JJ is delighted to be taking part in Week 2 of Anne’s blog tour with an interview.
First, here’s more about Anne’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails.
The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound. To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.
Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.
Welcome to JJ!
Please summarise Sugar and Snails in 20 words or less.
It’s a mid-life coming-of-age story about friendship, gender and the lingering pain of hidden wounds.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel Anne?
Inspiration seems a strong word for what felt like a very muddy process! But I can identify three areas of experience that fed into this novel: a very slow process of making sense of my own adolescence; a newspaper report about a middle-aged woman, a high achieving academic, who had died of anorexia nervosa without any of her colleagues or family being aware of her condition; and discovering, halfway through a three-month trip, that my passport had the letter M in the box for sex.
Please tell us about the characters in Sugar and Snails.
My main character, and narrator, is Diana Dodsworth, a forty-five-year-old university lecturer, whose theoretical expertise in adolescent psychology has done little to reconcile her to her own turbulent youth. Things get more tricky when her promising but vulnerable student, Megan Richardson, brings that time all too vividly to mind.
Diana lives alone, apart from her marmalade cat, and is rather reserved, intent on safeguarding the secret of her past identity. Her best friend, Venus Najibullah, is the opposite: spontaneous, contradictory and voluble, well-intentioned but with a tendency to interfere. In flashbacks we also meet Diana’s best friend from childhood, Geraldine Finch, with whom she engaged in somewhat morbid role-play games. The friends were inseparable through primary school, until Geraldine’s fickleness culminated in a shocking betrayal.
Diana has reconciled herself to the single life but, when she meets Simon Jenkins, she dares to hope that might change. Simon is smart, kind and funny and, what’s more, he seems to like her, but Diana is afraid to find out if he’ll feel the same when he discovers her true self.
What scene was the hardest to write? Why?
There’s a self-harm scene in my opening chapter. Although I’ve worked with people who self-harm in the past, and can identify personally with the emotions that might drive someone to it, I’m fortunate in never having taken it as far as Diana does. I have a very vivid memory of sitting with my laptop on my lap (where else would it be?) and a Stanley knife at my side, massaging my inner forearm to make the veins stand out. As I imagined myself into my character’s experience, I really wondered how far I’d take it (and ended up using this as the springboard for a piece of flash fiction on my blog about how fiction can invade one’s life). While I was able to describe my character’s actions quite convincingly (to the extent that a friend who has a blood phobia felt quite faint when she read it) it was hard to convey her state of mind to those who haven’t been there. Some early readers were surprised at the lack of emotion, but, in reality, many people are quite dissociated at the moment they self-harm. Others thought my attempts to describe her sense of numbness were overwritten. So I was grateful for my editor’s support in going over and over that section to get it right.
Do you have a most creative time of day Anne?
Early mornings tend to be my most creative times, especially if my unconscious mind has been playing with words and ideas while I sleep. However, I’ve had to learn to hang onto such thoughts until the rest of my body has warmed up. With chronic repetitive strain injury, I don’t write with a keyboard or pencil, but have clever software that converts my voice into text. I really feel the strain if I try to use my voice before it’s ready, so I’ve had to adapt. (Voice recognition software is a life safer for many people Anne. Dragon is popular in schools. Technology at its best!).
Do you have a favourite place you go to for inspiration or a favourite activity?
Apart from sleep, a brisk walk or weeding the garden are great ways for me of ordering my thoughts. I’m very lucky in not living too far from some beautiful countryside, and have a large garden, so have an endless supply of mindless weeding tasks to lull me into that state of reverie.
Who designed the cover for Sugar and Snails?
(I thought it was rather unique)
As this is my first cover, there’s no theme, apart from the publisher’s logo on the spine. I love my cover design and, with such an attractive image, I’ve no anxieties about people judging my book by its cover. The designer, Vince Haig, was commissioned by my publisher, Inspired Quill, who sought my opinion every step of the way.
What are you currently working on?
With each draft of Sugar and Snails, I thought it was finished, so I ended up writing another novel almost concurrently. Underneath is about a man who keeps a woman imprisoned in his cellar. I want to do another draft before I hand it over, applying what I’ve learnt through working closely with an editor on Sugar and Snails. Also, after vowing I’d never base my fiction directly on my work as a clinical psychologist, I completed a very rough first draft earlier this year of a novel about the closure of a longstay psychiatric hospital.
Your novel tackles a social barrier. How have you incorporated it into the story?
It does, but the exact issue with which my main character is grappling isn’t spelt out until halfway through the novel, although readers who are tuned into the clues will have guessed before then. I wrote it this way to avoid it being perceived as a minority-interest novel, and because it’s consistent with Diana’s character – she’s very cagey about her past. In a wider sense it’s about a barrier common to many people’s well-being: the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.
Are there any tips you could share with new writers that have worked well for you?
Develop a balanced attitude to feedback from readers, other writers and industry experts: pay close attention to anything they suggest is wrong with your writing and ignore all advice on how to fix it, as only you can work out what is right for you. Also, if you’re going into this crazy business, it has to be for the long haul: it takes an awful lot longer than you might expect to learn your craft.
Do you make use of local resources for promoting your book?
I think libraries are wonderful and even have a short scene in the novel where Diana bumps into Simon at the University library. In real life, I’ll be hosting the second of my two book launches (how greedy is that?) in a small branch library now run by volunteers. I’m looking forward to a small tour of Nottinghamshire libraries along with a few other new authors next month. Doing events means the library stocks copies of my novel and, as a member of The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, I get paid (albeit a miniscule amount) when people borrow a copy.
Finally Anne, what has been the best part of your writing journey so far?
With my debut novel just published, I’m living it right now! It’s been a long road to get here, scattered with rejections and disappointments as most people’s writing journeys are, and presumably with many more to come, so I want to enjoy this stage as long as I can.
Thank you for sharing with JJ’s readers Anne.
Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
She loves fiction for the freedom to contradict herself and has been scribbling stories ever since she could hold a pencil. During her 25-year career as an NHS clinical psychologist her focus was on helping other people tell their neglected stories to themselves. Now that her short fiction publication count has overtaken her age, her ambition is to write and publish enough novels to match her shoe size.
Anne juggles her sentences while walking in the Peak District, only to lose them battling the slugs in her vegetable plot. As a break from finding her own words, she is an avid reader and barely-competent soprano in an all-comers choir.
Sugar and Snails is her first published novel.
Connect with Anne
Check out the other stops in Week 2