We’re delighted to have the chance to chat to award-winning author Jess Kidd today – whose latest book, The Hoarder, is due for release next week. We’ve already read it – for those of you who haven’t, we heartily recommend it; it’s got beautifully gutsy characters, plenty of intrigue and it’s quite sinister too!
Hi Jess, we’d love to know more about what got you into writing. When did you first start, and what led you to become a writer?
I first started writing when I was tiny. My sister taught me to read using Mills & Boon romance novels but I much preferred writing adventure stories featuring talking animals. I'd love to have a go at writing a romance novel one day but fear it would come out a bit twisted! I used to write a lot of plays when I was young – terrible dire affairs in which everyone died. I think I had a Gothic imagination even then.
Although I toyed with the idea of being a nun, vet and a zookeeper, I knew there was no other job for me – I only really wanted to write. I dropped out of college and worked all different jobs until I was fortunate enough to get a bursary to return to education. I took a literature degree with The Open University and did a writing module as part of that. At that point I decided I would keep writing whatever happened.
That’s awesome that you were raised on Mills & Boon; I could imagine a twisted romance working rather well! There’s more than a hint of darkness in your novels, and often a nod to the supernatural. What led you to write about the spookier things in life?
I adore ghost stories. I come from a family where the supernatural was always close at hand. Sometimes the ghosts were scary but more often a spirit would return to communicate something quite mundane (like who should inherit their good trousers).
I think the supernatural is fascinating, it's the place where our deepest-held fears erupt. Besides, it's great fun to write supernatural scenes because you get to play with both worlds. The supernatural brings a kind of anarchy and freedom. I also tend to try and balance any bleak themes with humour. I think a certain gallows humour is very much part of my background too.
Your fabulous short story, Dirty Little Fishes, was Costa’s Short Story Award winner in 2016. How did that feel, and did it change the path of your writing career at all?
It was a great honour to win such a highly-acclaimed award, especially because the two other finalists in my category, Rob Ewing and Billy O'Callaghan are such brilliant writers. Winning the Costa prize definitely increased my confidence with regards to writing short fiction. I've always loved writing short stories, I did this long before even thinking of writing a novel. Spurred on by the prize I'm now planning my first collection of short stories.
That’s brilliant, because short story writing is such an art form, but there’s not enough of them out there. I’m especially impressed that you can turn your hand to short stories and full-length novels! Your latest book, The Hoarder, is due for release on the 1st February. I’ve been lucky enough to read it and loved it to bits; particularly the strong, feisty characters like Maud, Cathal and Renata. Where do you get inspiration for your characters?
I'm so happy you loved the book! I'm very fortunate in that often the characters present themselves to me – I usually hear their voices first! I then just have to ask questions to get to know them but usually they feel fully formed.
I love writing strong women and older characters in particular. I don't generally base my characters on real people but they often have qualities I admire in others. For instance, Maud is very loyal and practical and dedicated, while Renata is utterly a free spirit.
I also adore writing unusual friendships, characters that in some way unlock each other. This was particularly important in writing The Hoarder as it's such a small cast of characters. I often feel bereft when I've finished a book and can't spend as much time with them!
Another great aspect of The Hoarder is Maud’s conviction that the saints visit her. Your depictions of them were often hilarious (I found the sleazy St Valentine particularly funny)! It’s such an unusual device to feature in a novel – where did the idea come from?
I've always loved saints and as a young child had a few favourites that I'd talk to. A few saints had popped up in a short story previously and I had such fun writing them I wanted to try out more.
I was also inspired by the film version of The Wizard of Oz in the way that Dorothy brings her Kansas friends into her fantasy world. In Dorothy's imagination they turn into the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. The saints link Maud's past life with her present, representing characters from her childhood. In a way the saints also stand for the internal voices we all have – some of which can be helpful, some less so. I certainly have a St Valentine heckling me from time to time!
I love the Wizard of Oz link; now you say it, I can totally see how the saints in your book perform that role. Very clever! Are you working on any other books at the moment? If so, can you drop any hints about what we can expect?
I've finished the first draft of my third novel which is a mad big magic realist crime novel set in Victorian London. There's a huge cast of characters and the protagonist is one of my favourite characters of all times – a lady sleuth who could give even Mrs Cauley from Himself a run for her money. It has been amazing fun to write and I've always wanted to write a novel set in Victorian times. The research has been fascinating and I really hope to pass all this enjoyment on to the reader. I've also been working on my first children's book which I'm really excited about.
What would you say, in general, are the best and worst aspects of being an author?
The best aspect is getting to play every day with characters who really do become my friends, even some of the nasty ones. It's an adventure because although I do set off with a plan I often deviate from it. The very best thing are the mistakes and the surprises and the twists and turns that you can't predict.
The only bad thing about being a writer is perpetual backache and the fact that I'm gradually moulding into the shape of a desk chair!
Yes, I totally sympathise with the backache! Have you got any useful tips for aspiring writers out there? Other than investing in an orthopaedic-approved chair?
I would definitely recommend joining a local writer's group or starting up a group yourself. Feedback is utterly valuable and can help you grow as a writer. It's also great to set aside time for yourself to write and having an outside commitment can be really encouraging. I would also recommend carrying a notebook and earwigging as much as possible. Some of the best lines I've ever collected were overheard!
Who were the authors that inspired you the most – and are there any books that you think we should all rush out and read?
So many! Recently I'm just loving Sal by Mick Kitson, which is an adventure story starring two runaway children that is just wonderful. I also really love Nuala O'Connor's Joyride to Jupiter and June Caldwell's Room Little Darker. Both are short story collections and both are completely stunning in very different ways.
Many thanks to Jess Kidd for talking to us - just to let you all know, The Hoarder is due for release on February 1st – you can pre-order your copy here.