Jo, welcome to Not Exactly True! I've obviously been reading your work in a private forum for quite a while now, and it's fantastic to see your name emblazoned across the front of a book! Insignificant Gestures is a really engaging and moving collection - funny and poignant, and quite brutal in places. Congratulations!
Thanks, Val! Your opinion means a lot to me. I still can’t quite believe my name is on a book jacket.
You're not only a talented writer, but a GP too, which (in my probably limited experience!) is an unusual combination, and many of the stories in your collection involve the medical community, from the perspectives of patients as well as doctors. Can you tell us how you came to writing in the first place?
I don’t think I’m unusual! There are many doctor writers, for example Anton Chekov and W. Somerset Maugham – though in a different league, of course! I came to writing via a reflective writing group for G.Ps. Although I can’t use patients as material, every day people tell me stories. We all rework the narrative of our lives to give it meaning. At a certain point, the reframing, exaggeration and omission become fiction; or like your blog title, Not Exactly True. Observing this, for years and years, is great training for a writer.
The short story form has many similarities with a G.P. consultation. First an individual describes the most pressing incident – the illness, trauma or drama. Then a back story unfolds, instalment by instalment, over years. Often I hear an event or character described by various people, from different perspectives. I’ve always read fiction – my parents were both librarians. Writing short stories seemed a natural way to express myself, both for fun and to clarify my thoughts.
You've based many of your stories in Africa, or on displaced African people in the UK. Can you tell us a little about your own experiences living in Malawi and the effect it's had on you as a writer?
I worked in Malawi as District Health Officer in my late twenties. At such an early stage in my career, the responsibility was overwhelming and often traumatic. The suffering and poverty I witnessed changed my life. I wrote nothing but letters in those days, but when I started writing fiction twenty years later, certain memories of that time remained vivid, and I wanted to explore them. Living in a country so different and disadvantaged helped me understand why people move from one part of the world to another. Who wouldn’t? Many of my patients are immigrants or refugees. I recognise the enormity of the compromises they have made, and the hopes and disappointments of their journeys. This is reflected in some of my stories.
Plenty of the stories involve disintegrating civilisations or pretty scary views of the future. Are you a fan of dystopian fiction - JG Ballard or Cormac McCarthy or anything like that, or do you just have a very bleak outlook?!
The chaotic backdrops of some of the stories are not intended to be dystopian, but surreal projections of my characters’ inner worlds. For example, Susan, the childless protagonist in ‘The Spaces Between,’ sees needy refugee children all around. David in ‘Needle-stick baby,’ abandoned by his wife, inhabits a broken, anarchic city, but this reflects his sense of disintegrating self. The windswept decaying estate in ‘Eye of the Storm’ symbolises the main character’s confusion at her bereavement and changing family life – and the fact she has a bad tooth!
Some of the stories were written in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. I’d recently experienced bereavement, and discovered the difficulty of untangling personal and external distressing events. Many people, when in low spirits, can’t watch the news because the suffering feels too close. Nasma in ‘Nasma’s Malady’ suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome and has lost the boundaries between herself and others.
My mother was a child evacuee in world war two. At the time of the Iraq war, my kids were young and I was troubled by the idea of any child alone and unprotected. This led to the recurring ‘evacuation’ theme in the book.
My outlook is not, on the whole, bleak! I believe people are mostly good and things come right in the end. Clearly this is as irrational a set of beliefs as any religion, but one that suffuses my stories.
Tell me some of your favourite books and/or writers. Do you prefer novels or short stories, or what? See if you can convince me (or my readers) to try something new...
I prefer novels when I want to lose myself in another world; short stories for their intensity; poetry for precision and beauty of language. Some fiction manages to do it all, for example ‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Mitchell: the book I wish I’d written. Another is ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. This year I loved ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout, a short story collection united by the flawed but credible character Olive, seen from every perspective.
You obviously write very powerful short fiction. Have you anything else on the boil - anything longer, poetry, another collection, or anything else you'd like to reveal/pimp?
After my collection was accepted by Pewter Rose in April I went into an editing frenzy. In the last month or two, book promotion activities swallowed my writing time, which is limited, like most peoples, by work and family responsibilities. I have a stash of half done flashes I want to sort out. Then I plan to start on my next collection. As the first one took five years, there is no time to lose! But this time I will start with a theme, or maybe like ‘Olive Kitteridge’, a character, rather than wait for one to develop.
Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Val. I wish you lots of luck with your novel, which is shaping up in a most promising and exciting way! (ed: Jo's seen shameful drafts of parts of my novel. Let's not dwell on that, though, eh? She was a brave woman to wade through it...)
So, Jo Cannon, ladies and gentlemen! Check out her website for links to further stops on the blog tour. Jo, thanks again for dropping by - and the rest of you, why are you still reading? Go buy the book, for the love of god. Christ. I give a simple order...