Author Confessions: Jenny Downham
YA author Jenny Downham was an actress for many years before turning to writing full-time. Her novel Before I Die was adapted into a film, Now Is Good, starring Dakota Fanning. Her latest novel Unbecoming is a heartstopping read about three generations of women struggling to keep it together as secrets from the past threaten to tear them apart. We were honoured to have Jenny bravely enter our Author Confessions booth...
What's the worst piece of writing advice you've received?
Write about what you know. The reason this is rubbish advice, is because it's so limiting. A writer should never think, 'I don't know about this, so I better stop and write something else.' Instead, they should pretend they're an expert and imagine their way through and then research what they need and re-write and weave things together later.
How do you arrange your bookshelf?
I tried to arrange my books alphabetically once and it lasted about three days. There are books on every available flat surface in my house – including chairs and the floor. My children are forced to navigate piles of them in order to sit down. I hope it helps them choose reading material.
A writer should never think, 'I don't know about this, so I better stop and write something else.'
How do you react to bad reviews?
I get a great urge to contact the reviewer and DEMAND a conversation, so I can explain why they are wrong! I want to point out all the deep and beautiful resonances they are clearly too dull to observe... After this urge has passed, I bow my head and acknowledge that reading is subjective and my book isn't perfect and no story can speak to everyone. Then I try and forget all about the bad review and move forwards with whatever I am writing next.
Are there any of your characters that you truly despise?
I don't like Ellie's father in You Against Me. I don't exactly despise him – it's more that I think he's morally weak and a coward. Because he has financial control over his family, he becomes rather insistent that they all do as he says. He stops listening and stops seeing the wider picture. I hope the book explores the disadvantages this kind of bullying can bring and I hope by the book's end, it's clear that he's learned a few things.
Is writing a pain or a pleasure?
Both. When it's going badly, I feel utterly miserable. As each bad day passes, I become increasingly certain that I'll never write another word of merit. I feel stuck and full of despair. But when it's going well and the words call me - it's not a graft, it's not work, it's the one thing I really want to be doing. And it gives me joy in a way nothing else does.
What's your most extreme research story?
I sat through a rape trial when I was researching, You Against Me. Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute because there are often only two witnesses – the defendant and the complainant. Other factors, such as use of alcohol and drugs can muddy the situation further. Often it comes down purely to issues of consent. And that's almost impossible to prove. Sitting through the trial proved to me that with sexual assault cases, there is the 'thirteenth juror' to consider – the preconceptions of the twelve individual jury members. One person might believe that any girl or woman who dresses provocatively 'is leading a man on', another might suppose that any girl who drinks alcohol before going to a guy's house is 'asking for it', another might wonder why the girl agreed to go upstairs if she didn't 'want it.'
The defendant's legal team 'used' these common pre-conceptions to steer the jury and I found it harrowing and infuriating. But it changed the way I wrote the book. From that moment, I knew I wanted to make the reader think, to move them, to provoke them, to encourage them to tackle their own prejudices and to confront their own preconceptions about such a crime and to see how the truth can be a slippery thing.
What would your dream job be if you weren't an author?
A gardener. I'd love to spend every day outdoors with my hands in the soil. I'd try and learn the common and Latin names for plants, also their medicinal and culinary uses and how to propagate them. I'm in awe of people who have this knowledge.
Have you ever had a near death experience?
I've been in a really bad car crash. I nearly fell down an abandoned tin mine (my dad grabbed my arm and hauled me out). I've been gassed when the cooker blew out in our holiday caravan and because I was the shortest (and the gas rises) I became unconscious first, but my parents thought I was simply sleepy and so didn't wake me up. It was only when they began to feel unwell too that they realised what had happened and carried me outside. I gave all three of these near-death experiences to Tessa in Before I Die (end of ch 45).
I've been gassed when the cooker blew out in our holiday caravan and because I was the shortest I became unconscious first, but my parents thought I was simply sleepy and so didn't wake me up.
What is your worst writing habit?
I never plan. When I'm in the middle of a project and every day I'm throwing thousands of words in the bin, I wish with all my heart that I could be the kind of writer who could follow a path. However, when the book is complete, I'm rather proud that I didn't need one. At that point, I think it's exactly the best kind of writing habit and fully resolve to do exactly the same for my next book!
Who was your childhood crush?
Elvis Presley. The summer he died they showed all his movies on TV. I curled up on the sofa with a box of tissues and the curtains shut and watched every single film, day after day. I can't quite believe that my mum let me do this, but I recall her being very sympathetic. She had a similar crush on Engelbert Humperdinck, so I guess she understood how it felt to be in love with someone unobtainable.
Which author do you nominate for Author Confessions?
Patrice Lawrence, debut author of Orangeboy. Because she's cool and will have loads of interesting things to say.
Got a hankering for more confessions? Read the Secrets and Confessions stories sent to us by the people of Scotland.