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Image from special edition of Alice Jolly's novel, 'Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile'

‘I am interested in unheard voices’

Q&A | 3 minute read
Unbound novelist, Alice Jolly, on what she reads, writing in character, the 'boring' struggle between good and evil, and the miracles of fiction

Where do you write?

I like to think that I always write in my study but, actually, I sometimes write in bed, or on the sofa, or in a café. If I’m not at my desk, then I can trick myself into writing when I’m tired, or disheartened or bored.

What’s the last really good book you read? And the best film or theatre production?

At that moment I am reading books about the German/Austrian experience of the Second World War. All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, Alone in Berlin by Han Fallada and Night Falls on the City by Sarah Gainham are all stunning.  Sadly, I don’t go to the theatre much at the moment. When my children leave home I’ll be going every night.

What book marked you as a child or teenager?

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam. The main character in that book inhabits a world which is entirely different from the world I lived in as a teenager. Yet something about the sense of dislocation, alienation and confusion in that book absolutely echoed the feelings I had when I was young. I also loved Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin. I needed someone to tell me that it is acceptable to take an unrelentingly bleak view of the world.

What book inspired you to become a writer?
I’m a huge fan of Graham Greene. He has a unique gift for dramatising spiritual struggle. I remember reading The End of the Affair and thinking, “I want to be able to do that.  I really, really want to be able to do that.”

Pen and paper or laptop?

I wrote the first draft of Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile with a steel dipping pen (just a little more sophisticated than a quill). I did that because Mary Ann would have written in that way. It was horribly difficult but it enabled me to find the voice. Generally, I just use a laptop.

Do you re-read books or is life too short?

I do re-read books. I find the process fascinating because the passage of time has made me into a different person and so the book is entirely different as well. That is part of the miracle of quality fiction.

Who is the best fictional hero and villain?

I am not really interested in heroes or villains. The struggle between good and evil is essentially a boring story. What I love is books where you just don’t know where to place your sympathies.  For me, that mirrors the experience of real life. We all know so many people who are both wonderful and ghastly.  And we can never predict what people might do under pressure.

When did you last visit your local library?

I take my six-year-old daughter to the local library regularly. She picks out dire princess or fairy books with glitter on the cover. But that’s the joy of a library. She experiences the freedom of choosing whatever she wants and then we just take the books back next week.

What classic have you lied about reading? 

I don’t think I’ve ever lied about reading a classic book. However, sometimes when people talk about the latest psychological thriller or crime book, I nod my head as though I know what they are talking about.  In reality, I don’t read any genre fiction. The nodding is to avoid looking stuck up and snooty.

Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for the book you’re publishing next? 

I am writing now about Dr Asperger who was both a pioneer of autism research and a Nazi collaborator. I am always interested in the voices that have not been heard. Our current narratives around the Second World War are all about heroes, villains and victims. Yet in order to actually learn the lessons of that War we need to look at the millions who failed to make a stand.

Alice Jolly’s novel, ‘Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile’ is published by Unbound and out now