Kathleen Jones is an award-winning freelance writer, poet and biographer. She has previously worked with the OU as a tutor of Creative Writing, and her comments for prospective students and tutors are insightful and helpful.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born and brought up on small hill farms in a remote part of northern England – quite wild and beautiful, but isolated. So it could have been a lonely childhood, except that I loved it and I think it was all that space and freedom that made me a writer. I wrote a lot of poetry and got journalistic items published in teen magazines and local papers. I left as a teenager to go to London – thinking that that was where you went if you wanted to become a ‘real’ writer, but I hated living in a city.
I got married as a teenager, to someone whose job took him all over the world, and started to travel. We spent roughly ten years in Africa and the Middle East. I found expat life very boring and did quite a lot of writing to fill the time, and was lucky enough to get a job in English broadcasting out there – writing for radio was very good training. Eventually, I came back to the UK and got divorced. Being a single parent wasn’t easy but I found that freelance writing gave me the opportunity to be at home for the children while still earning money. I went back to university as a mature student and published my first book.
Do you have a preferred genre?
Not really. I’ve always enjoyed doing different types of writing – sometimes having several projects on the go at the same time. At the moment I’m working on a new collection of poetry, a couple of short stories, and a biography, as well as editing the novel I finished recently and doing quite a lot of book reviewing. I still occasionally write features for magazines and e-zines. It’s the variety I love. Or maybe I’m just a workaholic!
Do you prefer to write poetry structured within forms or do you prefer free forms?
I probably enjoy free forms best. Every now and then I play around with sonnets, or terza rima, just to prove I can do it, but I’m happiest creating my own forms to fit the subject matter. At the moment I’m experimenting with a ten line form as well as longer, narrative poems.
Do you have favourites amongst your books/ characters?
Yes – particularly the biographies. I loved them all at the time, but in retrospect the ones I enjoyed writing most are A Passionate Sisterhood, which was the story of the women who lived with the ‘Lake Poets’ – Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey – and the biography of the New Zealand-based author, Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield was a wonderful writer and a very interesting person – I admired her courage immensely. How do you cope with having a stillborn illegitimate baby at the age of 19, all alone in a strange country? How do you cope with being told ten years later that you are terminally ill? She died of tuberculosis shortly after her 34th birthday.
Among the fictional characters I’ve created, I’m fondest of Tamar Fell in The Sun’s Companion. She’s based on my mother, so I suppose that’s why. Tamar is very shy and gentle and struggles to deal with the social upheavals of nineteen-thirties England just before the war.
How difficult did you find getting published for the first time?
Not difficult at all – and I realise now just how very lucky I was. I was working on a documentary for BBC radio, so I had to get an agent to handle the contract. They suggested that I extend the research into a full-length biography, and introduced me to the new Bloomsbury publishing house, just being set up. I was one of their first authors. That was in 1986/7. When I lost my current agent to maternity leave a few years ago, it was a very different picture – I found it almost impossible to find a new agent. I wrote to 16 and only 2 bothered to reply! Fortunately, one of those took me on. But it’s now very difficult to get publishers to take an interest in your work unless you’re already a best-seller, or a new author they can market.
What awards you have won, and for which genre?
I’ve been short-listed for quite a few, but haven’t won many. The Barclays Bank Prize for biography for A Passionate Sisterhood was one I was very happy to win. And in 2011 I won the Straid Award for a collection of poetry called Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21. Oh, and one of my short stories once won a fiction award sponsored by Fay Weldon.
What inspires you to write?
I don’t honestly know. I’ve been writing since I was a small child – it’s just something that’s part of my personality – who I am rather than what I do. It’s a kind of addiction.
As a published poet/author would you go back and change anything in your past learning process?
Yes! I wrote a novel as a teenager – the usual teen stuff – and sent it off to the address of a publisher I looked up in a bookshop. I didn’t know there was any such thing as the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. I got a letter back saying that it wasn’t good enough to publish as it stood, but if I rewrote bits of it (they told me which ones), they would take another look. I was so inexperienced and naïve that I didn’t realise what was being said. All I saw was rejection. I chucked the manuscript into the bottom of a cupboard and abandoned it. Now I know that I should have worked on it and worked on it and sent it back to them as well as submitting it to several other publishers – it was an opportunity I missed because I didn’t know. There were no creative writing courses back then.
What would you attribute to writers like George Eliot and Charles Dickens who become famous without ever taking any creative writing courses?
They just learned their craft from reading other writers and practising endlessly. That’s what Katherine Mansfield did, too – and DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. I think that there are many authors who have an instinctive sense of form and a gift for language. They develop these gifts by sheer hard work. A lot of writers in the past also had mentors who helped them to self-edit, and many of them learned good techniques through journalism. It was a kind of apprenticeship.
Are you working on anything at present?
I’ve been commissioned to write the biography of an obscure northern poet to celebrate his centenary in 2014. His name is Norman Nicholson and he was a protégé of TS Eliot and one of the early eco-poets. He was rather reclusive, so it’s a challenge to get enough material to flesh out his personality.
I’m also editing the final draft of my second novel, which is about a rather controversial subject. The central character is an ageing artist who was born trans-gender in the 1920s. She has become an international celebrity, but has found personal happiness elusive. It’s narrated by a young writer who goes to Croatia to research her life story, and becomes drawn into a big family conflict centred around who is going to inherit her property and the rights to her work.
Do you feel social media presence is required for a writer? How does it help?
I think these days it’s essential. The higher your profile, the easier it is to sell your work. Often, being active in social forums is a requirement of the publisher’s contract. They expect you to blog and Facebook and have a profile on Goodreads, not to mention tweeting as well! And you need a website of some kind (blogs can work well – they’re free and easy to update yourself) to advertise your work – something that you can supply as a link to anyone interested in what you do. You can also have an author page on Facebook that people can access. Not everyone wants the hassle of a website that you have to pay for and then wrestle with html or pay a webmaster to update.
What advice would you give to our prospective creative writing students and tutors?
I think the main advice I’d give to tutors and those who set the courses is not to be too prescriptive. Otherwise you get writing that is just too formulaic – I judge writing awards sometimes and it’s easy to spot the creative writing course poem or story. The very best writing is often experimental, off-the-wall, tearing up the rule book. But I know from experience as a tutor that it’s the most difficult work of all to mark!
To students I would say read, read, read… and then write, write, write. There’s no substitute for practice. And I’m all for writing freely, without thinking about grammar or form or spelling. That can all be put in at the editing stage. You have to get the raw material down on the page first and tweak it afterwards. And write what excites you. If you don’t care about your characters the reader won’t either. You have to have total commitment.