The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pamela Johnson

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Pamela Johnson


Summary: Rebecca was impressed when she read Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson - she was reminded of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea - and Johnson's writing style put her in mind of two of favourite authors, Tessa Hadley and Kate Atkinson. She had quite a few questions when the author popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Date: 7 September 2016
Interviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Rebecca was impressed when she read Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson - she was reminded of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea - and Johnson's writing style put her in mind of two of favourite authors, Tessa Hadley and Kate Atkinson. She had quite a few questions when the author popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Pamela Johnson: It's thrilling to think of complete strangers entering into the lives of characters that, for so long, only I have known. I would have said my readers are a book group of fortysomething women. But I've had enthusiastic emails from readers that include twentysomething women, a woman of 84 and a man in his thirties. When your novel goes into the world it's no longer in yours, it's a story that anyone might connect to for reasons you've not imagined. Maybe Taking In Water appeals across generations because at its heart is a character with a secret that's shaped her life, and most families have secrets, though maybe not as dramatic as Lydia's. Taking In Water is not only about revealing a secret, it's about why and how Lydia has kept it hidden for so long.

  • BB: 'Finding a way, for Lydia, was still a work-in-progress.' The novel has a persistent theme of how life goes on in the wake of tragedies like 9/11. What are some of the things that have helped Lydia to survive?

PJ: Yes, that is a main theme. The news is full of turmoil, of ordinary people's lives shattered by random, catastrophic events, natural and manmade. Might that happen to us? How do those left behind survive the trauma? We almost can't bear to think about such questions in the present. By going back to real events in the recent past maybe we can look at how someone does survive. And Lydia is a survivor; she had to be from the age of 7. She survived the flood by singing hymns. In adult life she survives by facing up to the sea and its power. Swimming every day she comes to understand its nature, its indifference. Her swimming is her defiance, fighting back against what the flood took from her.

  • BB: Lydia's art is an unusual blend of traditional techniques like drawing and photography and more avant-garde elements like performance art, found objects, sound and mixed media. Which styles or particular artists inspired your vision of Lydia's work?

PJ: The performance piece was back in the 1960s; Lydia had a profound influence on that work but it was driven by Luc, her lover. I've worked in the visual arts and visited many studios; most artists will work across media. For Lydia, drawing is a way of thinking without using words. Making objects from her beachcombings is further defying the sea – creating something from what the sea has destroyed and thrown back. It's a way of circling around her hidden story, the event she can't face. Her photography is a kind of diary, keeping her eye on water. There's a documentary element to her photographs that links back to your question about survival; through those images she reflects on how she's coping, mentally.

  • BB: What is it about the interview recording process that allows Lydia to face her past in a way that she never has before?

PJ: The kind of interview that Martin does is nothing like that which a journalist would demand. It's oral history. He's there to listen. I interviewed an artist for the British Library's Sound Archive of oral history. What's fascinating is that though people are shy at first, reluctant to talk, once they start recalling memories, and are allowed to go where they please, it becomes compulsive.

  • BB: One of the most memorable aspects of the novel for me is its isolated coastal setting, and the contrast that it provides to memories of New York City. What real places did you have in mind when creating Slayton?

PJ: The real coast is a stunning stretch south of Scarborough, Yorkshire. Rising several hundred feet, magnificent chalk cliffs run down to Flamborough Head. There's an amazing bird sanctuary at Bempton. I made several visits there, getting to know the birds and the lie of the land, walking the cliff top path as Lydia does, beachcombing in the coves. I love that kind of research. But, as most of my visits were in winter, I didn't swim! The cliffs put me in mind of skyscrapers, the way they rise straight up, vertically. I've done a lot of walking round lower Manhattan and spent time up the Twin Towers taking photographs just before 9/11.

  • BB: Martin and Lydia's friend Jean both have ageing mothers who are facing physical and mental challenges. How does this subplot reinforce the theme of keeping a shaky hold on life?

PJ: That's an interesting observation. Jean's mother is well into her 80s and has lived a full, rich life; Martin's mother, Eileen is only in her sixties, actually nearer in age to Lydia. I saw Eileen as contrast to Lydia. She's full of anxieties – I think we all know someone like Eileen who finds it difficult to be reassured, who feels safest, almost, when she's worrying! By contrast Lydia has more reason to be fearful and yet she faces life boldly and is unconcerned with aging. Also part of the subplot was to observe the ways in which the characters had been 'mothered.' Jean is close to her mother, whereas Martin is constantly frustrated by Eileen. Meanwhile, Lydia has had to 'mother' herself. Her real mother consists of fragments of distant memory.

  • BB: I was continually struck by the focus on people's effect on the land, and vice versa. What are some of the different ways in which people and their environment interact here?

PJ: I was fascinated to learn that human activity is now classified as a geological process! That's how much impact we've had on the planet. Lydia lives on the edge of the land and, like the land, is shaped by the sea, its constant buffeting against her life – literally and metaphorically.

  • BB: You are a tutor in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and have previously run a number of writing workshops. How much of a student's potential is innate talent and how much can be taught in terms of strategies?

PJ: If someone has turned up at a writing workshop they usually have a facility with words, they enjoy telling stories. The problems come around sustaining a project, especially a novel. There are many strategies that can be learned. I always say that I'm not sure I can teach you how to write but I can help you to learn how to become a better writer. And that does involve developing strategies. I think there are three areas to focus on: words, time, belief. If you can find strategies for dealing with the last two the words tend to come. It's a fallacy that you need to find a few clear days in order to write. Most of my writing gets done in 20-40 minute bursts. Keeping up the belief in your work is tough, it's a very personal thing. I think we can learn a lot from the way athletes prepare, mentally. Though their overall aim might be that Olympic gold medal, those who succeed stay in the moment, thinking only about the next point, the next race. With a novel, you need to keep your eye on the next paragraph and the next. I think what's special about writing is that it's life-long learning. With every book there's always something new to learn: new strategies for dealing with time and belief, new elements of craft. I love it!

  • BB: Your previous two novels are being reissued next year. What are they about, and how are they similar or different to Taking in Water?

PJ: Under Construction is a love story. Amy, a mother of teenage daughters has to reconstruct her life after the sudden death of her husband. Her emotional recovery is mirrored in the tearing apart of an old house and watching it emerge, refurbished. As with Taking In Water, the book has a strong sense of place; this time it's the house, it's almost a character. Deep Blue Silence, is about family secrets. Artist, Maddie, is trying to discover why her mother is so silent about her past.

  • BB: What's next for Pamela Johnson?

PJ: I already have a draft of novel no 4. As yet, it has no title and it involves more hidden histories. It needs a thorough re-write but that's the best bit of the process for me, shaping a book from that mass of words. I'll also be working on the new editions of Under Construction and Deep Blue Silence, due out in 2017, plus I'm really looking forward to meeting new Goldsmiths students. I continue to learn so much from teaching and talking about writing.

  • BB:

You can read more about Pamela Johnson here.

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