Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile – interview with Ross Jeffery

"Humanity is sick and there is no cure" - author Ross Jeffery talks apocalyptic literature and society's decline in our latest 'Creatives in profile' interview...

Authors dream of arriving on the literary scene with their debut works accompanied by searing praise from their peers. So, when Bristol-based writer Ross Jeffery first published his book, Juniper, it was quite something to witness the sheer number of his fellow writers who queued up to point out just how good it is.

Of course, Jeffery is not a complete unknown in the world of fiction and publishing. The Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine, he has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark, and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink.

We caught up with Jeffery to chat books, inspiration, and writing with integrity…

INTERVIEWER

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

JEFFERY

Well, I’m originally from Downham, a place that likes to call itself south east London, so at heart I’m a Londoner. I went to university to study media arts and video production at Thames Valley University, where I spent three years, watching films, reading books and generally not doing much else, but this set me on the course to being a writer, mainly writing short film scripts and other such things. It was here in West London that I met Tony and Tomek (who are the other thirds of STORGY) and our love affair of films and books began.

Fast forward a good many years and the other two guys set up STORGY Magazine and then asked me to join them and help develop the site from a writing group (sharing ideas and writing short one page fiction) into the beast that it has become today. STORGY magazine is now an independent publisher – we’ve published Exit Earth and Shallow Creek; our yearly competition anthologies (Annihilation Radiation is currently running but will also become a print anthology). Last year, we also released our first collection of short stories by Roger McKnight ‘Hopeful Monsters’ and later this year we are releasing a couple of other projects, including Tomas Marcantonio’s debut novel ‘This Ragged, Wastrel Thing’.

Though this has all been great – I’ve always had a passion to write myself. It’s not been without its struggles of course; a good few year’s back now I went on a seven year stint of not writing. Everything I wrote just seemed to not be any good, I was struggling with just writing shock pieces, really graphic and really dark – and the dark themes didn’t really have a reason. So I stopped writing. I just went cold turkey. But I still kept notes, read everything and everything, learning all the time. Then after seven years I penned a short story called Bethesda – put it out in the world and it was picked up for a print publication – and then there was no stopping me. I had found what I wanted to do and went for it – in the years following I’ve had many stories published online and in print and my writing life has never been better.  

INTERVIEWER

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

JEFFERY

Writing has always been my first love. It’s always been there like code on a computer, working in the background. But my other passion is reading – I love discovering new writers, and I think that to be a good writer you need to read anything and everything. Nothing is wasted.

I also love spending time with my family. I’m quite boring really!

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

JEFFERY

My children inspire me every day, in all I do and all I write – I hope that one day, when they’re older and able to read most of my work, they’ll be proud of what their dad’s done. That I’ve left them with something to remember me by, and hopefully it’s good!

Two writers that have inspired me are Chuck Palahniuk and James Frey – these two people really changed the way I engaged with books and writing. Chuck was one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. His visceral style and his no nonsense approach to storytelling was a lightbulb moment for me, and after reading ‘Fight Club’ (before the film had come out) I realised that I wanted to tell stories, that I wanted to be able to weave tales like this. He’s the man that I hold as my main source of inspiration. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck for STORGY a good few years ago now and it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever done, it was brilliant and Chuck was great and for days I was in this hedonistic daze having just interviewed my literary idol.

James Frey is another person that inspired me – after reading ‘A Million Little Pieces’ (a book my wife told me to read) my writing life was transformed forever. In my opinion ‘A Million Little Pieces’ has one of the best opening chapters I’ve ever read, something about it just resonated with me and so from that book a love affair with James Frey began. Again I also had the opportunity to interview him last year when his new book ‘Katarina’ came out and we spent hours on the phone discussing his writing practices, books, his books, where he took his inspiration from, life and of course we discussed Oprah. But we had a real good time (even arranging to meet up on his London tour) chatting like friends; it’s strange, people say never meet your idols; but for me it’s worked out pretty well so far.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your first book, Juniper, and its dystopian and post-apocalyptic themes mirror those that we’ve seen in some of the other creative projects you’ve been involved with – including the Annihilation Radiation anthology you’re putting together through STORGY. What draws you to these dystopian landscapes and futures? Is this where humanity is heading, do you think?

JEFFERY

There is something about the dystopian / post-apocalyptic landscape that pulls me in. I guess it’s got something to do with society’s decline, how we are contributing to our own downfall; but how we can also survive it.

For me, it’s all about people and the lengths that they are willing to sink to make survival a possibility. It’s the making monsters of men and women that I find so interesting, how in many works of this type there seems to be a devolution in how people react to such events.

Juniper is set in a southern state in America – an apocalyptic wasteland, blighted by a scorching unending heat, that has caused cattle and crops to die, but hope springs from the most unlikely source. I enjoy trying to see the depth that people will go to ensure their survival and Juniper displays this in all its grotesque beauty. I feel that writers can’t help but be influenced with what is going on in the world and we have a duty to highlight these issues in any way we can: global warming, child slaves, refugees, natural disasters, environmental concerns, racial divides, sexism, toxic masculinity, the roles of women. Humanity is sick and there is no cure.

