Thursday, 27 February 2014

Author Interview: Joanna Rees

I'm delighted to welcome bestselling author Joanna Rees to my blog to talk about her latest book The Key to it All which is published today.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book The Key to it All?
It’s a big, sweeping epic adventure story about five strangers who each receive a mysterious silver key. They don’t know who has sent it to them, or why. When they pull the key apart and realize it plugs into any computer, they discover a personalized webpage asking them to name what they desire. They soon realize that not only a world of luxury, but their deepest darkest desires can be theirs at the touch of a button. But who is behind the gift? And ultimately, what might they pay for using it? 

Where did the inspiration come from for the characters to be sent a key that could change their lives? 
I wanted them to feel accessible, like normal people, like you or I. I like setting the action of my books all over the world, so I chose the settings I wanted to write about and found the characters that way. Julia is a school teacher in Rio, Christian is a doctor from Scandinavia, but we meet him hard at work in war-torn Africa. Kamiko works in a sushi factory in Japan, Scooter is a down-at-heel actress in New York and Harry is an unlucky banker in London. For me, when I start planning characters, I always write ‘CONFLICT’ at the top of the page. They all have to have an inner conflict that needs resolving. So each of my characters have complex lives and dreams which seem out of reach, which is why receiving the key will make such a dramatic impact on each of them.

As there are 5 major characters in this book did you have to be pretty disciplined with plotting what was going to happen or did you go with the flow? 
I had to plan it. The more I write, the more I realise how essential it is to plan the plot, even though it’s really hard. The temptation is to start straight away and go with the flow, but you always run into problems this way. The hardest thing with a book this size is getting to the end. The plot and the characters lives were so huge by the end that trying to rein it in to a satisfying conclusion, was trying to get a hot air balloon into a backpack on a windy day! Exhausting.

Are you currently working on a new book? If so, are you able to tell us anything about it? 
Yes, I’m writing ‘Burning Paradise’ which is another huge, epic story. I’m still in the planning stage and I’m throwing the kitchen sink of drama at it. I’m a junkie for a twisting turning plot.

Over the years your style of writing appears to have progressed, are we likely to see more changes in the future or is this now your preferred genre for writing? 
I’m really lucky to have had a crack at writing in a few genres. It’s a real privilege to have been around long enough and to have started young enough to have learnt on the job, so to speak.

I started off writing comedies, under my maiden name, Josie Lloyd. When I met Emlyn Rees, my writing partner and then husband, we wrote ‘Come Together’, a twenty-something rom-com, which was a big success here and abroad. We carried on to write seven books together in all, but over time, we realized that we didn’t want to plunder our private lives for material, so moved more into dramatic and romantic plots.

As Jo Rees, I wrote ‘Platinum’ and ‘Forbidden Pleasures’ and really tried the bonk-buster formula. I loved Shirley Conran’s ‘Lace’ when I was growing up and I really wanted to try something epic like that. What I realized through writing those is that I love big plots. I have written comedy and about the reality of every-day life, but I like writing stories that have nothing to do with my life. It’s all about escapism, for the reader and for me.

I’m lucky enough to be writing now as Joanna Rees (which is my actual name, on my actual passport!) for the 

lovely Pan Macmillan, who have just signed me up for three more books, so yes, I’ll be writing these big stories for the foreseeable future.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? 
Yes. I knew from that age of about six. We always used to go on long car journeys from Essex where we lived to see my Nanna in London. I was such a chatterbox that my mum gave me a pencil and pad and told me to write down what I saw, instead of telling her. I had these enormous diaries that my Nanna would read and tell me that I was a natural writer. I’ve always loved reading. For me, there’s nothing else like the feeling of getting totally immersed in a great book. That’s my greatest inspiration and what I want my readers to feel like when they read one of my books.

How long did it take you to get your first book published? 
It didn’t take long at all. Looking back, I had the blind arrogance of youth on my side. I was twenty-five and working in a promotions agency. I was writing the most boring copy for the posters that were destined for the staff loos in service stations, urging the staff to sell more fizzy drinks so they could win a baseball hat. I had an epiphany moment and thought, ‘if I don’t write a novel, I’m going to go crazy! I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’

So I quit my job, sold the car, dumped my boyfriend, moved out of my flat into a tiny room, got a job as a waitress and wrote my first novel, ‘It Could Be You.’ It honestly didn’t occur to me that it might be hard to get it published. I just assumed it would.

I was lucky enough to be taken on by my agent and then she got me a deal. But that was in 1996. I really don’t think it’s the same now, sadly.

