Welcome to the Heidi James edition of A Conversation With…
Heidi James is an award-winning author published by Bluemoose Books.
Ahead of the launch of her latest novel, The Sound Mirror, which is due for release on 20th August, 2020, Heidi and I discussed life, influences, and women’s voices in fiction.
For more details on the novel, you can read my comprehensive The Sound Mirror review.
A Conversation With… Heidi James
Thank you so much for inviting me to chat and for your wonderful review – support from readers and reviewers has been amazing. I don’t mind admitting I’ve been moved to tears by all the generous, thoughtful and really bloody insightful and clever comments and critiques.
I’m from Kent, born into a large extended working-class family. My mum was only 17 when I was born so things were often really tough for us, but there was a lot to celebrate too. It’s fair to say I was wayward/troubled and though I went to a goodish school and was bright I left school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs (NOT my English GCSE though… they wouldn’t let me take it as ‘punishment’ for truancy).
Fast forward through some wild travels, jobs and experiences (including delivering sandwiches on roller skates, acting, exotic dancing and starting my own indie press) to now where I have an MA and PhD, still without that GCSE, any A Levels or an undergraduate degree.
I’ve been very lucky. My life now is very different to my life as a kid – I have been privileged in being offered opportunities not always available to others (and I’m nothing if not obdurate, being told ‘no’ just makes me more determined).
There has always been books and writing though. Always. I learnt to read very young and (too small to reach the light switch) would read my books by the strip of light under the door. I had an amazing headmaster at junior school, Mr Bell, who encouraged me to write and likewise Miss Robson and Mrs Howard at secondary school. It feels important to name them, as they were fundamental to what came next.
Kids from backgrounds like mine need that recognition, that validation, as well as opportunities to succeed. It’s no good offering an opportunity to someone if they don’t believe they are deserving of or talented enough to take it.
So, when 19 years ago Will Self came into the dry cleaners/photo developers where I was working to drop off a camera film, I very cheekily slipped a manuscript into his envelope of photos and he wrote to me with really great feedback and help. It’s amazing what a little bit of audacity can help achieve.
The books starts with, ‘She is going to kill her mother today. But she’s no monster. She’s not the villain. It’s a beautiful day for it, winter sharp, the sky an unfussy blue.’
But, it’s not a crime novel, or a thriller. In The Sound Mirror I experiment with time and voice and how trauma undoes time and infiltrates our genetic codes and stories. There are three very distinct voices that reflect their era/background and these articulate four women’s interconnected lives and the consequences of their surroundings, politics and choices on each other.
I’m trying to reclaim and write about women’s lives, domestic spaces, sexual awakenings and desires, motherhood or not, a longing for more fulfilment and so the book pulls in class, colonialism, embodiment and relationships. Ultimately it is about three generations of women showing how they impact and collide with each other; what is no longer and what is not yet. A hauntology.
It moves from the early 20th century; through the war, partition and colonial India, across classes, opportunities and choices to the present day. Though it sweeps through recent history, it’s written in the present tense, to reflect the repercussions and always present consequences of trauma and our decisions. However, not so much consequences as a linear deterministic outcome, but as tremulous and disintegrating resemblances. The silent echo of secrets.
We need more books and art about women’s lives in all their variety and how the world they were barely allowed to participate in affected them. None of the characters are perfect of course, but they are sympathetic, human, flawed.
The novel is for everyone, anyone – except maybe not children!
The book is fiction but constructed from ready-made/found stories in my own family.
It is not a memoir, nor based on facts, but a truth best told in imaginings. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s the best way to describe it. I think sometimes fiction tells a truth more profound than facts – certainly about being a human.Your publisher – Bluemoose Books is running a campaign this year called ‘#BluemooseWomen2020’. Could you tell us a little more about this and how it came about?
Kevin Duffy, the publisher and head honcho of Bluemoose, saw an article about how many publishers etc were asking women authors to write under a new pen name so they could be ‘re-launched’.
There are many issues connected with this – that authors over 40 especially women find it harder to be published and that books by female authors aren’t reviewed/promoted equitably, especially women of colour.
Bluemoose wanted to contribute to the re-balancing of that. Giving voice to those often ignored.What challenges have you faced as a female author and as a female author not in her twenty-somethings? Have you ever experienced any inherent biases in the publishing industry?
I’ve been writing since my twenties – and that was when I encountered most biases if I’m honest.
I was told over and over that my work, whilst good etc, was too ‘working class’, too ‘edgy’, that publishers didn’t know how or who to market it to. Editors told me I was wrong about how my characters felt/encountered the world (that was infuriating).
I found my people (my readers and publishers) through amazing online literary magazines like 3:AM; so many of the writers who came up the same way are still friends and hugely supportive (and successful now!).
I can’t speak for others though – I’m pretty isolated and don’t really engage with the ‘industry’ that much. I just write and hope it works, that the words connect with someone.
The worst bias is my own; I have to work against my own sense of not being good enough, of questioning myself all the time. I am my own antagonist and it’s a ridiculous waste of time and energy.Who inspires you? (Writer, or otherwise!)
That’s a tough one… too many people to list I think, but briefly, I love Jean Rhys, Deborah Levy, Sinead Gleeson, Andrea Levy, Kathy Acker… Mark Fisher’s writings always inspire and confound in a brilliant way.
My family and friends are inspiring. Acts of kindness and empathy inspire me. Birdsong, nature… being alone. I’m inspired by being here, now.And finally… If you could only ever read one book again, what would that be?
That is an impossible question!
Ermmmmmm… I really don’t know. Maybe an anthology of short stories; one of those giant Norton ones?? Blimey! I’m stumped!
To find out more about the works of Heidi James, check out her Goodreads profile for a full list of current and upcoming projects.