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Stray Cats and Samurai

Jayne Joso interviewed by Kerry Ryan.

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Jayne Joso‘s debut novel, Soothing Music for Stray Cats is a poignant yet humorous first-person portrait of one of ‘Thatcher’s Children’ – lost, lonely and living in London after the suicide of his best friend. Containing references to Mrs Dalloway, Italo Calvino and echoes of Selvon‘s The Lonely Londoners, the novel challenges stereotypes of so-called ‘hoodie’ culture and the self-righteous superiority of the smug rich, while managing to brilliantly evoke capital city alienation and disaffection. The novel’s title is borrowed from Liverpool musician, Edgar ‘Jones’ Jones’s cracking debut album – a mixed-up bag of jazz, doo wop, rock and funk that reflects Joso’s portrayal of mixed-up, multi-racial urban Britain.

Having lived and worked in Japan and China, Jayne Joso now divides her time between London and Wales. As well as producing short stories, plays and novels, she has written extensively on architecture and Japanese arts and culture.

3:AM: Can you tell me how your experiences in China and Japan shaped your writing?

Jayne Joso: OK, well, where to go with this? I lived in Japan for quite a few years and then did a shorter stint in China. The bigger influence in terms of current writing is undoubtedly my experiences in Japan, mostly because I have quite a natural affinity for the place as well as having very close friends there who are like family. Japan is a place full of wild contradictions and, for me, was a liberating space to be in. Without the overarching influences of Christianity, Freud and Descartes, it was an enormously stimulating experience and this feeds into my sense of creativity. It helped me chuck out a lot of Western influences that I sometimes find quite stifling.

It’s pretty tricky to explain. It felt like a kind of cultural ‘spring clean’. I could be open to different aesthetics and a different set of cultural and creative perspectives, possibilities and opportunities. And maybe the biggest sense in which these experiences in both Japan and China have so far shaped my work, is in encouraging a sense of the mischievous, of adhering to writing conventions, and then also playing with them, and breaking them at times. In a way, these experiences and interactions also helpfully reduce you. I’m a word shuffler is all; living in other cultures makes you small, makes your home culture small, not insignificant, just small – it’s a liberating experience because, at least to a minor degree, you find you disentangle yourself from your own culture – and I find that helps free up my creativity and thinking.

3:AM: Which Japanese and Chinese authors would you recommend and why?

JJ: I can’t claim to have read a significant number of Chinese authors I’m afraid, so I’d probably only be mentioning the most obvious. That said, I have read various nationalities writing on China, and on travel in China – Colin Thubron is unbeatable, all his works to be honest.

As for Japanese authors, I’m especially fond of Kenzaburo Oe‘s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids; although he attests to having written specifically for a Japanese audience influenced by structuralism, he is a remarkable modernist writer. Natsume Soseki is a great Japanese author for anyone wanting to get a real insight into a wide array of Japanese characters and complex personalities. I am a Cat.. or the classic Botchan, which I think used to be on the Japanese school curriculum, is a rite of passage tale about a young guy’s first experiences of moving away from home and starting a teaching job – office politics… terrifying. Kobo Abe is someone I like to re-read. For example, The Woman in the Dunes – check out the copy with the introduction by David Mitchell as this adds some further cultural insight; and The Box Man is proving to be a huge influence on some very new writing of mine (possibly what will emerge as the third novel). Anyway, The Box Man is an incredibly surreal and often very funny take on the subject of identity told as a bizarre and eccentric thriller. Headbangingly brilliant if nuts.

And then there’s the Japanese-American author, Julia Otsuka‘s When the Emperor was Divine, which is a spare and very poignant piece of writing about the effects of WW11 on a Japanese family based in the US during that time. It is a deeply perceptive take on their lives and permits the reader a close-up on some exceptional experiences. Otsuka‘s prose is also brilliantly assured.

3:AM: You mention the dislocating experience of living in Japan and China and how it made your home culture feel small. You grew up in Wales and now live in London. How has that transition impacted on your writing?

JJ: I don’t think I have that small town to big city shock really. When I was growing up we moved around a lot and then when I was sixteen I left home to study things that weren’t available locally… so change has always been built in to be honest. Since then I’ve lived in Liverpool and Birmingham as well as London so I never feel as though London has any major claim on my city experiences – it’s just its own city experience, if you follow my drift. Jonathan Raban‘s Soft City examines the idea of there being versions of a city, and I’m really intrigued by the idea that we each form our own psychological map of the same place, and each of us carries around our own personal London, Berlin… and so on.

Living in London impacted on the first novel, Soothing Music for Stray Cats, enormously, and when I began work on that I was deeply fascinated by what it means to live in London, in the number of folk leading totally peripatetic lives; in homelessness and the varying degrees of proximity to this; in the enormous economic and social divide in this city, on the kindness of strangers and the smugness of some of the wealthy – what I call the easylifes.

One review referenced Knut Hamsun‘s Hunger, though I hadn’t actually read this, rather Kafka, Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, but still it goes to show that there are big areas of universality in this experience of urban dislocation, of marginalisation; and there is a huge sense of disconnection between people, between individuals and their own experiences and memories, and also with the space they find themselves in and the city they move through. Samuel Beckett noted from his own experiences, that London (by way of example), is a rotten place to be if you don’t know anyone and have no place to go – and frankly that’s great material.

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3:AM: Music is clearly important to you creatively. In what ways does music influence your writing?

