people reading my books and coming up to me, just like you Marianne, and saying things like they thought my writing was about this or that. And I’d think no, it’s not. But then later, maybe twenty years later, I thought, maybe she or he had a valid point. Even if they didn’t. It made me think. And some things in your life stick, and actually, after a while, you can’t ignore them.

I don’t think a writer has to know where they’re coming from. You end up writing about things you didn’t start writing about. And I don’t believe a writer has to know where they are going with their writing. I was listening to Michael Ondaatje in an interview and he was asked about the metatext and the secondary meaning in his writing and symbolism and he said, “I don’t know I just wrote it.” Ha ha ha! “I just wrote it.”

In fact the hardest things about being a writer is getting rid of the idea that you have to think like writers are supposed to think. You only have to say what you have to say. The courageous bit about writing is putting down what you have to say on paper and see if anyone else understands. If they do, fantastic – maybe you are a writer. If they don’t, maybe you’re not. Or maybe a whole bunch of rubbish is getting in the way of the writing and you have to weed it out.

There is myth about that fiction writers need to be academic. I am not motived by academic concerns. I don’t think anyone in the world is motived by academic concerns. No one is born motivated with academic concerns. You may wish to reach academic concerns but it is not a motivation. No, I am motived by a need to make sense of the world. I was encouraged to make sense of the world from when I was wee because I was encouraged not only not to talk about my feelings, but not to talk at all. And when you have to be quiet and have no one to talk to, you talk to yourself. I chatted in my head. I’d say things like “what the hell just happened there?” and answer myself saying, “ it could be this, or it could be that.” That’s where the writing came from, the voices in my head. At first I thought I was the only person I talked to. That the voices were all me. Then I realised there were other voices in my head. Some of the words were my mother’s, some my sister’s, some my imagined absent father’s – I could make him up to my heart’s content, some of the words were from good teachers, some from sad teachers, from friends, from books and from the telly. I was a working class girl educated by the telly, like Melvin Bragg! A whole lot of people gave me stuff through the telly. Thanks goodness for David Attenborough! It took me until I was fifty until I realised I had a perspective when I was small.

Don’t give yourself a fictional name, don’t give yourself a fictional persona, don’t pretend to be happy when you are not and don’t pretend to be sad when you are happy. The whole thing is about coming clean and being alive. Being a writer is an extension of coming clean. Writing is about coming clean in. I think everyone is the same, we are all trying to come clean.

Me: Do you really think everyone is trying to come clean?

Janice: Well, an awful lot of bankers are in denial. Ha ha ha! I think bankers may be distracted by temporal rewards – listen to me I am beginning to sound like a priest! Ha ha ha! We are losing the mystic and charm of old age – losing it. Indians and the Chinese had better than us. Which is all about a normal day being better than Christmas. A normal day is full of surprise and extraordinary things and you have to stand with your two feet very firmly on the ground in a society that is pumping material wealth at you all the time to appreciate it.

Me: How much pressure is there by your publisher to continue to produce remarkable books, and how much pressure do you put yourself under to keep writing?

Janice: I have always had very understanding publishers, they didn’t have an option. They know I won’t be pressurised. I’m hopeless at deadlines. Stuff happens when it happens. I do put a lot of pressure on myself though. Oh yes. When I was being brought up, being second didn’t count. It’s horrible. It’s like that awful pressure in the Olympics by the public, all the poor people who felt that getting a silver was to fail. It’s cuckoo! The poor judo man who felt he had let everyone down. I thought he was going to jump out of a window. Terrible. I was brought up to be first. I once was first equal and I didn’t know to question that for a long time. I imagine I am looking at someone who knows that feeling of “Jump higher! Jump higher!” very well. Ha ha! Being brought up like that makes it all the more difficult to receive comfort because it’s easier to accept criticism, it’s what you are familiar with. You are suspicious of comfort and reward. I’m working on it though. Ha ha ha!

Me: Do you think changes in publishing world such as the rise of the ebook and the super low prices for some books etc (as in the US books where some e-books are selling for 20 cents) have made it easier or harder to become a publisher writer?

Janice: E-books and e-publishing are democratising the book world in a way that is not necessarily helpful to anyone. E-publishing has opened up something up like the X-Factor. You can hit the jackpot unexpectedly, if you can get lots of people to buy your book for 20 cents, but everyone knows that books for 20 cents are going to be shit. If you’re priority is to pay only twenty cents for a book and you don’t mind the book being shit, who am I to question your taste? But there is a certain kind of writer who writes to solve difficulties, or who does it for a life time, or who wishes to experiment, they are never going to make big sales in e-books. There are established writers who shift over, like Hilary Mantel, she has a fantastic ebook presence and that’s fine and a good thing and their ebooks tend not to be any cheaper. If people are buying because of the cheapness, that’s up to them. But reading because you love a quality writer is another thing. The quality writers I admire and the kind of writing that sets my heart on flutter are not necessarily found in an e-book. So I am always going to buy hardbacks and paperback books. And the democratic thing about that is you can lend them to your friends or write in them. I’ve got books I’ve had since I was a child – you just can’t have that depository of books with fingerprints and jam in them with e-books! Ha ha ha!  But  there is one group of authors that e-publishing does help and that is  the good authors out there that agents and publishers are too scared to take a chance on. E-publishing offers these authors an opportunity for their voices to be heard, something that  would have otherwise be denied them in the past.

The interview stopped there. Do let me know what you think! I’d love to hear from you. This is my second interview ever. ( The first one was with a detective sergeant in the Yorkshire police force!). Oh, and, a big shout out to Clicket and EIBF for helping make this happen, and if you go to the Clicket blog you’ll find more blog posts about all the wonderful events happening in this mad Edinburgh month of festivals. But I digress …

And  do remember,  to thank you for leaving a comment, at the end of the month all names go in a hat and one lucky person will win a copy of The Blue Suitcase!

*The Trick is To Keep Breathing is written in the first person in the form of a diary, and as such the reader feels very close to Joy, the protagonist. Joy is an ordinary person who has a breakdown. The diary is about her extraordinary struggle to cope with – and survive – her illness. Janice Galloway’s descriptions of the tiny details of Joy’s daily life make the writing all the more vivid. Joy survives her breakdown because she learns the trick of appreciating the simple things, the smallest things, like breathing. In Janice Galloway’s notes she says in order to survive “we have to take what small pittance there is on offer and build on it.” This is what Joy does and is a hero because of it. The book is also about the expectations we have of each other and so much more – it also wonderfully written.

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7 Responses to a head full of stuff – a five minute interview with Janice Galloway at the EIBF

  1. Excellent interview! I saw Janice Galloway reading from ‘All Made Up’ at Central Library, she really is very entertaining!

  2. Isobelle Lauder says:

    Loved the interview and I am glad you got more than five minutes.

  3. Cathy Harris says:

    she does sound very entertaining, I am off to order The Trick is To Keep Breathing, I think I might learn a thing or two….

  4. Pingback: “All Made Up” is Scottish book of the year! | Marianne Wheelaghan

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