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Interview with Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson is the author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. She works in the literature department of the British Council, and regularly travels widely across the Middle East, North Africa, China and Europe. In 2007 she won the New Writing Ventures award for Creative Non-Fiction for ‘Laila Ahmed’.  She is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and lives by the sea on the South Coast of England.

What first inspired A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar?

I went to Deptford market, it’s a junk car-boot kind of market and it started to rain and I was looking in a box full of letters, those really thin blue airmail letters. I pulled them out and read the first page and it was like listening in to an intense family drama. I realised the letter were all from India and went back years and years. I asked who they belonged to and the man at the stall said they were from a house clearance. I bought them all for a tenner. I couldn’t bear to see the rain dripping on them. I spent that evening reading them and piecing together the story. There were photographs, bookmarks and 25 years’ worth of letters from India to England sent from various daughters to a mother.  An Indian woman had lived in Calcutta and married, gone to Pakistan, divorced and moved to England in the 40s.  It was an amazing narrative of girls in a boarding house in Darjeeling and there were love letters too but none of the letters were written by the woman they belonged to and I wanted to know more about her story.

I wrote a non-fiction piece about finding out who she was, who does this story belong to and the morality of whether it’s ok to use their story. It was inspiring and interesting. Laila Ahmed won the New Writing Ventures Prize and I was given £1000 which I spent on a laptop and I received a year’s mentoring. That led to being approached by seven agents and I was able to choose which lovely agent I’d like to have. I chose Rachel Calder. Everything about the box of the letters is weird and a little bit mystical and magical. When I was writing Kashgar, and Frieda finds the letters, I was trying to capture a bit of that feeling.

When did you first start writing?

I have always written. I wrote my first proper long story when I was 14 or 15 but I had been writing diaries since I was seven. I remember writing a ghost story and trying to build up suspense, with police reports and lots of gluing and sticking. I invented an alternative boarding school story with a friend, like Mallory Towers, we created our own version with all the difference characters. I grew up on a council estate and I had this idea that boarding schools were fun.

What advice would you give to writers who are starting out?

My husband said to me the other day, ‘I think your journey through the publishing world has been lined with rose petals.’ But actually I did start writing when I was 15 and wrote stories and did an MA so it took me about 20 years to get to the stage of having a book published. My advice is to try and make your writing the best that you possibly can. Never stop trying to make it better.

And also read a lot. I love Virginia Woolf and modernist writers, I like H.D. and Storm Jameson. I gravitate towards obscure 20s and 30s writers, and Olivia Manning and Graham Greene. And Nicola Barker, A.S. Byatt and Stevie Smith.

How did you develop your style of writing?

The book took a long time partly because I had two babies in the middle of writing Kashgar. It took a long time to balance the two narratives and to work on the two difference voices. The style is embedded in the book itself. The book I’m writing now is about a colonial man who is sent to Palestine at the beginning of the British Mandate and he decided he was going to redesign Jerusalem, inflicting a plan on an ancient city without consulting its people. The style of writing is quite different from the diaries and the inward looking story with the missionaries.

I did an MA at Goldsmiths and I’m doing a PhD. I’m writing it under a tutor, and writing about critical theory. I was really lucky because I didn’t have to pay for my MA. A lot of people on the course do, it breeds a certain tension, paying all this money and you feel you need to produce a golden chalice of a publishing deal. If you can stay away from the dark thoughts and concentrate on the writing and learning it’s really brilliant to carve out a space in your life for your writing.

How did you know when the editing stage was finished?

That stage seemed to go on forever and drove me mad. I was still changing things at the last minute, the final version of the book arrived in the post recently. I stroked it but I can’t bear to read it, I want to change sentences… for me, editing only stops when someone takes the book away.

Did friends read your book before it was published or did you have outside support?

I had a mentor, the writer Sara Maitland, who was very helpful right from the beginning. She told me, ‘don’t give up on writing because you’ve had a baby and you’re sleep deprived.’ She was more of a sort of spiritual guide than writing mentor at a crucial point. It would have been so easy to say I can’t do it when surrounded by nappies. The book went to my agent, and she had quite strong editorial opinions, so that was useful, though I had to fight my ground too. I had my first taste of someone with a commercial mind coming into my world of missionaries wafting around Kashgar. I had some early readers of embryonic parts of the book but it’s hard in a group situation and when they’re reading only a small part of the book.

Were you rejected by agents at first?

People are going to hate me for this but I didn’t go through rejection process at all for the novel. I sent my piece on Laila Ahmed to Ian Jack at Granta and he said he loved it but didn’t want to publish it because the lady was still alive.

Agents find prizes like the BBC Short Story Prize really useful, and D.W. Wilson probably had lots of them coming to him after he won. It’s like a validation and they feel more confident choosing you.

What are your tips on writing a pitch and synopsis?

I wrote one for my second book and they’re so hard to do, pinning down a big idea but getting it to make sense. Give yourself a lot of time to work on it and don’t ramble on about a big long plot, it needs to be focused and savvy. I hate to use this word but it helps if there is a ‘hook’. It’s more useful to think of it as a snap shot of a film. People feel they need to be literary and flowery, but it needs to be a really clear idea, short and focused, and that’s hard to do.

What’s your advice to writers who are at first rejected?

One of my friends has been rejected eight times; it’s brutal and soul dispiriting. Four agents gave her detailed feedback and all said she needed to rethink the foundation of the novel and change it. So I suggested she should at least try it. But she said no, they’re wrong. But my point is, you’ll never know until you try. In the end Kashgar switches between two narratives quickly, but it took a LOT of rewriting and revising to get to that point. It’s quite easy to think you’ve finished the manuscript and feel that’s it and get rejected and not go back to it and get cross and sad. Don’t get locked down into a ‘finished manuscript’. It’s a changeable moveable feast. Just try it, try a new ending, ditch your main character, don’t get uptight and think how dare you say I should get rid of the first three chapters. You lose nothing apart from the time. If your trials don’t work you can go back to your original with extreme confidence, though in my experience, the experiments are always worth it. It sometimes seems that the difference between writers who get published and those who don’t is that those who do have really strong work ethics. Even though it’s depressing to go back and rewrite, that’s what they all do. Really established writers have tried five different points of view and put in huge amounts of work. Some people want the agent and book deal and aren’t prepared to do the massive amount of work. That said, sometimes the book can’t be any better. During the economic crises  - 2008 and 2009 - publishers stopped buying first novels. That year my agent told me she had lovely, perfect novels that should have been sold but didn’t. A couple of years later publishers started buying them again as they realised they were drying up without them. It’s also hugely to do with timing and luck.

What's your top tip for writers?

The thing I find the most useful when I’m in the middle of a novel is just before I go to sleep, to read the bit I’ve written earlier that day. Graham Greene did it and I thought it was a great idea. Your subconscious feeds on it, so you dream and loads of stuff comes out and you can write in your notebook really quickly before the world invades. If you’re trying to hold a long piece of work together it keeps a subconscious string.

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