AUTHOR Q&A: Janet Shepperson

Liberties Press recently published Vinny’s Wilderness, a riveting novel focusing on themes of childhood, parenting and female friendships. We were lucky enough to sit down with author Janet Shepperson and pick her brains on everything from her favourite books, to her future writing plans. Read on!

This is your debut novel. Is Vinny’s Wilderness something you have been thinking about writing for a long time, or was it a moment of spontaneous inspiration?

Well , I’d been mulling over the idea of writing something set against the background of academic selection in Northern Ireland, because this is something that hugely affects the life of every ten year old here and therefore, every parent! I had seven years of teaching and many more years doing schools workshops, and then there’s my experience as a parent;  some of the stories I heard from other parents were just horrendous. I spent quite a bit of time trying to write a play about the whole issue, but it didn’t work out for various reasons, partly because the two ten year olds, Denzil and Roisin, kept popping in and out making smart remarks, and in a full length play they’d be hovering in the wings all the time, and the whole thing would become unmanageable. Also, the physical setting was becoming increasingly important. I realized it just had to be a novel. Then as I developed the characters of Vinny and Alex, with their very different lifestyles, the next problem was how to bring them together. It had to be more than just two women who meet and drink endless cups of coffee! Once I got the idea that Vinny is coaching Alex’s son, with all the conflicts that entails, I was up and running.

What was the most challenging part of writing Vinny’s Wilderness?

The beginning and the end… as with any novel! At the end, I knew what I wanted Alex to do, but I wanted the reader to have a picture of her new life rather than just being told about it – which is where the Skype call came in. And Vinny then switches off the Skype and contemplates her own life and what direction it’s going to go in. I wanted to suggest new directions for them both, but not to make things too cut and dried; to leave the reader to think about whether it’s all going to work out for them….

How does the preparation and experience of writing fiction differ to that of poetry for you?

I was going to say that in writing poetry, you’re always reworking it to try and get the form and rhythm right;  sometimes during this process, as well as scrapping some of your ideas that don’t fit, you find that the form itself throws up entirely new ideas for you to develop. But on thinking it over, this is more or less what happens in writing fiction, too. The rhythm of prose is harder to define, but it’s very important and it, too, can suggest new directions and things that have to be scrapped because they don’t fit! So maybe the real thing that makes writing fiction distinctive is creating the characters, researching their backgrounds, making them so believable that they seem completely real to me and when I emerge from the study after a morning’s work, I feel as if instead of a couple of hours of solitude, I’ve just spent a couple of hours with a bunch of actual people, some of whom have said things I really didn’t expect them to say.

How do you think your experience of living in Belfast has influenced your writing?

When I first started writing seriously, I went to a couple of groups, one that met in the Linenhall Library and one at Queen’s University run by Medbh McGuckian, who was Writer in Residence in the days when that meant running a group for anyone who wanted to come along – they didn’t have to pay! That group generated so much enthusiasm, as well as expertise. And with so many world class poets coming out of Belfast – some of them actually still based here – it encouraged me to take my own poetry very seriously, and that sort of spilt over into my own fiction when I moved into short stories and eventually, novels.

Who are the authors who inspire you and your own work when you’re writing?

When I’m actually writing, I have to be a bit careful about only reading fiction late at night, when I’m fairly sleepy and I’m not going to absorb the style to the point where it starts to bleed into my own writing!

For example, if I read a couple of pages by Anne Enright, and then immediately started work, I’d be really struggling to get away from her very distinctive narrative voice and back into my own voice. The same goes for other writers I’ve been inspired by, such as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Colm Tóibín, Virginia Woolf, and of course the all-time greats I was raised on, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy…

What are your 3 desert island books, and why?

The Colour by Rose Tremain, for the way the characters travel from Victorian England to New Zealand, away from everything they’ve known, and struggle to make a new life in an alien place

Ancient Light by John Banville, which mingles the narrative voice of a middle-aged, self-questioning actor with that of a passionately self-absorbed fifteen-year-old, vividly evoking the landscape and moral world of 1950s Ireland in a way that the young lad could never have articulated but the middle-aged man can lovingly recreate in every detail.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, for its wonderful evocation of all things English, mannered, subtle and quite different from what you’d find on a desert island!

Where is your favourite place to write?

My study at home, with no internet allowed in. I do all my first drafts in longhand and if I need to look something up, I go into another room! Also, I have many notes/ideas/offcuts stuck up around the walls with BlueTak. So it gets a bit hectic in there, and I have to calm myself down by spending hours gazing out of the window, where I can see, as it happens, a dead rowan tree covered in ivy. I promised we would get rid of the tree when I finished Vinny’s Wilderness, but it hasn’t departed yet…

Do you think Northern Irish fiction is making a name for itself in an international context? Are there any Northern Irish authors you particularly admire?

Well, Jennifer Johnston was the biggest name when I was starting out, and I’ve read and admired most of her novels. Glenn Patterson came to prominence in the 1990s and has produced a lively body of work; he and Jennifer Johnston are both very prolific and very different. You couldn’t have two better role models! There are numerous others currently publishing very interesting work but it would be invidious to name names, Northern Ireland being such a small pond…

If you weren’t an author, what would you be doing instead?

Well, I once had a part time job with Conservation Volunteers (now known as TCV, which is unfortunate, as it makes them sound like a paramilitary organisation) and although it was just a wee office job, it was great craic – there were some terrific characters – and they do great work. So perhaps, in another life, I might have ended up working for them …

Vinny’s Wilderness has no particular leanings, but we are made aware of Belfast’s turbulent past in the background of the book. Do you think this is something which is an integral part of Northern Irish writing?

Well, the Troubles permeated my poetry for a while, as they did everyone’s poetry (The N. Ireland Arts Council have a very interesting online Troubles Archive of writing produced at the time, and subsequently, about the Troubles) We still live with sectarianism and periodic spots of bother on a much, much smaller scale. But the underlying them of Vinny’s Wilderness is a thing I’ve always felt – “The Troubles are not the only Troubles”. It’s well known that we have a society divided along sectarian lines, but the divisions of class and education have just as devastating an effect on many people’s lives.

Do you have an idea of what you want to write next? 

Yes, my next novel is set in Donegal and I’m about halfway through; it’s about a family and hangers on who spend a very intense week in a cottage there, in August – specifically August 2015, just after the equal marriage referendum in the South – and all sorts of conflicts come bubbling up to the surface.

Is there anything you have had in mind for years and haven’t written yet? 

Yes. But some of these things are too painful to talk about. It’s a good way to produce really powerful writing – write about stuff you find hard to talk about. After my next book is finished, perhaps I’ll be ready to start that.