Woven Tale Press Editor Jo Ely | In Her Own Words

Woven Tale Press Editor Jo Ely | In Her Own Words

 Writing My First Novel

Jo Ely

Cover of Stone Seeds, Jo Ely's new novel[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f truly committed, one can always find time to write–poet Salena Godden gets up at 4 am, and short story writer and novelist Jacqueline Crooks would write on buses and trains, commuting to her seven-day-a-week job. Not many people have that kind of commitment, and I am no exception. I mostly got my novel written by skipping the housework, writing when my kids were in school or asleep, or popping into my favorite cafe after work, with a sturdy pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Writing dystopian or speculative fiction allows me go to places where I wouldn’t normally be allowed, and to say much more than I could get away with in a real-life setting.

The biggest influence on my speculative writing has to be Margaret Atwood. She’s capable of creating these dramatically different science fiction worlds, but it’s really all about the characters for her. Who they are and how they respond to their circumstances, and to one another.

In  Stone Seeds, my first published novel, I set myself a similar challenge for my own characters, many of them influenced by my travels. In Peru, I remember crouching in the ruins of an ancient home at the top of Macchu Picchu, watching the light filter in through the slotted window, making patterns on the floor. Wondering who’d sat there before me. What they’d felt.

And later, as local children raced after our bus, down the side of the mountain, I admired their expertise, not once losing their footing, not even the little ones. They followed our rattling old bus as it dipped into holes and clattered along. These children are all wrapped up in Zettie, the youngest character in Stone Seeds.

I wrote every word of Zettie with a lump the size of a small plum at the back of my throat. She is just a little too real for me. I lacked … what’s the phrase? Authorial distance. There were things I couldn’t write about her, not even for the sake of the story.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] mostly got my novel written by skipping the housework, writing when my kids were in school or asleep, or popping into my favorite cafe after work…

Mamma Zeina, my oldest character, appeared to me a few times. Once I saw her in Florence, a Romanian gypsy woman in traditional dress, full skirts and headscarf. She was selling balloons. I was wondering what her life must be like, and I must have been staring, because the old woman turned and gave me a warm but shrewd and very direct stare. I felt completely and unnervingly transparent. At the same time, my small daughter let go of her balloon and burst into tears, permanently scoring that moment in my mind.

I met Mamma Zeina again in Florence. Piazza Signoria was uncharacteristically empty, the shutters of all the cafes pulled shut. There must have been a football match, because a large group of young, male German fans came around the corner. They were chanting and drunk and the atmosphere was a bit rough. I hurried away with my two small children, bumping the pram over the cobbles, but when I’d reached a safe distance, I turned and looked back.

I saw a very old woman in an ancient fur coat and wobbly lipstick approach the bench we’d just vacated. She sat down and pulled out a cigarette. I would remember her steely gaze at the crowd of chanting thugs. This tiny, ancient woman surrounded by giants. It occurred to me that she would have been a young woman at a time when another very different group of German men were occupying that square. I wondered what she had felt.

After that, I began researching the role of women in the Italian Resistance. I met with a fiercely intelligent, older Jewish-Italian woman who’d been a small child during the Nazi era. She’d been spirited across the border by nuns and was brought home to Florence when the war was over. Everyone in her nuclear family had made it.

That small girl had passed through so many safe pairs of hands on her way out of the country–not one person had let that child slip through their fingers. Here she was now, alive and well, a mother and a grandmother, talking to me. The idea for the underground network in Stone Seeds percolated in my mind for more than ten years after that meeting.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here were things I couldn’t write about her, not even for the sake of the story.

The settings for my novel Stone Seeds were  also influenced by my travels, firstly, by flashes of memory from an early childhood spent in Botswana. I was still very young when my family returned to Britain for good, so it’s very possible, in fact likely, that these are not real memories at all, but images implanted by my parents’ bedtime stories: A tree full of monkeys, silent and then bursting into chatter; a loud and colorful market place, hot, baked earth under my dirty bare feet; black flattened trees and red skies. Some kind of worm or baby snake wrapped around the end of a stick my older brother was pulling out of the ground couldn’t possibly have been real. Or could it?

From wherever they actually originated, these mental images have helped me to build the Edge Farms in Stone Seeds.

Traveling as an adult certainly influenced the other settings and locations in Stone Seeds.  Once very jet lagged and disoriented, I found myself driving down street after empty street in Naples, Florida, where the super-rich keep their holiday homes and gardens as large as helipads.

But, like a classic horror movie trope, I couldn’t find my way out. I kept expecting something peculiar to happen, lightning to strike or an old woman to appear stage left and rattle a dire warning, and the idea for the OneFolks’ village in Stone Seeds popped into my head fully formed.

On that same trip, I travelled across a shaky, rickety, wooden walkway into the heart of the everglades, when every single leaf or rotten wood stump in the cypress forest was crawling with life–I could hear every snap, crunch, squelch and slide. Just a few feet below me alligators heaved and rolled in the dirty shallow water. That experience provided the basis for the Killing Forest scenes in Stone Seeds.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he idea for the underground network in Stone Seeds percolated in my mind for more than ten years after that meeting.

Seeking a publisher for Stone Seeds was an entirely different experience from writing it. Over the years, I’d learned that when actually submitting your work, you have to have nerves of steel. And it took years of rejections, to learn how to hone my pitch, as well as my writing; Stone Seeds began as a rewrite of another novel I had submitted to an agent who had shown some interest in the opening chapters.

But in that rewriting, I discovered that there was a better way to tell the story I wanted to tell. By then I no longer needed an agent, having already found my publisher, with Urbane. I approached  Urbane  initially via Twitter, and just a few weeks later we met to discuss the publishing contract for Stone Seeds.

Now being able to hold a physical copy of the book is another matter entirely. And, yes, I can probably admit to sniffing and stroking that first advance copy. Apparently other writers do this too, secretly, so we are a primitive bunch it seems. The cover of the book is what I love best, designed by Indian filmmaker Cyril Rana, and perfectly evoking the sense of mystery in Stone Seeds.

Since finishing Stone Seeds I’ve been experimenting and trying different things out. I love reading short stories in contemporary settings, but one thing I’ve found when I try to write them, something unexpected always seems to happen. A person will turn into a lamp post and then have to deal with that emotional fallout. The scenery will shift and become altered unaccountably.

I never planned to write exclusively speculative fiction. But plans are one thing and the imagination doesn’t necessarily do what it’s told.

Jo Ely is literary editor for The Woven Tale Press. Her first novel,Stone Seeds, has just been published by Urbane Publications.

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