Meet Wellington author Jennifer Lane. Her entertaining blog outlines the coming-into-being of her novel All Our Secrets, which Rosa Mira Books is to publish next month, in both hard copy and digital formats. It’s a mystery-cum-crime story wrapped in a moving family and small-town drama as it unfolds before Gracie, 11 going on 12. The story is fresh and quirky and un-put-downable.
Jennifer talked recently with Rosa Mira Books about writing, running a long way, and mothers.
Can you tell us the genesis for All Our Secrets?
All Our Secrets started as a short story about the narrator’s (Gracie’s) birth. After her mum (Nell) went into labour in Woolies, a whole raft of characters rocked up at the hospital to cheer her on, as if she was playing a game of rugby, not giving birth.
Gracie’s grandma was there, as were the ambulance men who’d come to Nell’s rescue, the nosey woman from the post office who’d accompanied her in the ambulance (she was later made Gracie’s godmother for her starring role in the event), and others who just happened to be shopping at Woolies at the moment Nell’s waters broke (one woman was still clutching a broccoli when Gracie finally made her entrance several hours later). Practically everyone in the town crowded the hospital’s corridors, except for Gracie’s dad who was busy elsewhere, presumably with a woman…
I soon realised there were far too many characters to squash into 3,000 words. So instead of starting a new story for my writing group meeting the following month, I began Chapter 2 …
That’s so funny, but I dare say it’s not the first novel to hatch from a short story that wanted to be a long one. Has its shape changed much over the course of its writing?
The shape has changed a lot – although the birth scene is alluded to, it was culled some time ago – probably because I didn’t follow a chapter plan or plot outline. I prefer to make a story up as I write, as impractical and time-consuming as that is.
I’ve lost count of the number of drafts I subjected the story to. At one stage, I was asked by an agent to rewrite it as a YA novel, which I did. But because of some of the themes and the narrator’s age (11-12), which I refused to change, YA publishers felt it wasn’t quite YA. I don’t regret the rewrite, though. It helped me give more insight into Gracie and I believe the novel is stronger as a result.
It is a strong novel, which would work well for capable teen readers, but adults will appreciate the deft humour and the memory hit they get hearing Gracie talk about the angst and banal (and not so banal) traumas of everyday home and school life for a pubescent girl.
How was it to go from writing short stories to writing a novel?
In some ways writing the novel was easier. Following one (main) storyline and one set of characters is simpler than reinventing a whole different world every couple of weeks or so.
I also find endings really difficult – the story takes off, the characters come to life, and then you need to draw everything to a close in a satisfactory way – so the fewer endings I need to write the better!
On the other hand, you can write a story really quickly and it’s obviously much less of an investment. I’ve occasionally started writing a novel but have been too impatient to finish it, so turned it into a short story instead. I also need to be thoroughly engrossed in a story to stick with it for a long time.
I know you’re a long-distance runner, recently seen with mud-spattered legs after a deep-winter marathon. Comparisons might be made between the long haul of writing a novel and running … would you care to elaborate?
Yes, I can see the similarities. Both are obviously very solitary (although I also enjoy running with others – and, of course, writing is something I also like sharing with others. I’m a member of a running group as well as a writing group!). I probably approach them in a similar way, too – with a great deal of patience and a belief that if I just keep going, I’ll eventually get somewhere.
I’d love to say that my running complements my writing, that I get lots of ideas while trudging over muddy hills. But the kinds of thoughts that enter my head are far more practical – oops, cow poo! – than creative.
For me, writing and running are also enjoyable, therapeutic and addictive – so I feel bad (as well as guilty) if I don’t get my fix. Both also suck up hours and hours of my spare time to the detriment of my household duties. But that’s just a coincidence, and not what attracted me to them (honestly!).
Gracie is such a funny, insightful girl who feels dorky but is really likeable. Her ingenuous commentary brings wry humour and flashes of light to what becomes a pretty grim scenario. How did she first appear to you?
I started by trying to make Gracie as unlike me as possible. I even considered making her a boy, so desperate was I to distance my main character from me. Even so, as Gracie evolved I’m sure a few of my own thoughts infiltrated hers.
And the family, whose dynamics are so true-to-life — chaotic, no-frills, culturally slim-pickings, but deeply loving … is this a family you know?
The family is totally fictional. My mum worries about the mums in my stories, that they might reflect her in someway. But I deliberately make them so unlike her that no one who knows her could possible make a comparison. Also, when it comes to literature, the more dysfunctional the families, the more gripping the story (in my opinion). My own one is boring by comparison.
Some of the other characters, though, borrow traits from people I’ve known, and the town I grew up in had its very own cult, which most fascinated and scared me, so I definitely drew on that.
What are you writing currently?
My writing time has been squeezed lately (marathon training doesn’t help), but I’ve promised myself to make it a higher priority. Since finishing All Our Secrets, I’ve written a few short stories and another novel called Miracle. I’m looking forward to revisiting those. But most of all I’m looking forward to starting something new.