I first met Joan in 2015 when she was tutoring a course on writing young adult fiction at Moniack Mhor writing centre near Inverness. As a tutor, Joan was witty, good-humoured, inspiring and passionate about storytelling and writing. In her workshops we played with ideas, with “what ifs” and with real and invented words. Joan has a vivid imagination, she helped us create new worlds and we had enormous fun. At the end of the week, I bought a copy of Joan’s young adult novel Silver Skin. Inside she wrote, “To Jane, from one writer to another.” It was a kind and encouraging touch.
Originating from Canada, she has lived in Scotland since 1978 and now lives in Fife. She studied English Literature at the University of Toronto where she completed her Master’s Degree and was awarded a PhD at St Andrews University in 1985. She writes fiction for children, young adults and adults. She teaches and gives talks and workshops for people of all ages at book festivals, schools and libraries. She has been a Hawthornden Fellow, a Jessie Kesson Fellow, a resident at the Chateau de Lavigny and is currently Patron of Reading for Queensferry Primary School. She’s edited anthologies of poetry, art and prose and has judged competitions including the Pushkin Prize. Married with four sons, she has had a varied career, including many years teaching the piano.
Joan is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Dundee and we met in her small office in the Enquiry Centre on campus. The Fellowship scheme gives students the opportunity to work with professional writers, to improve their writing skills. It’s a role Joan relishes – words are the tools of her trade and she enjoys helping students express their ideas clearly. We met in her lunch hour and chatted a while, gently reminding each other now and again that we had to get on with the interview; but there was plenty of catching-up to do. I had emailed Joan the interview questions in advance and she’d made notes to ensure that all went well.
Ever since she was a tiny child, Joan has wanted to be a writer; her mother kept many of her early notebooks and stories. She wrote her first novel when she was eight. It was an adventure story about being shipwrecked at sea and living in a Swiss Family Robinson style tree house with a huge anaconda-like snake that ate the other characters one at a time from the feet up. Her eyes light up as she tells the story; her voice is clear, pleasant to listen to with a soft Canadian accent. She didn’t finish the novel, but it was quite an achievement for a little girl who grew up in Ontario and had never seen the sea. No one ever told her to write about what you know, a piece of advice she thinks it’s best to ignore. She describes the process of becoming a writer as a “slow boil.’’ She took the decision to take her writing seriously when her children were older, and for a couple of years she combined writing with teaching the piano. In 2007 she became a full-time writer.
She grew up in a household where everyone enjoyed reading. As a child, Joan read everything, “good stuff and rubbish stuff.” Her favourite authors were Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault and C. S. Lewis. These days, Joan likes to read Terry Pratchett, P G Woodhouse and Ellis Peters. She talks about these authors affectionately, like dear friends, and she re-reads their books whenever she’s in need of comfort. She admits to being not hugely adventurous in her choice of adult fiction. She has just finished reading Where the World Ends, by Geraldine McCaughrean, about a group of young men and boys who were trapped on a remote sea stack near St Kilda. It was a gripping read and Joan greatly admires McCaughrean as a writer, but she found the subject matter upsetting.
Joan heard McCaughrean speak once and she recalled a piece of advice she shared: McCaughrean’s mother advised her daughter to “never boil your cabbage twice,” meaning never write the same book again and again; always write something new. McCaughrean did just that: each new book she writes is unlike the previous one and Joan finds this hugely reassuring. When Joan goes from one book to the next, she writes something completely different; it’s not planned, it just happens like that. She has written three series of books; but, regards each series as one long story divided into short books. She admits that because of this approach, publishers find her difficult because her books don’t fit neatly into one genre. But, she says, the cabbage allusion was one of the best bits of advice she ever received. “Unfortunately, can you not just smell the cabbage?” she jokes. Joan is a compelling narrator; whether she’s speaking or writing, she creates palpable images that stimulate the senses. And yes, I could smell cabbage.
Her ideas come from absolutely everywhere. She used to explain it to schoolchildren as like “having a great cauldron of soup in my head,” made up of everything she has seen or heard or read or experienced. She would describe how the soup bubbled away, how things floated to the top of it, how when she was ready to write, she’d scoop out a spoonful and that would be the story. She jokes that children often looked revolted by the image of soup. To my mind it looked delicious, and smelt like a hearty vegetable broth.
Nowadays, Joan talks about her ideas as coming from a “cabinet of curiosities.” Although, sometimes, this is problematic as children these days often haven’t heard of such a thing. Her cabinet has lots of little drawers; everything goes into the drawers and when it’s time to write a story or when a story starts to take form, she kicks the bottom of the cabinet. Random drawers open, she takes a few things out, lays them on the table and she starts to write. I say it’s a lovely image; “yeah, it’s pretty”, she agrees. The cauldron and the cabinet are wonderful stories in themselves.
I had read that ferrets fascinate Joan. She admits she’s never met one face to face, but she likes the look of weasel and ferrets and stoats. She is fascinated by the way they move with their long supple spines: their dance movements; their crazy enthusiasm; how they go from being frenzied to still with nothing in between; and the way they like being in spaces that are too small for them. It struck me later that this description could describe her two most recent young adult novels, Silver Skin and Walking Mountain. They are compelling and quick-paced, with numerous unexpected twists and turns, seemingly dead ends, tight fixes and strange surprises.
