Take heed, people, for this is a name you are going to become incredibly familiar with. Already a #1 new release before her debut novel, I Belong To The Earth, even comes out (25th April – put it in your diary), JA Ironside talked to me about ghosts, YA literature and horse-sized ducks…
1) If you were a vegetable, which one would you be?
Wait, what? Um a carrot probably – nutritious, ubiquitous, ginger, always seems to turn up with a Sunday roast and excellent eye sight. (I mean I have excellent eyesight, not that carrots do – they just help.)
2) Writing is often called a journey – what’s your journey been like?
Like running up a 1 to 4 metre ratio gradient slope whilst someone with a firehose streams water down on me and Donkey Kong throws the odd barrel just so I have something to jump over. Have you ever tried jumping up a steep hill? I don’t recommend it. Oddly, I don’t mean that lots of obstacles were put in my way – other than the usual ones regarding work, time, other commitments, my boyfriend occasionally liking to exchange words of more than one syllable with me. Really it’s been and continues to be a rush. I have been on a steep learning curve which hasn’t levelled out yet and I enjoy the mental gymnastics. I’m dying to know what the view is like when I get to the top of that metaphorical hill. I’d love to say something really clever and poignant about finding myself or discovering reserves of strength and wisdom I was unaware of through writing but …er…no unfortunately not. I’m here because I feel compelled to be here. I need to tell stories, and I’m addicted to the adrenaline. One line that probably sums it all up for me is from Alice’s Adventure’ in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; ‘It takes all the running in the world just to stay in one place.’ That is me and writing.
3) Given your novel, I Belong To The Earth, is a paranormal story, do you believe in ghosts?
Can I have a moment of unacceptable pedantry? Please? Just one? Thanks. I have an issue with the word believe. It comes from the anglo-saxon root word meaning ‘to cling to’. So believing is a potentially hazardous thing in my book. It’s hard to see the world with an unbiased view if you’ve invested a lot of yourself in ‘clinging to’ something as a truth. However I have ideas about things and have had experiences which are to this day, inexplicable, so I certainly wouldn’t rule anything out. I think it’s worth looking at the distinction between ‘paranormal’ and ‘supernatural’ in literary terms too. Paranormal suggests something which we may be able to measure and explain via science at some point even if we cannot do so now. Supernatural suggests something outside the realm of our experience of this world which we may never possess the tools to explain. So having put us on the same page, I’ll have a stab at answering the rest of the question.
What are ‘ghosts’? I think it’s a catch all term for a collective set of paranormal experiences which seem to come in several forms. The genius loci kind, where a house, a place, a landscape even, is ‘haunted’ by some kind of presence. I think most of us have been somewhere alone and yet felt as if we weren’t, only to realise that the land or forest or whatever felt alive in an intangible way. Not only alive but possessed of a different kind of sentience. If you have ever read anything on Cognitive Biology, you’ll know that there’s a growing body of evidence for there being some kind of shared awareness (cognition!) that crosses the boundaries of all organisms and is only limited by the limits of the organisms themselves. And here we cross into particle physics and transdimentionality so perhaps I’d better rein this part in. Other species of ‘ghosts?’ I think sometimes places pick up impressions a bit like finger prints, or groves in a record. With the right instruments you can theoretically access those impressions. The much reported ‘grey lady’ type ghost who displays no obvious consciousness but repeats a set of actions at regular intervals over and over again. And finally the ‘conscious ghosts’ who might be the disembodied spirits of those who have died, held here by a need to fulfil a task of some kind. There have been reports on all three types but the trouble with that kind of evidence is that it is very subjective. It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone didn’t experience some kind of phenomena but proving it would be nigh on impossible.
As for the other question, I think we need ghosts like we need monsters in literature. The reason for putting in something not commonly held to exist in real life, is the same as the reason for writing any kind of horror or fantasy at all; it is a way of personifying real life problems – of stepping out of the ordinary and by conquering the monster/ghost in a story, being able to see our own problems with better perspective. Ghosts are a special case because they often personify a part of the main character that is unacknowledged. The id if you like. Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger is a master example of this. In I Belong to the Earth, Emlynn has been damaged by events to the extent that she is very closed off. The ‘ghost’ (can’t say more) could represent a future version of herself if she doesn’t overcome this tendency to push everyone away. Sorry. Bit of a wordy answer.
