When my friend introduced me to Anna Jefferson over email, she described her as ‘officially the funniest person I know.’ It’s a weighty title but, with two popular comic novels – Winging It and Nailing It – delighting readers all over the world, Jefferson has the strength and the skill to bear it, flex, and crown herself with it.
Jefferson is in the interesting position of having released both her novels during lockdowns.
‘It’s a strange and wonderful thing,’ she tells me over Zoom. ‘I’m still yet to see them in any bookshop. My step-brother lives in Australia. He sent me a picture of my nephew holding up a copy of Nailing It in a café. So it’s out there, it’s just not here.’
The first novel, Winging It, tells the story of Emily who, when she has a baby, discovers that motherhood isn’t as glamorous as she thought it might be. It’s the friendships she fosters when her baby is a newborn, and the old friendships she revisits and examines, that help her create her family. Nailing It catches up with Emily five years later. While Winging It was told exclusively from her point of view, Nailing It contains two other perspectives, alongside Emily’s. Helen and Tania, characters readers will be familiar with from the first book, also get the chance to tell their stories.
‘I’m so fond of all these women,’ said Jefferson. ‘It was a real joy to revisit them. Not everything works out the way they’d anticipated and I was quite keen for that to be the case. It’s not all neatly wrapped up. The main theme in both of the books is female friendship, and how we support and hold each other up. I think there might be a point where I come back to them in the future as well. I’ll leave them for a while and then, in a few years’ time, pick them back up again wherever they are in their lives.’
It must be useful, having a group of characters to whom you can return, time and time again. Topping them up with knowledge as you experience more, as your audience gets older.
Jefferson grew up in Caistor, in Lincolnshire. I’m also from Lincoln, so we spend a while talking over our shared geography – the Stonebow, the Adam and Eve, the charity shops in town (Jefferson’s work-in-progress centres around a charity shop). Now living in Brighton with her husband and children, she writes for the stage and screen alongside her novels. Her blog, You Can Take Her Home Now, was shortlisted for national awards, including the Best Writer and Blog of the Year by the MAD Awards, and Brit Mums’ Best Write. It was from the blog that Winging It was born – an agent, a new mum herself, spotted Jefferson’s ability to hone in on the details, take the deeply emotional and make it entertaining. There was also a following, an appetite for this kind of story; people looking for lives like their own to help them make sense of this extreme chapter of their own lives.
But it’s not all about motherhood. The latest novel, Nailing It deals with characters starting new businesses and relationships, as well as the complications of helping ailing parents.
‘I always try to balance how brutal these things can be with a sense of humour as well,’ says Jefferson. ‘There’s a line. Things can break your heart but there’s normally also something that can make you laugh as well. In terms of dealing with the bigger, meatier subjects, I’ve always tried to do it with a sense of humour, to bring the reader in with you.’
It seems to me, too, that a sense of humour actually allows you to drill a little deeper, to get away with brutality that you otherwise wouldn’t. Life is a tragicomedy – it’s not transgressing genre convention to pair sadness with humour. It’s the truth.
‘At times when things are difficult and you’re not sure how your brain’s going to process stuff, you do look for the light,’ says Jefferson. ‘Otherwise you’d just be hurtling from one heart-breaking disaster to the other, which doesn’t sound like a huge amount of fun.’
But charting emotion, deciding how you’re going to make a reader feel when, at which point within a novel, is very difficult. At one point during our call, Jefferson moves her laptop around to show me the wall behind her desk. There’s a huge piece of paper pinned-up, covered in pictures and post-it notes. They’re all colour-coded according to their purpose within the novel.
‘If all the post-it notes are yellow, then I’m in trouble,’ she says. ‘Because then I have a lot of questions. When they start to go pink, then I know I’m on track, because I know I’m finding answers.’
Jefferson’s books are about friendship, finding community in difficult times. Over the course of our conversation, she mentions several writer friends from groups, famous writing figures that have taken the time to impart advice, the joy of talking about books with people that ‘get it’. She met our mutual friend, the friend that introduced us, on an Arvon writing course. This friend has told me since about Jefferson’s writing, how funny it was, how it left the whole group in hysterics.
And it seems to me that this is how not just writing, but the world, works. If you do a thing because you love it, because it connects you to people, word spreads.
‘You need to back yourself,’ Jefferson says. ‘It’s a really powerful moment, when someone asks you what you do and you say ‘I’m a writer.’ You have to push the imposter syndrome down. The more you say it, the more it becomes part of your DNA.’
It doesn’t feel like a lie to say you’re a writer when you’re writing, when other people reflect it back to you. When a friend introduces you as officially the funniest person they know.
It’s just the truth.
Winging It and Nailing It are now available to buy in paperback, as Kindle books, and as audio books. To find out more about Anna and her writing, you can follow her on Twitter @annajefferson and visit her website annajefferson.co.uk
About the Author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed authors for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a digital copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle