Today, I’m delighted to welcome Josa Young to my blog. Josa was born in Kent, England. She couldn’t read until she was seven due to spending all her time outside, and then proceeded to devour libraries of novels when forced to come indoors to be educated. She studied English Literature at Cambridge, and had a career in magazines and newspapers before discovering the internet in 1994. She switched to digital, and now works as a multimedia content consultant for big brands when she isn’t writing fiction and poetry. Her first novel One Apple Tasted was published by Elliott & Thompson in 2009, her second novel Sail Upon the Land, was indie published in 2014. She lives in West London with two of her three children.
Q: Josa, perhaps you could start by telling us how you came to be a writer. Have you always felt driven to write?
Like almost every writer you read about, I have always been writing bits of fiction – starting novels and writing rather bad short stories. I was very clear that I wanted to be a writer, but was not sure how to make a living as one. So I did the Vogue Talent Contest, and was a finalist, which led to various jobs on the magazine. My last job at Vogue was as Copy Editor, where I learned about copywriting, sub-editing and proof reading, all of which have been very useful since. I then became a deputy or features editor for various glossies and broadsheets, including Country Living and the Times. All the time, I was trying to write fiction as well but, as breadwinner for a growing family, squeezing in the time was very difficult. However, after numerous half-finished novels, short stories and some poetry, I finally went on an Arvon course, really to find the space to recover from my mother’s death, and was encouraged by Beryl Bainbridge to get to grips with a proper project. I was so inspired that I wrote a One Apple Tasted first draft in five weeks between magazine contracts. I landed a wildly enthusiastic agent immediately and thought my dreams had come true. However he didn’t sell it. It languished in my bottom drawer until finally published via an odd series of chances by Elliott & Thompson in 2009.
In spite of a great deal of discouragement – both what life throws at you and quite deliberate – I persisted. When I look back I am quite surprised, given the nature of the rejections I received, the ‘advice’ (‘You should really stick to the day job, you are so good at it’ was a particular gem) and the lack of time. ‘Driven’ is the right word – at times I felt I was quite mad to carry on – if I had been half-hearted I would have given up years ago. I also love it when it flows, there is no high like it, apart from riding a horse, which is far less accessible to a broke single mum. Some lovely reviews helped too. Encouragement is the oil in all our engines. Discouragement is the sand in the gearbox.
Look inside or buy One Apple Tasted
1982: Girl meets boy at a champagne-fuelled book launch. After they share a joke at a celebrity’s expense, nothing can ever be the same again. 1958: Two young women go to a ball in home-made dresses. When they catch the eye of their hostess’s sons, everything changes. 1939: A young woman sits crying in a Harley Street waiting room. When a motherly stranger offers her sanctuary, her life takes an unexpected twist. Dora Jerusalem hits London and lands a coveted job as features assistant at glossy ‘Modern Woman’ magazine. When she falls for Guy Boleyn, happiness should be simple – but a long-buried secret lies in wait. One Apple Tasted is a story about love, friendship and the moments that change the course of a life for good.
Q: Your books have been described as having no particular genre. What can readers expect?
I think one of the reasons why my books didn’t sell properly to big publishers was that ‘genre’ wasn’t really what I was aiming at. I certainly don’t aspire to literary status – although that seems to be a catch all for genreless women’s fiction. You would probably call it ‘women’s fiction’ – I have been very flatteringly compared to Mary Wesley and Elizabeth Jane Howard several times. Mid-20th century fiction was far less genre’d – and that is one of my major inspirations.
Sail Upon the Land was dismissed as ‘blatantly commercial’ (isn’t that meant to be a good thing?) and compared negatively to Rosamunde Pilcher’s fiction. I couldn’t have been more delighted, given that she sold more than 60 million books worldwide. If only….
Q: Setting the question of genre aside, if you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say?
I write multi-generational stories, trying to understand how family background influences our lives. Writer and blogger Helen Walters says it better than me: ‘Though the story is full of romance, it isn’t just a romance, and though it tells the story of a family it is also much more than a family story. It deals unflinchingly with the themes of motherhood and birth, love, death, duty and finally hope.’ I write about family love, the choices people make, class and its impact, women’s lives shaped and transformed by war and social change. I am trying to write my new novel in one time frame and one generation, but reining myself in is difficult.
Blogger and fellow writer Debbie Young describes it well in her blog Debbie Young’s Reading Life: ‘With Sarah’s part of the story beginning only 10 years after universal suffrage for women, and the book closing in 2009, one might assume that the novel would travel a one-way trip to women’s emancipation, with life getting better for each successive generation as the horrors of world war fade away. But that would be too easy, and hats off to Josa Young for taking the more challenging stance that actually, la plus ça change… The traps may be different, but the net effect is the same.’
Q: How does your home and its environment influence your writing?
I have been writing in bed recently, like Jean Rhys but without the gin (downhill all the way after that), as builders are stopping the damp coming in in the room where I worked before. My new year’s resolution is to set up my writing desk again and work in a more disciplined way sitting up in a chair. I had a writing shed once, but don’t really need one any more now two of my children have grown up.
Q: I know that family is very important to you. Would you say that being a parent heavily influences your work?
Yes, my whole life has been shaped by putting my children first in my priorities, and my emotional response to their birth and growing up definitely pervades my writing. I would have written many more novels earlier in my life had I not made the choices I did. I regret nothing and notice so many women coming into their own creatively in middle age, having moved beyond the more immediate demands of motherhood.
Look inside or buy Sail Upon the Land(e-book currently only 99p)
What happens when two fractured families collide in the dynamic social landscape of the last eighty years?
An accidental inheritance changes everything for an insecure young man.
The mysterious death of a new mother damages the precious continuity of family love.
And a gap-year student’s misguided romance ends in life-changing disaster. Or does it?
Q: Let’s talk about your latest novel, Sail Upon the Land. Your protagonist is Damson Hayes. What five words best describe her?
A: Stubborn, independent, lonely, loving and lost…
Q: Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?
A: The story kicks off in India, in the 1980s, when Damson is attacked at a ramshackle riding establishment up in the hills by the owner – a British educated Indian with a mysterious past. Most of Sail Upon the Land, however, is set in England over the 20th and early 21st centuries. I travelled in India long ago, and discovered quite recently that I have Indian ancestry – I am fascinated by the ties between Britain and India, and had felt instinctively at home there. The literary precedents include A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown, as well as The Far Pavilions, all of which inspired me. But the main spark is Titania’s speech, from which the phrase Sail Upon the Land (a metaphor for pregnancy) is taken. Titania’s dual nature of fairy (in England) and goddess (in India) started the train of thought that we can be different in the different places and at different times in our lives.
Q: You mention the title of the book. At what point in writing the book did you settle on its title?
A: Right at the beginning as I was mulling over Titania’s speech – the novel arose from my chosen title. After feedback from potential publishers I found myself being asked to change the title – The Bravest Thing and A Mothers’ Tale were what I came up with. I didn’t like either of these names, as the book I had written was called Sail Upon the Land. It was a relief to self-publish it under its own name when it didn’t sell. A unique or nearly unique book title is also very helpful for SEO and sparks recognition better than something more bland.
Q: What were the major areas you had to research?
A: I didn’t really research anything deliberately for this story, just checked my memory and intuition that I hadn’t drifted too far from some kind of internal logic and external truth in my imagination. I try to turn off the internet while I am actually writing, to prevent myself from falling down a Google hole and never emerging. During the review/editing process I do check my own facts. My first novel was written pre-internet and, as a journalist, I did my fact checking in the old fashioned way, in the library and on the telephone. It was finally traditionally published many years later in 2009.
Q: Was your novel inspired by any real life events?
A: We all transmogrify known things into fiction, otherwise where does it come from? But with this book I felt in some ways I was preserving family memories – things my late mother told me, and other stuff that was rapidly passing into oblivion – in some of the settings. Having said that, none of it is actually a true depiction of anything that really happened or anyone who really lived, more like a feeling, an atmosphere of forgotten times, ways of behaving and places.
