To celebrate Suzanne Joinson and Vanessa Gebbie’s sell-out writing workshop with Psychologies this Thursday 28 February 2013, we talked to Suzanne Joinson, author and winner of the New Writing Ventures Award, about her experience writing her latest novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar; an extraordinary story of inheritance, belonging and the stories that bind us to our past, set in modern-day London and 1920’s Kashgar.
The missionaries in your book defy the traditional concept (/caricature?) of ‘the missionary’; was this the result of a lot of research, or imagination?
Yes, they do defy stereotypes. Originally I became fascinated with travelling women of the 1920s and 30s, in particular women who chose to go to places that are difficult to reach now – Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and so on – and I was thinking about doing a PhD in women’s travel writing. Through my research I discovered a lot of diaries and notebooks and memoirs from missionaries, and once I began to dig a little deeper I realised that not all of these narratives were traditionally religious. The impulse to become a missionary just after the Great War, when most men had been killed and yet women were still expected to marry, was often led by many triggers: freedom, desire to travel, adventure, opportunities to escape family expectations and restrictions, sexual liberation and all sorts of things. I researched particular missionaries who did exist (Mildred Cable, in particular) but then extended the idea of a young woman who uses a missionary posting as a cover to write a travel guide. It was great fun.
Where did the original inspiration for this novel come from?
It came from the idea that you can pick up a camera, a notebook, a stone, a print or a piece of fabric that has come all the way from the Gobi desert, some far-away sounding place and find it washed up in a room in London. We've all picked up something from a car boot sale or junk shop or loft that has a strange resonance, a sort of energy, and wondered what the story behind it is. I wanted to explore a way to tell a story that cross historical and geographical distance. That was my original starting point.
There are lots of threads to A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar; did they come together naturally, or was it the result of meticulous planning?
Neither, really. It wasn't so much planning but lots and lots of work, trial and error, writing and re-writing. I knew how I wanted the architecture of the book to stand, but it took a lot of weaving back and forth to get it right. Years! I am not so much of a spread-sheet planner type, I write largely from instinct and I believe very much in the role of the subconscious. I like to read a piece of writing I have been struggling with or working on just before I go to sleep and amazingly often the brain does the work for me while I am asleep. I wake up and think, ah ha. To hold together the long strands required in the knitting together of a novel you either need to be a software-control person, a meticulous note-filing person or a wing-and-a-prayer type. I believe in writing about what haunts you. Those images, themes, motifs and thoughts are already embedded into the mind, so it’s a case of allowing the story to breathe and tapping into them.
You're interested in photography and your writing is very visual: how important is visual imagery to your work?
I am very interested in photography, and the book I am working on now has a lot of photography in it. Visual imagery is very important to me, I use lots of drawings, hand-drawn maps and notebooks during the research phase of my novel. I’ve just returned from a research trip to Jerusalem with an iPhone and camera full of wonderful images that I need to print out and stick everywhere to remind me how things looked. I also find myself photographing recurring images that return in my writing. Jerusalem Old City is a city of stairs, I've never seen so many stairs. Tiny alleyways and arches and doors leading to secret staircases heading up to goodness knows where. It was very inspiring.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson, is published by Bloomsbury, £7.99, Paperback.