Do you have a set daily writing routine?
Yes. I have to grab the hours when the kids are at school. I usually go for a run in the mornings with Emlyn by the beach in Brighton, where we live, then it’s back to the house and bums on seats. I aim for 1000 words a day. I’m very disciplined.

Have you ever had writer’s block? 
Everyone has had writers block. It’s part of being a writer. But it’s important to remember that the block is usually just fear: Fear of not getting it done, or running out of time, or simply not being good enough. These are the times when your inner critic gets the better of you. I always tell myself, ‘I am free to write the worst crap in the world.’ That usually lets me off the hook. The important thing is to keep writing. Even if you write banana, banana, banana, over and over again, eventually you’ll break through to the good stuff.

Sometimes the block comes because the story you’re writing has run out of juice. It’s very easy to disappear up a plot cul-de-sac and find yourself completely stuck. That’s where good planning comes in.

It’s important to remember that all writing is a journey and you learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to chuck something out and start again. It’s all part of the process.

If you weren’t a writer, what career path would you have chosen to follow?
I would love to have been a radio DJ and had my own show.

Would you say that any of your characters are like you? If so, which one(s)?
They all have bits of me in them, I’m sure, but I try to set out to make them as unlike me as possible. I think my own moral code – that good will eventually out – always comes through my writing. And I’m a hopeless romantic. I love a happy ending.

If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I love the fact that I’m blending lots of different genres into what I’m writing. There are certainly lots of dramatic thriller elements in my books, as well as romance, as well as the odd juicy sex scene. I feel like I’ve cherry-picked all my favourite bits from each genre. 

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
There are so many bits of advice I’d give, but mainly ‘go for it’. If you want to write, then write. And keep on writing. Dream big and follow your dreams.

Being a writer appears to be such a solitary lifestyle, especially when you’re in the midst of writing, so do you consider the influence of social Media, Facebook and Twitter, a blessing or a hindrance?
I hate them! They’re so invasive and seeing other authors on Facebook talking about their successes when you’re facing a blank page is very damaging. That said, they are very useful tools and managed correctly can be brilliant. Not when you’re writing, though, when it’s so difficult to get into ‘the zone’. You have to be disciplined and switch them off. 

I’ve discovered the ‘Focus’ setting in ‘View’ on Word, which blanks out the entire rest of your screen. It’s brilliant. Because I can’t see my twitter or Facebook feed, I don’t think about them.

If you could invite any three authors, alive or dead, to a dinner party who would you choose and why?
Tough one. I’d love to talk to Margaret Mitchell, because ‘Gone With The Wind’ is one of my favourite books. Charles Dickens, because he was a cliffhanger genius and Jackie Collins, because I’d love to hear all her ‘behind the scenes’ stories.

Do you prefer to read physical copies of books or e-books?
Physical every time. I can’t get to grips with e-books. I like snuggling up with a book in bed and reading in the bath. Also, I stare at a computer screen all day. I don’t want to read one at night. If I love a book, I want to immediately give it to someone who will love it too, which is not so easy with an e-book.

Are there any books you’ve read that you wish you’d written? 
Not really. I’m always blown away by other authors and never compare myself to them. There are tonnes of books that I admire enormously and there are some where the writing makes me think ‘how the hell did you do that?’ – for example, Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ which was so sparsely written, but conveyed so much.

What’s the last book you’ve read that has made you cry?
All of JoJo Moyes’s books have made me cry. ‘Me Before You’ made me weep and weep. I’m looking forward to her new one.

When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
Usually, I’m absolutely wrung out by the time I’ve finished a book and haven’t slept or washed for days. I drag my three daughters out of bed and make them type ‘The End’, where upon I weepily make them promise they’ll be accountants and not novelists. They think I’m nuts! Usually, I have a very long bath and drink lots of champagne. Then I ring up my family and friends and apologise for being so rubbish and put lots of social events in the diary.

Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat?
I think writing retreats are a bad idea. They are for me. Why go somewhere interesting to write? Surely you go somewhere interesting on holiday, not to sit in front of a computer all day? I’m happiest writing at home, surrounded by the chaos of my study. For me, the greatest reward is finishing my work for the day and picking up the kids from school, then hanging out with Emlyn in the evenings. I couldn’t bear to be stuck up a Scottish mountain, or on a Greek Island and not have that. That’s not a retreat – that’s punishment. 

If you were going to be stuck on a desert island and could only take 3 books with you, which ones would you choose?
An empty notebook - so I could write and keep myself sane.

The Dessert Island Cookbook - (if there is such a thing), so I could feed myself gourmet fried bugs and pineapple

The Idiots Guide To Raft Building – so that I could get the hell out of there and back to my family.

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