Some months ago, I read Jeannie Waudby’s thoroughly engrossing debut novel One of Us. To coin a cliche, I was completely blown away by it. Suitable for young adults and older it’s a powerful, thought-provoking, very topical and memorable read. It is, therefore, no surprise to me to learn that it was longlisted for the prestigious Branford Boase Award, shortlisted for the Bolton Children’s Fictions Award and the Lancashire Book Award. It was also longlisted for the Sussex Coast Schools’ Amazing Book Award and I expect the award nominations won’t stop there. Although Jeannie is busy working on her next novel she took time out to chat to me on the blog. First, though, here's a little more about the woman herself:
Jeannie grew up in Hong Kong, on a small island which was a leprosy treatment centre. She moved to London aged 14, studied Art and English in Aberystwyth, taught Art and English in secondary schools and then English in a Chinese university. She taught ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) in London colleges for many years and still lives in London with her family. One of Us is her debut novel.
For more inform about Jeannie and her work check out her website; alternatively connect with her on Twitter. One of Us is published by Chicken House and is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookstores.
Welcome to the blog, Jeannie, it’s a thrill to have you here. To kick off the interview could you tell the readers what inspired One of Us?
It’s lovely to be here, Christina! The first germ of an idea for One of Us came from a dream. It was a little scene in which the main character, K, had a sudden moment of realization. I can’t say what it was without it being a spoiler, but I was so intrigued by the dynamic between K and another character that I had to keep exploring it. So for me there is a love story at the heart of the book.
Yes, I think so too. So, for those who haven't read it what’s the book about?
It’s about K, an isolated girl of fifteen who takes on a fake identity as a Brotherhood girl in order to spy on extremists. K’s country is split between Citizens and the Brotherhood and the story opens with a bomb planted by Brotherhood terrorists.
Why did you feel that this was a story that had to be written?
I’ve always wondered how people can plant a bomb that will kill random strangers – what it is that brings someone to that place. And I wanted to explore a society in which two groups are conditioned over centuries to hate each other (so many examples in our world) and to see what happens when you put someone into the ‘enemy’ camp.
What was your thinking behind naming your female protagonist K?
I didn’t choose the name K as such. It was just her name in the dream. I wondered myself where it had come from, but after finishing the book it occurred to me one day that I had named two of the main characters ‘K’ and ‘Greg’. When I was young I read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (about a young man called Gregor who turns into a giant insect) and The Trial (about Joseph K, known as ‘K’ throughout the story, who is falsely accused of a nameless crime). Kafka’s Gregor and K are both alienated and misunderstood and I think my characters’ names bubbled up from there.
That's truly fascinating, Jeannie. Let's turn now to the book's stunning cover. Who is the genius behind the design?
It was created by the extremely talented Steve Wells.
Moving on, let’s imagine that a top Hollywood producer has decided to make a film of One of Us. You have a choice of director and have complete say over the casting of your main characters. Who would you choose and why?
I’d have Peter Weir as the director, because I love the intimate, atmospheric shots in WITNESS, alongside the tension and drama. I love the emotion in the climactic scenes of GREEN CARD and DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY and the way that PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK is so beautiful and at the same time has such a chilling undercurrent of violence. For the cast I’d go for: Clare Foy for K, Matthew Lewis for Greg, Christian Cooke for Oskar and Katie Leung for Celestina.
Great choices! What would you say if they asked you to write the script?
I haven’t written a script before but I think I’d like to try.
Still on the movie theme, some writers say that as they write their scenes they see the story played out before them. Are you one of those writers?
I think in pictures so I do ‘see’ the scenes as if they’re a film or a memory. In fact, for me the problematic scenes are often the ones I can’t picture clearly enough.
Could you go on now to outline your writing process for us, from idea to submission?
How lovely it would be to have a step-by-step process that I could simply follow and end up with a book! But what actually happens is an idea that won’t go away – usually the main character and a ‘what if’. I generally start writing in a fairly random order, going from scene to scene towards the end. I usually know where I want to end but not how to get there, so there’s a tough editing process after I complete a first draft. With One of Us, I picked out the essential scenes. That was very helpful in providing the basic structure, and it also clarified which scenes had to go. Once I have a first draft I like to put together a synopsis as this reveals the plot holes and problem areas. I kept my workings for my One of Us synopsis and it’s a whole file. I like to use a paper concertina system that spreads out to show everything as well as a table of the whole plot on my computer.
What’s your favourite part of the process? And the part you like least?
The best part is writing a scene I can see so clearly that I’m almost living it. That doesn’t happen most of the time but when it does it’s very exciting. The rest of the time I try to get myself back into the story using music that triggers ‘memories’ of this particular story. The hardest thing is honestly facing the bits that don’t work and going back to change things. But I enjoy the editing once I have a plan.
Did publication come easily to you or was it a long and arduous journey to get there?
I think it’s the writing that’s a long and arduous journey. Sending work out is scary and rejection is always tough, but I always seemed to learn something about the book by sending it out. I think it’s best not to send work to agents or publishers until you reach the point where you know it’s the best you can do.
Good advice. Can you tell the reader now which authors, if any, have influenced your writing?
It’s impossible for me to narrow this down to one or two or even just a few. As a child I loved E Nesbitt, Arthur Ransome, Joan Aiken, Noel Streatfield, and CS Lewis as well as many more. My dad used to read the books he enjoyed as a boy to us and this was great because it meant I experienced books I wouldn’t have chosen – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Robert Louis Stevenson among others. I think all the books you love have an impact on how you write. When I was writing One of Us I looked again at George Orwell’s 1984 for his world-building, and I was surprised how quickly he established the main points – almost within the first paragraph. I think I was also influenced by Kafka’s sense of alienation, deceptively simple prose and the way he puts the reader in the same place as his character: unsure of why things are going wrong around them.
Now that you're an author yourself, if you only had one piece of advice to offer aspiring writers, what would that be?
Write every day.
I read on your website that you’re studying British Sign Language (BSL). What prompted you to do this?
When I did the BSL course I was working in a college and I knew the teacher who ran the class. It was fascinating and fun as well as very difficult. I try to keep it up by watching videos online and although the class stopped I’d love to carry on with it in the future. It’s a magical feeling when you have a genuine communication with someone in a language you’re learning. I think it would be great if children learned BSL in primary school – in some ways it’s very intuitive and natural.
This may seem a rather random question, or perhaps not given the theme of your novel, but if you ruled the world what would you do to make it a better place?
Well, I think getting rid of arms sales would be a good start. Then focusing on renewable energy instead of oil.
I'm with you there! Continuing with the random theme, let's round off the interview with a bit of fun:
Walls or fences?
I don’t think it matters as long as they have doors.
A day spent undercover or one spent under the covers?
Undercover, like K!
London or Hong Kong?
That’s hard… London’s home now, Hong Kong is my first love.
Cornflakes or granola?
Cornflakes, with wheat germ on top!
The Highland fling or Morris dancing?
Highland fling! I learnt it when I was five along with the Sword dance. I was never very good at it but I thought these two dances were fun.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskill
What’s worse enemies or frenemies?
If you had to compare yourself to a bird what would you be and why?
A robin because seeing one always make me happy.
Finally, what’s next for Jeannie Waudby?
I’m almost finished the first draft of (working title) Fox. So I have a lot of editing to do. I also want to rewrite a book I wrote a few years ago, Stick and Stone, set in 19th century Scotland and London, and there’s a new idea that I’m looking forward to starting.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions, Jeannie. I wish you continued success with One of Us and look forward to reading Fox and Stick and Stone, plus many more of your books in the future.
Thanks very much, Christina!