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Click on image to read full interview with Indian daily paper, Midday, 30th June 2009.
Q&A with Clare Jay
What do you love to write about?
Difficult situations: a mother searching across India for her missing daughter, or a peaceful man who does terrible, violent things in his sleep. And different perspectives: because we live in a reality where we can agree that this colour is red, this water is cold, and so on, we tend to assume that everyone experiences the world in the same way. But people have so many different ways of experiencing the world: Synaesthesia is when the senses are mingled so that you might see the colour of a musical note, or get a prickling sensation on your skin from a particular smell. Someone with synaesthesia is going to perceive the world in a very different way from most people. As is someone who is suffering from traumatic hallucinations, or someone with a sleep disorder that makes them behave in unaccountable ways. I’ve written about these conditions because I find it so interesting to reach beyond my own direct knowledge in an attempt to imagine what life might be like for others.
Where do you get your story ideas?
Usually from something strange or disturbing that I’ve seen or heard. An idea-image then pushes into my mind with emotional insistence until I can’t ignore it any more. The idea-image for Breathing in Colour came to me in India when I saw so many ‘missing’ posters pinned up in backpacker cafes. I imagined one with a teenaged girl’s face staring out, and the words: ‘Have you seen my daughter?’ written underneath. The idea-image for Dreamrunner came to me when I’d talked to someone with the dream-enactment sleep disorder RBD. This solidified into a bluish, night time scene of a dreaming man hauling his wife around the bedroom by her hair, with no awareness that he is doing this.
I then develop these idea-images in lucid or non-lucid dreams, and in the writer’s trance. Gradually (or sometimes with incredible speed) a string of related imagery will materialise, and this I will then develop into the emotionally rich, core scenes which will show me where the focus of the story lies.
Are your characters people that you know?
Never. I think it would be too restricting to have to model a fictional character on someone you know. I like to allow characters to develop organically in response to the difficult situations into which they are thrown, and although I might ‘borrow’ interesting experiences from people I’ve met in real life, such as a fish phobia or memory loss, what I really enjoy about writing fiction is the delicious freedom of allowing it all to emerge from my own dreams and imagination.
How often do you write?
I’m totally erratic about writing. Sometimes I get up early and work with relentless determination for twelve straight hours, forgetting to eat or drink for most of that time because the writing sweeps me so far away. This phase might continue for a week or two, and then I might not write anything for days while I attend to other things and people in my life, redressing the balance by going out with friends, doing yoga and swimming, being outside by the sea. I think that even when I’m not physically setting words down on the page, the novel is growing inside me. It’ll come out when it needs to. Of course, there are deadlines, and this makes me feel guilty if I’m not writing much, but I know that when the next mad writing phase arrives, I’ll do the equivalent of a month’s work and with any luck the incubation period means it’ll come out fully-formed so I can just add it to the first draft of the novel pretty much as it is. Obviously I’ll then go back and rewrite many times as part of the editing process.
How is writing short stories different from writing novels?
I find they’re not that different in terms of process: in my writing, the genesis of any piece, whether it’s 1,500 words or 150,000, comes from a strong, emotive idea-image. The way I then develop that image will depend on the constraints of the form. One powerful image is enough for me to build a short story around, the same as with poetry. But in a novel, that central image will naturally tend to multiply and develop into other images as the writing breathes and expands into the space it’s allowed. I like to write short stories when I’m between novels, to practise paring down, eliciting characters in a small space, and focusing on essential information and description. These skills come in handy for writing novels, too.
When did you start to write?
I kept diaries when I was little. I used to climb into the tree house, which wasn’t a proper tree house but a natural hollow in a hedge, and sit there writing shaky poetry and unsent letters to my parents. At school I wrote unflattering portraits of teachers and turned them into microfiction. A few weeks after completing my undergraduate degree, I was dozing in a hammock in Thailand, my boyfriend was playing the didgeridoo, and before us there was a vast orange sunset. A couple of fictional characters walked through my mind and whole scenes began to flow, vivid and coherent, like a half-waking dream. That was the moment I decided I was going to take those characters and write my first novel, which I did.
Why do you write?
Writing has always been my outlet. It can take me anywhere I want to go. I love it that writing isn’t something you can perfect. In that way it’s like learning a foreign language – no matter how fluent you are, there will always be vocabulary you haven’t come across before, or a regional accent to decipher, so that you never stop being surprised by something fresh and new. Writing is like that – there are no boundaries, no point where you can sit back complacently and say, ‘I’ve done it all.’
What’s it like to teach creative writing?
Energising – I’ve learned a lot from my students. Teaching a subject means you’re immersed in it, and this reminds you to practise what you preach. Also, because I’ve taught adults of all ages, their life experience, reflected through their stories, has broadened my own knowledge of life. They’re all at different stages of development with their writing and the ones who are the most fun to work with are those who absorb feedback rapidly and intensely, because their progress and delight in learning is visible. Sometimes they’ll then come back to me with something astonishingly good. When I see that leap of understanding occur, it inspires me to aim higher in my own writing.
What’s on your schedule at the moment?
I’m not teaching over the coming months because I need a break so that I can write Dreamrunner – once I’d finished the revisions for Breathing in Colour, I glanced at the publishing contract and realised I had just under ten months to hand in the next book! This might sound a long time to authors who write four books a year (how do they manage it?), but I had over three years to write Breathing in Colour and plenty of time for reflection and changes along the way, so the writing of this next book is far more intense for me. I realised I’d have to be single-minded about it, although in fact I’m also busily writing articles for various publications, to help with the publicity coverage for Breathing in Colour. While I write the second novel, I’m teaching regular yoga classes and occasional one-off ‘Dreaming into Writing’ workshops at conferences and retreats.