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  • Writer's pictureBelle Kenyon

On Northern roots and class: Janet H Swinney in conversation with Kayla Jenkins

Janet H Swinney is the author of The House with Two Letter-Boxes, a short story collection of witty, resourceful characters from working-class mining communities.

The collection is available as an audiobook (free trial here) , a paperback and an ebook!

Kayla: Hello Janet! I hope you’re well. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your short story collection, The House With Two Letter-Boxes.

So – to begin with, I’d like to take a look at the setting of the collection. These stories are all based in the North East of England, which I know is very important to you as a region. Why, in terms of literature, was it important for you to base your stories and characters here?

I was born and grew up in the North East of England, and have returned to it at various points during my adult life so it’s inevitable that I’m attached to the place and that events that occurred there are etched deep in my memory. Even though I’ve lived in London for years, I still think of myself as a northerner. I still hear the voices of people from the region in my head, and I still revert to the full argot as soon as get back there. So, this is the experience I write from in this particular collection.

The North East probably has much in common with other, largely working-class communities that have lost their main source of employment. But the voices and the sense of humour are distinctive, and it’s a place where comedy and tragedy are tightly stitched together in the same seam. Sometimes the characters in my stories are well aware of the irony of their circumstances but, sometimes, it goes unremarked and is left for the reader to spot. I’d like to mine this tragicomic seam further in future work.

Of course, government policy is a breeding ground for the ‘absurd’. Initiatives fashioned in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster are often a poor fit with the reality of the lives of ordinary people especially those struggling on or below the poverty line. This leads to all kinds of ‘absurdist’ situations that people have to try and deal with, whether they want to or not. To give an example:

The story ‘Angel of the North’ is set in the Eighties when various government-sanctioned quality assurance initiatives were all the rage, but here, they have exactly the opposite effect of what some well-meaning management guru intended. Then there’s Ada, the central character in the title story. She has to contend with the shortcomings of the state’s health and social care provision just at the point in life when she’s at her most vulnerable. Things may be more or less comfortable in Kensington and Chelsea, but it’s damn sight less so in the poorer corners of the country.

There are several stories in the collection where the solution to a problem depends upon the application of craft skills. I wanted to show that in poor communities, people are not just resilient, but extremely resourceful. Nearly every woman in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation was a skilled craftswoman, and that was of necessity, not necessarily out of interest.

Then, there’s the thing about the countryside. The North East is a beautiful landscape, albeit largely privately owned, that used to be studded with grim places of employment – the coal mines and coke works. The contrast was inescapable. I always found the hedgerows, the lanes, the moors and the coastline sources of inspiration.

For me, the driving force behind these stories are the characters, both good and bad.

Kayla: What’s the process you undertake when writing characters? Do you draw influence from people you know, from other characters you love, or are they completely imagined? How do you get them so visceral?

I don’t know that it’s possible to create completely imaginary characters without them being absolute cliches. Is it? Undoubtedly, my characters are informed by people I’ve known or observed at a distance. But it’s not a simple matter of cloning. Real-life people provide the maquettes on which I construct imaginary ones. And that’s largely an intuitive process.

Once I’ve conceived of the characters, I intuit how they would behave in specific situations and that emerges more fully in the process of writing. Or sometimes, things happen the other way round. A situation, or a dilemma presents itself and I think what characters I need to populate it.

Perhaps it’s the way my characters speak that makes them seem visceral. They tend not to mince words, and that’s a characteristic of working-class conversation. I’m an inveterate eavesdropper and am always listening out for colloquial, colourful or inventive turns of phrase.

Kayla: Domestic violence is a powerful theme in many of these stories. Why was it important for you to realistically convey this?

Let’s think about Ada, the main character in the title story. Ada is an elderly woman. Nevertheless, she’s under siege from the man next door and from a late night visitor. When these assailants can’t assault her in person, they assault her door through the only two orifices available.

I am an old school feminist (which explains my Twitter handle) so, inevitably, I keep returning to this subject. Mind you, that fact hadn’t occurred to me until I was discussing the collection with Isabelle just after the murder of Sarah Everard, and then I realised that I had a lot of stories that touched on this subject either directly or obliquely. We enlarged the book to incorporate more of this material.

Like most women, I have instances of physical assault and sexual harassment to refer to in my own life, though not as extreme as the ones described here, and it seems that whatever age we are, we women are never free of this issue. Women have to manage themselves in the world in a way that men don’t have to. It’s deeply depressing that women still have to spend their lives being ‘on guard’ against one kind of assault or another. At least here, Ada gets her revenge.

