Q&A with Janet Ellis

Pegasus Books, 2017

Pegasus Books, 2017

Congratulations on your literary debut, The Butcher’s Hook! For our readers who haven’t read your book yet, how would you describe it?

Thank you! It's the story of a young girl, Anne Jaccob, living in a well-to-do household in Eighteenth century London, who falls in love with the wrong boy. She's stifled by her upbringing and her lack of education, despite her curious and clever mind. She becomes more and more determined to decide her own future and she discovers there are no limits on what she'll do to get her own way.

The novel is set in 1763, a year, as you say in your author’s note, where not much happens in Britain. How long did it take for you to decide on this year, and how did you find a year in which few major events occurred?

Once I'd decided on Georgian London as a backdrop (I've always felt that Victorian London tries to elbow its older, lovelier relative out of the way!) and began my research in earnest, I discovered that the early part of George III's reign was a very interesting time. Most people were  happy with their new, British born king. There were no particular conflicts, no wars imminent and no real religious strife. More people lived in cities than the countryside for the first time. London was crowded and busy. Because the story in my head was so vivid, and because the events of the time are a backdrop and have no particular influence on my character's lives and actions, I wanted to find a year that was historically 'quiet'. I simply investigated year by year until I found such a time.  

Anne is an amazing character to study. Her first person narration plunges you into her perspective and thought process. How did you develop Anne’s voice as a character and her unusual way of seeing the world? 

 I'm delighted you find Anne so intriguing. I think her bold narrative is partly the result of never having written before and therefore having no expectations of (mine or other people's)--or restrictions on--what I was writing and partly that, without wanting to sound twee, I wanted to see where she took me. I had to keep reminding myself that she was only nineteen (and nineteen was a much younger, less sophisticated age than it is now), and therefore her world view wasn't mine. It wasimportant to remind myself frequently that, although she does some things I wouldn't recommend, she always believes her actions are justified. I also wanted her to be witty--my favourite people are always the ones who view the world with humour--and a keen, if tart, observer of the world.  Several times, bowling along enjoying her colourful interior gothic and her strangely aligned moral compass, I had Anne doing things that I later removed, as they weren't true to her way of thinking. It wasn't until quite a while after publication that I realised that (spoiler alert) I had possibly left the way clear for her to return. She might well come back. Hers is an insistent voice and I don't think she's done with me yet.

You’re also an actress. How did your theatre training influence how you wrote The Butcher’s Hook?

I trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Carrie Fisher was in the same intake!) and learned early on that, although drama school can't teach you to act, it can make you braver and more willing to take risks. I applied that thinking to the start of my writing career, too. I've done quite a bit of improv work along the way and writing Anne's story often felt like improvising on the page. As with background research for a play, it's important to find out how the world would have felt and looked, sounded and smelt to your characters. Plays and films have to have a tight structure, too, and keeping that in mind was very useful once I got onto third and fourth drafts. I've met several actor-turned-writers and I think what we all have in common is the need to tell a good story and making every character count. We've all played enough small roles to know those parts feel very (if not just as) important as the main characters. I read everything I've written aloud, too, to try and make sure her voice, and the tone, was consistent--and I guess having an acting and voice-over background makes me less afraid of the sound of my own voice.

You read the audio version of your novel. What was that experience like and how did your approach your narration?

I absolutely didn't intend to narrate my novel. Although it didn't occur to me that there was anything odd or difficult in writing the story of a much younger person (after all, I was nineteen once), I didn't think my speaking voice would be right. I had a wish list of wonderful actresses I'd love to have read the audiobook and my agents dutifully chased them up. It turns out they were all working (Claire Foy was busy being Queen Elisabeth in The Crown, for a start) and it also turned out that both my agent and editor had long thought I should do it anyway. I took some persuading--which is unusual for me. But I'm glad I did. The process itself is pretty intense, requiring four straight days in a studio, but it's a wonderful way to really connect with your book. I can clearly see phrases and tropes I like using and vowed to steer clear next time, if possible. There's a certain amount of performance involved in recording the narration, but in the main less is more. It was very intimate (just me and a producer) but luckily he didn't blanch at some of the more, ahem, colourful episodes (I'd have blushed scarlet if he had) and overall, I enjoyed it.

What has been your favorite part of being a published author?

So much to choose from, but actually I've loved meeting readers. Last year I attended every Literary Festival that invited me and--quite apart from a very enjoyable time visiting every corner of the British Isles--I met hundreds of people as passionate about books and reading as I am. We don't have to be talking about The Butcher's Hook (although it's a continual pleasure hearing what people find in Anne's story) either. The reading community is a wonderful one. By turns passionate, provocative, inquisitive, informed and imaginative, they have delighted me and continued my literary education, either by recommending new books or reminding me of old book friends. There was, of course, a particular joy in seeing my book in print, too--and that's a feeling that never goes away.

Here at the Reading Women, we’re all about promoting women’s voices. What female authors have inspired you in your life?

I can chart my reading life in the voices of women. It's a long list and I can't include everybody, but I'd start with writers like Richmal Crompton and Mary Renault, Rumer Godden, Daphne du Maurier, Dodie Smith, Enid Bagnold, Louisa May Alcott, Joanna Spryi, by way of Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Patricia Highsmith, Janice Galloway, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Alison Lurie, Virginia Woolf through to Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Penelope Lively, Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright, Molly Keen and Iris Murdoch. I'm going to stop now because the more names I include, the more I'm horribly aware I'm leaving out. Women might be underrepresented in fiction but their voices are clear, strong and vitally important. I'm always happy to champion and support them.

What have you been reading recently?

My recent reading has been mainly work-related. I'm chairing several events at upcoming literary festivals, so I'm reading the books by the writers I'm going to be interviewing. Nice homework to have, especially as it includes writers as diverse as Edward Docx, Louise Doughty and John Boyne. My recreational reading as we speak is The Girls by Emma Cline.

What are you working on now?

My next novel, coming out next year, is set in a small village in Kent, England in the 1970's. It's about a woman having an affair, for all the reasons that happens and a special motive of her own, and the effect on her family--particularly her fourteen year old daughter. While it's not historical fiction as The Butcher's Hook is, it's still set at a time when communication was limited. It's also the years when I was a teenager, so it's both vivid and distant to me. The music is particularly evocative! My heroine, Marion, is a different personality from Anne, but similarly restricted by circumstance. I'm fascinated by a character's complex and unexpected interior, when the face they present to the world is seemingly conventional and apparently reticent.


Janet Ellis at Lyric theatre, Hammersmith 26.5.09

Janet Ellis at Lyric theatre, Hammersmith 26.5.09


Janet Ellis trained as an actress at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She is best known for presenting Blue Peter and contributes to numerous radio and TV programmes. She recently graduated from the Curtis Brown creative writing school. The Butcher's Hook is her first novel.

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