Full disclosure: I haven’t yet had the chance to read any of Julia Stuart’s novels. What first draw my attention, though, when I first visited her website, on the occasion of the British Council’s International Creative Writing Summer School in Greece (May 13-June 24), was a) the fact that she started out as a journalist, b) how little her public image matches that of the tormented writer (that has a considerable following in Greece) and c) the wonderful covers of her books –especially the one for The Matchmaker of Périgord, which I expect to be delivered by Amazon any moment now. The book has already been adapted for the screen and has been longlisted for an important British award –although, to quote Stuart, “The nearest I’ve come to glory was when one of my novels was picked for the holiday reading of the Obamas”. Here’s what she said to me about all the above –and more.
How is being a writer different than being a journalist?
As a novelist, not only do you choose what you write about, but you also get to make it all up. But that liberty has its own perils: you have absolutely no point of reference and nothing to cling onto. The stakes are also much higher when writing a novel. A book could change your life in wonderful ways. Equally, it could plunge you into the greatest despair if, upon raising your head from your computer after 10 years, you discover that not a soul cares for it and you should have just sloped off to the pub with everyone else.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Has your writing changed through all those travels, either in quantity or in essence?
I’ve lived in France, Spain, Bahrain, Egypt and Wales. My travels haven’t changed my writing, but there have certainly been influences. I set my first novel, The Matchmaker of Périgord, in France because of my love for the place. My forthcoming novel, The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland, mentions Bahraini pearls. (I found one while scuba diving there.) And, simply for my own amusement, every novel I write includes a reference to Swansea, South Wales, where I once worked. It was quite a feat shoehorning the word ‘Swansea’ into a Victorian murder mystery set in Hampton Court Palace, but I managed it.
Do you feel that writers should be full time writers? Is it better for their craft to be focused on their art or is writing part-time a viable (maybe even preferable mode of working)? In other words, do you feel that the limitations of “day jobs” kill or enhance the creative potential of a writer?
A day job is a must for most writers as it’s so difficult to make a living as a novelist. I don’t think it’s a hindrance to writing at all, apart from the obvious time restraints. Equally, someone could have all the time in the world and still not finish their novel. Or write a really dull one with lots of exclamation marks.
All your books have lovely covers. How particular are you about the covers of your books? What makes you love or hate a cover?
I’m lucky in that I’ve loved all of my covers. For my main markets – the UK and America – the changes I’ve suggested have always been minimal, such as something to do with the font. While my contracts state that publishers have to show me the jacket for my consideration before publication (which is standard), very few in foreign territories actually bother to do so. I only see the cover when my small box of complimentary copies arrives, often months after publication. It’s always a revelation and often a thrill. All my jackets are on the gallery page of my website – juliastuart.com –as I find it intriguing to see what different countries come up with.
Your books are getting stellar ratings on Amazon and Goodreads. Are you a “social media author”? Do you like using technology and the internet to advance your work or do you not see the point/prefer not to get into this type of work?
Not really, but I should be as I think it’s beneficial. I’m a recent Twitter convert, but I tend to forget about it as I get caught up in real life. My readers contact me mostly through my official Facebook page or website. I find what they say extremely touching and I’m grateful to them all.
So, do you consider reading books to be a solitary or a social experience? And how has technology impacted upon one or the other dimension?
Reading for me is an entirely solitary experience, though it’s quite nice having someone at the end of the sofa to warm my toes against (I’m currently hiring for that position). Technology hasn’t impacted me at all in that regard, though I recently wore a head torch while reading in the bath.
Craft can be taught. I’ll be covering backstory, narrative drive, dialogue, suspense and how to plan a novel. Most of the time will be spent workshopping students’ work, however, as it’s the best way to improve.
What do you feel is the most important thing you can impart to your students?
The importance of having a great story to tell, and if you don’t have one, where to find one.
In a story about you at the Guardian there is a phrase that says:
Appearance: Surprisingly happy for a novelist.
What are your thoughts about the idea of tormented writers? Does one need to be unhappy or preoccupied with life or take drugs or be an alcoholic in order to produce great writing?
I know a lot of tormented civil servants. I don’t think great writing comes from angst or addiction, though the process itself can be very painful as you’re creating something that has the real possibility of universal rejection. You lurch from deluding yourself that your novel is going to be a rip-roaring success to being entirely convinced that it’s complete rubbish. I think great writing takes guts, sacrifice, curiosity and supreme faith in the story you wish to tell.
Julia Stuart, along with Adam Baron, are going to teach Fiction, at the British Council’s International Creative Writing Summer School, in Athens, from May 30 to June 10, 2016. The Summer School also includes interesting workshops on poetry, short fiction etc (you can read more about the program -and also register- here).