For Books’ Sake Talks To: Suzanne Joinson

5th Jul 2012


Suzanne Joinson‘s début, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is published today by Bloomsbury. It has already garnered several rave reviews, including one from us (more on that later today).

Rich in detail, both of time and place, it’s an impressive first novel from Shoreham Airport’s author-in-residence. For Books’ Sake caught up with her to ask about the process of writing, her thoughts on motherhood and disappointing novels.

FBS: Your début has a large cast of female characters, all of whom are strong in their own way, including female missionaries. Do you see yourself as a feminist and, if so, does that direct your writing?

SJ: Yes, I see myself as a feminist. I’m very conscious that I am walking in the wake of women who have fought for many things I take for granted: equal relationships, maternity leave, and the ability to have children and work, education, publication…

I first came across the missionary narratives that inspired A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar when I was examining the writing of travelling women of the 1920s and 30s.

I was intrigued by the fact that they could reach places we can’t get to now, such as Yemen or Syria, and wanted to know more about the sort of woman who would – and could – travel at that time.

Missionaries are particularly interesting because they never actually lose their femininity: to be a missionary requires devotion, self-abnegation, the handing over of the self for a greater cause, traditional female traits.

It was rather handy, then, that all that doting and selflessness actually meant they could travel to far-flung countries, ride horses (or bicycles), live freely in women-only domestic homes and reject the whole arena of childrearing and marriage, All under the guise of being good and holy too.  

The questions that confront women – motherhood, family, the tension between home and escape – are important in my book and in that sense feminism directly impacts on my writing.

FBS: The novel is a book about, amongst other things, motherhood and its difficulties – do you think that being a mother yourself has changed the way that you tell stories and approach writing?

SJ:Yes, as you can probably tell I had a baby during the course of writing this book. In fact, by the time I got through the whole process, I’d had two!

Everything about writing the novel has been combined with motherhood. When I was first approached by agents I was pregnant with my first child.

I immediately had a race with my own body to finish the first draft and this pattern continued through the cycles of drafts and edits and then later, when the book was sold, the editorial rounds with the publisher.

I would get to a certain point in the writing and then have to stop, either due to the inconvenient fact of childbirth or because exhaustion got the better of me.

I stopped writing for about four months with my first son and trying to get back into the manuscript after that time away, and after the tremendous life-change of becoming a mother was unbelievably difficult.

I was in the lucky position of having a nice agent waiting to read what I’d written and because of that I found the motivation. I think without that I would probably have let it go for a few years and been depressed about it along the way, I’m sure.

In terms of how I tell stories, like mothers the world over, I snatch at time. I would love to tell a story by sitting on my own for 17 weeks in an Andalusian retreat but the reality of my working and living life is that things have to happen in focused short bursts because the baby is going to wake up or the toddler has to be picked up from nursery.

A really difficult chapter could be swelling in my head and I could be in ‘the fictional dream’, removed a little from life and really in the book and then suddenly both kids are howling all night with raging temperatures and nobody gets any sleep or peace for a fortnight.

I have developed strategies which enable me to be able to pick up the thread of what I am writing after such disruptions. They aren’t very sophisticated strategies; they include things like a document written to myself saying: when you come back this is what you were saying and doing in your mind you won’t remember why but read this.

FBS: You’ve travelled extensively for your ‘other job’ [in the literature department of the British Council] – do you think that your writing will always be informed by those journeys?

SJ: Well, writing is informed by life and everything one experiences and does. It just so happens that the last decade of my life has been very much about travel, mostly due to my British Council job, but that doesn’t mean that I will only ever write stories about travel and different countries.

I’m keen to write stories that are less about movement and running away, but as Elizabeth Bowen said, art is a return. We come back to what we need to come back to and currently these ideas around travel and home, escape, freedom and the domestic versus nomadic all seem to be presenting themselves in a circle on a mat in front of me and saying, come on then! 

FBS: What kind of writer are you – one who is strict about chapter plans and a set overall plan, or one who knows vaguely where they want the story to go but who lets it meander its own way?

SJ: I’m horrifically unplanned, disorganised, slow and meandering with endless digressions, some of which are useful and some not. I have this theory that the unconscious does a lot of the work in making the connections that are essential in a novel.

So, for me, it is more important that I hold onto a thread – or rather, that I keep the whole essence of the book alive in my mind over a sustained period of time so that it can ferment and grow – than to have chapter plans.

If circumstances of life force me to put the book out of my brain for some time and shift into another mode (which they do about every half hour) then I need one of the methods for getting straight back into it.

This first couple of drafts are an exercise in keeping myself in tune, open, in the moment – impossible to describe it without going cosmic – for long enough to get enough words out to have a crude something to work with.

Then, a few drafts later, I will get to work in an analytical way on plot, pacing, chapter lengths, point of view, and the technicalities that are a combination of the storytelling aspects but also the form of the story as I want it to be. But I need the raw matter first.

Later, the real editing comes in. Oh it’s endless, go and do something easier instead, I say.

FBS:Can you tell us what the worst book you’ve ever read is?

SJ: What a difficult question. You mean, I actually got to the end of rather than slung into the bin in an outraged fashion? I seem to remember The Satanic Verses, after all the hype and furore, being somewhat of a let-down. Otherwise there are a few contemporary novels that have made me faint with depression but I’m naming no names.

FBS: What can we expect from you next?

SJ: I’ve promised myself to stop talking about this; the poor wee fledgling book is losing its essence as I keep on ranting. I’m trying to build up its inner-architecture and it’s such a delicate balancing act, and so I’ll just say it’s a novel with flying in it. And Palestine. And perhaps something about light and sculpture.

For more from Suzanne, and for a chance to win a copy of her début novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, stay tuned for our review coming up later today.

Sarah Chapman