New Year – the perfect time to be writing a review of Angela Jackson’s debut novel The Emergence of Judy Taylor, while my head’s still full of changes and fresh starts and opportunities to be taken.
The paperback edition was published by Canvas (Constable and Robinson) on 21 November 2013, and the book came highly recommended by Anne at Random Things through my Letterbox – she even got a free copy for me, so keen was she for me to read it. I read the book on my Kindle – the best 35p I’ve ever spent (although the price has now risen). It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, that the less you pay for a book, the lower your expectations? But that’s not the reason I loved this book – it was a wonderful read at any price. At the end of this post, I’m offering my unread paperback as a giveaway so you can experience it for yourself.
I found the story line quite engrossing – this is a page turner, but not in the traditional sense. Faced with a potentially life-changing situation, Judy Taylor takes a close look at her life – an outwardly settled and contented one – and decides that it just isn’t what she wants any more. She makes a choice – changes the life she has for a new one, however difficult that might be and whatever the impact on everyone around her. And the impact is tremendous – her husband Oliver is devastated, and her parents are left to cope alone with her father’s health problems. Despite all this, I found Judy a really sympathetic character – it’s not too difficult for anyone, caught up in the comfortable routine of daily existence, to feel the same need to break away, start again. Her new life in Edinburgh is anything but plain sailing – changing her life also means changing herself.
Quite apart from the originality of the story, and its swirling themes of difficult choices and facing death and a woman’s duty, what set this book apart for me was the quality of the writing. Every word really counts and its plain that the book’s construction was an absolute labour of love for the author. Don’t misread that – other than the subject matter, the book is essentially an easy read, accessible to everyone. But the way in which the supporting characters reflect some of the themes and choices has been meticulously crafted. At times it’s immensely funny, wonderfully dry, at other times it tears your heart apart. And some of the descriptions will stay with me for ever – I defy anyone to set it aside after the opening description of the wedding which has something identifiable to everyone, until “some years passed”. Yes Anne, you were right (and you usually are…), I loved it.
And I’m immensely thrilled that Angela Jackson has agreed to answer my questions about it.
I know this is your first novel, and it’s made quite an impression with a nomination for Amazon Rising Stars, and winning the Edinburgh International Festival First Book Award. Were you surprised by the reaction?
Winning those awards and being selected as Edinburgh Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year were all huge surprises. I have had quite a few of those jumping-up-and-down moments, right from getting that first phone call from Anna Webber of United Agents.
Where did the story come from? How did you start?
I’ve always written, but I started the novel after finding a lump in my breast, which turned out to be benign. Coming face to face with your own mortality tends to make you really think about life. Sitting in the waiting room with lots of other women made me wonder how our lives would be different after that day, no matter what our test results. I started writing the book (initially as a screenplay) that day. However, I was working full time, so I would teach all day, mark in the evenings, then write after everyone had gone to bed, usually between midnight and 3am. It took about three years of doing that a couple of times a week to finish it.
Do you have any advice to give other new writers after your experience?
I always say the same three things: keep reading (buy books!), keep writing (even if it’s just for ten minutes a day), and find great beta readers who will give you constructive feedback throughout the writing process.
I have to mention the really mixed reviews on Amazon. When I first contacted you, you said “Glad you ‘got’ the book and liked it”. Does it upset you when people really don’t?
I’m human, so I can’t say bad Amazon reviews don’t affect me – they do – but that’s part of being a published author. However, I decided from the start that I would read all the reviews – good, bad and indifferent, so I had to prepare myself for anything. I’m pretty relieved that the professional feedback has, so far, been very positive, including some high praise from one of this year’s Costa Award judges. I knew the book had the capacity to polarise people; it deals with serious life issues but is a very easy read, and I can see how those reading only the surface story might be dissatisfied that the book doesn’t tie everything up neatly. The book doesn’t offer answers, and the characters are flawed and occasionally frustrating and challenging, just like in real life, and I’ve taken a fair amount of flak for that! People have been annoyed that Judy leaves a seemingly happy marriage, but she actually leaves a whole life behind, not just her marriage, in search of a more authentic (and uncertain) life with no guarantees. If we physically stay where we are, we tend to stay where we are in many other ways.
One of the five star reviews calls it “Anne Tyler to a Miles Davies soundtrack” – is that a combination you’re pleased with?
I let it go to my head for about half an hour, then had a word with myself and went off to make a cup of tea and calm down; I’m not sure anyone should be compared to Anne Tyler or Miles Davis!
I bought the Kindle version of your book for 35p – was that your decision?
It’s gone back up in price now, but I have no say on pricing.
I really enjoyed the book – what have you read and enjoyed recently?
James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (© 1967) made me put everything else he has written onto my Christmas list. I’ve read it twice in the past few weeks; the first time I wasn’t so sure about it, but after discussing it with other readers and reading an interview with the author about what he was trying to achieve with the novel, I read it again and was spellbound. I am also utterly absorbed by an old book I took out from the university library which is a collection of Paris Review interviews with classic writers, so that series has also made it onto my list.
I loved Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit DiscoQueen, and was lucky enough to hear her read from it at Edinburgh Book Festival. I am reading Love, Nina at the moment, which is making me laugh out loud, and have also just started Ruby Wax’s Sane New World – I think Ruby is amazing.
Books I know I will go back to after reading them recently are The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, which offers great insight into the human condition, and Hanif Kureishi’s absolutely compelling Intimacy, which I didn’t want to end.
And have you chosen the life you’re now living?
I have chosen it, yes. It’s not perfect, but that is what life is like. Philosopher Gillian Rose said that we exist in this ‘broken middle’ where things are not perfect, and we need to realise that in order not to get too attached to the idea of perfection. So, I am living the life I have chosen, which has meant making considerable sacrifices – moving to a much smaller flat and giving up a full-time lecturer’s salary in order to write my second novel, for example! I’m also currently doing a full-time MSc in Creative Writing, which is hard work but it means I will be able to teach that as well as my principal subject of Psychology in the future. I always want to keep an element of teaching in my career.
Is there a second novel in the pipeline?
Yep! I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s a novel about how an extended family of characters deal with some pretty big issues. At the heart of it is a huge marital infidelity, and we see the shock waves of the affair ripple through all the characters. Despite this, it’s full of hope with plenty of dark humour (a bit like the first book in that respect).
Thank you so much, Angela, for answering my questions – and I hope I will make it to Edinburgh some time to visit Judy’s favourite places.
I do hope my review and the interview with Angela will make more people want to read this book, and hopefully love it as much as I did. I have an unread paperback edition to give away to a UK reader – please follow the blog and leave a comment below, and I’ll draw a winner on Saturday 18th January. If you’d prefer to read it on Kindle, I’m afraid it’s no longer 35p – but it’s still a book you really shouldn’t miss.