JJ: Yes, music is really important to me. If it wasn’t for the fact that my hearing is so impaired I’d probably have something playing right now. Something nice and easy, a few fine tunes by Edgar Jones, or Fiona Bevan maybe. Basically, music is as important to me as quietness… shades of the same thing… you just need the right kind of sounds to fit what you’re doing. So I listen to music much of the time when I’m not writing, and then I seek a lovely gentle quietness in which to write – or as close as I can get.

Other than that, I imagine it’s the lyrics themselves that influence me over time, some songwriters are brilliant authors operating in a pared down form. There are lyrics that appear to have been spontaneously conceived, and whether they have or not doesn’t much matter, but the most talented songwriters manage to cut through with a shattering acuity -Tom WaitsEarth Died Screaming or The Piano has been Drinking; Nothing Compares to You by Prince, I think, and made famous of course by Sinead O’Connor; or Leonard Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat – they all do that.

I just realised I picked out a whole line of melancholy ones… but Tom Waits is often darn funny as well as dark – the point being that if an author can be influenced by poetry and other prose, they’re surely influenced by songwriting and musical rhythms. I think it was A.S. Byatt who mentioned walking at a certain pace in order to get in rhythm with her own thoughts and writing, and the problem solving inside the books – something like that, and I was relieved not to be the only pacer. So, between writing sessions I try to listen to music with lyrics that fit or at least don’t disturb what I’m trying to figure out… so I listen a while, walk a while, then sit down to write in the quiet.

3:AM: I remember hearing a ten times novelist say that it never gets any easier, that no matter how many novels you’ve written, every time you begin it’s like you have to re-learn everything. Is this your experience?

JJ: Totally. It’s exactly that. You never get any better, it never gets any easier [laughs]. It’s simply a form of masochism. Well, that’s not true at all. I love it. But it’s important to feel humble about the whole enterprise, I would be worried if I sat down and wrote something and was immediately impressed by my brilliance. One of the problems is simply that it takes so darn long to write one work that by the time you get to the end you have no idea how novels begin. It isn’t as crazy as it sounds, but despite getting the hang of writing the last novel, that then becomes the only novel you presently know how to write, the only one you know to figure out. The new novel is something you have no experience of, so, you start all over again, learn as you go. Naturally, you hope to skill-up along the way, but the terrain is always somewhat different, the mountain looks taller, your boots are nicely worn in but you have to hope they don’t split and let in water – and if they do, you best hope the soles of your feet prove to be sufficient for the job.

3:AM: How did Soothing Music for Stray Cats come to be published? Tell me what the process was.

JJ: Oh my, do I have to? [chuckles] Well, I wrote a novel and several plays, then got an agent. Piled up rejections. Wrote three more novels, piled up more rejections, then got a two book deal, and now have a new agent. You don’t want the longer version, believe me.

3:AM: What’s this I read about ‘Soothing Music’ being cited in a new dictionary?

JJ: Yeah, a weird but wonderful happening! A fair few unusual things have happened since getting the first novel published and this was one of those that stops you in your tracks and finds you saying ‘crikey!’ Which I don’t think I ever say [chuckles]. Apparently, a prominent Professor of English had passed the book on to the dictionary folk (I imagine these to be a special, sophisticated tribe poring over manuscripts from dusk till dawn -drinking Earl Grey then switching to Merlot towards lunchtime and then to port and cigars in the evening… ), but anyway, the novel was passed to these lovely people who then got in touch to say that they were about to publish the fruits of some twenty years work on this massive three volume dictionary of slang – Green’s Dictionary of Slang – and that they were going to include citations from Soothing Music for Stray Cats! I was totally gob-smacked, in a good way of course, and chuffed to bits afterwards.

I got invited to the launch and have the embarrassing admission to make that I did sneak away from socialising and canapés to peep through the volumes for entries. It’s funny when I think about it now, the novel seems to have developed its own life, and I like to imagine that someone could come across Soothing Music… for the very first time by leafing through a dictionary for a word they’re curious about.

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3:AM: Your next novel is Perfect Architect (May 2011) . Does it expand and develop themes you dealt with in Soothing Music for Stray Cats or is it a complete departure? In what ways does architecture feature in it and why?

JJ: Thematically there is some crossover. Both books question what it means to find the right place, and by varying degrees they each look at how we choose a setting in which to live and what that dwelling needs in order for someone to feel at home – but really, Perfect Architect is its own project.

It’s actually a novel I first wrote four years ago. I came back to it recently and reworked it into the final draft. I was keen to do this as I loved working on it first time around despite the amount of work involved. I had endless notebooks and sketches gathered from my travels and living in places such as Japan and China, some journalistic experience and ghost writing on architecture in Germany, Japan and the UK, but I needed to study, so it was lectures and interviews and breaking into building sites and finding ways to meet star architects such as Libeskind.

A huge amount of fun was had and that’s why it was a manuscript that was easy to come back to and to work on afresh. My publisher would ask me not to cut things out as I worked on it again, but this is inevitable when you return to a text, some things have to go, new elements are added. It’s an exciting process. I had grown fond of the characters so it was like meeting up with old friends again, it simply made sense to have a few new adventures with them.

But back to your question, and the reason I chose architecture is partly this preoccupation I have with ‘place’ and how we question what ‘home’ means to us, and partly my personal obsession with the possibilities that brilliant architecture opens up, the materials, the methods and philosophies at play… love it.

So, from my notebooks evolved the idea of a competition… with an international setting. Star architects are wild and exciting, so let’s place the book in their world, but let’s give them a challenge they won’t have faced since college or perhaps ever, let’s ask these super egos who build museums and palaces to build a modest house.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kerry Ryan is a short story writer, novelist and 3:AM Co-Editor.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 6th, 2011.