Jo Baker is the author of five novels. Her sixth, A Country Road, A Tree, is published by Doubleday (UK) and Knopf (US). Jo’s novel Longbourn made her a Sunday Times bestseller and the book is now in the process of being made into a feature film. She was educated at Oxford and The Queen’s University, Belfast and lives in Lancaster with her husband and two children.
Tell us about your writing background, I read that you said you cannot remember a time when you didn’t write?
Well, I should probably rephrase that, because my earliest memories are from toddlerhood, and I wasn’t writing then! But I did start making little books at primary school. I was lucky that I grew up at a time when creativity was considered important in primary education, and with teachers who let me get on with making things. I think a lot of that has got stripped away of late, and it’s desperately sad. Another key – and rather random – factor is that there was a computer at my Dad’s office (this would have been the late 70s, so there was just the one, in the whole department) and spewed out reams of paper, one side printed with green lines and numbers, the other blank. It was just waste paper – but he’d bring it home for us to draw on, and I’d draw, but I’d also make little books out of it
What is your writing routine? Do you aim for a word count a day?
It’s very dependent on where I am with a book – first draft or fifth, editing or making notes. I get into different habits at different times. But I’m kinda itchy unless I’ve hit whatever target I’ve set for myself.
You say studying English literature knocked the creativity out of you. I had a similar experience with journalism. What would you say to people who are considering a course related to their creative writing passion. Do they need to be careful?
It’s not uncommon. A photographer friend of mine – his work is beautiful – said something similar to me the other day; studying photography had left him pretty much unable to take a photograph for years.
For me, the period of ‘not writing’ was about five years, and it was one of the lowest periods in my life. I didn’t see it at the time, but they were more or less the same thing – my sense of unhappiness and was what it felt like to stop writing. I just thought I had to be realistic, that I’d have to grow up. But if it’s in you, you can only squash it down, you can’t make it go away. If the circumstances allow for it, it’ll come bouncing back. You’ve just got to find space, the freedom and the ease – which is of course the tricky thing. But I found it in Belfast, where there was a vibrant writing community – writing was just something that was done – there were poets and playwrights and novelists just knocking round the place – so I thought maybe it wasn’t so unrealistic, maybe I could do it too. Since then, no matter what the obstacles (which have mostly been to do with earning a living) I’ve never not written. I’m not alright if I’m not writing,
All that said, I’d never advise anyone not to study. In my case, all that reading – Beowulf to Virginia Woolf – might have felt oppressive at the time, but it did lay down a resource, like bedrock, for me as a writer, and I wouldn’t be without that. And my photographer friend who couldn’t take a photo for years – well, he’s a professional photographer now, and maybe he wouldn’t be so good if he hadn’t had that time when he wasn’t taking pictures. Maybe it’s just that there has to be a period of assimilation, that the material needs to settle, become a resource rather than a burden. Like a messy pile of leaves in the garden will turn into lovely compost.
What was your first book and how did it come to be published?
Offcomer, back in 2001. I’d been writing short stories and I’d sent some to an agent. This agent said ‘Oh, they’re good, but we can’t sell them’ (which is something that is quite often said about short stories) ‘have you thought about writing a novel?’ – I said, ‘funnily enough, I am currently writing a novel.’
I wasn’t. But this was the nudge that got me started.
It was turned down by that agent, and by another couple of male agents I had been recommended. Then It happened to land on someone’s desk at an opportune moment, and she asked me to come and meet for lunch, to check that we’d get along. We got along – though God knows how, I was so nervous – and she’s been my agent ever since, and has always had a long-term, thoughtful approach to my work. When things have been bad, I’ve always had that to hold onto – that she has faith in me, even if I don’t.
Publication itself, however, was a disaster. Having bought the book, my editor then seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, there were major oversights in the process, and when it came out, the book was totally unsupported in terms of publicity. So it sank. But I had a two book deal with the company so I was stuck. Book two was even worse if anything. My editor didn’t even assign a publicist. The book received no reviews at all. Even though I barely knew him, I felt at times as though he had some kind of personal animosity to me, like he was publishing me out of spite. It was a really hard time.
How long did it take you to make the decision to give up the day job and become a full time writer? Was there more worry before or after?
It was when my fourth novel, The Picture Book, was published in the US, that I was able to think about leaving work. My husband is a freelance writer too, so it was a big deal to leave – no support net there at all. But the combination of full-time work and two small children and writing was wearing me out. I’d had to write at night (3am to 7am; we called it the Sylvia Plath shift), and I gave myself RSI; I was exhausted and it was obvious I couldn’t keep it up permanently. The decision really was made when I had this thought: ‘If I leave my job, I might regret it. If I don’t leave my job, I will definitely regret it.’ Once I’d realized that, I had to go. The advance bought me a bit of time. And in that time I wrote Longbourn.
Tell us about Longbourn, your award nominated book based on the backstory to Pride and Prejudice, told through the voices of the servants. Would you rate it as a favourite of yours among the books you have written?
When I was writing it, all I’d really wanted to do was entertain myself. I’m a massive Austen fan, and it was such a delight to sneak off from her novel and peek into the spare rooms and have a rummage in the cupboards. With Longbourn I could occupy Austen’s novel in a way that was real for me – I’m the granddaughter of a housemaid; I’ve always known I’d be washing those petticoats, not going to the ball. So yes, it’s my favourite, but principally because of Austen, not because of me.
The film adaptation of Longbourn is due out in 2017. How are you feeling about this? Did you have a hand in the making of the movie?
If I let myself, I can get giddily excited about it. It’s in very good hands (Random House Films and Studio Canal). It’s a very slow process, though; we’re still at script stage; someone in the biz was telling me, six years is normal, sometimes ten, for an adaptation. My contribution thus far has been reading a draft, and offering notes. And being taken out for a very nice lunch.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
My new book is due out in May. It’s called A Country Road, A Tree, and it’s based on the amazing (but not that well known) story of what Samuel Beckett got up to during the Second World War.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not yet. I tend to bang my head against the table till something happens.
What would you say to writers who are trying to break into publishing?
Don’t think that it’s the goal. The goal is good work. Everything else flows from there.
What do you personally like to read?
I am a disorderly reader. My last three books, for example, were First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson, Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville, and a proof of a new book given to me yesterday, Addlands by Tom Bullough, an extraordinary novel set in rural Wales, absolutely beautiful. Coming out in June, I think. So I’m all over the place.
Where do you write?
Here. And also there.
LadyNicci comment: I bought Longbourn just before we boarded our cruise for our honeymoon in early 2014. I’d come through a long spell of not reading, not writing and not finding literature I wanted to engage with. I was drawn by the blue Richard and Judy Book Club sticker – and will always trust that sticker again. I LOVED it. There is so much in Jo’s interview that I found interesting. Her disastrous relationship with her first publisher; her RSI; her graveyard shift; the bravery in taking the leap to becoming a full time writer. Over the past few weeks, with the deadline I’ve placed on myself to finish my novel manuscript, a pain has crept from my biceps, to my forearms to my wrists, to my hands. It’s RSI – repetitive strain disorder. In speaking to Jo, she recommended typing on an iPad and revealed she wrote the entirety of Longbourn on it. These are the details I’m discovering in the How I Write series. The people behind the books. The 3am night shifts to get the words on the page. The disappointment and lows before the moments of greatness. I’m hoping RSI is not the only thing I have in common with Jo. But it’s a start I guess!
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.