She had us at the use of the word ‘fanfic'
Helen Led here ‘What an insight to peak at the vase of flowers painting on this writerly desk. If a flower painting has inspired your success Julia, then we all ought to get some Van Gogh sunflowers up on our wall and fast…. Ordering the blutack from amazon now…
Julia Walter, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel Shortlist with You Can Drop Me Here
When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?
I’d already started this novel a couple of years ago and was workshopping it on the course I was on at the time (the three month course at Curtis Brown Creative). A lot of the feedback said it was funny, so when a writing friend sent me some information about the CWIP unpublished prize I thought I should have a go.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
I live in the North-West London suburbs with my partner and an intractable cat. My work life has basically been a hotch potch of different office jobs, but creative writing is something I’ve always done in some way or another. It’s only in recent years that I’ve applied myself properly to it.
Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?
No, but I did write this terrible sort of Barchester Towers fanfic, though it was the olden days and we didn’t call it fanfic then. It was really based more on the TV adaptation with Alan Rickman, and not the book, so it usually took the form of long, rambling sections of dialogue. No one ever read it but I do remember being very pleased with it at the time, thinking it extremely amusing. It probably wasn’t. I wish I still had those notebooks actually but they disappeared in some house move along the way.
Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?
Donna is a keen collector of found objects who must learn how to make space in her home and in her life for the things that really matter, and Miles is an ex-army musician who lives in his van. The novel focuses on Donna’s relationship with her family, with her overbearing therapist and, most importantly, with the itinerant Miles, a man who embodies the axiom that those who have the least, give the most.
What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?
This one started with a place that I love – Dorset – and the happy state of belonging somewhere. I grew up in a military family, went to many different schools and lived in so many houses; consequently I’m greatly preoccupied with the idea of home. And I do love small-town novels. Once I had the place, I just started filling it with people.
Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your book? What type is it?
No, I really don’t set out to write something funny. Not to be disingenuous, but often I don’t even know when my work is funny and am properly surprised when it gets a laugh. In fact, I fought it for ages and tried to be much more solemn and consequential, but then a little while ago I thought, resistance is futile, if this is my voice, it’s my voice, I will embrace it.
Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?
I do re-read The Diary of a Nobody most years, but generally when I’m in the thick of a writing project I don’t read a lot of novels, funny or otherwise. When I do read I adore Nora Ephron, Elinor Lipman, Charles Portis, Anne Tyler, Katherine Heiny, Maria Semple, Nina Stibbe, Richard Russo.
Can you tell us about your writing routine – are you a planner or a pantster?
Planner. Big time. I have to be able to hold more or less the whole book in my head before I can start writing, which is not desperately convenient, I know. I produce a million versions of what I like to call my Master-Act-Scene-Breakdown document, which is an agonisingly detailed chapter chart mapped to a three act structure. I’m absurdly proud of it and show it often to all my friends at (writing) Group. The final version Master-Act-Scene-Breakdown document is almost as long as the novel itself.
Where do you write?
Until recently I often worked at a desk in The London Library, it’s a very soothing place to be and I miss it a lot at the moment. But when I’m at home I work at this plain desk with virtually nothing on it, absolutely no view, almost blank wall barring a glorious picture which one of my goddaughters painted a long time ago (does she even know I’ve got it? Not sure. She does now). The Dreamies aren’t for me, they’re for persuading the cat to get the heck off my desk.
What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?
Honestly, it’s been fantastic for me – a big thumbs up to Helen and the CWIP team for getting the prize going. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that someone you’ve never met has read your work and likes it, and that is just about the most important thing really. And then, being long-listed and shortlisted for a couple of competitions (I was also long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition) meant I had a bit of extra confidence when submitting to literary agents. And now I have a brilliant agent – Susan Armstrong at C&W! If any of you are thinking of entering next year, do it!
Me again - SO impressed with your planning Julia! - the words ‘agonisingly detailed chapter chart’ are hilaire and edgy. No wonder you are funny.
After a lifetime of working in jobs not even remotely connected to writing, Julia found herself on the Curtis Brown three-month novel writing course in 2018.
Her comedy writing role models include Elinor Lipman, Anne Tyler, Katherine Heiny, Maria Semple and Nora Ephron.