I am very pleased to welcome Julia Forster to Novel Kicks and her blog tour for her debut novel, What a Way to Go. Hello Julia, thank you so much for joining me today. Can you first tell us a little about your new book, What a Way to Go which was published last week by Atlantic Books and how the idea originated?
It is lovely to be here today to talk about What a Way to Go. Thank you for having me.
The novel is a coming-of-age tale, set in the east Midlands in 1988, told by twelve year-old straight-talking Harper. Her parents, Mary and Pete, divorced when she was little, so she divides her time between her Mum’s rented house, which is being sold from underneath her, and her Dad’s mouldering cottage in a sleepy Midlands village. It’s a bittersweet tale about growing up and discovering some surprising home truths along the way. Harper’s a resourceful kid with an old soul, an infectious sense of fun and a sideways glance on the adult world around her.
The idea originated when I was successful in getting a £1,000 bursary from Literature Wales to pay for six months of nursery fees in order to begin a novel. When I started, I had no plan for how to approach it, no characters and no plot. All I had was a blank page. The idea originated when Harper’s voice exploded out of the blinking black cursor on the very white page about half way through the bursary period. The two of us got on like a house on fire. What a Way to Go is told in the first person and in the present tense, so there is an immediacy to how she narrates the story. It is very much a voice-driven piece of work.
The book features 80s music. Which 80s pop song best describes you?
That is definitely the hardest question that I shall be asked in the entire blog tour, Laura!
I created a Spotify playlist as I wrote the book and I listened to it a lot as I wrote. However, it isn’t one from this playlist which I would like to choose. I would pick ‘Solsbury Hill’ by Peter Gabriel.
What’s your typical writing day like? Do you have rituals like needing lots of tea, writing with noise and where is your favourite place to write?
I write from the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on a Monday and I do admin and writing for my blog from a shared office on Tuesdays. The rest of the week, I write at my desk in the bedroom which overlooks a field of sheep and cattle. My desk is tiny and it is utter chaos. I am too embarrassed to send you a picture of it, so I have taken a photo of the view out of my window instead.
Having worked in plenty of open-plan offices, background noise doesn’t bother me. At home, the white noise is my husband, Tom, doing Skype conferences next door. When we fancy a tea break or lunch, we shout at each other through the walls. By four o’clock, I have to stop to get the kids off the school bus from the lane outside our little cottage.
As far as hot beverages go, I have one strong Lavazza coffee with frothed milk at breakfast which sets me up for the morning: it doubles my heart rate and, if I’m lucky, my words per minute, too.
Can you talk a little about your writing process? Do you plan in detail, edit as you go and what elements do you feel need to be in place before beginning a novel?
I’m not sure it’s the same for each book. Before I wrote What a Way to Go, I wrote an autobiography of 80,000 words. I plotted that two-part book on a coach journey to Paris in 2004: between London and Dover I plotted part one, and between Calais and Paris I plotted part two, listening to a 1980s compilation CD as I went. I went on to write the first 42,000 words in five days in a Parisian café with Euro-pop playing in the background while drinking endless espressos. The autobiography is still under my bed.
With What a Way to Go, I took an entirely different approach, without any kind of plan. I wrote with faith that the right word would appear, like a stepping stone revealing itself when you are struggling to cross a swollen river.
I don’t edit massively as I go, but I put in notes to myself in square brackets such as [MORE HERE] and [YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME?] so that I can keep going with the flow, and not get too entangled in the part of my brain which is judgmental: this bit seems to take up a disproportionately large part of my head area. It’s a psychological trick, writing a full-length piece of work. I have realized that I have to go easy on myself.
A large dose of confidence is the main thing I need before launching into a big project. Also, I think it is important to feel that the work you’re doing is necessary in some way, that it matters to you. I ask myself: if the project I am working on now were the last thing I was ever able to write, would I be happy to have it appear in my imaginary obituary? I like to write as if my life depends on it.
If you were told you could only own three books, which three would you pick and why?