It’s the strange surprises that Joan excels at in her stories. They provide irresistible hooks for the reader, illustrated by this short extract from Silver Skin. To set the scene, Rab, a time-traveller from the future, falls into the sea near the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Scotland. He’s wearing a silver suit. Cait, a native girl, is on the beach and she sees him in the water:
Something out in the bay, beating in the water, flailing, coming closer to shore. Her senses focused on the sound. It felt wrong – it didn’t belong. Animal? Bird? Fish? She listened – sniffed – she opened her mouth in case there was any tang in the air she could taste – there was something . . . it was odd . . . she didn’t have any words for it . . .
She could see it now, swirling the fog at the surface of the swell, dragging itself through the shallows, out onto the sand of the beach, and then . . .
. . . it pulled off its face.
I asked Joan how she achieves the rhythm and pace of her novels? She always begins by writing the parts of the story that excite her most. She likens it to making a film, where the scenes are not always filmed chronologically. Then, later in the editing room the different scenes are spliced together. Joan writes in the same way, writing the scenes until there comes a point when she needs to “sew the scenes together”. It’s the stitching-process that gives the novel its cadence. She thinks beginner-writers often struggle with pacing because they don’t trust the reader. There’s a tendency for them to think that if they don’t spell out every little detail then the reader won’t get it, or they will get lost. Joan knows by experience that readers are perfectly capable of dealing with uncertainty.
How does she keep hold of all the threads and themes when combining so many different genres? The “whole genre thing is an artificial construct,” she says, and has more to do with booksellers and shelves than the books themselves. If someone writes science fiction, for instance, their books fit neatly on the science fiction shelves in the bookshop and everyone is happy. But, it’s not as straightforward for Joan’s books and people like to know what kind of a book it is. She sees no reason why a story can’t fit many genres; why it can’t also be historical, science fiction, contemporary, romance or anything else that a writer wants it to be: “Stories they come, you know they have a shape, they have a tone, they have an audience and they have a length, but they’re not bothered with genre.”
She doesn’t write with themes in mind, and is often surprised by the themes that appear when a book is finished. She thinks it’s impossible for anyone to write without the things that are important to them making their way into the story. She contends that if she had been writing a hundred years ago, everything in her “cabinet of curiosities” would be very different, and her books would be nothing like they are today.
The characters in Joan’s novels are credible, fully rounded with conflicting traits and emotions and real enough to make the readers care deeply about them. We see characters under pressure; standing up for themselves or others; forced to take risks and difficult decisions. Joan suggests that a writer gets to really know their characters by spending time with them; it’s like getting to know people or raising children. But the characters can be demanding and can’t be ignored. A writer can never guess how the characters will react in unfamiliar settings or in their relationships with other characters. It’s about seeing what happens, and how their stories unfold.
When she first started writing she had great difficulty “killing off” her characters. She used to be delicate about making her characters suffer, but that isn’t the case now. By placing the characters in situations that she finds terrifying, she can describe in a heartfelt way how they feel when they confront difficulties.
Joan likes what she calls the “small quiet voices” in poetry. Poets like Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith, Robert Frost, and more recent poets like Elizabeth Burns, Mavis Gulliver and Mark Williams. Currently, she is experimenting with narrative poetry, exploring “the differences between a story and a poem, and playing with the bits where they overlap, which has been good fun.”
Joan describes herself modestly as a “civilian” when it comes to poetry. She writes almost exclusively for adults. She has worked collaboratively with The Writers’ Collective 26 and Off the Rails Arthouse, writing poetry in response to museum artifacts, paintings, landscapes and photographs. Her poetry pamphlet, Her lines, My lines, was commissioned by the Bookmark Festival and illustrated by the artist Kyla Tomlinson. “Small things” inspire her and in “The Week It Snowed”, she writes about the light and the changing colour of the snow:
In the evening,
periwinkle (prussian in the shadows)
fades through glaucous
Joan is working on a new young adult novel, which, as yet, doesn’t have a title. It takes place on the West Coast of Scotland, at the beginning of the great lighthouse-building era, set in a roughly Victorian timescale. It’s about the conflict between the subsistence fisherman and the lighthouse builders. But it’s not going to be a purely historical novel, I was pleased to hear that it’ll have zombies in it. The story demands that one of the characters is killed. Joan isn’t happy about this, but she’s already “done the deed”.
Asked about the challenges of researching and writing a new novel, she answers that if she’s cunning or lucky enough to find a story with a great location, then one of the joys of research is visiting the place. When she was researching the Slightly Jones mystery series, set in Victorian times, she visited London, Glasgow, Cambridge and Paris. She jokes, that one of the disadvantages of inventing fantasy worlds is the lack of field trips; and, while Paris isn’t technically a Victorian city, it was a great place to set a story.
As part of her research, Joan is reading The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst, which she highly recommends. The book details the epic story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ancestors and the building of Scottish Coastal lighthouses against great odds. She is also planning a visit to The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. One challenge that writing doesn’t present is that of having to overcome boredom. She describes the writing process as being either “appalling or ecstatic with nothing in between”, which reminds me again of ferrets.
I wondered how Joan keeps in tune with what it’s like to be a child or young adult in today’s world. She keeps in touch with young people through her school and library visits and at literary festivals. And for many years she taught the piano. She regards children and teenagers “as just people, they are not like another species.” Many writers, for children, use their own memories of childhood as a basis for their writing, but this isn’t the case for Joan. The stories come to her with an age group in mind, which she puts down to her long experience of writing for young people.
At the end of the interview, I tell Joan about a relative who has a small curios cabinet in which he displays his family’s curiosities. It’s filled with tiny animal bones, medals, baby teeth, fossils, plastic toys from Christmas crackers and even a bead that got stuck up a child’s nose. We talk about having our own cabinet of curiosities and imagine what exquisite pieces of furniture they would be, and like Joan Lennon’s imagination, we discover that the possibilities are endless.