Jane Rogers is a literary novelist and scriptwriter whose credits include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Book, BAFTA nominations and an Arts Council award. Professor of writing at Sheffield Hallam University, she is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. After struggling to find a publisher for her most recent novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, it was picked up by Sandstone Press, and went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in 2012 won the Arthur C Clarke award. The novel has subsequently been reprinted in a new edition by Canongate books. On Saturday 25th August, after her talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she was good enough to spend a few minutes talking with Geek Chocolate.
Geek Chocolate – Memory and family are themes you’ve played with before in your novels Island and The Voyage Home, but it’s unusual to have such a young narrator chronicle their life. How did Jessie come to you?
Jane Rogers – Well, I wanted a very young narrator because I wanted somebody at the point at which a teenager first rebels against her parents. I wanted to explore that age, I wanted to explore the moment where a child turns into an adult, where a person takes the first independent action which defines their character and emerges from the shadow of their parents. So in the very concept, her being young was always integral, that was what was interesting me.
GC – It’s your first explicit move into, not hard science fiction, but what some term slipstream, tweaking the world in some aspect and seeing how the pieces fall. Was that a specific intention or something you found necessary to tell a story you already had in your mind.
JR – Yeah, the second. I found it necessary because I wanted to tell the story of a child who rebels against her parents in what I considered to be a heroic way, and if you set that in the present, the reader is immediately going to have a knee-jerk reaction, thinking that the way in which the child is rebelling is good or bad, and I didn’t want to have those prejudices, and for myself as a writer I didn’t want to have those prejudices, so I needed an action that would be prejudice free, which means detaching it from the present moment.
And I thought about setting it in the past, because I’ve written three historical novels, I thought that would be an easy option, and then I thought no, actually, there’s a lot more going for me if I push it into the future.
GC – I understand there was a twelve week period of isolation in the wilderness, but the book as it was published was refined over a five year period. At what point in the process did that trip to the Banff Centre take place, and how would the book have been different without it?
JR – Banff was really the beginning. I had the germ of the idea of the book, and I applied to the Arts Council for the Banff residency and I got it, and so I went, and I sat down and started to write a half first draft. What was fantastic about it, quite apart from the concentrated time, was the fact that I was in Banff in the Rockies in January, February, March, very severe weather, very cold, minus fifteen, ice and deep snow, fantastic scenery, and initially I wasn’t setting it near Manchester, I was going to set it in a remote place, maybe a research station somewhere, and I thought I might use that landscape.
Now all that’s really survived is a bit of snowy weather, but I think there’s a kind of sliver of ice at the heart of the book which is to do with Banff, which is to do with feeling it coming out of that cold landscape. It seems ludicrously watered down now, but there’s a moment where she catches a bus back from seeing her friend Lisa, and it’s snowy, and it’s evening, there’s a bluish light outside, and the snow is on the pavement as she’s looking out, and I know that that’s very urban in contrast to what Banff was like, but on the other hand there’s just a sense of the coldness and the winteryness and the unrelentingness of the weather there, which I think came from doing it in Banff.
GC – You have adapted various classics for radio, I understand. Which is more challenging, changing the structure and streamlining, or finding a voice which remains authentic, but still has something to say to a modern listener?
JR – Structure. Restructuring is always the biggie, I think, because when you’re adapting for radio or for television, you’re always cutting. You know, a novel is two hundred, three hundred, four hundred pages long, and you’re chopping it down to one hour or two hours of drama, and so you do have to completely restructure, and in restructuring you have to lose strands and elements of the novel, and you have to make decisions about that, and it’s savage, it is a savage thing to do, it’s like stripping the flesh off a body and just keeping the skeleton, so yes, that restructuring is a big problem.
In all the novels that I’ve adapted, finding the voice is not the problem, because the voice is there, the character is there. You may take a character, for example, an Edith Wharton character, I made him a narrator and he was in fact a third person point of view character, but you’ve still got the character. The writer has created the character and you’re simply transposing them in a different world. That’s not hard.
GC – How was it adapting your own work, and should the opportunity arise, would you rather adapt The Testament of Jessie Lamb for screen, or would you rather somebody else took that on?
JR – The screen? That would be an interesting one. I don’t think they would let me do it for screen because, well it would depend. I’ve adapted for television, I’ve never adapted for film. It’s just actually been bought by Radio 4 for the Women’s Hour serial, so I will adapt it myself for that, because I’ve done a lot of radio work, but I actually think if it were to go again, either for television or film, I think I would let it go, because I’ve spent long enough with Jessie. You know, enough!
GC – Most recently you worked on The Chrysalids, which I believe was a favourite book of yours.
JR – Yes.
GC – Was the challenge of science fiction different from the classics?
