Joanna Rossiter’s first novel, The Sea Change will be published by Penguin in May. We caught up with her to find out a bit about the novel, her experience of writing, and some advice for other writers:
Can you give us a short synopsis of The Sea Change?
The Sea Change tells the true story of a lost English village taken by the war office in 1943 and interweaves this narrative with the aftermath of a tsunami, which hits an Indian beach town in 1971. My main character Violet returns to the ruins of her deserted village, years after it was evacuated by the military in the midst of World War II, unaware that her daughter Alice is awaking in India, on the morning after her wedding, to the sight of a wave on the horizon. Her husband is nowhere to be seen…
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by ruins – places that were once inhabited but have been reclaimed by nature. In 2010, I went to watch the army train in preparation for Afghanistan on the Salisbury Plain military base. This was the first time I came across the lost village of Imber. As I stood inside the ruins of the old school house and watched a soldier fire a rifle through the window opposite, I started to think about what it would feel like to watch your home being used in this way. I was interested in the question of whether people can grieve places as well as people and I was amazed to discover that Imber’s story remained largely untold.
The character of Violet soon came to mind – a woman who is so rooted to the past that she is unable to embrace the present. I also spent six months working in India and I visited some of the areas affected by the 2004 tsunami; I wanted to twin two seemingly separate stories together and explore the impact that war and natural disaster have on landscapes and communities.
How did you end up getting published by Penguin?
In 2010/11, I decided to do a Writing MA at Warwick University. This gave me the time, space and community of writers that I needed to finish and redraft the novel. A group of us on the course got together and published a collection of short stories and then sent this collection around every literary agent we could think of. My story caught the eye of a couple of agents who then asked to read my novel. I then had a mad few months of desperately trying to finish the book before they forgot about me!
In the meantime, I went to a lunchtime talk by a literary agent – Cathryn Summerhayes – from William Morris Endeavor. I managed to speak to her at the end – I had about two minutes to pitch the idea for my book to her and persuade her to give me her email address! Once I had finished the novel, I sent it to Cathryn and two other literary agents who had liked my short story. Two of them never replied (I’d missed my chance) but Cathryn asked to meet me and then, after we had done a bit of redrafting of the novel, she managed to get a few publishers interested in it, one of which was Penguin!
Why do you write? And how did you get into writing?
I write because stories are such a powerful way of asking questions about life – the narratives I write are as much for me as they are for anybody who reads them; I learnt fairly early on that if I write to try and tackle questions that I think I can already answer then the writing won’t ring true or resonate with other readers. For me, writing is about exploring life from an angle that is fresh and new for both me and the reader.
Who are your literary influences?
I love Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf and the Bronte sisters – any writer whose narratives are bound together by a powerful sense of place and landscape. My favourite contemporary authors are Nicole Krauss, Amy Sackville and Kazuo Ishiguro. Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing is deceptively simple – I love the way in which he gives his narratives over to the voice of a particular character and plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator.
Is the published novel still a relevant art form in an age of digital media, blogging and twitter?
Absolutely. Literature engages with its audience in a way that no other art form can do – it involves the reader in its very creation by getting them to imagine and visualize the story for themselves. We live in an age of ever-shortening attention spans, where entertainment is prioritised over intellectual stimulation. I think a lot of people, myself included, don’t stop to think about the meaning of life – our wider narrative as a human race – because we occupy ourselves with so many passive forms of immediate entertainment. We’ve stopped trying to put the present within the context of a wider story of how we got to where we are and where we’re going in the future. Novels help us to draw a path between the past, present and future, for that reason, they are more important than ever before. The novel will have to work hard to break back into our culture and remain relevant but it has a history of reinventing itself so I have every faith that people will be reading for years to come. The challenge for me as a writer is finding the stories that best reflect the immediacy and rapidity of our internet age and yet allow people to step beyond this culture and rediscover the value of narrative. I don’t think I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this challenge – one for the next book perhaps!
Do you feel that your faith influences your writing, and if so how?
The relationship between my faith and my writing is something that I’m still trying to work out as I go along. As I said earlier, the questions my stories ask have to be as pertinent to me as they are to the reader – the challenge is to find the stories that resonate with my own experience of life but also speak to a wider readership. For me, the act of reading has some similarities to faith in God. Because of the way in which writing involves its audience in the creative process – a reader imagines and recreates in their mind the story they are being told – reading is an incredibly active, moving experience which enables us to question the world for ourselves. Similarly, with God, faith in him is an active, not a passive thing – it is about exploring on a daily basis the narrative of where we came from and where we’re heading and getting to know the creator of that narrative himself. Our ability to be creative is a reflection of who God is and I find that when I write, I’m able to discover on very small scale something of God’s character – all the intricacy and thought that must go into creating and sustaining the universe.
What is the best bit of writing advice you have ever received?
Three things are needed for a novel: a story, a voice in which to tell the story and the discipline to write it.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write and have their work published?
Begin with short stories. These are a great way of experimenting with different writing styles. There are also lots of short story competitions that you can enter and which will help you get noticed. If you want to write something longer, develop the discipline of writing every day. Make a plan for the plot and then stick to it. A lot of people think that you have to wait for a wave of inspiration and that you can just write a novel off the cuff without really knowing where the story is heading but writing is like everything else in life – you need a structure and a plan to follow if you’re going to hold a reader’s attention for 90,000 words.
What are the biggest mistakes that would-be-writers tend to make?
A lot of writers put together a couple of chapters for a book and then send these to publishers and agents. Publishers won’t be interested in a novel until it is complete so make sure you finish the book first before approaching anyone. Some people get so dissatisfied with the first thing they write that they give up – writing is all about editing and knowing how to improve your work so don’t give up if you’re not immediately happy with what you produce. Conversely other people think that everything that comes out of their pen is a literary masterpiece! Again, redrafting and editing is absolutely vital. Nobody ever wrote a perfect first draft – even Shakespeare’s surviving first drafts leave a lot to be desired!
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
Yes I’m writing a second novel – a letter chain between a girl in post-cultural revolution China who is trying to open an underground library and a British publisher who is sending her books. I’m always on the look out for people to talk to as part of my research so if you have links to China I would love to hear from you!
What are your dreams for the future?
To write stories that stretch me as a writer and a human being and cause the people who read them to ask questions about the world.