Aspiring-Author Interview #3: Jean Clement

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Jean Clement
(Read her work on FP)

1. Tell us about yourself!

I am a first-year English student at the University of Southampton in the UK, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it – except for the fact that writing essays on other people’s books tend to get in the way of writing my own.

Becoming a published author has been my dream for many years. I’m still shaping my writing style, so I always have various different types of stories on hand, most of which (mercifully perhaps) end up being abandoned. I am a voracious reader, both because I enjoy it and because it helps me improve my own writing. Having a keen interest in modern history, my preference is for historical novels, although I will read practically anything which looks good. I love poetry, too, provided I am not required to analyse it.

Some of my other interests are music, art, film and drama, and going for rambles on Southampton Common when it’s sunny.

2. What is your novel about? (It can be a completed story, or the new story you’re currently working on–whichever is your biggest project that you want to draw attention to)

Mary Banks, subtitled ‘A Victorian Life’, is the story of an ordinary middle-class single woman in the mid-Victorian era, and her quiet and lonely struggle with the role society imposes on her. Her talents and intelligence cause her to want more out of life than a career as a governess in a country squire’s household can offer. A visit to London with her brother, catapulted to fame by a début novel, allows her to meet the authors she knows only through their writings, and shows her an alternative life, in the shape of her own writing career, and one of her literary idols and his young family. Yet every time she considers seizing her chance, a problem arises in her large family – and her sense of duty and responsibility persuades her that the only way to show her love is through self-sacrifice. My story explores the effect the two-faced, sanctimonious Victorian conception of a woman’s role must have had on many talented young women at the time.

3. What inspired you to write this story?

Funnily enough, an academic article. Two years ago, when I was in the midst of feverish research for a school essay about William Thackeray’s authorial manipulation of the reader’s sympathies, I happened upon an article by Richard A. Kaye: ‘A Good Woman on Five Thousand Pounds’. Centring on an apparently casual similarity between Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair, which came out in the same year, it described the literary rivalry between Thackeray, struggling to keep up the reputation he had built for himself, and Charlotte Brontë, his timid admirer whose début had taken London by storm. When Brontë visited London in the following year, she met Thackeray, and neither of them knew very well how to deal with the other, which led to some painful and some comic episodes. The article proved useless for my essay; but the curious relationship between two great literary names which it described gave me the idea for the main characters in this novel and their behaviour towards one another.

The rest of my story has simply grown out of this basis. I fed it by reading and re-reading the great Victorian novels I admire, and gradually resolved on making Mary Banks’s autobiography at once an homage to the era that shaped the modern novel, and to the ordinary women for whom this was simply a very difficult time in which to live.

4. Where are you in your journey to publication?

Nowhere much, I’m afraid. I’ve been a contributor to FictionPress for just over a year after trying out various other websites, but other than that I have made no attempt to explode my work onto the world as yet. I am learning a great deal from others going through the process at the moment, however: June kindly shares her experiences of publishing The Runaway Courtesan with me, and the contributions to Let the Words Flow have been extremely helpful. My own aim just now is to finish my manuscript, and redraft it until I’m satisfied – which will very probably take a while yet.

5. Your top five favorite books?

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – for its insight into human nature and its subtle wit

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – for the credible normality of its hero and heroine, and its lively yet courageous parody of the popular Gothic genre

White Teeth by Zadie Smith – for its almost Dickensian, big-hearted inclusion of all its different characters, no matter how flawed they are

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter – for their creative experimental narratives, exploring and challenging the boundaries between different genres of fiction

(Having said this, I am in honour bound to confess that not all my reading is this high-brow: I am a dedicated lover of the novels of Georgette Heyer. She taught me nearly all I know about the Regency, and the witty repartee of her spirited heroines has beguiled many of my evenings. My favourites are The Grand Sophy, The Unknown Ajax and Cotillion.)

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