Jane Corry’s journey into the darkness of the soul.
Jane Corry’s psychological thriller my husband’s wife is essentially about very ordinary people, you might know, or can certainly relate to. But that’s probably as far as you want to go with regards to personal experience, because the story soon becomes very dark. It is one of those books where you have to remind yourself to breathe every so often as you, along with the characters, become entangled in the plot. I was intrigued to know how Jane, was able to weave this compelling story.
I would like to talk about your background because the complexity of the story in my husband’s wife and maintaining the tension throughout it is usually something which requires a great deal of writing experience.
I’ve always written. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I was a voracious reader and, possibly because of this, used to write short stories when I was quite young. I loved writing essays at school, particularly if I was allowed to use my imagination.
Then in my teens, I began writing reams of poetry. This proved to be particularly important for honing my writing skills because it made me think of how I used every single word. I won a poetry competition when I was seventeen, which was printed in the Harrow Observer. I can still remember the thrill of seeing my work in print.
At about this time, I went to a careers evening. The advisor asked me what I wanted to do and I said “I want to be a novelist”. Instead, I was advised to take a ‘sensible’ job like teaching. I came away in tears.
This sounds as if your writing career was finished before it had even started. How did you manage to pursue your dream?
While reading English at Reading University, I got involved with its magazine: reviewed plays and then wrote features. Now, when I give talks to schools, I always advise students to do the same if they want to be a writer. By then, I’d realized that journalism might be a way of earning money until I could write that novel. My portfolio of cuttings was very helpful when I applied for the Thomson Graduate Trainee Scheme – in those days Thomson owned The Times. I didn’t think I stood a chance because I wasn’t at Oxford or Cambridge and there was only one vacancy for a magazine journalist, but I was very lucky and got the place. This is why I advise students to try for everything and not assume they’re not ‘good enough’.
What did you do as a journalist?
I worked on a trade fashion magazine called ‘Draper’s Record’. This meant I went to fashion shows and met lots of designers like Zandra Rhodes and wrote news features. This wasn’t the type of writing I really wanted to do, but knew I had to stay at the magazine to learn my trade. So I did my NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualification.
After this I moved onto ‘Parents Magazine’. Although I wasn’t a parent at that stage, I loved working there because of the autonomy. I was features editor as well as fashion and beauty editor!
Then my dream job of working on ‘Woman’s Own’ magazine as a features writer came up. During my time there I was sent to interview celebrities and what we call “TOT stories”. These are the “triumph over tragedy” stories, which I really loved doing, because they were stories about ordinary people who overcome the odds. One which particularly comes to mind was an interview with the mother of a little girl who had lost her leg and wanted to be a ballet dancer, despite her artificial limb. These kinds of stories played an important part of my fiction writing later on, because I learned how to interview people and tell their tales. I’ve always enjoyed talking to others and seeing what drives them.
What made you change direction in your writing career?
I wanted to start a family but sadly, had a miscarriage. When I became pregnant again I had to have bed-rest. This meant leaving Woman’s Own.
After I had my son – who is now 32 and also a writer – I began to write about my experiences in the Sunday Times. This led to more commissions.
I then went on to have two more children but I continued working from home and built up my name as a family writer. At one stage I had a regular column for the Daily Telegraph, talking about the ups and downs of domestic life. I also interviewed celebrities for various magazines and newspapers. Although I loved my work, it left little time to write a novel – particularly as I was also bringing up three children.
How did your career as an author develop?
I began to think seriously about writing a novel when my youngest was about three but it took a long time to find my voice and the type of genre I felt comfortable with. When my first marriage ended I took a job as a writer in residence in a high security prison. That’s what gave me the idea for my husband’s wife. Working there meant I entered a very dark world, which I knew nothing about.
Getting married again three years later, made me think about the changing dynamics within a family. I began to wonder if I could combine the two.
When I’d been trying to find my voice for my novels, I started writing romantic short stories for woman’s magazines. But the more time I spent working in the prison, the darker they got! I also love television dramas with twists. This both amuses and irritates my husband because I normally guess what will happen before the end. So I started to play around with red herrings and unexpected events in my own writing.
Meanwhile, I had a friend who used to be in charge of the submissions pile at a major publisher who used to say: “Jane! You’re in a prison. You need to write crime.”
At the time I thought I couldn’t do that because it wasn’t ‘me’. Police procedural books didn’t interest me. I wanted to explore family situations where somebody had fallen foul of the law. Then I realized that it was exactly these kinds of scenarios which could be crime in the form of ‘domestic noir’.
This is your debut psychological suspense novel. Considering the life experience you’ve had since you left university, if you had been published then, how do you think your writing would have differed from the way it is now?
This is an interesting thing to think about. I once had a 19 year old student who had just completed her first novel. It had a wonderful voice. It made me realise you don’t necessarily need a great deal of life experience. A teenager’s novel will have a different voice from someone of 29 or 39. They all have their pros and cons. If I’d written a novel at 19 it would not have been like my husband’s wife. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Having said that, I couldn’t have written the book without having worked in a prison or being married for the second time. Someone rang me the other day and said “I’m writing a book that’s set in a secure offenders’ unit. Can you tell me what it’s like?” I told them that they needed to visit one because no amount of explanation from someone else can describe how it feels to walk down corridors past men who’ve committed headline crimes and look you up and down. Or who might be over-friendly and try to groom you.
There’s also the part of my husband’s wife where you’re writing about very close, long term relationships. This is something you really need some life experience of.
Exactly. I couldn’t have written about this without having gone through it myself. I suspect if I wrote a novel at 19, it would have been about boyfriend rejection, or worrying about exams.
This brings up the common myth that no one is capable of publishing a debut novel later on in life.
Just look at the wonderful Mary Wesley! I occasionally run writers’ classes and often have students who ask “Is it too late to write now?” I assure them that it’s perfectly achievable because they’re still able to write something in their own voice. And they might have more time to complete it than when they were younger.
You’ve done a great deal of short story writing. What are the differences between novels and short stories?
I love short story writing and still write regularly for some leading women’s magazines. The plot has to be zippy and usually needs to end on an upbeat note. I tend to include twists. But you’ve also got to be able to draw a character in a short space of time. So you have to give them a trait that makes them stand out. It might be someone who fusses, or is worried, or very jolly. It might be someone who has a catchphrase in dialogue. You have to be able to write thumbnail sketches.
In a novel you have the luxury of being able to develop that character over an extended piece of writing.
My Husband’s Wife is about very ordinary people who are beset by tragedies. Their descent into their personal hell and problems is gradual. They get into trouble through events that are almost insignificant at first.
Yes. Because that’s what life is like. One of the things that really struck me in prison was that there were people there who you might not think were typical prisoners. Most of them got into trouble through drink and drugs.
But there was one man who still stands out in my mind. He had been driving at 40 miles an hour instead of 30. Someone came out of a side street and was killed. My student was sentenced to a year. He said to me “I never thought this sort of thing would ever happen to me. My mother still can’t bring herself to leave the house.”
I’m also interested in the highly intelligent, manipulative criminal like Joe in the book who tries to influence Lily.
You psychologically play with your readers. The first page of the novel described a great many homely things, which should have made the character feel comfortable. Yet as as the page unfolded it became evident that all was not well with Lily’s life.
This was intentional. First of all I’m interested in the unreliable narrator. As I’ve said, I love twists in a tale and the unreliable narrator is great fun for a writer in this respect. But no one’s life is as simple as it looks.
You also tried to put yourself into the shoes of Carla, first as a child then an adult. later on in the book.
I like multiple viewpoints, because you really need to make the characters very different – not just in looks but also personality. You also have to help the reader know exactly who you’re talking about. So if you give someone a child’s voice, and in particular a knowing child’s voice, then the reader knows which point of view you are in (although I do flag this by using the name of the character at the top of the chapter).
How did you make the transition of Carla from a child to an adult?
I was really excited when I got this idea, because I knew it would move the novel forward several years. I also suspected it might not be the usual pattern of psychological suspense. Having said that, I didn’t read widely in this genre while writing my husband’s wife because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else. I finally read The Girl on The Train after I’d completed my own novel.
Carla’s entrance as a mature woman, pushed the plot forward and gave it, I hope, another exciting edge, because you want to know what she does and what she’s like. And of course she has an agenda.
I spent some time imagining Carla as a child moving back to Italy with her mother and wondering how that would affect her personality. I did this through role play with myself and putting myself in her head.
Essentially none of these characters can be said to be likeable, because they all have a side to them that is not particularly nice. Many readers find this hard to come to terms with and feel it affects the enjoyment of the book, while others feel this only makes a book more interesting. What do you have to say about this ongoing and often very heated debate?
The whole point about my husband’s wife is that you might not particularly like the cast, but there are redeeming qualities in each character. There are no clear black and whites in life. We all have a good and bad side. This makes it hard to work out what the truth is and what isn’t. Some people will dismiss white lies as unimportant but in fact they can be very dangerous.
I did hope that people would find something to admire in the characters and many readers have emailed to say they were hooked by both. But it’s not always a clear cut case of “Oh she’s wonderful and I want her to win”.
I think this contributes to part of the discomfort when you read my husband’s wife because you never feel as if you’re on solid ground with the characters.
We all know people who’ve made the wrong decisions – including ourselves. It’s only human.
my husband’s wife must have been very demanding to write, given how complex it was, how difficult has it been to wind yourself up to write your second novel. Writers often say the second book is one of the most difficult ones to write.
I got the idea for the second book before finishing the first. That’s quite usual for writers. This isn’t always convenient because your head is still in your current book! So I jotted the ideas down at the same time as writing.
What is your writing style?
I do a first draft, writing it in one go. Because of my journalist training I can do 2000 to 2500 words in about three hours. I’m at my best in the morning. I was able to finish the first draft in about four months.
Then I do several revisions before sending it to my editor. My first revision is to ensure the plot hangs together. Then I go back and sow seeds so that when my reader goes back to see how something has happened, there is a clue.
Katy Loftus from Penguin is an excellent editor. She immediately understood where my characters were coming from. She also had some suggestions for improving the flow of the narrative. I agreed with most of these. However, a writer doesn’t have to do this.
I enjoy the process of revision. It’s essential. In my view, you need to read out loud from the printed page – you can miss things on the screen – and check on rhythm, plot, accuracy, flow, characterization, dialogue, setting, point of view etc. Failure to revise properly can be one of the main reasons for rejection.
In fact, there’s much more to a finished novel than meets the eye…