Interview with Jo Ely
Jo Ely’s debut novel, ‘Stone Seeds’ is out on the 24th March 2016. I asked her a few questions.
Can you tell me a bit about your debut novel, ‘Stone Seeds’?
Stone Seeds is set in the future, in the world of New Bavarnica. Its people live under a menacing dictator, The General, and even the words in their mouths, their food, their clothes, their children, are under the control of somebody else. The punishments for stepping out of line are swift and severe, and yet … Bavarnicans have found ways to grab back their humanity.
There are several tribes in Bavarnica and the general and his vicious accomplice, the shopkeeper Gaddys, have been clever enough to divide Bavarnica’s people. There is a living fence running like a line of spite between the tribes. There’s a killing forest which has its own mind, and a false-information system run by Gaddys. There is the stigma of ‘the greening’, a government policy in which any slave not taking their ‘forgetting medicine’ will undergo … Changes. After which anyone might take a potshot at them from an upstairs window. There have been routs and mobs against the ‘greened’. Worse things.
There are three main characters in Stone Seeds. Antek is an Egg Boy, a government controlled machine with a chink in his system – he feels. Zorry is a Sinta slave who serves the general’s feast table by day and hunts down lethal plants in the killing forest at nightfall. Difficult, dangerous work. Jengi is the shopkeeper’s ‘tame’ assistant and the last surviving member of the notorious warrior tribe, the Diggers.
Stone Seeds isn’t the kind of dystopian novel to feature swashbuckling macho men or swords flying, epic battles … But there is a silent war going on in Bavarnica every day. Nothing in Bavarnica is quite what it seems to be.
Can you relate to any of your characters?
I think this is a really great question and it makes me think of that saying, and I’ve no idea where it comes from, ‘We are all the people in our dreams’. I think that’s true of a writer and their characters, there is a little piece of me in all of the people in Stone Seeds, probably even the bad ones and the cowardly ones. Although not, I hope, Gaddys. Because Gaddys is a bona fide psychopath. I don’t even want to relate to her.
Of course there are the characters who have the qualities I can only dream of having, I would love to have Zorry’s courage, or that of her mother, Ezray, or her elder, Mamma Zeina. I would love to have Jengi’s genius for hiding out in plain sight, slipping through and under any fence put in his way. Or his gift for reaching out to people across the lines.
Antek is an empath and I feel very protective of him, but it’s difficult to know whether someone like Antek can survive in a place like Bavarnica, especially given that he doesn’t yet know what the general has planned for him. Little Zettie reminds me of my children when they were small, she’s resourceful and adventurous and very vulnerable. It would be impossible for me not to relate to her.
I feel as though I’ve been living with these characters for a long time now, I know them all pretty well and I love ’em for their flaws and their weaknesses as much as for their good points. All except for Gaddys. I don’t love Gaddys at all.
How does it feel to be having your first novel published?
The story’s been rattling around in my head for so long that it feels really great to be able to share it with other people at last. And it does make all the hard work feel worth it. But it is pretty nerve racking at the same time, seeing it go out into the world. A bit like watching your first child start school.
Has writing always been something you’ve wanted to do?
I’ve always written stories and poems, although I wouldn’t have wanted to keep any of the early ones. And mostly, when I was young, I had to hide my stories from my older brother, who would find them and read them out to his friends in a high pitched voice. But actually, looking back, that is pretty good early practice for being a writer. You’d have to make sure that the line would work, even read out comically, and to a fairly disbelieving audience.
As a child I read a lot and lived mostly in my head, in my imagination, but for some reason, and in spite of the fact I was surrounded by books, it somehow never really even occurred to me to make that leap into thinking that I might ‘be a writer’. You know, as an actual Thing. Being a writer seemed like an audacious and impossible idea for a very very long time. It still does really.
Have you got any good advice for anyone wishing to write a novel?
Well read lots of books, obviously. But you knew that already. I think really the first trick is to try to carve out some time in your day to do it, and this may take a little creativity in itself. I used to get the paints and felt pens out and cover the floor in Lego, when my children were very small, to try to buy me some time with the old notebooks. It didn’t always work. Skip the housework, that’s a must. Or at a minimum, lower your standards. Invest in a pair of noise cancelling headphones and head out to your favourite cafe after work.
