Recently I met with author Alison Jameson to chat about writing and about ‘Little Beauty’, her wonderful third novel. Our interview can be found here.
Last month I met with Irish author Alison Jameson in the lovely, bustling surroundings of Cinnamon cafe in Ranelagh, Dublin 6. We were there to discuss her third novel, Little Beauty, and her very successful writing life. Recently returned from Portland, Oregon, where she spent a year with her husband and young son, Alison is incredibly busy responding to the warm and well deserved reception that her new book has provoked. Little Beauty is set, for the most part, in 1970s rural Ireland and tells the story of Laura, the unconventional island-dwelling central character who, after a horrendous start in life, is left to deal with the consequences of going her own way in defiance of the stifling, judgemental community amongst which she lives.
As we settle down with a couple of coffees I admit that I’m absolutely intrigued by Laura, a fantastic character and a free spirit who suffers the consequences of being different. As the story progresses, Laura is orphaned early, betrayed by her neighbours and besotted with her child, the delightful product of an unsanctioned liaison of the type not tolerated in the Ireland of that time. I ask Alison if she deliberately set her novel in 1970s Ireland, a time when women were still judged harshly yet were on the cusp of making great progress. Surely a ‘Laura’ would fare better today? She agrees that this is largely the case, but expresses reservations that we may not have come as far as we think; she is convinced that even in these more tolerant times a woman who behaved as Laura did would, at very least, be considered slightly eccentric and perhaps be treated with suspicion.
Although Alison tells me that she was comfortable writing about the 1970s because, ‘I really like that era, and it’s a very interesting time in Ireland’, she admits that this is in some ways a fortuitous coincidence as she, ‘wanted to end the novel in a contemporary sense’, therefore for technical reasons, the bulk of her story needed to be set then. This thought process gives me some insight into how carefully Alison structures a story and the meticulous planning that goes into crafting each novel. She elaborates: ‘I slightly wrote the book back to front. People generally think of books as being made up of chapter one, two, three and so on but I tend to think and write in a circle, and then fit all the elements into that circle. With this book I wrote the last part first and that’s the part I really wanted to write about’. When I tell her that it works brilliantly, she smiles modestly in response.
Some of the themes in Little Beauty, like motherhood and death, are huge, emotional topics and Alison confirms that, in keeping with many accomplished authors, she taps into her own personal experiences in order to get the tone right. Life threw plenty of material her way. While she was writing Little Beauty Alison became a mother and lost her father. So profoundly did the experience of having a child affect her thinking that she abandoned the book as it was and began to rewrite it from scratch; not something to be undertaken lightly. I wonder if that level of authenticity is important to her. ‘Definitely’, she says emphatically, adding, ‘as a writer it’s important to write about things you have insight into’. As motherhood is a central theme in her story, she believed that it was particularly important to get this right and readily acknowledges that having a baby, ‘just brought out this whole other rainbow of emotions’.
Fortunately Alison’s agent, Faith O’Grady was completely supportive and agreed that what mattered was that this book simply had to be the best book she could write at that time and no less than that; if that involved a rewrite then so be it. Alison is very appreciative of this support as it allowed her to change her book dramatically and turn it into something extraordinary. It was a brave move but one that she regards as unavoidable as well as ultimately very rewarding.
Along with motherhood and death, superstition is a strong theme running throughout the novel. The book’s island setting, a place where people are confined by the elements and have a great respect for the sea, facilitates this and Alison succeeds in exploiting the theme very effectively. The claustrophobia of Irish society and the suspicion directed towards deviant people, particularly women, is perfectly encapsulated. We discuss this and both agree that the pressure to conform and to join in with the condemnation of any individual who refuses to fit in is strong.
