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  • Helen Lederer

The Joy of Builder's Tea and a Good Swear

Helen Led here: oh I do like a person who's lived a lot and crammed it with positivity - I especially like Janey’s KBO (keep buggering on) mission statement - I will channel this in all my writing. Thank you, Janey!

Janey Preger, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel Prize Shortlist with The Lady's Companion

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 read about it and was delighted that this was happening. I had already written most of my novel The Lady's Companion, so it encouraged me to finish it. It was not specifically targeted at the award but that did help me to get it done!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I have been writing for a long time. I had my first article published in the Guardian when I was fifteen. It was about a day out with a children's charity. Then I started writing for TV and radio. My first TV scripts were for Coronation Street. I have done comedy but also more serious work such as Crown Court for Granada and quite a few single plays. I love comedy best.

I have a husband, a daughter and a grandson, all of whom enhance my life. I never stop having ideas, even if nothing happens with them. I like Winston Churchill's attitude to life: ‘KBO’ (Keep Buggering On)

Have you ever started a novel and then abandoned it?

I have finished a novel and then abandoned it. Called Driving Sideways, it was set on a TV sketch show, slightly based on my experience of writing for Not The Nine O Clock News in the 1980's. It was a comic novel but I felt it did not really work.

I am also about half way through another novel called Boy With Guitar set in the club and music scene in Manchester in the 1960s. I will definitely finish this one.

Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?

Not so much angsty poetry, but a rather overwrought diary in which I remember writing when I was fifteen: "Goodnight, darling Sebastian - I love you so much it even hurts to write your name..." (Oh dear)

Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?

The Lady's Companion is set in Manchester in 1922. It is about a new magazine for what the editor calls ‘forward thinking women.’

What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?

I was inspired to write this book by some of the women in my own family. There’s a notion that women in the past sat about simpering and waiting to be rescued by a man - any man - and then settled down with a rolling pin and babies. But lots of women ran businesses and worked. My great aunt ran a big glass and china business with her husband Herman. My great grandma owned her own tobacconist shop.

Also, my Dad had a book shop on Oxford Road in Manchester when I was little (see photo) and I loved going there and looking at all the books. We also had books at home and my Mum (see photo of her at 85) used to read to me and got me my first library ticket when I was about four. For some reason the first book I chose was the rather gruesome Who Killed Cock Robin? with little blood spots on the page! So I had early inspiration.

I am so grateful to my Mum and Dad because I loved reading and cannot remember either of them saying “Why are you wasting this lovely sunshine sitting about reading? Go outside!” I was left in peace with my books and my dolly mixtures.

I thought of writing The Lady’s Companion when I was staying in Llandudno in North Wales. It’s a place I love, and the seafront looks much the same as it did a hundred years ago. (see above)

The woman’s face in the little painting (below) is perfectly representative of Anne-Vera Carver. I do not know whom the painting is of, but it is exactly right. I’m also sending a painting called The Reading Room by Delphin Enjolras, which I think evokes the atmosphere at the big Victorian villa called Rose Hill, Anne-Vera’s house in Didsbury. Rose Hill is a real place, by the way (see photo). I used to go there a lot in the days when it was owned by Olive Shapley, the radio broadcaster, who also had a great influence on me.

Writing runs in my family. The photo of my Dad (see above in family gallery) was taken when he was young and he worked briefly with Harold Evans on the Ashton Under Lyne Express.

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your book?

I usually find that whatever I write has (I hope) some humour in it. I don't know how people get through life without a sense of humour! My novel is not just joke piled on joke or pun piled on pun. It is about people and their work, relationships and problems. I hope it will make people laugh too.

Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

Yes, I can read funny books whilst writing. I love PG Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, James Thurber, Anita Loos, Sue Townsend, Stella Gibbons and many more.

Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.)

Yes, I have! But in my favour I only feel chuffed when I agree with the bad review, not when a book I admire is trashed. I love good writing. If what I consider to be "bad" writing gets admired, then - so what? Anyone is entitled to their opinion.

Can you tell us about your writing routine – are you a planner or a pantster?

Writers are so lucky because we can write anywhere. On a bus, on a beach, in bed.. We can scribble away, especially now we have all the new technology to take about with us. I must say that my favourite place to write is at home, surrounded by books... and tea! (see picture). I am not a meticulous planner. I find planning every line and plot rather limiting. I like to write, then edit, then think up new things and incorporate them.

You can’t find the right words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

I don't cry but I do swear. My go-to food for stressful literary moments is a mug of builder's tea and one (or possibly two) Tunnock's Tea Cake.

What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?

Now I have been shortlisted I am delighted, I really am and thank you so much. I'd tell anyone who has an idea for a comic novel in their head to get it out of their head and onto the page. Because you never know! It could be a bestseller. But if it stays in your head it never will be. Which brings me onto a quote from my Dad which is a great one. He used to say "Let them refuse..." by which he meant we can all sit at home saying to ourselves "Oh, they'll hate this book. It's terrible. Even I don't like it. They'll all laugh at me and point and they would be right to dislike my temerity in even thinking of sending it..." So don't decide what people will think. Let them refuse!

Me again: fascinating CV Janey – from Not The Nine o’clock News to Crown Court – this rich tapestry of irony and drama has served you well – a funny writer with meaning - get in!

Janey Preger started her writing career at 15 with a feature in the Guardian.

She has worked for TV and radio, combining writing for soaps (Coronation Street, Casualty, The Archers and others) with her own TV and radio comedy series (Two Up, Two Down; No Frills; England’s Glory; Who Me?). She won the RTS Best Regional Drama Award. 

More recently Janey trained as a counsellor and has worked for a bereavement charity.

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