There is always a way to find the time if you’re truly committed – poet Salena Godden gets up at 4 am to write, and short story writer Jacqueline Crooks managed to write on buses and trains on her way to her seven day a week job at one point. Not many people have that kind of commitment, mind. But it does show that it can be done if you’re determined enough.
Another good tip, when you’re submitting your work, is to have nerves of steel. And if you can’t manage that then a good Plan B is to have at least one friend who will be able to make you laugh about it all. My best friend wrote me a spoof version of my first rejection letter, her letter was pompous and hilarious and it cured me of fear. Well … Almost. But everyone needs a friend like that when they’re writing.
Have any authors influenced your work?
It’s very hard for me to be objective about who has influenced me, I can only really tell you who I love to read, and top of the list would be Toni Morrison, Melanie Rae Thon, Jean Rhys, Alice Munro and I’ve read and re-read Olga Tokarszuk’s House of Day, House of Night more often than I can remember. I suspect that the stories I’ve read aloud to my children have altered my brain just as much as the stories I’ve chosen for myself. My youngest loved Mark Twain, Philip Pullman and Jack London. You have to be careful what you’re reading, mind, once you’re really imbedded in writing your novel. I once went on a manic reading splurge of Faulkner and all my sentences came out long and dreamy and deranged without having an ounce of Faulkner’s genius. I had to read Elmore Leonard for a straight month to cure myself.
The writer Trevor Byrne advised me to study the opening pages of Stephen King’s novels, to see what made them tick and made you want to read on, and that was a very helpful exercise. And I’m very lucky to work with a hugely talented writer, Sandra Tyler (she is a New York Times notable author and the chief editor of a small American literary and arts magazine, Woven Tale Press, which I help her to edit) and her love of a more pared back style of writing has made me tame my own words. Sometimes the best way to let the poetry come through is to say much less.
But really, for me, the big influence was always Margaret Atwood, specifically her speculative fiction. She’s creating these science fiction worlds but it’s really all about the characters for her. Who they are and how they respond to their circumstances, and to one another. How they feel. That’s the challenge I’ve set myself in my own writing.
What are you going to work on next?
I’d like to write another dystopian or speculative fiction because this genre lets me go to places where I wouldn’t normally be allowed, and to say much more than I could get away with saying in a real life setting. Having said that, I always want my science fiction settings to feel realistic. To feel like something which could actually happen, given the right, or the wrong, set of circumstances. I’m allergic to magic and dragons, if I’m being really honest, and you’ll never find them in my novels. But in this genre, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, I can really let my imagination come out to play and that’s exciting.
Having said that, I always start with the people in my novels and that’s what I’m doing with this next novel too. I have all my characters and I’ve named them. They’re rattling around in my head. We’re just getting to know each other for now.
If you could live your life all over again, would you do exactly the same things?
This is a really good question but I think, on balance, I probably I wouldn’t do it the same way twice. There are the obvious mistakes I made, which everybody makes – should have worked harder in school, and at Uni, instead of partying and day dreaming. Shouldn’t have dated that guy, or err … That one either. Should have been braver in life, maybe. But these are only small things. The big thing I’d do differently is a cliche, and I apologise for that, but I think that when someone you love dies unexpectedly then you’re always left wishing that you had told them how much you loved them. Or told them it more. Those are the big things.
About Jo Ely
Jo spent her early years in Botswana, where the family garden was a fenced off piece of the African Bush. Having successfully dodged the snakes in the tomato plants, Jo came back to England and slowly read her way to Oxford Uni to study English. Her first job was editing multicultural education and anti-racism books for schools. Since then Jo’s published short stories, non-fiction and children’s books and written reviews for the world’s first online Empathy Library.
Described as “an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer” by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (US edition 2016).
‘Stone Seeds’ is available to buy from Urbane Publications – http://urbanepublications.com/books/stone-seeds/
It can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stone-Seeds-Jo-Ely/dp/1910692875/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1458401003&sr=1-1
Matthew Smith is kindly giving away three copies of ‘Stone Seeds’. To enter just leave a comment about this interview.
Terms and Conditions
This competition is open worldwide.
The closing date is 11:59 p.m. on the 3rd April 2016.
The winners will be randomly chosen within 7 days of the closing date. Their details will be passed on to Matthew Smith who will send out the prizes.