Before I begin this review, I’m going to issue a disclaimer: Jo is a friend of mine and I’m both immensely proud and insanely jealous that she’s written such a cracking debut novel as White Lies. Having a friend who’s a writer is beneficial though, as I get to interview her for the blog…
So, what’s the novel about? Well, it tells the story of Matt, a man haunted by the past and also the inconvenient fact that his brother has just died on his birthday. While this is bad enough, there’s also the fact that his dad has Alzheimer’s that’s getting worse, meaning that Matt has to keep telling his father that his favourite son is dead. There’s also a range of messy family relationships and deep secrets to keep you hooked.
I really enjoyed the book- I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, but I found it engrossing and the descriptions of Peter’s descent into himself was heartbreaking, funny and infuriating. The book also includes one of my favourite descriptive sentences of all time: part of the old people’s home is described as smelling of ‘chips and disappointment’. There were times when I wanted to strangle characters, others when I laughed and again when I felt deeply upset. There’s a lot here for a debut novel. You can buy it here.
I asked Jo a few questions- if you’re a budding novelist (or just nosy), read on…
1) How did you manage to write a novel while being a mum to two small boys?
<Unhinged laughter> Slowly! I started writing the first draft just after my first son was born and he turned six in July just before the launch date, so it took its sweet time. It was very much a stop-start operation wedged in between work, having babies, and surviving sleep deprivation. There is no spare time, is there? I managed to carve out a few hours here and there to write, whether it was a Saturday afternoon in a café or late at night when I really should have been catching up on sleep. All very much facilitated by my wonderful husband who always makes sure I prioritise creativity over pointless stressing about work or doing the washing up. I actually go a little bit insane if I haven’t written for a while so the compulsive nature of it helps me to keep going, even if it does take me six years to finish a project.
2) How did you make notes/research?
It’s been a long and slightly random accumulation of ideas and scribbles, really. For notes, I have lots of different notebooks which inevitably get lost around the house or stolen by the children for drawing on. Occasionally, just as I’m falling asleep, I’ll think of a perfect phrase or an important plot point and write myself a text message so that I’ll remember it in the morning. Although, sometimes I’ll read it back the next day and wonder what the hell I was talking about…
Research-wise it was a case of finding a balance between anecdotal stories (which are obviously very personal) and medical information (which can be quite dry and detached). A checklist of dementia symptoms doesn’t tell you what it’s actually like to experience the condition, or the effect it can have on relationships. For the emotional side of the story I spent a long time reading through diaries, blogs and articles written by people who are living with dementia, along with the perspectives of their carers and families. Hopefully the book brings together both sides of the situation; the sometimes innocuous day-to-day experiences, and the deep psychological impact.
3) Which authors/books/films inspired your novel writing?
I tend to get inspired by whatever I happen to be reading/watching at the time, to be honest. In the last few years I’ve become much more influenced by short stories and flash fiction – I really admire the ability to create a fully-formed fictional world within a few hundred words. I think the skills needed to tie together a short story are extremely useful when applied to novel writing as you’re forced to make each chapter or scene as succinct as possible. My favourite author in all of time and space is Kurt Vonnegut, so in general he’s probably been the biggest influence on the way I’d like to get my thoughts out on paper.
4) What are your three desert island books?
Arg. That’s not a fair question! Can I cheat and just bring a Kindle?
I could (and do) read Catch-22 over and over again to infinity, so that’s definitely number one – it makes me laugh and cry and would be excellent company when I inevitably found myself naked in a tree like Yossarian. Next would be Amy Hempel’s short story collection, The Dog of the Marriage, because it’s one of those books that does strange, wonderful things to your head and leaves you thinking about the stories for days afterwards. Third would probably be a big book of mythology or world history – it’s another sneaky cheat, really – so many stories and lifetimes contained within in one book.
5) What are your ideal writing conditions?
There’s a writing retreat in Devon called Retreats for You
that is my idea of literary heaven. It’s set in a beautiful thatched cottage on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, and you get thoroughly looked after by a fantastic couple who ply you with food and wine and tea and cake while you spend your days writing/sleeping. Back in the real world my writing conditions usually involve at least one small child asking me for something, the looming threat of day-job deadlines, and excessive procrastination via social media, so having space, silence and time to write is a wonderful luxury.