Kayla: I’d like to take a moment to discuss one of the stories, ‘Black Boy Winning’, and its recent narration by actors James Bolam and Susan Jameson. The short film was made to honour to 150th anniversary of the Durham Miners’ Gala – why do you feel that this remains important in today’s society? And what was it about James and Susan that made them the right fit to narrate this story?

James and Susan are very well known to North Eastern audiences from the much loved series ‘When the Boat Comes In’, and ‘New Tricks’. Of course, James also starred in the very popular, ‘The Likely Lads’ which has never faded from memory. I was delighted to be able to secure their services for this film. They did a great job. James narrates the role of the older man, and there are moments when, even though I’ve watched the film about a hundred times, his delivery makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Durham Miners’ Gala is the world's greatest celebration of community, international solidarity, and working-class culture. Capitalism promotes individualism and self-interest. The Miners’ Gala and its long history remind us of the benefits of being part of a community that promotes fellow-feeling, mutual support and co-operation. These principles should never be out-of-date.

Kayla: The House with Two Letter-Boxes is a nuanced and detailed exploration of working class lives. Why do you think it’s essential that these voices are represented in literature? What do you think could be done to ensure the working class is heard?

We have constructed a history of our four-nation state that is mainly about the whims, fancies and exploits of rich and powerful English aristocrats. It’s not fit for purpose. And we can see now that it’s beginning to unravel. Our literary canon is also distorted. It’s time for this to change, and it is changing… very slowly. A country that claims to be ‘levelling up’ (sic) is not best served by validating the stories of only some of its citizens.

Unfortunately, while some publishers, agents and funding bodies pay lip service to inclusion, the schemes they have developed have exactly the opposite effect, as in, ‘We don’t accept short stories,’ or ‘You don’t live here now, how can you be a northern writer?’ This last one puzzles me. Does that mean that when James Joyce was in self-imposed exile in Paris, he was no longer an Irish writer? I’m extremely grateful to ‘Fly on the Wall’ for seeing beyond such parameters.

I don’t remember anyone ever coming into my classroom at school and asking us working-class kids, ‘Anyone interested in a job in publishing?’ Maybe that’s the most important thing that needs to change: a greater diversity among the ‘gatekeepers’ in the industry. These days, many writers – like the population as a whole - have complex, multiple identities and don’t fit readily match some single, restrictive criterion stipulated by a publisher. That fact needs to be recognised.

Kayla: The House With Two Letter-Boxes is also out as an audiobook (Audible, iTunes, Amazon), narrated by Hannah Wood. What was it about this voice actress that brought the stories to life?

I felt I could rely on Hannah totally, in terms of the regional accent, and that worrying about the authenticity of her pronunciation would not be a distraction for listeners. I also thought she grasped what I was on about and would be able to do justice to my work. And thirdly, I really liked the quality of her voice. She’s done a great job!

And, lastly, how did you first get into creative writing? I’d love to know more about your journey towards where you are now, including what it was like writing and editing The House With Two Letter-Boxes. What is one thing you would say to someone delving into creative writing for the first time?

When I came to the end of my degree course, I was really directionless. The hippy era did not serve me well in some important respects, and some of the most laid-back ne’er-do-wells I knew, turned out not to be ne’er-do-wells at all, and went off to become income tax inspectors while I was still f***ying about in a long skirt and cheesecloth cladding.

I considered what I was good at and concluded that, as I’d always known, my best suit was writing, but I had no connections, no cash and, worst of all, no confidence. Reluctantly, I went on to do a teaching qualification. But I started abridging Dickens’s ‘Dombey and Son’ for radio, which was certainly a more valuable experience than my teaching diploma. I had one or two articles published and also submitted one or two comedy pieces to BBC Radio Leeds where I was encouraged by the producer, Alfred Bradley, who gave Alan Plater his start.

But I had to earn a living doing other things. I did do more creative writing, but a lot of my energy went into writing teaching and training materials instead. A few decades later, I tried my hand at journalism. I had features articles published in the national press and was a runner-up in The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition in 2008 in the professional class even though I had absolutely no professional training. But it was clear that it was going to be impossible to make a full-time career out of this, so I went on working in Education until, at last, I had enough savings to be able to devote all my time to fiction.

If you want to do this, you need to start as early as you can, have faith in yourself, have a pot of money you can use for submission fees, prepare yourself for rejection, because you’re probably going to gets loads of it and be willing to learn your craft as you go along. Make a wide range of essential connections, and once you’ve learned how to do that, please tell me how!

Thank you for your time!

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