An Interview with Jill Dawson

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By Victoria Best

© Timothy Allen 28/2/06

Jill Dawson’s wonderful new novel, The Tell-Tale Heart, recounts the story of Patrick, a womanising lecturer who has recently received a heart transplant. By chance he discovers the identity of his donor, and from that moment on, a strange affinity seems to develop between him and his ghostly rescuer. We reviewed this book in our Fiction section here. The truly lovely Jill Dawson was kind enough to answer some questions for SNB:

1.      What drew you to the topic of heart transplants? I find the idea of a ghostly personality infiltrating a new body fascinating – did you find you wanted to emphasise the supernatural elements, or did you end up feeling that suggestion works the strongest power on the mind?

I watched a documentary years ago, maybe as long as ten years ago, that stuck in my mind. It was about cellular memory (the idea that other organs in the body might carry memories and traces of personality). What stayed with me was the scene where the transplant recipient meets the mother of his donor and the mother asks to hear her son’s heartbeat in his chest. It was an extraordinary scene and very moving.  Easy (as a mother) to understand why you would want to do that when the heart is the thing that first signifies you are carrying a baby –  that is the consciousness of your child if you like –  and there is so much emphasis on it during labour and birth.

2.      I’m also most intrigued to know how you came across the little piece of history that is the Littleport riots? I live on the edge of the Fens and had no idea Littleport was famous for anything!

I agree, it’s always astonishing to me that the story isn’t well known. I feel it ought to be, in the same way, say that we’ve all vaguely heard of the Tollpuddle Martyrs even if we don’t know the full story.  I first read about the Littleport Riots (which took place in 1816, five days of rioting by labourers desperate for food and jobs during a time of high wheat prices and unemployment which ended in 80 arrests, 5 hangings and 19 deportations) when I moved to the Fens because the brilliant Topping bookshop in Ely recommended to me a novel called Cheap Jack Zita.  (By Sabine Baring Gould) which told this story. The novel was even set in the 18th century farmhouse I was living in at the time while our new house was being built.

3.      I’m also impressed by how wonderfully you evoke the atmosphere of the Fens. Is the idea of a spirit of place very important to you when you are writing?

Thank you!  I do love this part of the world though I didn’t grow up here; I find it absolutely fascinating and quite unlike anywhere else in England.  I grew up in the very scenic Yorkshire dales and I can of course see how ‘unlovely’ and plain the Fens are to some people.  We moved here about 13 years ago to build our eco-house (well I have to admit I had nothing whatsoever to do with the building of it, but my husband is the architect….) and I sort of fell under its spell. I think people either find it boring, oppressive, flat and featureless (‘one big nothing’ as Graham Swift famously called it) or like me they really adore it: the big skies and low horizons and sense of space.  Yesterday I was standing in the kitchen and watched a huge, old beast of a heron fly over and it seemed as if its speed had been slowed right down.  Mesmerising.

4. I love the way you weave fiction around historical fact in your novels. But how on earth do you go about creating a fictional persona for a real historical character? Is it research or imagination that guides you?

People and who they are, why they are, that’s what I spend a lot of time thinking about.  If I hadn’t been a writer, I wanted to be a psychotherapist.  When I learned about history as a child, I remember thinking: what was going through Hitler’s mind, that would make him dream up those terrible things, desire so much power? So in history – my favourite subject – I would struggle to see the ‘facts’ or the bigger picture, I’d just individuals and their psychologies.   I guess that’s how I come at history in fiction.   Were people fundamentally different in the past?  Their literature, poetry and art seem to suggest not.  That’s where I look for my research: literature from the time I’m writing about – ie The Wasteland for my novel Fred and Edie, published the same year, Rupert Brooke’s poems, letters and diaries for my novel about him.  For The Tell-Tale Heart I was reading the autobiography of the poet John Clare – who grew up in Fen country close to Peterborough, so not that far away –  and that’s where I found the sweet, clever character of Willie Beamiss, who loves nature and ‘tiny things’ and is full of all the wonder and joy at being alive that his counterpart in the novel, Patrick, lacks.

5. When you finish writing your books, do you feel that you could be friends with your characters, or have there been some you ended up disliking? (Inevitably I’m wondering about your main protagonist, womanising lecturer, Patrick, in The Tell-Tale Heart!)

I started off uncertain where Patrick came from or who he was.  By the end of the novel I knew.  And yes, I am very fond of him!

6. Which part of the writing process do you enjoy the most?

There is a moment in the writing process, usually after quite a few frustrating months and around 30 thousand words, where I suddenly feel as if I’ve gone deeper, I’m inside the novel, I know what I’m doing or I’ve got the voice I want or I’m just in another place, imaginatively, and it’s a strange, much deeper feeling, much closer to dreaming than anything else.  It’s bliss, and I work hard to get there, but I know it’s never going to last long, and I have to try and hold still to keep it for as long as I can.  It’s like a washing-up bubble on a kitchen spoon – it’s going to pop soon!

7. Have you ever been tempted to write a sequel to one of your novels?

Oh, that’s a brilliant question, no one has ever asked me that. And I do sometimes think about writing a sequel to my first novel Trick of the Light to discover how the little girl – a baby in that novel, Frances  – grows up, and what impact her early years in a violent family and living in a wilderness will have on her. Because that novel is autobiographical in some ways (my ex does still live in the log cabin in the States where it’s set) and I haven’t been back for about 18 years, I think I would just like an excuse to revisit it.

8. What would be your desert island book?

The collected poems of John Clare.

9. Which authors have been the most influential to you over your writing career?

As a girl it was what I was studying: TS Eliot, Camus, Thomas Hardy.  As a student it was writers published by Virago and the Women’s Press: Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich.   These days I read a lot of non-fiction (such as the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom) and have caught up with the magnificence of Beryl Bainbridge and the American novelist Richard Yates.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny editors.

Jill Dawson, The Tell-Tale Heart (Sceptre, Feb 2014), 256 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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