Last year I started hearing rumours of a novel about faith, sexuality and university life which would get everyone’s attention when it was published. I didn’t know who had written it, just that it was being edited and prepared for publication, and it would be well worth reading when it arrived. In February, Kathleen Jowitt published Speak Its Name, which more than justified the rumours. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and her writing.
Where did the idea of Speak Its Name come from? What led you to express it in a novel? Was it a set of characters you wanted to develop into a story, a topic you constructed a narrative around, a situation which needed to be explored via fiction?
Once upon a time, I had an idea that I could explain exactly what had happened in the great Christian Union Wars of the 2000s – on my local battleground, at least – by showing it through the experience of six fictional characters who were interested but not involved in it. From where I am now, it looks like the Schleswig-Holstein question, and I don’t think I completely understood what was going on even at the time. Which is probably just as well: a blow-by-blow account of the fracas might be interesting to future Diarmaid MacCullochs, but it would have made a terrible novel, and I came to understand that very quickly.
The real turning point for me came in 2012, when I badly needed to express my frustration with the General Synod vote not to appoint women as bishops. Frustration, betrayal, anger, sorrow, the sense of having been marked as worthless by a Church I loved… fortunately I had a character lying around for whom that resonated, and that gave me a way into the emotional heart of the story. That, in turn, showed me how to turn the six rather passive characters I’d started with into active, dynamic movers and shakers who got themselves involved in the plot and swept it a long way away from the dry thought experiment I’d envisioned at the beginning. What happens in Speak Its Name did not, in fact, happen at any university, but it could probably have happened at any of them.
What is your writing process like? Do you produce lots of drafts, or is it more focused and precise? Has this novel changed through the process?
I can’t write anything straight through from start to finish – and goodness knows I’ve tried. Even if I have a plot outline, I end up writing the scene that strikes me as the most interesting in that particular moment, whether that’s at the beginning, the end, or somewhere as yet undetermined in the middle. When I run out of interesting scenes I read through to see what’s missing, and write that. It feels faintly undisciplined, like eating all the most desirable chocolates first and leaving the weird coconut ones to the end, but it’s the only way that works for me, and seems to result in less coconut overall.
I have lost count of the number of drafts that went into Speak Its Name. On my hard drive there are four separate documents that were at one point or another intended to be the finished product. Several times I gave up and then started all over again months later. I spent a week with a hard copy and a pair of scissors cutting out unnecessary scenes and rearranging necessary ones into a more effective sequence. I got through most of a ream of paper printing out copies to read and red-pen on my commute. And oh boy, has this novel changed. It’s shrunk from six points of view, to three, to one; it’s got much tighter; it’s grown a second major theme. It’s completely different from what I originally thought I was writing.
Of course, much of this was learning on the job. I had to write a huge amount that didn’t need to go in just to understand what did, and I suspect that I’ll be more efficient when it comes to future projects.
What have you learnt as a writer from producing Speak Its Name? Has the process changed you and your approach to fiction in any way?
How to plot – or, rather, how to integrate plot and characterisation. When I started out, I had things that happened, and characters to whom they happened. Somewhere in the third or fourth draft, something clicked, and I was able to make my characters make things happen. Getting Becky involved in bringing the Christian Fellowship issue to the notice of the Students’ Union was a major turning point.
I’ve become less scared of having dynamic, decisive characters who jump in and change things. I’ve also learned how to stand back and let my characters make their own mistakes. It doesn’t matter how much I would like them all to be rational and sensible and communicate properly with each other; they’re nineteen and twenty and some of them are dealing with fundamental misconceptions about themselves, each other and the universe, and consequently under a huge amount of strain. They’re bound to make some bad decisions, and the plot suffers if I don’t let them.
I find myself reading differently, too. Writing a novel has completed the process that began at AS-level English Literature, when it was first pointed out to me that every word on a page was there because an author wanted it to be there. It has taught me to read with attention, to ask why, to look at what an author is doing and how they’re doing it, and whether I’d have done it differently.
I’ve always been a decent proof-reader, but I’ve become much more thorough as an editor, whether checking an annual report in my day job or reading through a story for a friend. Where I used to content myself with pointing out the difference between ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’, or that a semi-colon should have been a colon, I’m now much happier to suggest rewording a sentence to make the stresses fall better or cutting a superfluous paragraph. I don’t seem to have hurt anyone’s feelings yet…
What was behind the decision to self-publish the book? Was this affected by its topic, your own experience as a reader, or other factors? Would you recommend it to other authors?
I self-published because it was becoming clear that Speak Its Name was never going to make it into the world otherwise. Fiction with major LGBT characters is a niche market; LGBT Christian fiction is an even smaller niche, and when you add in the complication that Speak Its Name is set at university, falling somewhere between the teen and adult markets, I’m not really all that surprised that I couldn’t interest any publishers.
Meanwhile, I’d been hanging around on the internet long enough to get to know people who’d self-published – and produced decent books with comparatively little hassle. Lulu, Smashwords and similar agencies have brought self-publishing a long way from the early nineties, when my parents had proofs all over the kitchen table and crates of books stacked in the shed.
The greatest challenge has been taking responsibility for my own work. I’ve had to let go of the need for external affirmation. A publisher is, apart from anything else, a body that says, yes, this work is good enough to go out into the world. Self-publishing means that I’ve had to make that decision for myself. It’s terrifying.
Then there have been the practical challenges. Everything that I vaguely assumed that a publisher would take care of – editing, typesetting, cover design, publicity – I’ve had to either do myself, or find someone willing to be paid in gin and gratitude. Fortunately, I have friends who are generous, skilled and thorough.
Having said all that, I’ve really enjoyed the experience of self-publishing. It gives me the rare privilege of ultimate control over my book. The price I’ve paid is the extensive network that a conventional publisher would have, but I’d do it again.
How has Speak Its Name been received? What do you hope readers might get from the book, and feel about it?
I’ve been delighted by the reception. Readers seem to have recognised their own university experiences – from all over the country, and the last four decades – in Stancester and its politics, and to have got on well with the characters. I’m also glad that non-Christian readers are enjoying it. I was surprised and pleased to hear reports of people not being able to put it down. I hadn’t particularly set out to write a page-turner, but some ruthless editing seems to have resulted in that.
More seriously, if just one young LGBT Christian comes across it and realises that they don’t have to choose between two integral parts of their identity, I will have done all that I could wish to do.
Where will your writing go next? Is there a sequel or a follow-up novel planned? Or will you be heading in another direction?
A sequel to Speak Its Name could certainly happen: the combination of a PhD for Colette, the possibility that Lydia might have a vocation to ordained ministry, and that Peter might not, would easily provide enough plot for another novel. At the moment I don’t feel particularly inclined to write it, but that may change in a couple of years.
The next novel is based around a very different scenario – a heterosexual pairing, no university, no church – but still, as a friend put it, ‘about people sorting their heads out’. Having said that, I’ll be returning to the Church as a topic in the future; it’s a cause of, and solution to, so many problems in this life that it’s a bountiful mine for fiction.
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Penelope Wallace said:
Extremely good interview. I especially liked the bit about writing the interesting bits first, and then seeing what was missing! I am thinking of self-or-independently-publishing a novel with a Christian (medieval!) ethos, but with some LGBT characters, but even if I weren’t, I would be intrigued. So many books to read, so little time!