Q: In which ways was writing the book transformative for you?
My first novel was a love story – you know the usual pattern, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end? Only the girl rescues the boy. But it was sufficiently ‘conventional’ to pass as a romantic novel and did quite well. Sail Upon the Land reflects what I felt was closer to the real experience of many women – not really finding the man of their dreams, and living a purposeful, useful life without marriage – one of the reasons for some of the rejections was that it didn’t contain a ‘central romance’. But I wasn’t writing about romance (although there is romance in it). I was writing about women’s changing experiences for good or ill over the last eighty years – particularly that the emotions and dilemmas around motherhood are unchanged. I was also writing about loneliness – both world wars left so many women without husband, and recent social change has had the same effect.
Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?
Sail Upon the Land is my second completed novel. I have two others on the go, one a sequel and the other is set in the near future and concerns a family in turmoil as social conditions change rapidly in an increasingly connected world.
Q: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to self-publish Sail Upon the Land?
The absolutely most important and key factor that forced me to stop faffing around and actually get around to self-publishing Sail Upon the Land was the support of former top fiction editor and best-selling novelist Rachel Hore.
She had told me she enjoyed my first, traditionally published novel, and asked to read the second one. I sent her an early proof, not expecting anything much back. I was Mrs Utterly Beaten by then, having suffered the usual spate of rejection.
Rachel then emailed me to say she thought it an awful lot better than a lot of published books out there (and this was a rough proof mind you). She said she had been completely immersed in the characters and their milieu, and that she thought I was brave to tackle some difficult subjects. Then she topped it all off by offering me an unsolicited cover quote.
‘Josa Young writes with warmth and wisdom about the complexities of motherhood in this captivating tale of four generations of women that sweeps eighty years of English history. Her eye for period detail is masterly and her characters so vivid they dance from the page and into our hearts.’
Of course, what could I do after that but work very hard indeed to make sure it was as good as it possibly could be (with the help of two copy editors, plus an artist and designer for the cover). It is very early days yet, but I trust the readers out there to let me know if I was right to do so and more than 100 have already taken the time to review it positively.
Q: Did you deliberately time the release of your book with the Christmas holidays?
A: I gave myself a very strict deadline to exert some discipline, as I work full time and had to find the focused time and energy for this project during early mornings and late at night. I missed my first deadline as it really was too tight, and the second one turned out to be just before Christmas, which meant that many books were bought at the launch party as presents. This wasn’t exactly deliberate, but did no harm. It also meant that I was at home over the Christmas holidays to kick off the marketing effort online and off.
Q: Do you find yourself returning to any recurring themes within your writing and, if so, are you any closer to finding an answer?
Class is a taboo subject, and as such I can’t resist it. You can write about sex, drugs and the rest, even death a bit more these days, but dare to write about the upper middle classes and you are treated with disdain and rejection. The more publishers say that no one is interested, the more stubbornly intent I am upon depicting the vanished class that ran the Empire – the public servants, with their code of duty and the stiff upper lip, their traditions and patterns of being. I want to examine what happened to it, where it disappeared to and when, and most particularly what happened to the women who stepped up boldly during both world wars and then were pushed back into feminine roles.
The propriety, the restraint, the coldness, the emotional stopping up, the reliance on inherited money and the falling apart of the weaker members when it didn’t materialise, the often appalling legacy of public school education… I find all of it fascinating. There is no doubt that the reading public do too – look at their interest in Downton Abbey (although the class depicted there is the aristocracy, a different kettle of fish altogether). Publishers rejected JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books due to a knee-jerk reaction to her old-fashioned boarding school setting – not ‘relevant’.
Critic and novelist Amanda Craig put it well when she commented: ‘In many ways, Sail Upon the Land resembles a Mary Wesley novel (and perhaps also an Elizabeth Goudge one) both in its upper class social setting, its understanding of and dislike for snobbery, and its sympathetic yet flawed characters. The period feeling in each is excellent, with many little jokes about caste.’
Want to find out more about Josa?
Follow her on Twitter @JosaYoung or visit her website.
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