'The idea came to me at a funeral' - An Interview with Jo Jakeman

Jo Jakeman
Today Jo Jakeman is joining me to talk about her debut thriller, Sticks and Stones. It's a fantastic book about a woman who locks her husband in the cellar in the heat of the moment and is faced with an important question: what next? I ate it up like a perfectly crafted biscuit last month! Jo is a talented writer, winner of the Friday Night Live 2016 competition at York Writing Festival and has a great insight into writing for fun and crafting the skill. It's been such a treat to ask her these questions.

First off, I have to mention how great Sticks and Stones is. Where did the initial seed for the idea come from and how did it evolve?

Thank you! I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. The idea came to me at a funeral. We rarely say anything bad about people who have died. We tend to remember the best about them, but I started wondering whether anyone might be brave enough to say, ‘I never liked him.’ I imagined being at a funeral where people weren’t too sad about the deceased, perhaps even had a hand in his death. It took a lot longer for me to work out what he might have done wrong and what had made the women snap.

There is a sense of female solidarity in the story. How important was it to you to weave this in?

It was really important to me. For anyone who finds themselves in a difficult situation, isolation only makes it worse. When you find out that you aren’t the only one experiencing something, or feeling something, it’s such a relief. A lot of abusers either take advantage of someone’s isolation, or engineer it so they are cut off from family and friends. Imogen, Naomi and Ruby are very different characters but all of them feel they have nowhere to turn – until they find each other.

I spent the book torn between what was morally right and what was just plain right. How did you walk this line so carefully?

I always had an eye on the future I wanted for the characters. I didn’t want the women to go through all of this only for me to turn them into the real monsters. We don’t always think of the consequences when we act, and that’s what got Imogen into this terrible position in the first place. I felt I had a moral obligation to be looking out for her in the long term!

Philip’s emotional abuse gives him so much control over Imogen and I worried this could be her downfall in the end. Did you do much research into abusive relationships?

Yes but, unfortunately, I didn’t have to look too far. It has happened to people close to me, and it’s often in the news. Once I started writing Sticks and Stones, more and more friends, both women and men, started opening up about their experiences. What struck me most was how rare it is that outsiders see what is really going on behind closed doors. Emotional abuse doesn’t leave physical marks. One man who spoke to me was over six-foot tall. His ex couldn’t physically over-power him, but she had other ways to control him.

It’s a complete twister of a thriller. Did you plan much of it in advance? How did your writing process work?

I didn’t plan any of it and, as a result, it needed several rewrites to get it right. I had my characters, and I knew how I wanted it to end. Other than that I just sat at the laptop and waited to see what appeared on the screen. I didn’t start looking at structure and building tension until I’d completed the first draft.

What has been your writing journey so far and can you tell us a bit about how you found the search for the perfect agent?

I’d write even if I didn’t have a publisher. I feel happier on days I write. It was always the dream that I’d love to see my book in a bookshop, and I thought I’d regret it if I didn’t give it all I had. Before Sticks and Stones I’d sent other manuscripts to agents and hadn’t got any interest. In 2016 I was throwing everything at my writing and applied for the three competitions at York Festival of Writing and booked myself a couple of 1-2-1s with agents. I was shortlisted for Best Opening Chapter, won Friday Night Live, and when I sat down for my 1-2-1 with Imogen Pelham at Marjacq I knew I wanted to work with her. Thankfully she felt the same, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I heard that not too long ago you completed a writing course with Curtis Brown Creative. What would be your advice for aspiring writers who are considering entering into any writing course?

I owe such a lot to that course. It really gave me momentum. My advice to aspiring writers is to take every opportunity you can – to write, to read, to get critique on your work. Writing is a skill just like any other and it needs practice. You read a lot about ‘exciting new talent’ bursting onto the writing scene but I don’t believe that anyone is born that way. Talent is the result of passion plus hard work.

I’m sure everyone who has read Sticks and Stones is dying to know, what’s next for you in your writing career?

I’m currently writing a story about second chances. It’s about a woman who is trying to start a new life, with a new identity, after being released from prison. She begins to think that someone is after her. Is it her own guilt making her think that or is someone really out to get her? As a society though, do we really let people wipe the slate clean? Do we forgive past misdeeds? People have long memories! It is due out in summer 2019.

And lastly, what have you been reading lately that you’ve enjoyed?

I’ve just finished Dark Pines by Will Dean. Great protagonist, eerie setting, and a cracking read about a deaf reporter called Tuva Moodyson who is covering a murder case in rural Sweden. I don’t always read crime thrillers though and am currently halfway through Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce. It’s an incredibly uplifting and amusing book, but moving too. I am loving it so far.

Thank you Harvill Secker and Jo for sending me a copy of Sticks and Stones and providing this interview opportunity!

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