Writers on Writers – Jill Johnson & Paul David Gould
8 minutes read
Jill Johnson (Devil’s Breath, 2023) and Paul David Gould (Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants, 2023) both joined Writing a Novel as part of Faber’s 2013–14 cohort. After the publication of their début novels, the two sat down to discuss their experience on the course, how their writing styles differ – including the all important question of What Time to Wake Up to Write – and the challenges of getting published.
Let’s start with an easy one! Do you know where the idea for your novels started?
PAUL: I lived in Moscow in the early 1990s, trying to get started in a career in journalism. While I was there, I experienced the underground gay scene during that post-Soviet period of opening-up and early Russian capitalism. My head was therefore full of scenes and scenarios – but the challenge that remained was: how to make it into a story?
JILL: For me the idea came from an image. It was a picture of a plant called Psychotria elata, which has glossy red bracts that look like lips and is a hallucinogen. It made me think about personification. What if plants could represent people? What if their properties can compare to a person’s personality? Are they beneficial or toxic?
What is your writing routine, and has it changed since you first began writing your novels?
JILL: I have a writer friend who can’t start writing until they’ve gone to a certain coffee shop to buy a certain coffee, taken it home and placed it on their writing desk. That seems a bit extra to me because really, I just write when I’m not doing my day job. So: snatched writing moments early mornings, evenings, weekends and every single holiday.
PAUL: Aagghh, I was dreading being asking that! Ideally, my writing routine would be getting up at 5.30 a.m., bashing out 1,000 words every morning. But that’s gone astray of late. When I wrote my first novel, I did write early in the morning and on my days off work – and during holidays too – but since my novel was accepted for publication, I’ve been consumed with editing and promotion, which is like a second job.
How did you ‘get to know’ your characters? Were there any relationships or character developments that surprised you?
JILL: I had a bit of a character epiphany with my protagonist in Devil’s Breath. The first draft was written in third person, but my early readers said they found it difficult to sympathise with her. So, I rewrote the book in first person, and she just came alive. In fact, after a while it felt like she was writing herself and I actually found that I really liked her!
PAUL: My characters are all ‘composites’ – that is to say each one is a fusion of attributes and behaviours, based on my experience of real-life people who’ve crossed my path. So, in fact, I didn’t ‘get to know’ them – I already knew them! But I can’t honestly say that any of their relationships ‘surprised’ me as such – it was more a case of intuiting what their relationships would be and then getting that into words.
Do you have any tips for writing dialogue? Does it come easily to you, or did you need to develop some tricks to get the conversation flowing?
PAUL: Ah-ha! I absolutely dreaded writing dialogue because I thought it had to be all pithy and sharp, like in a Bogart film or something. The problem with dialogue is that it’s supposed to avoid being on-the-nose, to avoid just giving information to the reader. But at the same time, you dohave to give information to the reader. And yet dialogue is not by any means a ‘normal’ conversation.
So the workarounds I turned to included:
1. vary the length of each piece of dialogue, from one-word grunts to discursive sentences
2. break it up with stuff like ‘he turns his teacup in his hands’ or ‘she looks down at the floor’
3. remember it’s NOT a conversation, so you don’t begin at the beginning or end at the end of their exchange.
One other important but elusive factor: dialogue should be a seduction or a conflict, an argument or a dance, an interrogation or an admission – but never just conversation.
Dialogue should be a seduction or a conflict, an argument or a dance, an interrogation or an admission – but never just conversation.
JILL: OK, so I approach dialogue in a different way. I use it to kick-start writing a scene. I’ll write the ‘conversation’ without much thought or even punctuation, I just let it flow. Then I go back in and add internal dialogue between speech, physical cues ‘he coughed against his fist’ and very sparingly adverbs after she/he said (and as few ‘she/he said’ as possible). A trick I use to avoid attributions is to put a physical action before speech, ‘He turned to me. “It’s your fault.”’ So then, my first 300 word or so conversation, often extends into a 1,000-word scene.
Which books helped/inspired you while you were writing?
JILL: I had three reference books that I dipped into while I was writing. Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, Breverton’s Complete Herbal by Terry Breverton and The RHS Gardener’s Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers. I’m dipping into them again now for book two. They’re getting a bit dog-eared and grubby.
PAUL: In terms of research , I didn’t refer to any books, as my novel is based on a lived experience. However, in terms of the scope of the novel, its themes and tone, and the roles its characters play, I was inspired by a few very different novels. One was Small Island by the late Andrea Levy; I loved the way she split the characters’ points of view. Another – and I don’t want to presume to liken myself to a great Russian masterpiece! – was Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, which combines the panoramic sweep of war with a focus on the intimate and domestic, right down to kitchen-sink detail.
Are there any big differences between your very first draft and the final one?
PAUL: I would say the actual story didn’t change much – but when I recently looked at page one of my first draft, I saw how much I’d changed the phrasing. So yes, there are differences: sometimes, adding or deleting a sentence can really boost what you’re trying to say.
JILL:: Yes, absolutely! I was lucky enough to get a Czech translation deal back in 2021. If someone who could read Czech and English were to read that book, followed by the English one that’s just been published, they’d think they were reading two different books. As I said, the early drafts were written in third person. Devil’s Breath is in first. I also changed the ending about five times!
Paul: It’s worth adding that Last Dance went through about twelve drafts (including three after it was accepted for publication). The hardest of these was the ‘structural edit’ in which an editor pulls apart every plotline, every scene, every bit of dialogue. But being forced to go back and make each scene work resulted in a far better novel overall.
How did you and your agent find one another?
PAUL: I found my agent, or he found me, through the Writing a Novel course. My eventual agent must have read my extract in the Writing a Novel Anthology produced at the end of the course that gets sent out to agents and editors. I consider myself very lucky! There must be some special magic in having the course and Faber Academy to push our cause.
JILL: Same. My agent found me through the Faber Academy course. I met her after the course, liked her immediately and signed with her a couple of weeks later. I know this sounds like a fairy tale – all I can say is I’m grateful to have been given to opportunity of an introduction through the Faber Academy course.
I know this sounds like a fairy tale – all I can say is I’m grateful to have been given to opportunity of an introduction through the Faber Academy course.
Will you do anything differently for the next novel?
JILL: I have a two-book deal with the possibility of those developing into a series. The thing I haveto do differently is write a book a year, which is incredibly difficult alongside a full-time job. But the dream is to give up the day job, so I’m pretty determined to do it.
PAUL: Hmm, that’s a tough one. In theory, you’d think a second novel would be easier, because you’ve learnt a few tricks of the trade, the craft of writing. However, a first novel is usually one you’ve built up to writing for years and years, and you put heart and soul into it. What I need to do for my second novel is Write the Damn Thing – but like Jill, I haven’t yet been able to give up the day job.