This really is an essential element in her plot and once again her life experience fed into this aspect of the story. Growing up in rural Ireland during the 1970s, Alison believes that, although she was very young, she was, ‘obviously absorbing things I saw’. This understanding, she feels, explains why she found it relatively easy to imagine the life of an unmarried mother living on an isolated island; the complex character of Laura came to her first. The intricate relationships Laura forms with her neighbours took a lot of work to construct and I tell Alison that she captures the multifaceted interdependence of an island community brilliantly. It certainly helps that she, ‘finds great richness’ in communities such as those she discovered when she visited the West coast of Ireland at a time when she was immersed in the writing process. Little Beauty’s ‘Inis Miol Mor’ is fictitious but familiar at the same time.
‘Settings are so important for me as a writer’, she says, ‘where you locate your book really matters, the weather, the scenery, the atmosphere, the type of people and what they do are all really, really important’. She places great emphasis on the unique ‘Irishness’ of her books and believes that our national psyche is a rich and rewarding thing for Irish writers to tap into.
Little Beauty is a nuanced book and readers are allowed to decide on the appropriateness of the dramatic and often potentially damaging acts perpetrated by its characters. Alison is very clear on her decision not to set it all out in black and white, ‘I try not to tie up every little loose end’, she says, ‘real life is about questions and you don’t have the answer to everything’. There’s great wisdom and skill involved in not seizing control and spelling everything out and I tell her that I admire her ability to allow the uncertainties to remain.
At times the story that Alison tells is deeply troubling and desperately sad, yet it is punctuated with flashes of truly uplifting humour. ‘I’m very pleased to hear that’, she laughs, adding, ‘I believe in life that even when things are really diabolical there is invariably something that somebody will say that is actually, genuinely funny’. Her characters are so authentic that, as I sit back to listen to her discuss them and explain their motivation so lucidly and with great passion, I find it almost impossible to remember that they are her creations rather than real, living, breathing people. My neglected coffee turns cold. This is a master class in characterisation.
I tell Alison that she writes brilliantly about old age and the vulnerability that it can bring. ‘Thank you’ she says before explaining that she believes we as a society engage in a lot of denial about the realities of aging. In fact one of the reasons she juxtaposes descriptions of young, vibrant characters with their older selves is to remind us that life is a continuum and that, as her late father once remarked, every old person, ‘was the apple of someone’s eye once’ – in their own mind they often are still.
I had heard Alison admit to an earlier interviewer that she would feel, ‘almost ashamed’ if she hadn’t pursued her drive to write. I find that very interesting and ask her to explain how she became a successful writer in such a difficult industry where talent alone, no matter how great, is no guarantee of success. ‘It’s getting harder by the day’, she laughs, adding, ‘the difference between when my first book (This Man and Me) was published in 2005 and now is vast. The whole industry has changed so much. Everything is taking so much longer people are so much more reluctant. It used to be an editor going, “Oh, I love that, great”. Now it’s, “I’ll have to check with 25 other people”.
‘Editors used to be much more willing to follow their gut, to fall in love with something’, she says wearily, adding, ‘everybody worries about their jobs now and there’s a much higher fear factor’. Yet she is adamant that she wouldn’t criticise anyone in the publishing industry and that it’s ‘a very brave decision to take on a novel’.
Alison Jameson wasn’t always a full-time writer. When she started writing in earnest, she was a director at advertising agency BBDO and struggled to fit her writing around this demanding role, but she always believed that it was where her true passion lay. Initially it was her short stories that attracted the attention of her highly respected agent, Faith O’Grady. After that there was really no stopping her. She admits that early, positive feedback was hugely important and became a key factor in deciding to write full-time, a decision she has never regretted as she plans to write for the foreseeable future. I assure her that I, for one am delighted to hear this.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our chat and I’ve gained some wonderful insights into the writing process. Alison’s third novel, Little Beauty is a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, and, all going well, we can look forward to reading many more gems from the pen of Alison Jameson. In fact she confirms that she has, ‘the idea, the setting and a fair bit of the work’ done for the next one already. Alison’s humility does her credit and she finishes by telling me that what excites her most is to see her style developing and changing as she learns her craft.
(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the http://www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog. More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/authors/eleanor-fitzsimons/books/a-want-of-honour-the-short-life-and-tragic-death-of-harriet-shelley
She lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.