4) What is the one novel that changed your life?
Just one? Seriously? So many have changed my perspective in different ways! Ok then it would probably have to be The Stand by Stephen King. It crystalized my love for examining what happens when you put different characters in an impossible situation. There’s something about the ‘backs to the wall’ situation and watching how people hold on to, cast aside and modify their essential humanity that makes me all warm and tingly. I have yet to find the absolute Kobyashi Maru (if I can use a trekkie term) of literary situations but The Stand has to be the closest for me so far. The first time I read it, I got through the extended anniversary edition in less than thirty hours and just walked around with my mind blown for the next three days.
5) If you could go back and do it all again, what would you change (if anything!)?
I sometimes think I’d like to have come out of the closet about writing a bit earlier in my life – I’d been writing for over twenty years before I showed anyone anything – but on second thoughts I don’t think I would change anything. Those intervening years were all about learning ‘me’. Getting the handbook of my psyche down pat and making improvements. If I went back and changed anything then it wouldn’t be me, sat here talking existential bollocks with you!
6) Everyone has their favourite characters in literature – who are your favourite antagonists, and why?
I’ve mentioned ‘The Stand’ so Randal Flagg won’t come as a surprise. He’s just so personable and chipper all the while plotting the downfall of as many human souls as possible. He’s convincing because he is everyone and everyone has that pinch of darkness in them.
The creature from ‘IT’ (also Stephen King) – it’s largely fear personified but on a personal level for each character. Baron Harkkonen in ‘Dune’ – utterly repulsive and utterly devious. Richard ‘gentleman’ Rivers in ‘Fingersmith’. Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes. Physical prowess and monstrosity doesn’t impress me in an antagonist. Mental agility, cunning and sheer sociopathic cleverness do. If you can throw in a bit of ‘oh but they could accomplish such great things if they were just aimed in another direction’ then that’d be perfect.
7) Why YA?
I think because it is such fertile ground for giving the reader an experience rather than simply a few hours of entertainment. The best books should make us question and strive and think, – whilst still being enjoyable – and that seems to be a state more sustainable, after the reader has finished with the book, in YA. Possibly because the intended audience is already at a time in their lives where they are being asked to learn, and naturally question and challenge.
8) Write a recipe for your perfect book.
Fully dimensional, non-cliche characters – or cliched ironically *rolls eyes* – I don’t have to like the characters but I do have to find them interesting enough to want to follow them. A decent plot with enough twists to be interesting but not enough so that it doubles back on itself and negates its intended arc! (happens more often than you’d think) For me personally I prefer a hint of a speculative element – I get quite enough real life every day – however this isn’t essential. Beautiful language – there are many kinds of beauty in language and the rich, lush, plain, sparse and lyrical are all equally welcome, I just need to be able to tell the author has thought about it rather than spewed words at a screen/ page. A satisfying end. By which I mean one that fits the book and makes sense not necessarily what I want to happen. I’ve never been so angry with a book as I was with a YA dystopian end of trilogy offering, where the author came up with something utterly contrived in order to have a grand and tragic ending. I could cope with the ending but not the lazy way it was engineered. It was very disrespectful to her readers to throw something of that magnitude in with a ‘that’ll do attitude’ and plot holes you could drive a London double decker through. So yeah, an ending that fits the book.
9) Has there been anyone in your life that has directly influenced your writing, positively or negatively?
Yes and positively. My Dad, who made his shelves of sci-fi and fantasy and historical novels available to me from a really early age, and with whom I always had really good, analytical talks on characterization, motive and plot arc. I’m sure neither of us realized it but that’s when the writing malarkey first started. My fellow writer and writing buddy, Shell Bromley – just my go to person if I want an honest opinion or have a particularly knotty problem with writing (or anything else for that matter.) The Random Writers – a fabulous group that offer insightful and intelligent critique as well as support, over and over again. Hmm as for negatively I really can’t think of anyone so I guess they didn’t succeed! I’m my own worst critic anyway.
10) Cemeteries: inherently creepy or peaceful places?
I go to graveyards to sit and think. Day or night, I love wandering around a graveyard – the older the better. I enjoy looking at the older tombstones and wondering what that person must have been like – you get odd clues that build up pictures like whether their husband/ wife was buried in the same place, how many children they had, how long there was between family members’ deaths and of course, what people chose to have engraved on someone’s headstone. It’s fascinating. The bonus with cemeteries and graveyards is that there is rarely anyone else there so you often have the place to yourself. I think people who find them creepy must be expressing part of the general fear of death and decay. As my gran once said ‘You needn’t worry about the dead, the dead won’t hurt you. It’s the living you have to watch out for.’
11) Where do your characters come from? How would you describe your relationships with them?
Most of my characters walk into my head fully formed, carrying luggage and demanding to be written down. Some of them turn up full formed and just loiter, refusing to give me any more details until I start writing – it’s incredibly frustrating. Mostly I ‘get on’ with my characters although I’ve had a few that have made it quite clear that they don’t think much of me.
12) You meet a writer just at the beginning of their journey. What would you like to tell them?
Watch out for the giant ape hurling barrels! Haha …er no… First and foremost write what you love. If you don’t love it, then on the days when it doesn’t come easily it’s going to be so much harder to keep going. It’s not easy, don’t believe anyone who tells you it is. More importantly have fun with your writing. Worry about publishers, prizes and film deals when they show up. You are going to get rejected a lot. I mean A LOT, a lot. It’s part of the process but if you love what you’re doing and you’re having fun with it then you’ll keep going until you get a ‘yes please!’
13) What are your plans for the future?
In short, to keep writing (and take my 4th Dan black belt grading). Slightly longer answer – I am currently working on books two and three of the Unveiled series (I Belong to the Earth being book one). I have a series of seven post-apocalyptic fairy tale retellings that I am working on. A historical fantasy trilogy set in eleventh century China. And another trilogy that I’m kinda halfway through which is a ‘now’ based on an alternate history where several key events didn’t happen and certain people with special abilities (known as six-fingers) are in hiding from persecution. And that’s just the ideas that have stuck to the page. There is an entire note book filled with outlines for books I intend to write. Talk amongst yourselves. I may be some time…
14) I Belong To The Earth is being made into a film… who would you like to play Emlynn? Grace? Haze? (I picked them ‘cos they are mentioned in the blurb – I figured it was less spoilery that way)
Ok, well this is where everyone finds out how out of touch I am…er for Haze probably Ian Somerhalder (the vampire diaries) but he’d have to play it a bit less ‘nice’. Er Kaya Scodelario or Crystal Reed as Emlynn. Maybe Dakota Fanning as Grace. I’m not sure really. I’ve never played virtual casting on my own books before. In some ways I think I’d like three or four new British talents discovered if we’re really indulging in the fantasy here!
15) Was there any moment when writing this novel that sticks in your mind – any lightbulb moments, or moments of despair? How did you deal with them?
Not despair. Embarrassment definitely. And when you’re embarrassed you just have to remember that a) it ends and b) if there is no logical reason for you to be embarrassed then you probably don’t have anything to worry about. The lightbulb moment came when I found out ‘who done it’. It wasn’t what I expected or planned!
16) Imagine you’re walking along a path. It is featureless, and crumbing behind you, meaning you cannot turn back. You reach a fork – one path leads to one, horse sized duck. The other, 50 duck-sized horses. They look very angry and ready to attack. The path is still disintegrating behind you… WHICH PATH DO YOU PICK?
A horse sized duck!? Yeah, there is no way I’m going down that path. Ducks look all cute but really they’re not that far removed from being dinosaurs. Ducks are evil little buggers. Nope, think I’ll take my chances with the fifty little horses – I can run fast and my kicks are good! Biologically duck sized horses are going to run out of steam before I do. Unless they can fly. Can they fly? *looks worried*
Follow JA Ironside on Twitter: @J_AnneIronside
Her Blog: A Perfect Dystopia