Jeffery’s debut novel, Juniper has drawn praise from dozens of authors.

INTERVIEWER

Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek have both said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. With Australia currently literally on fire (at the time of writing), what role do you think fiction has to play in helping us make sense of the chaos around us?

JEFFERY

Fiction holds up the mirror to our lives and fate – we should observe it often and learn from it.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully formed story?

JEFFERY

I’m quite a visual writer, so when I start writing I like to give a face to the project either by illustrating something myself or creating a cover for the flash fiction / short story / novella / novel. I also keep a notebook – actually many notebooks (one in my bag, one on my desk, one by my bed – you never know when inspiration will come) – these usually have snippets of conversations I’ve heard, character details, loose plot points, locations and numerous illustrations, etc.

When I think I have enough for a project I sit down, open my notebooks and borrow various elements from them to tell my story and start mind-mapping the process on a sheet of A3 paper. I work with a five act structure (which I learnt from Joseph Sale – my editor and friend) and when I’m happy with that, I then start working on the chapters.

With Juniper I had a huge pin board and broke the book up into chapters, using cards to write down roughly what I wanted to accomplish in that chapter and before I knew it I’d mapped out the whole novella. I’d never planned something out so thoroughly before. I used to write from the hip, tap tap tapping on my typewriter – just seeing where the story took me. But having used this more methodical structuring, I found my productivity went through the roof and within a month I’d written the whole book; and so this planning process I incorporated for my second book (which I wrote straight after completing Juniper) and at the end of 2019 I’d written two books.

“Whether its short stories or novel the main thing I do, without fail – is to write the story from start to finish without editing a single word, getting the words on the page and the work done” – Ross Jeffery

I’m fortunate enough to have Friday’s off work and children at school, so Friday becomes my writing day, something that I fiercely defend. I’ve a very understanding wife and she knows that this time – from once I’ve dropped my girls off to school from when I pick them up – is time for me to write. So I’d say find some time to write and defend it with your life.

With short stories I love to write on the typewriter, return to that old form for a time. But whether its short stories or novel the main thing I do, without fail – is to write the story from start to finish without editing a single word, getting the words on the page and the work done – that way I can say I’ve written two books not writing one. I can’t remember who I got this from it might have been Steinbeck, but getting the words on the page is the most important thing of all. Also I believe it was Stephen King that said something along the lines of sitting your ass in the chair, even if you don’t want to – it’s true, how else are you going to write without doing it. So do it. It works.  

But for me every idea comes from a small kernel – I play with them until I find things that fit and then develop the idea further – so sometimes I have four or five ideas on the go at once, but I never start writing until one of them bubbles to the surface and I can’t do anything but write it.

INTERVIEWER

What was your experience of putting Juniper together like? Are you a writer who sits down at a typewriter one evening and writes the entire work out in one drug and alcohol fuelled craze a-la Kerouac’s On The Road? Or are you slower and more methodical?

JEFFERY

Juniper was surprisingly easy to write. I’d like to say it was drug and alcohol fuelled but it was more coffee and cinnamon swirls. As I said I write on Fridays. In a quiet house and get as much done as I can within the time constraints I have. I’m the manager of a busy homeless day centre during the week, so writing in the week is quite impossible, but if I can and if the creativity is flowing I’d often write in the evenings for a few hours, half an hour before dinner. I believe that if you want to write, if you seriously want to do it and if your idea excites you you’ll find the time to fit it in (stop bitching and moaning that you don’t have the time, none of us do, just get writing).

Juniper from start to finish took me about a month – there was of course months of planning that took place before this, ensuring that when I sat down I knew what I was going to be writing instead of staring at a blank screen – I’d mapped out chapters, worked on the plot, the structure, everything was done in advance – so when I sat down all I had to do was create the story and fuse the elements and chapters together. So from the first line to the last line it was a month – it’s the fastest I’ve ever written something this long (usually at home within the short story world) but I just couldn’t stop it, it was a book that I feel wanted me to write it. But whatever project, long or short, there is always coffee and cinnamon swirls.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

JEFFERY

My hopes for the book are that it finds an audience. I’m not in this for the money – it would help, don’t get me wrong. I’m in this game to write stories and if they find an audience, if one person reads it and likes it, or it helps them in some other way, then for me it’ll all be worthwhile.

The book for me is also a way to show the doubters wrong, that the boy from Downham with not the greatest grades, who had a dislike for English, who had a fear of reading, who had to retake his GCSE in English, who struggled through University, who’s self-taught in writing has been able to achieve something that was pretty much out if his reach.

