I am very excited to host this latest interview on Joyful Antidotes! Juliet Conlin brought me one of my top 5 books of 2017 – The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days. Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, you HAVE to pick up a copy as soon as possible. I also had the pleasure of meeting Juliet this year and what a lovely woman! Thanks Juliet for the wonderful interview – it was an honour.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Joyful Antidotes! For any readers who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Juliet: I was born in London, but spent most of my childhood moving around and finally ended up in Berlin. I have always wanted to write stories for a living, and I feel enormously grateful that this is where life has taken me. I had a slight detour into psychology, where I completed a PhD and worked as a researcher for several years. I now juggle my writing with looking after my children (big and small) and freelance translating. My debut novel, ‘The Fractured Man’, was released in 2013, and my most
recent novel, ‘The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days’, came out in February 2017. Thankfully, my biggest fear of running out of stories has so far failed to materialise. I’m bursting with ideas!
The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in 6 Days has been available for a while now. How have people received the book?
Juliet: It is always frightening to release a book into the wild. When ‘The Uncommon Life’ hit the shelves in February, I wanted to take cover and hide, just in case everyone hated it! But remarkably, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time, but it has been great to see the book genuinely touch so many people. Some readers liked Alfred’s story in particular; others were more drawn to Brynja’s experiences. I was especially pleased that her story was received so positively, as it is a very sensitive subject, and I wanted to do justice to the experiences many people suffer from without making it in any way ‘sensational’. From what I understand, there have also been a lot of word-of- mouth recommendations, which is what most
writers aim for.
Voice-hearing is not usually an area of mental illness that people address. What made you write a novel around it?
Juliet: When a friend of mine once admitted to having heard voices during adolescence, I was instantly intrigued: both by the fact that he had framed it in terms of an admission, thus implying it was somehow ‘wrong’, and also by the very notion of hearing voices that no-one else can hear. As a writer and a psychologist, I have always been interested in the concept of ‘otherness’; in how deviating from any given social norm is frequently penalised or, in rare cases, celebrated; in how such identities are shaped and perceived by those who are “other” and by society as a whole. The idea of making it into a novel was on the backburner for a while, but when Alfred popped into my head, I knew I had found the character who could carry this story.
Reading Brynja’s story was hard and emotional for me. Can you tell us what it was like writing her scenes?
Juliet: I’ve had this response quite a lot, and I hope I’ve managed to do justice to it. Brynja’s narrative was very difficult to pin down. I knew I wanted to somehow harness her agony and confusion in her voice, and I experimented a lot – third-person singular, first-person singular, second-person plural, past tense, present tense, writing in fragments – almost ad nauseam. But then I tried writing the initial section of her story in the second-person singular, present tense – ’They’re coming. They’re coming
now. You can feel them coming before you even hear them’ – and I knew immediately that this was it. And the only way to get her narrative to fit into the overall story was to tell it in reverse chronology, which also reflects the warped, not-quite- rightness of her experience. I actually found it slightly disturbing to write the Brynja chapters, which means – I hope! – that I got it right.
Would you ever consider writing a book about Brynja? I am sure I am not the only reader who would like to find out how she is doing 🙂
Juliet: Funny you should ask! I was recently talking to a reader who said exactly the same thing. I have a couple of other projects that are simmering away in my brain at the moment, but I have definitely put this on the list. I grew quite attached to Brynja as a character, and it would indeed be great to find out what happens to her, and her son…
I was lucky enough to attend the Berlin reading of The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in 6 Days. It was very heart-warming to see how supportive your family is. How important was their support for you when making the decision to write your first book?
Juliet: It was great to meet you at the reading! I can probably speak for most writers out there in saying that without the support of those close to me, none of this would be possible. It is so important to be surrounded by ‘cheerleaders’, who build me up when my confidence hits the floor and I seriously consider throwing in the towel (which happened more than once when writing ‘The Uncommon Life’). I’m lucky to have parents as well as a partner who want to see me do what makes me happy, rather than conforming to others’ expectations of what constitutes ‘success’ (career, money etc.). My
family are not necessarily the best for giving feedback though (with some exceptions), as they usually think everything I write is fantastic. It is important to have people who will give you honest, unflinching feedback, even if it hurts!
Considering your base in Berlin and language skills, would you ever consider writing a novel in German?
Juliet: I’ve not only considered it, I’ve also done it! My first novel in German, ‘Der Rattenfänger’, is currently being considered by a German-language publisher. It’s a multi-cultural whodunnit satire set in present-day Berlin, with a huge cast of characters, and is very different to anything I’ve ever written in English. For some reason, I have a completely different narrative voice when I write in German. It will be interesting to see where this goes…
You are also raising a family and working as a freelance translator. Where do you get the time to do it all?
Juliet: To be honest, it can be very challenging at times. But over the years I’ve become quite an efficient time manager. I’m a huge believer in writing lists. And if I get a good night’s sleep of 8 hours, that leaves 16 waking hours to get stuff done. Oddly, I find that the more things I have on my list, the more productive I tend to be. When I don’t have much to do, I find it an effort to even put the kettle on!
What is next from Juliet Conlin?
Juliet: My next novel, ‘Exile Shanghai’, is a historical novel set in 1940’s China, and tells the story of two Jewish women who escape Nazi Germany, only to end up in a Japanese-controlled Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. The manuscript is currently being read by my publisher, so fingers crossed… I’m now working on another novel, ‘A Hunger Artist’, about a middle-aged woman who relapses into anorexia as a coping mechanism when her beloved younger sister is murdered. Here, I’m returning firmly to my roots in psychology.
Once more, thanks so much Juliet! I cannot wait to read your next offerings. I might even try to improve my German so I can read ‘Der Rattenfänger’.
Right, time for you lot to jump on the bandwagon. Purchase Juliet’s books here. Christmas is coming, don’t you know?