Creatives in profile: interview with Julia Forster

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Julia Forster was born and raised in the Midlands. She studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick and has a Masters in Creative Writing from St Andrews. While at Warwick, she was awarded the Derek Walcott prize for creative writing. She works in publishing, but has also been a magician’s assistant in Brooklyn, a nanny in Milan and a waitress in Chartres.

Her debut novel, What A Way To Go, follows the exploits of 12-year old Harper Richardson, as she navigates the tumultuous paths of childhood, while also attempting to fix her divorced parents’ broken hearts. Set against the backdrop of the high hairdos and higher interest rates of the late 1980s, Forster’s novel has been described as “fresh, touching, truthful and laugh-out loud funny” by best-selling author Deborah Moggach.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

FORSTER

I live with my young family in mid Wales, 150 miles due west of where I was brought up in the east Midlands. We live in a cottage, which we share with the local wildlife: there’s a large maternity roost of pipsistrelle bats in our loft and we often have little visits from mice and bird-life. I try – and fail – to grow vegetables, read a lot and attempt to look busy when I hear the kids running up the stairs.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

FORSTER

I am a keener reader than I am a writer, which is perhaps not a bad thing? I guess that might also have to do with having small-ish kids (they’re nine and six years-old). After all, it is far easier to pick up a book to read in between small tasks than it is to delve right back into an imaginary world and start writing again…

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

FORSTER

I’m lucky to have some amazingly creative friends. I met the poet Retta Bowen at an Arvon course when I was 19 and she’s been a permanent source of hope and inspiration ever since. I met the all-round creative genius Philip Cowell when I was 24 and he’s likewise lit up the path when I haven’t known where to tread next. I couldn’t have written a word without the inspiration of my friend here in Wales the author, editor and campaigner Angharad Penrhyn Jones.

Books are a continual source of inspiration, of course, but when you’re faced with a creative dilemma, nothing beats a phone call or sharing a leathily strong coffee with a friend who can both challenge and counsel you.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

FORSTER

I had an English teacher in Year 10 who used to tell ghost stories which were so petrifying, some pupils had special dispensation to leave the class while he told them. He made a significant impression on me, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I began to write in earnest. I was lucky to be taught at the University of Warwick when the writing programme there was in its relative infancy and as such I would often have entire office hours to myself with David Morley. That’s when I began to write poetry. Maureen Freely and Russell Celyn Jones were also teaching at the time, and it was in one of Russell’s workshops that I wrote the germ of What a Way to Go in response to his provocation to ‘write about something traumatic’.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your debut novel, What A Way To Go?

FORSTER

It’s set in 1988 during the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’ when house prices became eye-watering, along with interest rates (and I’m sure many of us may have also shed a tear when we’ve looked back at what we wore in that era too!) Twelve year-old Harper’s parents Mary and Pete are divorced. Harper is trying to fix their broken hearts but she also enjoys her blossoming independence – both politically and emotionally. It’s a book with a big heart and a retro feel.

INTERVIEWER

It is often said that “all writing is autobiography”. How closely do you find your own, personal experiences of childhood are tied to those of your novel’s central protagonist, Harper? Is it easier to write about your life experiences through the prism of fiction – rather than, say, memoir?

FORSTER

When I was nine, I announced that I would ‘cook’. I took a packet of shell-off prawns from the freezer and attempted to make prawn cocktail. The marie rose sauce was easy: tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to a 50:50 ratio. What I didn’t know was how you defrost shellfish, so I sucked each prawn until they’d defrosted, spat them out and then served them in the sauce. I honestly didn’t think that this was bonkers.

I don’t think it’s a plot-spolier to say that this event is repeated in one scene in the novel! What I suppose this demonstrates is that a) everything is copy and, in the case of What a Way to Go, b) I was always searching for a way to inhabit that child-like imagination and point of view. Adults do tend to complicate matters.

I chose to use the prism of fiction because, frankly, I wasn’t ready to publish a memoir but also because, like many childhoods, there was plenty of emotional drama but not enough to warrant the cutting down of trees to print it out in multiple copies. An earlier iteration of this novel was in fact a full-length autobiography of 80,000 words. The manuscript serves as excellent sound insulation in our echoey cottage.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

FORSTER

Imagine if you could get some kind of inoculation against self-doubt, or a course of confidence pills that you could pop while writing! Straight up, I believe that the crucial thing when writing an initial draft is not to judge yourself or your writing. Believe in yourself in epic proportions. It is all too easy to get downbeat and for the oxygen to be sucked out of an embryonic project. Just keep going.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

FORSTER

I write from a place of authenticity. I wouldn’t undertake anything I haven’t thought about from an ethical point of view.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

FORSTER

A man in his fifties who is sitting on the tube wearing a frown and a bowler hat.

INTERVIEWER

Reading What A Way To Go, the wider historical and social context are subtly fed in – weekends in Hardingstone are “low voltage, thanks to Maggie Thatcher”, for instance. For you as a writer, how do you balance the central focus of the novel – the coming of age story of a child of divorce – with the wider story of England’s changing society through the 1980s?

FORSTER

I read Andy McSmith’s There’s No Such Thing as Society which helped me to choose the historical era in which I set the novel. It was my intention to show, without it being too invasive, how the increasing commercialisation of childhood and pop music hoodwinked a generation of kids, but also how the rising prices of housing in the UK coupled with easy credit – our flexible friend – became the enemy to happiness and skewed our sense of what it means to be free.

INTERVIEWER

In a novel driven so much by characters, what are some of the challenges you, as a writer, face in bringing them to life? And do you develop any kind of relationship with the characters on the page?

FORSTER

I cut several characters out and amalgamated a few after the first draft because the chorus was too large. I wanted Harper to have two good friends as counterpoints – Derek and Cassie – but also I wanted both parents to have confidants – Oona and Patrick. As the novel is told in the first person, there is quite a lot of dialogue as this is one of the few options that were available to me for Harper to find out information that she wouldn’t otherwise have known. I did develop a relationship with the characters, especially Harper, who I felt very fond of by the end because of her ability to straight-talk, and tell a joke. I can’t tell a joke for toffee; I always forget the punch line.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

FORSTER

I don’t have another persona who helps me write. For me, it is a matter of getting myself as far away from the keyboard as possible as it were, and becoming more of a conduit. As soon as ego starts to get in the way, things become murky. The ideal is to have a direct line to the writing in hand and not to over-think. It’s an intuitive process, but it takes a lot of practice and a large part of my writing career to date has been about failing and learning from that process.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

FORSTER

I think there will always be authors who experiment, set trends and defy norms. I don’t think any of us can predict where the form of the novel is heading. That is what makes reading a book so exciting.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

FORSTER

I am working on a project on the theme of sorrow.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

FORSTER

Piano washed out by spring tide.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

FORSTER

  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Turn off the Internet.
  3. Read books intimately.
  4. Pretend you know what you’re doing.
  5. Remember: you have other body parts aside from fingers.
  6. Caffeinate regularly.
  7. Celebrate each small achievement.
  8. Be supportive to fellow authors.
  9. Invest in wax earplugs.
  10. Ignore housework until it reaches biohazard level.

 

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To purchase What a Way to Go visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1782397523/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i2_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0J8NWC2D9RANBKKCY5QB&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=26de8ef0-2ad7-412c-8634-6cd03b7b73e2&pf_rd_i=desktop

Follow Julia on Twitter

or visit her website here!

 

 

 

 

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