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Jo Baker Author Biography Essay

I can't remember a time before I wrote. There was a computer at my Dad's work (just one computer, this being the early 80s: it took up a whole room) and it spewed out reams of paper. The paper was covered in narrow green stripes and computer-print on one side, but was wonderfully blank on the other. Dad brought heaps of it home for us kids. I made little books out of it, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

When I was eighteen, I went off to Oxford to study English Literature. We read all 'the greats', in chronological order. I now know that it's a wonderful resource for a writer, to have this kind of wide reading under your belt, but at the time it knocked the creativity out of me entirely. Literature started to seem like a graveyard full of monuments to dead great men.  After Oxford, writing no longer seemed like something I could do. Not being great, or dead. Or a man.

In 1995 I moved to Belfast; I went there initially to do an MA in Irish Writing, thinking I might become an academic.  But it was living there that enabled me to write creatively again.

The ceasefire had just come into being, and with that came a massive release of pressure: the city was buzzing with life and energy. And it also seemed to be teeming with writers. You saw novelists in the street, poets at the cinema. You bumped into playwrights in the pub.

Getting to meet writers, getting to know writers, I saw - duh - that writing was something done by real live men and women. And I was a real live woman, so it was at least possible that it could be done by me. I also started going out with one of the writers I'd kept on bumping into, the playwright Daragh Carville. He said to me one day, 'The way you speak, the way you use words, it's clear you're a writer. Why aren't you writing?'

Good question, and incredibly enabling. I began, tentatively, to write again. A short story, and then another. I started writing a novel. Daragh and I married in 2000, and I published my first book, Offcomer, in 2002.  I wrote on through a PhD, alongside full-time and part-time jobs, through pregnancy and on into motherhood, and even though my hands are now a bit dodgy from all the typing, I still find I need to write. It clears my head, it shuffles my thoughts into order, tamps them down for me.  It's how I make sense of myself, of living in the world.

From time to time, I meet someone who tells me that they love one or other of my books. It  makes me very sheepish; I'm not good at taking compliments. But it's extraordinary, and very moving, hear that something I've made, quietly and alone, has had that kind of impact on someone else.  It's a privilege.

I'm very happy to welcome Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, to the blog today. Her novel turns the world of Pride and Prejudice upside-down and inside-out in an utterly brilliant imagining of Jane Austen's famous novel for the point of view of the hard-working and usually invisible servants. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. As a child, I wrote all the time – writing was a kind of more intense version of reading for me. I studied English at University, and though it laid down a good grounding in literature for me, which is invaluable to a writer, it also knocked all the creativity out of me for years. I felt like I’d got lost in this graveyard crowded with monuments to Great Men: there was nowhere left for me to pitch my flimsy little tent – and I was no longer sure that I even wanted to. 

I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, when I lived in Belfast. There was – and still is – a vibrant literary community there, and I’d got to know some actual living writers, and it just started to become clear to me that this was something that I could actually aspire to. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in a little village in the north of Lancashire. Childhood full of nettle stings and swimming in the river, and climbing trees. I moved away when I was 18, and spent a lot of time in Ireland. In that weirdly circular way that life sometimes has, circumstances have conspired to bring me back near where I grew up. We live in Lancaster, which is a pretty little Georgian town in the north of England. I’m a writer, and a mum, and so I don’t have much free time– but I love going for long walks and bike rides, and really just getting out of doors whenever I can.  
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d always known my family had been in service, and this perhaps made me more alert to the servants’ presence in Austen’s novel, but the catalyst was really the line in Pride and Prejudice: ‘The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. I got snagged on this, couldn’t stop thinking about the reality of what it meant. I wondered who ‘proxy’ might be, and how s/he felt about having to go and fetch decorations for someone else’s dancing shoes, in the pouring rain, when none of the Bennet girls are prepared themselves to go.  And that’s when the story started to fizz. 
How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Apart from my first, which I fumbled my way through blindfolded, I always have a sense of where they go, and often will have some scenes already in my head before I start to write. But I have never actually sat and plotted a book before starting. I’d be afraid that I’d have worn it out before I’d even written it. 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My dreams are often extraordinarily dull. I have a recurring one about a cafeteria where there’s no food I can eat (I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, and a vegan for a while – I think it stems from that!) I recently had a dream about a new shop opening in town, and deciding I might go and have a look at what they stock. Really not the most thrilling material, though you could maybe make a short story out of them… I think I probably use up all the most exciting bits of the subconscious soup in my waking life, while writing. Freud described writers  as ‘dreamers in broad daylight’ – so maybe that’s why my dreams are so uninspiring – it’s all drained during the daylight hours.  

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There were a bundle of co-incidences around this novel, but the one that made me really feel that I was onto something was when reading Austen’s letters. I found a reference to some mantua makers she used. These were sisters who did low-paid piece work, sewing for the local ladies. The surname was Baker. Obviously, it’s a common enough name, but it did make me feel my instincts were working – it ‘placed’ me within Austen’s world.

Where do you write, and when?
I write (I am writing this now) in a little coffee shop in town. I write in the mornings – though these can often be quite long, extending to 2 or 3 in the afternoon. But once I’ve broken for lunch, I’m fit for nothing. 

I used to have a proper job too – then, I had to write at night. We called it ‘the Sylvia Plath shift’ – from 3 am, when I’d wake naturally, to 7 am, when the kids got up. It was the only way I could get any work done. Couldn’t keep that up forever, though – it was like being constantly jetlagged. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
The bit where you lose yourself completely in the other world.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
It hasn’t happened yet… I have so little time to write, that I can’t waste a drop of it, so I don’t have time to be blocked, I just have to get on with things…

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I really don’t know…
I’m nosy, I suppose. Friends say I am a good listener; and I am endlessly fascinated by people, and speculate on lives and behaviour and motivation. I think that probably has something to do with it. 

I read constantly if erratically, and watch films, devour box sets. 

I also talk a lot with writer friends and my husband – who is also a writer. And just absorb stuff really. I’m really fascinated by the natural world too, seasonality and sensory experiences. I think you just have to be open to the world. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
It’s like getting into cold water. You can’t faff around dabbling in a toe and paddling. Take a run and jump, and you’re in deep before you know it. I walk into town, into the coffee shop, order the same coffee, sit at the same table, and just start work until  - on a good day -I’m too hungry to keep on going. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Oh, crikey. Ten….Okay. In no particular order:

William Blake, Ray Davies, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Cormac McCarthy, Joss Whedon, William Goldman, Victor Hugo, Hilary Mantel, Susan Cooper, Daragh Carville. 
(I’m not very good with numbers, did I mention?)

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Mostly, good writing is happening when you don’t notice it. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
(No-one else is going to do it for you)

What are you working on now?
A secret

Earlier this week Jo explained more about her inspirations for Longbourn in a guest post for me 

and here is my review of Longbourn

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