Rosie Johnston (Picture jamesperrin.com)
It is always a pleasure to come across writers or artists who live on or are inspired by the Isle of Dogs.
Recently I have come across Rosie Johnston whose work includes two novels Wysighost and A Most Intimate Place. Recently she has also produced two collections of poetry Sweet Seventeens and Orion.
Rosie kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work and how she helps other writers, but first here is a selection of poems from her collections :
Sirens, foxes, buses, screams:
Off – on cacophony
A sweet tingle pulses on
One word unspoken lies there: Love.
Rolling fingers and thumb
Conjure his milled-flour skin.
Love’s a mongrel whining at my
I learn to smile and let him in.
In imperfection waits the
Hope of finding perfect answers.
Rosie, could you tell me a little about your background
I was born in Belfast and have been a happy Londoner since 1978. I brought my kids up in Greenwich and Blackheath – my children’s ghost novel Wysighost is set there – and didn’t discover Island Gardens until December 2010. I love the community here, the way we bother to speak to our neighbours, take time to walk along the river path and look after the area. As I’m writing this, a moorhen is fussing at the end of my garden in one of the landscaped ponds the Isle of Dogs does so well. Where else in London can you enjoy that?
You have had two novels and two collections of poetry published. When did you start to write seriously?
I remember being wrapped up in my own writing world when I was little, the pleasure of that, but it wasn’t until I was about 40 that I gave myself permission to take it seriously. I was a journalist then with three small children so there wasn’t a lot of free time. I started going on courses (www.arvonfoundation.org is a favourite) to study the craft. Writing is like sculpture, composing or even making a garden from scratch. There are many steps and craft elements involved, to do with making sure your story reaches the reader in the best shape. The writers who do best are the ones who enjoy that process.
Recently Orion your second collection of poetry was published. What was your main inspiration for this particular collection?
After Sweet Seventeens came out, poet friends and my publisher kept encouraging me to write something longer than 17 syllables. So I pulled together some of the new 17s I had on the go, to see if they fell into any shape. For me, there’s always got to be a human story, a drama of some sort, so Orion became a love story. Was it ‘inspired’? I’m not fond of that word really. Sometimes the lines do seem to fall on the page like a gift but mostly they need a good old polish before they’re fit for strangers to see. WB Yeats wrote: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching have been naught.’
You have a rather unusual method for your poetry using only 17 syllable verses. How did you develop this particular method ?
Sometimes the writing won’t come. It would be nice if you could turn it on like a tap, and in my groups we work on techniques to develop that tap-turning ability. But sometimes life gets in the way and in 2009/10 that was happening to me. A Californian writer whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten recommended loosening up by writing one piece every day, just 17 syllables long.
At this point I want to steer well clear of the haiku police and say that my little pieces are not Japanese nature poems. They’re often little dramas, or thoughts about this weird business of being human. Whatever catches me. There’s something about the rhythm of 17 syllables that appeals to me, and the discipline of it. Try it yourself – it’s amazing how powerful something short can be.
You run a couple of writing groups, one in Greenwich the other in Cambridge. Writing is often seen as a solitary occupation, what do you think are the benefits for writers to join a writers group?
There’s no ducking the fact that books don’t get written unless we spend a lot of time alone. Nothing beats getting to the page or screen and staying there while the words and pages stack up. That can feel isolating, especially if the people you live with don’t really get it, and not many do. So the biggest advantage of a writers’ group is for us to get together and bang on about writing for a while. It’s wonderful! Bring in a bit of experienced advice and healthy feedback, and it’s even better. It has to be healthy feedback – the wrong feedback at the wrong time can stop writers dead in their tracks. I’ve seen that happen. That’s why I work hard at making all the feedback in my groups as positive and nurturing as possible.
Both my groups have recently subdivided by the way, because of expanding numbers. In Greenwich Waterstone’s we have a new group on Monday mornings, 10 – 12, as well as the Sunday one, 2.30 – 4.30pm. Everybody’s welcome.
With the advent of E Books, it is probably easier than ever to self-publish; however with increased competition is it more difficult to get your work noticed?
Self-publishing has always been around. Beatrix Potter and William Blake used it because they were fussy about having their own art and their words together, and they didn’t fit into the usual categories. Even Jane Austen used a form of it to catch a publisher’s attention. It’s never been easier or cheaper to see your own words in print and I think that’s great. I’m very glad too to see things open up to everybody so that the days when only dead, white guys got into the ‘literary canon’ are well and truly over.
Just one thing though – the joy of completing your first draft can blind you to its faults. You think your book is finished when it’s not. Friends and family might help you with this but good agents and publishers are better. They’re the experts and can help you improve your story in ways you wouldn’t have dreamt. They also deal with all the layout and printer faff, can get your book reviewed and into book shops (who usually still like to see a publisher’s name on the spine) and they can nurture you into writing more books and making a career of it. A self-published book is a good showcase and shows your commitment, so it’s still a great place to start. And you might strike gold on your own, you never know.
What particular writing are you working on at the moment ?
I’m working on a handbook for writers at the minute – Rosie’s secrets and shortcuts. There’s no shortage of ‘How to’ books on any subject and my writing favourites are Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, How to Write Fiction – a Guardian Masterclass and Stephen King’s On Writing. What If? (Bernays & Painter) is a great collection of writing exercises to help you write around your subject as you discover it and to build up your unique voice.
My contribution will be about the practical things I wish I’d known when I started, things I’ve learned the hard way about writing and getting published that might save other people time and heartache. The book is still in its first draft and has no publication date yet but there’ll be details on www.rosie-johnston.com in due course. And the wee poems keep coming too of course.
If you wish to buy some of Rosie’s work or want to find out more about her writing groups please go to her website http://www.rosie-johnston.com/