The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Jane Bailey is very much a local author in that all her stories so far have been set in Gloucestershire, the county where she was born and where she still lives. Nonetheless they have a universal appeal that has brought them into the bestseller lists.
I met Jane when she spoke to the Cheltenham Writers’ Circle earlier this year and immediately decided to ask her to be interviewed for this blog. She spoke to us about her book Tommy Glover’s View of Heaven, about an evacuee child in a Gloucestershire village, which resonated with me because I was myself a wartime evacuee, although not in this county. Jane is far to young to have experienced the war but she impressed me by her ability to enter imaginatively into the mind of a wartime child, as effectively as if she had been there at the time.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. A writer or an artist. From adolescence onwards I kept very quiet about the writing dream, because it seemed a bit pompous and ambitious, and I knew it was tough to break into.
How did you break through as a published author? I believe you are a ‘graduate’ of the Arvon Foundation writers’ courses?
I went on several Arvon courses in my late twenties and early thirties. Having nothing to do but write for five days was a liberation, and I would recommend the courses to all aspiring writers. Several of the tutors took an interest in my work, and a couple put me in touch with their agents. One of these was Beryl Bainbridge. It was that agent who got me a two-book deal with Hodder Headline. I was a bit naïve at the time and accepted the first advance that was offered. My agent said she could probably get me more by setting up some bidding, but I was just too excited to turn anything down.
You have written four books but on your website you say you recommend only two. This is surely surprising for an author not to recommend all their work?
Actually, I think I say only that I wouldn’t recommend the first two. Well, the trouble with early books – and I think a lot of writers feel this way – is that they are often a form of practice. You hope that you improve over time, and then reading your early work is a bit like reading an old school essay. I am still quite fond of my first novel, but the second one I had to write within a year of my first baby being born. I wasn’t really ready to write a second novel, and I think it shows. They are both out of print, and I’m not too sad about that.
Tommy Glover’s Sketch of Heaven is the first of your books that I read, perhaps because I was myself a wartime evacuee (although not in Gloucestershire). But you belong to a different generation. What drew you to this theme and how did you imagine yourself into the mind of an evacuee child?
I didn’t set out to write about an evacuee. I had an idea for a story that involved an outsider child being placed in the household of a dysfunctional couple. I liked the idea of their marriage being observed and somehow put back together by the unwitting astuteness of a child. I toyed with using a foster child, but that wouldn’t do, as they would risk bringing too much of their own emotional turmoil into the mix. I needed an ordinary, well-loved child, and an evacuee was the obvious solution. So, a little tentatively at first, I dipped my toe into the Second World War.
I’m so glad I did. The Second World War is fascinating canvas to work on: there are so many displaced people in wartime (evacuees, refugees, service men and women, prisoners of war) and therefore such a melting pot of longing. Everyone is longing to be somewhere else, or with someone who is elsewhere. A lot of the research made me cry. It is potent stuff.
I had young children at the time, and had been helping out at the local primary school. I was amazed to be reminded every day at how observant and candid children can be. I found it very easy to slip back into that childhood persona who wants to know everything, but is told nothing. Using a child’s voice also provides huge opportunities for misunderstandings, which are always good for stories.
Your latest book of poems is a digital publication. Are you going digital? How different do you find this from print publication?
I don’t think I could call my latest book ‘poetry’: Eats, Cheats and Leaves is a book of comic verse about dealing with a philanderer. It’s my first attempt at self-publishing, and really came about because I was finding it very difficult to write anything after the break-up of my marriage, and just wanted to get back in the saddle somehow. I started writing comic verse on scraps of paper to keep me sane, and a lot of authors were recommending self-publishing at the time. In fact, I have sold more paper versions of the book than digital ones.
E-books are here. I had asked my publishers for my rights back when, to my surprise, I found they had published them as e-books. I hadn’t realized they were allowed to do that, and, since e-books don’t go out of print, they throw up all sorts of questions about the return of rights to the author. An established publisher will give you 15-25% of the profits of an e-book (with a further 20% of that going to your agent). If you self-publish on Amazon, you get 70% of the profits. No wonder so many established authors are going it alone.
I believe you are an enthusiast for local bookshops. Do you think they have a future?
Yes I do. Sadly, one of my favourite independent bookshops closed down recently, but many are thriving. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshops in Nailsworth and Tetbury are good examples of shops that know exactly what their customers want. Amazon is probably more of a challenge than digitalisation. It is tough for bookshops at the moment, but e-books won’t destroy our love of books. People don’t just read books, they cherish them and display them. A bookshelf says a lot about a person – and a lot about how they’d like to be seen too!
You have played a leading role in several of the Cheltenham Literature festivals. Will you be doing anything at the Festival this year?
I usually chair the Poetry Café and the Big Read book groups, and hope to be doing so in the coming year too. Cheltenham is the mother of all literary festivals (started in 1948) and it’s a great privilege to be involved. I love every moment of it.
Are you working on a book at the moment?
I am. I seem to have found my voice again. I can’t wait to get up and write each morning, and the novel is almost finished in first draft. It’s a love story and a mystery which spans a time period from the Second World War to the 1960s