Jill Dawson, UK author, gives 3 question interview to Interlitq

Jill Dawson‘s ninth novel, The Crime Writer, now out in paperback, and about to be published in the States by Harper Collins, is a portrayal of Patricia Highsmith set in the 60s in Suffolk, England, where Highsmith has come in order to concentrate on her writing and escape her fans – and to continue a secret romance with a married lover. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that all her demons have come with her. Prowlers, sexual obsessives, frauds, imposters, suicides and murderers: the tropes of her fictions clamour for her attention, rudely intruding on her peaceful Suffolk retreat.
 
Interlitq: 1. What made you choose Patricia Highsmith as the subject of your latest novel? How did you feel about her on beginning your research, and how do you feel about her now
Jill Dawson: I found her an addictive writer, mesmerically compelling but I also felt about her how Ginny does in the novel: ‘I don’t think you could call me an admirer. I find much of your writing strangely distasteful….’  The distaste comes from the fact that Highsmith is obsessed with evil and criminality and why people commit the most heinous acts.  She has an uncanny talent for capturing this and the page seems to bristle with it.  In the end though, I also admired her craftsmanship, her bracing honesty and her superior psychological insights.
 
Interlitq: 2. Your novels are often based on real people – Fred and Edie, based on the case of Thompson and Bywaters in the 1920s; The Great Lover, a love story about the poet Rupert Brooke; or Wild Boy about the Wild Boy of Aveyron. It might be said that your novels sit in a hinterland between biography and fiction. What has made you create this third space to write in?
Jill Dawson: It comes from my interest in psychotherapy and my observation that some people – including some biographers that I know – don’t know themselves or understand people or the unconscious world very well.  I do love biographies and read them a lot for the factual information. But the ability of a biographer to conjure up a person on the page and make them come alive is a writing skill and not all have it!  Biographers do invaluable research – and to that I am indebted  – but I do not believe theirs is the only legitimate form in which to present ‘real’ life. I’d even suggest that sometimes a novel, like a painting or portrait, can capture a person’s likeness better than a factual representation (eg photograph) can. We have many selves.  I read eleven biographies of Rupert Brooke when writing my novel The Great Lover.  A different man emerged in each….
 
Interlitq: 3. You used to teach at the UK’s most famous MA of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and you’ve also taught Creative Writing at Amherst and for the Faber Academy. Can you tell us a little more about your work with new and emerging writers?
Jill Dawson: I have taught on many MAs in Creative Writing, yes, but students of such courses often want more input from the tutor, less time spent having to read the work of the other students and listen to their feedback.  They usually would like me, the only published professional writer on the course to read and comment on their entire novel and this is impossible when I have a course of 12 students to ‘workshop’ every week. So in 2007 I set up Gold Dust. (www.gold-dust.org.uk). It pairs new writers with well established ones to work with the new writer for a year on writing their novel, memoir, biography or other project. I think it’s a unique scheme – we have some great writers as mentors –  Louise Doughty, Andrew Miller, Jane Rogers, Sarah Hall, Tim Pears, Liz Jensen and Romesh Gunesekera to name a few –  so it’s a very special opportunity for new writers to receive individual input from an award-winning writer at the top of their game. (All our mentors have won, judged or been nominated for major literary prizes: the Booker, the Costa, The Impac, The Orange, The Governor General….)  Over the years since we’ve begun we’ve had tons of success stories and lots of  my mentees have gone on to publish, which of course is very pleasing. We do offer the mentoring online via Skype and email too and if anyone is interested do take a look at our success stories and the many testimonies on the site.
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