Q&A with Joanna Briscoe

This week we were delighted to host brilliant Joanna Briscoe for the latest in our series of Twitter Q&As. Joanna popped by to celebrate the publication of her sixth novel and to answer questions about the writing process from some of our followers. Here’s how the conversation went:

FA: Alright, we’ve had some brilliant questions coming in, so let’s get started! Hi, Joanna! Thanks for joining us and congratulations on last week’s publication of The Seduction. Our first question from one of our Twitter followers: ‘What is your writing process and do you have a particular favourite place and time to write?’

JB:  Good question. I wish I had one, very disciplined process. I do hypothetically, but the reality can be messier…. I do try to get up, and get dressed and ready by half eight in the morning, and then – pre-lockdown – I’d go to the British Library to write. I try to put in a normal day there, but friends are usually there as well, and they’re vital to the process. A carrot to dangle in front of me after a proper session of work…. lunch, anyone? I just try to get on with it, counting hours or words.

FA: Lunch is a very important carrot! Okay, our second question via DM: ‘Where do your ideas come from?’

JB: Lunch, coffee, a sudden desire to visit the bookshop… plenty of carrots in my life! Well, for me, ideas are the one thing I don’t struggle over. Believe me, I struggle terribly with the execution of course, which is entirely normal #WritingIsHard. But so far, ideas just seem to land in my head. I have the next two or three novels’ worth of ideas. They can be very different in origin – a person, place, scene, situation. And from there, the process begins. 

FA: Our third question is one I’m sure lots of us (…me) would also like to know the answer to… ‘Do you experience writers block and if so, how do you deal with it?’

JB: I do experience bad days, certainly, where the process is like trying to wade through mud. But I refuse to believe in writers’ block. If you sit there for long enough, you will write something. I definitely think it’s more about perspiration than inspiration. Don’t wait for the muse. The muse will eventually find you. You have to push through the pain barrier and just keep going. No doubt about it. Treat writing as a job. As if there’s no choice and you have a boss standing over you.

FA: Great answer, thank you! Definitely going to be imagining my boss next to my desk from now on… Here’s another, not unrelated question: ‘Has lockdown influenced your writing? Has it made you think more about certain themes?’

JB: Lockdown is a funny mixed bag for writers, isn’t it? It’s so vast, tragic, extraordinary, what’s going on out there that lots of writers say it renders their work trivial. But we can’t all write about pandemics. It’s made me think about slower lives, nature, and the past… I’ve found I’ve both written more in lockdown, and found it hard to concentrate. But I do have pretty ideal conditions, i.e. no young children to school, and so I’m determined to get on with it.

FA: Yes, absolutely to all of that! Okay, a really great question just in from Instagram: ‘What is your advice when a writer discovers a fantastic opening scene and character but isn’t quite sure how to write the rest of the book…’

JB: Interesting. I’m a bit of a strict ‘Get on with it’ person, as my students will attest… So, I’d say, capture that fantastic scene and character as quickly as you can. And then be really disciplined about thinking about the rest. Don’t give up too soon. If it’s TERRIBLE, you  might want to give up and start something else, but odds are that all you need to do is really start thinking about the plot. I’d say that you should get down what you have – it sounds as though you’re inspired at that moment – and then start the brainstorming, making notes as you go. The other characters, the essential situation, the arc, plot, twists and turns, will come with time, but you have to open your mind. I write and I keep a Notes file simultaneously. So I get on with the prose, but I keep the plotting etc notes too.

FA: Great advice, thank you! Let’s have one last craft question before we move on to publication and The Seduction: ‘Do you have any advice for making sure your dialogue is natural?’

JB: Dialogue’s a big one, and of course we all want natural sounding dialogue – in most genres. My best advice is to write dialogue very very quickly first of all, no inverted commas, just a real go-with-the-flow session, then go back and edit. You will achieve more of a flow. I also think that reading your dialogue out loud is vital. There is more of a chance of picking up the stiff, unnatural sections then. DBC Pierre said ‘Dialogue is pace’, and I agree that we need it to speed our eye down the page. You can give people a verbal tic, I also often have people interrupting each other, not quite finishing the sentence, as long as the sense is there, because this happens so much in real life. Also, keep each person’s section of dialogue relatively short. Listen to strangers. Keep your ear in.

FA: ‘Dialogue is pace’ – I love that! Okay, this is an important one for a lot of writers: ‘Have you had many rejections during your writing career and how do you cope with these?’

JB: Rejections. Argh. The most common experience in a writer’s life – almost universal – and yet it feels so personal and terrible. Yes, I was lucky enough to get my first novel published, which was a huge moment of excitement, but after a lot of years of work. It was my THIRD novel that was rejected. It felt really terrible. I was in a real state about it, before I picked myself up and wrote Sleep With Me. And that one was a bestseller etc, so it just goes to show. I think sometimes, as long as you can find a way to stay strong, that writing in adversity can actually be inspiring. There’s an urgency and desperation that can fuel the work. I thought, I’ll show you. And I did! I also had an early version of another novel turned down, but that was quite right. I re-wrote and that helped and it was published.

FA: That is really, really inspiring – thank you for sharing. You sure did show them! Okay, let’s talk about the new book! We’ve been asked via DM: ‘Which character did you most enjoy writing in The Seduction and why?’

JB: I liked writing about the charismatic, dangerous Dr Tamara Bywater, the shrink in the novel, as she was the most fascinating to invent and then flesh out. She’s so not what she appears; she pulls people to her. She’s so unlike me, I liked inventing someone very different.

FA: Yes, I can imagine that being great fun as a writer… On a related note, ‘The Seduction is such an addictive read – how do you keep a reader turning the pages?’

JB: I REALLY think a lot about keeping the reader turning the pages. I absolutely think it’s my duty not to bore them. One of my main rules is – if I’m slightly boring myself, i.e. there’s a section that causes faint heart sink, or which I skim over – then it goes. If I bore myself, then certainly readers will be bored. I also try to come up with the unexpected. I twist the obvious, and like to think about characters doing something different from the thing I’ve first invented. Shorter chapters help. And I set up lots of questions that need answers.

FA: Brilliant advice – I think that sense of faint heart sink is familiar to most of us… We all need to be ruthless with it! Okay, let’s have one more question before we let you go: ‘The press response to The Seduction has been amazing – how does it feel?’

JB: It’s been amazing. I’ve had so many reviews, a couple of stinkers among the good ones, but the main thing is to get coverage! It’s been exciting, and a bit nerve wracking. It’s thanks to
Philippa Cotton who did the whole campaign, and now Ella Harold has taken over. I’m grateful.

FA: It’s been really wonderful to see it making its way out in the world so brilliantly. All of us at the Academy are very proud!

Joanna Briscoe is the author of the novels Mothers and Other Lovers, which won the Betty Trask Award; SkinSleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies; You, which was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and through Europe, and Touched, which was published by Arrow. She works as a literary critic for the Guardian and has written for all the major national newspapers. She broadcasts on Radio 4, and has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Birkbeck and City MA degrees in Creative Writing. Joanna is one of the tutors on our flagship six-month Writing a Novel course. 

The Seduction is published by Bloomsbury and is available in hardback and ebook now.