People will doubt you, doubt your ability every day, sling shit and hope it sticks – but Juniper for me is something I can show my daughters, something I’m proud of and I hope someday they will be proud too – that if they put their hearts and minds to something then they can with hard work and dedication achieve it, it might not be easy but what in life that is worth anything comes without a cost or a trial.

INTERVIEWER

So many writers think of little else than holding their finished novel in their hands for the first time. How does it feel to have achieved what so many will only ever dream of?

JEFFERY

It’s the most peculiar feeling in the world. I also did the thing of getting my wife to take a picture of me holding it, I’ve the biggest, stupidest grin on my face, but I couldn’t help it. To hold a book that I wrote after so long spent honing my craft is something very, very special.

And then every time I look at the cover I get goosebumps with the quote from Priya Sharma ‘Ross Jeffery has birthed the love child of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy’ it’s the things of dreams. Every time I read it, it blows me away, that a writer I admire thinks such great things of my book, that I’m being compared to Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. It’s mind blowing and that’s only one of the amazing quotes I got. I was fortunate enough to get quotes from Daniel James, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Sarah Lotz, Aliya Whiteley  and Naomi Booth to name a few.

So, in answer to your question, it’s surreal and very addictive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

JEFFERY

I feel personal responsibility as a writer, I feel that I should have integrity in what I write – hence my seven year hiatus from writing. But I also feel that it’s the reader who takes what you’ve written and processes it, and in doing so comes to their own conclusions of your intended message – so it’s a hard one to judge and police. I wouldn’t put anything harmful out into the world, but then again I’m sure Juniper may offend some people, but whereas before I didn’t care, I have a duty of care not to pollute the world further, so in my writing now I try to make there be a reason for the darkness.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for writers, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

JEFFERY

Get a job. Sounds simple doesn’t it. But the publishing world has changed, the goalposts have been moved and although there is some great work being done by independent publishers, the dream of a huge signing on fee and living off your book is a thing of the past.

I’ve always had to work, and fit my writing life into that – it’s the way it’s always been for me and probably always will be. But you can’t plead poverty if you’re unwilling to get a job because you’re working on your book – those days are gone the world has moved on, even the greatest books being released nowadays by newcomers won’t see money for a good many years and subsequent books. My wife and I both work jobs that don’t pay well, but are front line jobs we believe in which look after those that are overlooked in our communities, and at times we’ve had to rely on a foodbank to feed our family, it shouldn’t be like that but it is.

It’s not for lack of trying to support our family that led us to use a foodbank, but the escalating cost of living, of rent and the lack of savings due to those things I just mentioned. Life is expensive, life is busy and the old days of publishing are gone – this is the new way things are done, writers nowadays need other jobs to support their passion and their work. Income from writing is a dream, one that we’ve been made to believe is true and achievable – but for many we’ll barely make ends meet, but we’re free to create, free to write – and for me, that’s perfect! 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your work? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

JEFFERY

We’ll I am currently working on a Novella-in-Flash called ‘Tethered’ it’s a collection of stories told from a father and son, from birth to death – dealing with themes of love, loss, grief, domestic violence, loneliness, toxic masculinity, sexuality and asking the question if we every escape the harm our parents cause us. It’s almost finished I’ve got about six more stories to write (as of writing this) and I’m looking to self-publish this collection.

I also have another book due out in the winter of 2020 – it’s early in the process but it’s with my editor and he’s very excited by it, as am I. And if you’ve purchased or are going to purchase Juniper you’ll get a sneak peek at what’s coming in the back of the novella.

I have also just started my months of planning on a new book called ‘Hostage’ it’s a story set in Polperro and is heavily influenced by folklore and mythology – a haunting and isolated tale which has risen to the top of the pile, and like Juniper I feel it’s wanting me to write it. So I’m hoping to start this once I finish the Novella-in-Flash and I have planned the hell out of it.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

JEFFERY

Fight Club

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

JEFFERY

Due to the cost of the cinema – I’m usually curled up with a book – Currently reading Adam Nevill’s ‘The Reddening’ and Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Greatcoat’

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

JEFFERY

Cult classic – it’s just cooler.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer?

JEFFERY

Charles Bukowski

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer?

JEFFERY

George Saunders

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

JEFFERY

Lucy Caldwell – my favourite writer at the moment.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

JEFFERY

None.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

JEFFERY

I’m here now, where’s the baby?

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring authors?

JEFFERY

  • Write your first draft without editing your work.
  • Find a time to write and protect it with your life.
  • Copious amounts of coffee and cinnamon swirls
  • Get a notebook and carry it everywhere with you
  • Read books outside of your usual genre
  • Support Independent Presses
  • Be bold
  • Warm up to your craft by writing a page of words that no one will ever see.
  • Have things in your writing space that you like (trinkets, toys, nice things) you’re going to be there for a while; you might as well make it enjoyable.
  • Find yourself a good editor and someone you trust.

Ross Jeffery’s debut novel Juniper is available to pre-order right here online

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