Jane Rogers was recently longlisted for the Man Booker prize thanks to her wonderfully dystopian novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb. She isn’t only a novelist (currently working on a collection of short stories) but is a professor of writing on the MA course at Sheffield Hallam University and has also written for radio and TV. I very grateful that she has taken some time out to talk to me about her Booker Longlisted novel.
Thanks for your time, Jane. I’d like to start by saying congratulations for making the Booker longlist (I was very disappointed you didn’t make the shortlist). How did you feel when your name was announced and how did you find out?
I found out after several missed calls, and when I was first told I assumed the long-list was very long, and asked how long. The answer I understood from my agent was ’30’, and when it was repeated as ’13’ I was speechless.
The premise of The Testament of Jessie Lamb is very original, but also very relevant for our society currently. When did Jessie’s story first enter your head?
I had the idea in 2005, but started work on the novel during an Arts Council Fellowship to Banff, Canada, in Jan-March 2006. I started with a girl who was rebelling against her parents, and wanted her to commit an act of extreme heroism, or self sacrifice; at an early point I was thinking she might be a suicide bomber.
Did you set out to write a novel that is very ‘socially conscious’? Or did it start out a lot smaller?
The social issues are not really the point of the book. The point is, to look at a child who is growing into an independent adult, but who is still regarded as a child by her parents. This point is reached in every person’s life, and I was interested in the dynamics of the relationship, as the child grows in stature (moral, intellectual, etc) and the parents shrink. This is why I used the quote from ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’, which has precisely the same theme. I wanted to use an extreme example, to push the idea. But it also seemed to fit very well, for me, with the idea that the younger generations have been short-changed by those who have gone before them, in that they are inheriting a very degraded world.
The thing I loved about the book is that it raises lots of questions and leaves the reader to answer them, animal testing, scientific morals and ethics, for example. Do you enjoy the idea of books, in fact your book, creating debate and testing the reader?
I like books which make me think, not books which tell me what to think! So yes, I hope my book works in this way.
As a slight admission, I never felt a great connection to Jessie as I read. I feel that this was because of her stubbornness and her “angry at the world” attitude. I suppose Jessie is a typical teenager. How did you put yourself into her mindset? And were you ever afraid that readers may ‘reject’ Jessie as a hero?
I thought hard about her voice, and read many other teen voice novels before fixing upon her. My best guide was THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, which has a wonderful lightness of tone, despite the horrors she is living through – Jessie’s voice owes a lot to Anne Frank. I decided not to give her contemporary slang, or regional accent/vocabulary, as I want the book to remain slightly out of our time, and slang in particular dates very quickly. I didnt really think about readers rejecting her, though I know some readers find her very annoying. The heroine of my earlier novel ISLAND has a very particular (rather demented) voice which also irritated some readers. – I am not trying to create heroines readers will find lovable, but heroines who are combative and who insist on making their voices heard.
Who was your favourite character to write, and why?
Jessie’s father. I am very fond of him, and in an earlier draft, long sections of the book were written from his point of view. Jessie’s mother also had sections in her voice. In the end I decided to scrap the parents because, although I liked their voices, what they had to say was almost predictable. It was more dramatic to restrict the story to Jessie, and leave the reader to work out what her parents were thinking.
I’ve heard ‘Jessie Lamb’ described as a Young Adult novel and I have personally described it as Sci-Fi. How would you class the novel? Or would you rather not pigeonhole your work?
Because all my other novels are classed as Literary Fiction, I assumed this one would be too. But it is a good novel for Young Adults, because of the teen voice. And in that it is set in the future, it is also Sci Fi – I’d be happy to see it classified in any/all of those ways.
The novel has been compared to works such as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, particularly when dealing with a teenagers sense of identity in dystopian society, how do you feel about that comparison?
NEVER LET ME GO was one of the starting points for this book. I love Ishiguro’s novel, it is a brilliant piece of work, and when I read it I found myself wanting to explore some of the same territory. So I would be delighted if readers saw similarities. I was also heavily influenced by Wyndham’s THE CHRYSALIDS.
To follow on from that question, how do you go about starting to write such a story? Did you heavily research certain aspects of the book?
I started with the characters, and with trying to get Jessie’s voice right. I also – very early on – read PD James CHILDREN OF MEN because I was afraid she had already written what I wanted to write. But then I realised that the only similarity between her book and the one I wanted to write was that both of us were interested in a world where no babies are born. That left me plenty of scope to do what I wanted. I did a lot of research into MDS, the disease that kills pregnant women, and into future world scenarios – factual and hypothetical books about the future. Certain places were very helpful to me – I spent some time at Machynnlleth centre for Alternative Technology, thinking about survival/subsistence.
Once you have your inspiration for a novel, do you have a writing routine for producing the finished product?
I try to write every day, but often other things interrupt. I do other kinds of writing (radio, for example) and I also teach part time.
Are there any particular authors you admire or would recommend?
Different authors for different reasons. My best loved writer is Dostoevsky; among many many others, these rank highly: Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, John Wyndham, Philip Roth, Katherine Mansfield, Chekov, Tolstoy, J.M. Coetzee, Anita Desai.
What are you reading at the moment?
Edgelands by Paul Farley and M. Symmons-Roberts
I’d like to thank Jane Rogers for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. I’m very much looking forward to reading her collection of short stories.