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, because it would haunt me.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, because it would give me hope.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, because it would make me laugh.
I do cast as I go along, in the initial stages depending on what conflicts I need to create and then get my characters to face them. I think this has to be an organic process in order that it feels authentic. I think there are probably elements of myself in all of the characters in the book, including Harper and her parents, but also the minor characters. I have Derek’s tendency to mis-quote book titles and Harper’s naivety: I have been told that the word ‘gullible’ has been taken out of the dictionary twice, and believed it in both instances.
I wanted Harper to be strong-minded and feisty, and for her parents to have flaws and blemishes. But ultimately, Mary and Pete have an iron-cast will to make Harper’s far from ideal home situation as good as it can get under the circumstances.
Is there a fictional character you’d like to meet and a fictional world you’d like to visit?
I’d like to meet Misha, Viktor Zolotaryov’s pet penguin in Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.
If I could teleport into any fictional world, it would have to be one of Roald Dahl’s. To be more specific, I’d like to have a life-time pass to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, please.
Do you get writers block? What’s your advice on how to beat it?
I like to frame ‘writers block’ a little differently, and see it is a fallow period instead. I felt pretty depleted after finishing What a Way to Go. So, rather than launch straight into a second novel, I took a diversion into writing in different genres to re-charge my batteries. I’ve just finished a 45-minute radio drama, and I am also re-visiting a middle grade children’s book that I first wrote when I was 21.
Five tips for new writers?
Born in 1978 in the Midlands, Julia has worked as a waitress in Chartres, a nanny in Milan and a magician’s assistant in Brooklyn. She studied at the University of Warwick where she was awarded the Derek Walcott Prize for Creative Writing. Julia has also worked in the publishing industry in Aberystwyth, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and London, including a two-year stint as an assistant in a literary agency in Soho where jobs included sifting submissions from authors each morning. More recently, she worked for the literary magazine New Welsh Review. Julia now works for Literature Wales where she sits on their bursary panel, helping to award bursaries to both emerging and established writers, having herself received a bursary in 2011 which enabled her to begin her debut novel, What a Way to Go which was released by Atlantic Books on 7th January 2016 and is available in most UK Bookshops.
She lives in mid Wales with her husband and two children.
To find out more about Julia, visit her website: http://www.julia-forster.com
My Verdict on What A Way To Go…
1988. Harper Richardson’s mum and dad are divorced. Her mum got custody of her, the Mini, and five hundred tins of baked beans. Her dad got a mouldering cottage in a Midlands backwater village and plenty of free time to indulge his WWII obsession. Harper got questionable dress sense, a zest to understand the world around her and the responsibility of fixing her parents’ broken hearts…
Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music and puberty, divorce and death, What a Way to Go is a warm, wise and witty tale of one girl’s mission to run headfirst into the middle of some of life’s big questions – and to come out the otherside with some reasonable answers.
What can I say about this book other than I absolutely loved it.
There was a lot in this book that made me incredibly nostalgic. I defy anyone to read the sentence about Kylie’s I Should Be So Lucky video and not start singing it in their head. I was born in 1981 and so I have many memories of the time this book is set in – oh the time where we thought shell suits were the height of fashion. This had so many great 80’s references that took me right back to being a kid – when my best friend and I used to jump on the bed whilst miming The Only Way Is Up by Yazz. I related to a few things in this book actually.
Although she is straight talking, Harper has such an innocence to her as a character. She thinks she understands a lot more than she does. I found her endearing. I felt sorry for both her mother and her Dad too and I did want everything to work out well for everyone.
Julia’s writing drew me in and I couldn’t stop reading. There were moments where I laughed out loud (I made my cat jump,) and this was mixed with moments of sadness and bittersweet moments too.
This is a great debut novel from Julia. I have fast become a fan and I look forward to reading future novels from her.
I thank Atlantic for a review copy of What a Way to Go. The blog tour continues tomorrow over at Liz Loves Books.