Juliet Bell Interview: “It helps that we both respect each other’s ability”

JB 1

Apologies for the delay in posting- I’ve been in Australia exploring tropical Queensland. As a treat now that I’m back, I’m sharing an interview I undertook with two incredible writers- Alison May and Janet Gover, who, coincidentally, is from the incredible country that I’ve just had the fortune to visit. Together they write as Juliet Bell, creating intriguing re-workings of classic novels, something I was keen to find out more about.  

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards creating modern retellings of classic novels?

We first discussed The Heights in the bar at a writing conference. We’d both taught workshops that day, and both used Wuthering Heights as examples of very different points we were making. We only knew each other slightly, but over a glass of wine we started talking about how many people misremembered the Bronte book and focussed on the romance, rather than the darkness of the story.

Janet had always wanted to do an adaptation set against the Thatcher years and the miners’ strike, but being Australian didn’t think she could write a North of England book. Alison is from Yorkshire, so fairly late in the evening, we announced we would do it together. A week or so later, when the wine had worn off, we talked again and decided that wasn’t actually a completely terrible idea.

Sharing a pen-name with another author must be an incredible experience. Please talk me through how you work together to create your books. How do you combine your collective skills?

Spreadsheets. We both love a good spreadsheet. Well, perhaps Janet more than Alison, but she’s coming around. We have started each book with a really good plan of how to divide the work and we stick to it – for at least the first two, or maybe three, weeks. We both have our own solo writing careers and deadlines, and of course the same family commitments everyone has. Neither of us normally plots our books in advance, but when writing together we have to, which is where the spreadsheets come in.

With The Heights, we ran out of time, so Janet was still writing Cathy and Heathcliff when Alison started writing Kate and the second generation. With Jane Eyre, we are each writing one main character’s point of view. We both review and comment on and edit the whole book, which sounds crazy but seems to work.

It helps that we both respect each other’s ability – and that we meet regularly for pizza and wine.

The Heights - hi res

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?

Alison: I started writing seriously in my mid-twenties, when I signed up for an evening class in creative writing as a distraction from a not altogether fascinating day job. The evening class turned into a part-time degree. At the start of the course I thought I was going to be a very Serious and Important playwright. I started a terribly earnest play about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton as my dissertation piece. When it got to six weeks before the deadline and I hadn’t actually written any words I admitted that serious theatre might not be my calling and wrote the opening of a romantic comedy novel instead. That novel eventually turned into my first published book, Sweet Nothing, which came out in 2013.

Janet: I started writing stories when I was a kid growing up in the Australian bush. There wasn’t much else to do apart from ride horses and read – and I did a lot of both. I went to University in the ‘big city’ and then became a journalist and television reporter. That was fun – I got to travel and meet a lot of interesting people. Then I discovered computers, fell in love with them and set out on a second career in IT. That was when I started writing fiction seriously. I thought switching from writing fact to writing fiction would be easy. How wrong I was. But I stuck with it and now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

We are both always coming up with shiny new book ideas- it’s terribly distracting. The problem is locking them in a drawer until current book is written.

Actually writing is much trickier than having ideas. Alison, in particular, actively dislikes writing first drafts. She sees them as a necessary evil to get to the editing, which is where the actual real work of creating the book gets done. Her tip is to get through the first draft as quickly as possible, even if it’s terrible. Then at least you’ve got something to work with.

The Bronte adaptations are obviously inspired by the original books, and by the women who wrote them. The books have themes and characters that still resonate today. That’s a remarkable achievement.

Juliet Bell is the place we take our shared fascination with misunderstood classic literature, and heroes who aren’t actually all that heroic.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Alison: Without even looking I know Janet will say Neil Gaiman, which is interesting because I’m going to say Terry Pratchett. Basically we both want to have written Good Omens! Obviously Pratchett is no longer with us, and realistically if I’d every tried to collaborate with him I would probably just have ended up gabbling at him incoherently in a pathetic fangirl sort of a way.

If I go for someone who’s still alive, I’d indulge my secret dream of writing a musical (despite having zero musical ability) and go for Tim Minchin.

Janet: A really tough question, but I’d have to say Neil Gaiman. He’s one of my favourite authors. He has such a brilliant mind. I’ve seen him speak a couple of times. He is funny and thoughtful and angry and all those things that make a great writer. He’s also very cute in scruffy writerly way. Of course, if I ever found myself face to face with him, I’d probably explode in a mass of fan-girl excitement, so possibly not the best collaborator in the world.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

We are now in the final stages of writing the second Juliet Bell book. It’s another Bronte book – Jane Eyre of course. Rochester is another ‘romantic hero’ we don’t love. His behaviour is not so heroic, and we don’t just mean locking his wife in the attic.

We’ve set this book in Australia. This is Janet’s revenge for having to write about Yorkshire in The Heights. It’s also a modern setting with the kind of isolation that still allows someone to be kept in an attic without the neighbours anyone catching on.

Jane’s story of fighting to make her way in the world still resonates today, but we have done a couple of radical things in this book. We’re excited (and maybe a little bit afraid) to see people’s reactions.

We don’t have a final title yet – our working title is simply Thornfield. Whatever the final title, it will be out in November in both eBook and paperback.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?

Alison: So many – I’ve just read AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird which came out in April and is wonderful. I’m always excited for Julie Cohen’s new books – her last one Together was one of my favourites of last year. I also work a lot with newer and developing writers, and there are a few – Pippa James, Kirsten Hesketh and Erin Green spring to mind straight away – who have projects in the pipeline that sound amazing. And, Janet’s latest solo book – Marrying the Rebel Prince is at the top of my To Read pile at the moment. That looks like it’s going to be fantastic fun.

Janet: This would be a very, very long list. My list of ‘must buy’ authors is quite long and varied. And I love finding a new author – especially if they have a long backlist. But – and I mean this honestly – I’m really looking forward to Alison’s new solo book, All That Was Lost – which is out in September. She’s told me a bit about it, and it sounds amazing.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Janet: We often meet readers who say they’re nervous about emailing an author, or telling them how much they love a book. Please don’t be. We don’t get out much and hearing from readers is really important to us. So, if you like a book, email the author, or tweet to them. Write a review for them. Those are the things that make us happy as we sit in our tiny offices, staring at those terrifying blank documents on our computers.

Alison: Yes. Absolutely, do get in touch. Chat to us. Talk to us about books, writing, biscuits, or even an interesting stain you’ve found on your pyjama top. We are expert in all of these areas.

Thank you for having us Hannah x

Thanks you both for your time, it has been a pleasure. You can find out more about their partnership and the work they produce together HERE.


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