JR – Oh, it is a classic! It was technically fascinating, but when I say technically, I don’t mean technically for me to write, but to record, because obviously in The Chrysalids you’ve got a lot of telepathy, and on radio, what a perfect medium for dealing with that. Film couldn’t do it. Film is fucked with telepathy, because it’s all in the head, but radio is brilliant because you’ve got voices in the head. So it was actually very, very exciting. I worked with a brilliant producer and
a brilliant sound effects guy, and episode two in particular, which was broadcast a couple of weeks ago, which is a lot of telepathy and a lot of internal thought, is soundscaped throughout, and you are in their heads. It’s wonderful! It plays to the medium. So it was very exciting, much more exciting than adapting a conventional novel.
GC – You recently spoke to The Guardian about “the cosy catastrophe,” and as befitting a term that Brian Aldiss used allegedly to disparage the work of John Wyndham, several of his novels featured. I’m going to admit my bias: I adore Wyndham, I think he is as relevant now as when he was published sixty years ago. I wanted to ask: what does Wyndham mean to you?
JR – A great writer, a writer I really admire, and I think the things that I admire above all in him are really bold ideas, big ideas, and an extraordinary and classical simplicity and economy of language. He’s a great stylist, so his novels are not long, they’re not complicated, they’re not tortuous, but they deal with extremely big, complicated, sophisticated ideas. When I was adapting Chrysalids I was forced to admire him more and more, because it’s so relevant to now, it’s so fascinating, it’s so political. It’s a really big book.
GC – There is a reticence of some authors to enter the arena of what we term science fiction or speculative fiction for fear they’ll be taken less seriously than a literary writer. Have you felt the response of this novel has had you perceived differently?
JR – Well it’s had me perceived differently in the sense that people who only read science fiction have started reading it and are interested in it, which can only be good, because the more readers a writer gets, the better for that writer. There’s also been a palpable enthusiasm from science fiction readers which is very exciting, because this book was much rejected, and therefore I doubted myself and I doubted what I’d done, I felt very insecure about it at various points, so I’m delighted for it to be classed as science fiction and to have met a lot of science fiction readers because of it.
GC – You won the Arthur C Clarke award with The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Congratulations, of course. How was that?
JR – It was thrilling! And it was also very funny because, of course, you know, there was the shortlist, and I read some of them, I have to admit there were two I couldn’t bear to read, just from the descriptions, because they’re not the kind of books I like, but I deduced China Miéville was the competition, and what a heavyweight, he’s won it three times before. I thought I’ve not got a leg to stand on, he’s bound to win. And I was so convinced he would win that I didn’t prepare anything to say. I was gob smacked!
GC – Obviously the big science fiction awards are the Hugo, the Nebula, the Arthur C Clarke, the John W Campbell, the Philip K Dick. They’re all named for men. Isn’t it time there was a major science fiction award named for a woman?
JR – Well you’re right, absolutely. Are you suggesting I should found one? If somebody buys the film rights, I will. You need money to found an award.
GC – I was thinking Anne McCaffrey, who we lost not so long ago. She was a major voice. Something I felt reading the book was the ostensible target audience, if I can use such a crass marketing term to describe real people, that fiction aimed at teenage girls with such immediate and serious consequences and responsibilities of reproductive choices, there’s a potential to open a dialogue that Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre just don’t encourage, and in the modern world, this is a conversation that needs to take place. Was that something intentional in the writing?
JR – Not intentional in the sense that it’s what started me writing. I mean, obviously once you have a plot and an idea and an area you want to explore, you find yourself moving into areas of ideas like that. So it wasn’t intentional but it was something I met gladly when I came to it, if you see what I mean.
I was asked at a conference on teen literature whether they wanted me to speak about this, I was asked “do you feel that it’s important to teach young people things through fiction,” an my answer to that is absolutely no, I don’t think fiction is about teaching people, I think fiction is about exploring things in an interesting way and opening your mind to things and getting into other heads. If you set out to write a didactic piece of fiction it’s dead as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t want to read it.
GC – I feel the original cover of the novel represents it better than the new version, but obviously that is a more glamorous one. How do you feel about that?
JR – It’s more commercial. The original is my favourite, but Canongate have been very good for me, they’ve been great, they’re marketing the book in a much more commercial way, it’ll reach a wider audience, and they have thought about it and they have decided that this will appeal across the board to teen readers, to serious readers and to science fiction readers, and that’s the decision.
When we were at this stage with the book, the decisions were much simpler, the decision was “shall we publish this or not, yes we’ll publish it, we’re a small publishing house, we don’t have a lot of money, which of these images do you like?” And so I went, “Oh I like that one.” But this is a much more commercial decision, and I’m not good, I don’t buy books because of their covers, but I know other people do, I’m not good at telling you if that’s going to work, I honestly don’t know.
GC – Thank you so much for your time, it’s been great to meet you.
JR – Well, thank you.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is now available from Canongate Books and is reviewed here
Jane’s new collection of short stories, Hitting Trees with Sticks is published by Comma Press on 31st October
Special thanks to Jane for her time, Frances of the International Book Festival and Robert of Sandstone for their kind assistance