Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: an interview with Joanna Briscoe

We may be in the middle of a global crisis, but there’s nothing in the rulebook to say you can’t continue your interview series during a worldwide pandemic.

Joanna Briscoe was born in London in 1963 but grew up in various villages in the West Country. Briscoe’s family relocated several times until, when she was ten, they settled on Dartmoor. She returned to London for university, reading English at UCL, and then became a freelance journalist writing for many publications, including the Guardian and Elle magazine. She started to write fiction in the evenings and is now the author of six novels and several short stories. Her first novel, Mothers and Other Lovers, won a Betty Trask Award in 1993, and her third, Sleep with Me (2005), was adapted for television.

Her latest novel, The Seduction, tells the story of Beth, who begins to attend therapy sessions when she suspects her daughter of keeping secrets. Beth’s own childhood is complicated – her own mother disappeared when she was a child – and she seeks help from Dr Tamara Bywater in unravelling both the past and present. However, soon it seems that the person meant to be the solution could be most dangerous of all.

Briscoe has been described by The Sunday Times as ‘ a vivid and passionate writer’ that ‘plunges headlong into sticky themes of desire, love and hatred, uncovering the unpalatable parts of the psyche with an unflinching eye.’ The Seduction is available in hardback from Waterstones and Amazon.

We asked Briscoe what drew her to therapy as a subject, the ‘pull’ of character, and how she finds what to say when writing in silence.


INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle?

BRISCOE

I live in North London, between Kentish Town and Hampstead Heath, so I’m incredibly lucky to have the Heath to walk on for my daily exercise in Lockdown. I come from a very rural background – the middle of Dartmoor! – with quite hippie parents. I reacted, and went as urban as possible, living in central London for years, but now this feels like a bit of the country has returned to my soul. I write in London, and, when not in Lockdown, I travel quite a lot.

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you? 

BRISCOE

My children first and foremost. They are everything. Being out in the world and travelling, and great literature, feed my imagination as well.

INTERVIEWER

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

BRISCOE

Yes, in terms of work, writing is my first love, and always has been. I decided very definitely that I was going to try to be a writer at fifteen. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d love to be a photographer, but writing always came first.

INTERVIEWER

Your new novel, The Seduction, centres around the relationship between a therapist and their patient. What drew you to this dynamic?

BRISCOE

I’d had therapy myself, and I was interested in the one-sided relationship, where the client becomes intrigued because they can find out absolutely nothing about the therapist. As an eternally curious, I found this frustrating but interesting! And then I heard of people who had had affairs with therapists, and I wanted to explore that taboo. I’m always interested in the subject of crossing boundaries, and the exhilaration of that, but also the damage caused. 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your main character, Beth. What did you find interesting about her? 

BRISCOE

Beth has suffered a lot, and is impulsive and oversensitive, but she’s always strong. She knows she’s made mistakes, but she keeps trying, and I got to know her more and like her more as I was writing about her. Her behaviour is quite contradictory, yet there’s a consistency of purpose in her own mind, and she’s very motivated by love for her daughter, and by not wanting to repeat her own mother’s mistakes. And then, perhaps, she does…

INTERVIEWER

Elizabeth Day has described your writing as ‘beguilingly good.’ What do you think are the three most important ingredients for a gripping story? 

BRISCOE

If there’s one thing I do when I’m writing, it’s to tell myself that I mustn’t bore my reader. So I read through my work as objectively as I can, and if I’m ever remotely bored myself, I know my reader will be, and I cut or edit. For a gripping story, I think, really, something has to be happening. I think in terms of action, however small or subtle, and also in terms of something else going on underneath that may not be immediately apparent. But now, as I write my seventh novel, I’m thinking more in terms of character. If we care about the protagonist, we will be pulled into her story. But there has to be a story. Things have to happen. And the reader needs to be surprised sometimes. 

INTERVIEWER

Which contemporary fiction writers should we be paying particular attention to at the moment?

BRISCOE

Maxine Mei-Fung Chung, who was one of my students in fact, has written The Eighth Girl, which is a page turner with depth. She was published in the US in March, and is coming out with Pushkin here. I love the work of Maggie O’Farrell and Helen Simpson, and there is a short story writer called Tamara Pollock who is so talented, she just has to be published more widely.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write or do you just dive in? 

BRISCOE

From blank screen to completed manuscript is a long, complicated process, so multi-layered, full of stops and starts and revisions, it’s hard to sum it up. I always have an initial idea of the plot, and certainly the theme, before I start, and when an idea hits me, I frantically make notes. I make myself start the novel before I’m ready, in a sense, just in case the idea in my head doesn’t translate to the page. After that, I jump between my document that is the actual novel, and my Notes document, as I’m constantly jotting down thoughts and refining the plot. But essentially, I do plot quite early.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

BRISCOE

I do, but it’s not my first motivation. I am quite political, and very feminist, as a person, but I don’t set out to write political novels, or novels whose aim is to change the world. The only real responsibility I feel is to entertain, and to encapsulate some sort of truth if possible. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

BRISCOE

Honestly, I’ve been sobbing over books ever since I could read! Which was at the age of four. I can’t ever remember not crying over a book!

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

BRISCOE

Without a doubt, the solitude. I want to do nothing but write, yet as a sociable extrovert, I’m temperamentally unsuited to it, and I’ve had to accept that. I solve this partly by going to the British Library, writing at a communal table, and seeing friends for lunch, but I find the hours of silence quite trying….

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

BRISCOE

I think it would have to be Jane Eyre….

INTERVIEWER

Did getting published change your perception of writing?

BRISCOE

It’s hard to answer this one…. I wanted to be published since I was a teenager, and, like a teenager might, I thought publication would somehow solve my whole life. So, I hung a lot onto it, which was not realistic, but it didn’t change my perception of the process itself. Published or not, writing is very hard. You come to accept that. But publication does provide that vital sense of structure and encouragement to go on.

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers?  

BRISCOE

I think my novel ‘You’ could have done better, but it was the wrong title, the wrong cover, and I think, in retrospect, I could have cut it more. But it’s quite close to my heart, and I’d love it to have another life.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any friends that are writers? If so, do you show each other early drafts?

BRISCOE

Yes, I have several friends who are writers, and I have my loyal band of novel doctors. We show each other early drafts. Some of my early readers aren’t writers, though – they’re just intelligent readers, and I trust them. I’ve used the same readers from my very first novel onwards.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? 

BRISCOE

Well, I’m writing my next novel while I’m publicising The Seduction, because it keeps me sane! So I’m quite absorbed by that when I have time to write it.

QUICK FIRE ROUND: 

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

BRISCOE

Beloved by Toni Morrison

INTERVIEWER

Saturday night: book or Netflix?

BRISCOE

Both! At the moment, I admit it’s Netflix

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

BRISCOE

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

BRISCOE

Um, I can draw flowers quite well. Sometimes.

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments?

BRISCOE

Plenty. I’m not going to reveal them. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best advice you ever received?

BRISCOE

To keep going.

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves?

BRISCOE

I’m really getting sick of the first person present tense.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song?

BRISCOE

No…. I have favourites.

INTERVIEWER

Your proudest achievement?

BRISCOE

My children.

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out?

BRISCOE

Just do it. Ignore that critical voice in your head, know that everyone has it, and just write in short bursts.


To find out more, you can follow Joanna on Twitter and visit her website. The Seduction is now available in hardback from Waterstones and Amazon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: