Monday 8 January 2024

SPECIAL FEATURE: Q & A with Julia Jarman about her novel THE WIDOWS' WINE CLUB


"It’s hard to define ‘voice’ but you can’t get going without it, and when I found my writing-for-adults voice it was a joy, like talking to a friend."

Julia Jarman, a regular contributor to Writers Review, has been writing children’s books for forty years, and still is. Cheeky Chick is her latest picture book. Recently, though, she turned her hand to ‘golden years’ women’s fiction and The Women’s Wine Club was the happy result. 

Linda: The starting premise of your novel is a brilliant one, with instant appeal. Were you always aware of how the novel would end for each of the three characters?

Julia: You told me it was a brilliant premise, Linda, when I first mooted the idea. I wasn’t so sure. I had a title in mind, I think, Widows In Love, and saw it as a rom-com. Three widowed women looking for love. It was as vague as that. I didn’t have specific outcomes in mind. I wrote the first draft to find out. You and other friends had begun writing for adults, after several years of successfully writing for children. I wondered ‘Can I?’ – as I like a new challenge - and you said firmly, ‘Yes you can!’

Linda: Did you find it equally easy to engage with each of the three main viewpoint characters? I know that the novel has been several years in the making – how have they developed during this time?

Julia: It has been a very long time in the making! I got the idea soon after my husband died in 2009 and thought of it as ‘Peter’s last gift to me’ but also felt guilty for exploiting the situation. It felt like an invasion of privacy, his privacy, our privacy, and that feeling may have held me up. But Peter had always encouraged my writing and said ‘use anything you like’ when I’d expressed similar reservations in the past. Sweary Viv was the first character who arrived in my head, probably because she is most like me, but I’ve also got a prim and proper side – believe it or not! – and was downright Puritanical in my youth, so I easily identified with Janet and knew where she was coming from. Zelda turned up, and aware of the ‘appropriation’ issue, because she’s mixed race and I am not, I hesitated, but she soon felt very real and insisted on staying and I loved her, so I thoroughly researched to find out as much as I could about her circumstances and carried on writing. All three developed over time. I discovered them as they discovered themselves, becoming more complex, acquiring ‘layers’ as I wrote and re-wrote, drawing on memory, research and imagination.

Linda: I especially like the Pitmen Painters scene. Is this an exhibition that has particular resonance for you?

Julia: Yes! Like Viv, the first I heard of it was when I went to see Lee Hall’s play, Pitmen Painters. It said, it enacted, what I believed, that human beings are makers, that we are more alive, more ourselves, more human when we create. That is what one of the characters says in the play. When he is working down the pit for the bosses he is not truly alive, not truly himself, but when he draws or paints, when he is depicting his reality, expressing his truth, he is. When I eventually stepped into the gallery to see the exhibition I felt I’d entered a holy place, embodying that truth.

I should also say that my father was a coal miner, briefly, three days and that was enough for him. He was put down the pit when he was fourteen and felt that a life in the mines would kill him, spiritually if not physically, though he wouldn’t have put it like that. He thought that no one should have to do that, and I felt that I was connecting with him.

AdèleTell us a little about the journey the manuscript took on the way to becoming the book it is today.

Julia: It had a lot of rejections, mostly nice rejections, but nonetheless disheartening. It first went out with the title A Second Summer, to fourteen mainstream publishers of women’s fiction, at the beginning of 2021. Some didn’t respond. Most did, complimenting me on ’wonderfully drawn characters’ ‘the balance of humour and depth’, ‘captivating style’ etc, but then came the ‘but not for me’ for a variety of reasons. Caroline, my agent concluded that it didn’t have the ‘SOH, the stand-out hook’ essential for commercial fiction and there was no point in sending it out again till it did. I was a bit nonplussed as I thought the SOH was the basic premise. Three women hit hard by grief, are looking for love. Will they find it? But I licked my wounds, re-read and re-wrote it, bearing in mind the feedback I’d had from editors and lay-readers. Several said they were confused by the to and fro-ing between the three characters, so I tried to put that right. I also strengthened a thread with an unpleasant minor character, making her more unpleasant, adding plot twists. I sent it out to more readers, including Georgia Bowers, librarian i/c of women’s fiction at Bedford libraries (and a writer herself), asking her to be ruthless in her criticism. Would she buy it for the library? She got back saying yes she would, but not with that title. She suggested The Widows’ Wine Club which I now think is its SOH.

In June 2022 my agent sent The Widows’ Wine Club out to nine smaller publishers of commercial fiction, and I got eight more rejections. Then came an expression of interest from Boldwood Books, a brand new publisher, only three years old. Editor Sarah Ritherdon had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ my novel but had lots of doubts. It was hard to launch debut authors, she said. My 35 years as a children’s author counted for nothing. She asked my agent, ‘Had Julia got famous friends who would plug her book? Could Julia write more books? Quickly!’ Boldwood didn’t take one-offs. They only did multiple-book deals and their marketing plan required second and third books only months after the first. Gulp. The Widows’ Wine Club had taken me at least ten years. Could I write the next in ten months? Yes, said my friends – and I have!

AdèleHow many drafts did you go through? (I think the answer might be inspiring to other writers.)

Julia: Umpteen. I lost count. Ten at least, and I do a lot of re-writing as I write.

AdèleIs any character in the novel based on a real person? I’m assuming all three widows have bits of you in their DNA!

Julia: Assumption correct about use of my own DNA! I’ve said quite a lot about this to Linda. As to the ‘real person’ question, I’m going to hide behind the standard disclaimer ‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’. I’ll risk saying that some of the characters are composites of people I’ve met, but sorry - that’s as far as I’m going!

Celia: This is your first novel for adults – when and why did you decide to write for an adult audience? How difficult did you find it to make the move from a writing career that was well established to this very different and challenging market?

Julia: I think the story dictates the audience, so when I have a story in my head I ask myself, consciously or unconsciously, is this a picture book for under-5s, a chapter book for 8-12 or a book for teens? This story was clearly for adults. The difficulty was finding the time to write it as I was very committed to the world of children’s literature and that for me included a lot of school visits. I was finding it hard to find uninterrupted time to write longer fiction for children, and was veering more and more towards picture books, which I love writing, when Covid changed all our lives. Suddenly I had time on my hands and a story in my head, partly written, for adults. I fished out my widows.

Writing for adults is, I think, easier than writing for children, which is why so many writers going the other way, or having a ‘go’ for their first book, come a cropper. They think – heaven knows why – that it must be easier. It isn’t. When you are writing for children you have to be aware that you’re writing for an intelligent audience, probably more intelligent than you the writer, but your readers haven’t had as much experience as you. They don’t know lots of stuff that you know, so you have to impart information and explain concepts in a non-patronising way that respects their intelligence. By comparison when you write for adults, you can assume their experience is much the same as yours. It’s therefore easier to find your ‘voice’ as a writer for adults. It’s hard to define ‘voice’ but you can’t get going without it, and when I found my writing-for-adults voice it was a joy, like talking to a friend.

Celia: The Widows' Wine Club is bittersweet in the truest sense. How hard was it to find the right balance between humour and pathos?

Julia: I didn’t think about this. I just told it how it was, being as true as I could to my experience and that of other widows I’d spoken to. I am I think, unconsciously funny. I come across as funny even when I’m crying inside . I’m not sure why this is, but looking back I think I’ve always made people laugh. A testimonial I like said, ‘People laugh a lot in Julia’s company and if they don’t, she does. She is serious but splendidly without solemnity.’ If that was the verdict on my books I would be happy.

Celia: Your widows are an attractive and likeable group who will appeal to many readers. I understand that you're working on a sequel. Will there be more after that?

Julia: I’ve just delivered the sequel which has a new main character, Libby Allgood. I’m hoping that readers will love Libby as much as they love Viv, Janet and Zelda, and not be disappointed by this change of focus. Reviews have made it clear that readers want the sequel to tell them more about the three Muscateers, and it will, a bit. But they will have to wait for the third book to learn a lot more about all four when I take them on another adventure.

The Widows' Wine Club is published by Boldwood. Widows on the Wine Path will be published on 3rd April.

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