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My First Time...with Jill Johnson

Jill Johnson, The Riff Raff

Jill Johnson lived in South East Asia, New Zealand and Europe. She has owned a political cartoon gallery, was a partner in Gosh! Comics and the comics distribution company, Red Route and has been involved in the graphic novel publishing house, Knockabout.

She also has a garden design company which, she says, is her day job. Jill has three children and lives in London. Her novel, The Time Before The Time To Come is based on her Māori heritage – and we are thrilled to have Jill reading an extract at The Riff Raff on 13 December.

Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I was talking to a writer in a ball pit at a children’s party; kids screaming, balls flying, sweaty socks aroma. My worst nightmare. I can’t recall why but I was telling him about my extraordinary family, about my intrepid and often rebellious Māori ancestors: the chieftainess, the sex worker, the SAS officer, the jungle nurse, and he said, “There’s your book”.

I didn’t think much of his suggestion at the time. Perhaps I was distracted by the ‘accident’ a kid had just had in one corner of the ball pit – but later, I remember thinking, yes, there’s my book. Ten years later, I started writing it.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

That you don’t have to include all of your research. I spent two years researching before I started writing. It was a lot of very hard work and I was determined to include it all.

As a result, the first draft was overly long and read like a ranting political history lesson. I fought my editor to keep these long tracts but, of course she was right. It felt like I was cutting off limbs, killing too many darlings but they had to go and, I admit, the book is much better for it.

What did you enjoy most about writing it?

I loved writing the historical sections. They took little effort, they flowed easily, as if my ancestors were leaning over my shoulder, dictating. And the worst part?

The worst part was the contemporary sections, which were essentially my own story. Initially, they were written in the first person but I did not want to reveal myself and so created a character who was observing rather than experiencing. Telling not showing.

The result was that the character became invisible and totally unsympathetic for the reader. So, I took myself out and re-wrote these sections in the third person, gave the character her own personality and this brought her to life. She is troubled, shit has happened to her, she behaves badly, but I found myself rooting for her, hoping she would find a way to fix her relationships, fix her life. I hope the readers feel the same way.

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

Let’s just say that my kids know when I’ve been trying to write because the flat is spotless!

Go-to writing snacks?

Strong black coffee, pots and pots of it.

The Time Before The Time To Come, The Riff Raff

The book that changed you?

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. Firstly, because Iris is so good at writing the male point of view and secondly, because her language is so spare.

There are many characters is this story, each with their own interpretations and agenda, and although the book is written from one often flawed and sometimes delusional viewpoint, the reader knows exactly what’s going on, even when the protagonist does not.

This book taught me that a character’s misunderstanding of a situation can provide the reader with the truth.

Your pump up song?

I don’t listen to pump up when I write, more chill down and so, Nitin Sawhney, every time.

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer, who would it be?

They say ‘never meet your heroes’ but I recently met Witi Ihimaera, the Māori writer of The Whale Rider (and many, many others) and, well, I fell in love.

He has the wisdom of an elder, the kindness of a grandfather and the perfect combination of humility, strength and rebelliousness of a true Māori warrior. He has so much knowledge of Māori culture and heritage that could drink wine and listen to him forever.

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get published?

If you are lucky enough to have an agent, ask them to only send you the positive parts of publisher rejection letters, even if it’s just one line.

Negative rejection letters can throw a writer into an imposter syndrome despair. And remember, you only need one yes. I had 80 rejections but then the perfect yes.

Being with my publisher feels like serendipity. We are so well matched. It was worth the painful wait.

Why do you write?

Because for as long as I can remember, I have daydreamed. As a child, I was forever being told by my parents, my siblings, my friends but mostly by my teachers to ‘come back’ from wherever I was in my head. I started writing my daydreams down when I was six. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I also love the alchemy of writing. I’m a free writer. I don’t have a plan, I just start and see what comes out. And sometimes I don’t know how I could possibly have written what’s on the screen. I’m not alone in this. Many writers have talked about the subconscious, alchemy, channelling and others about ancestors leaning over their shoulders, dictating.

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