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Julia Widdows
What was the inspiration for LIVING IN PERHAPS?
I wrote a few pages about a bored and lonely child crawling through a garden hedge and encountering a world full of strangeness and possibility just next door. Eventually this became an early chapter in the book, but at that stage it didnít even feel like a proper short story, and I put it aside. When I came across it again, I was drawn to the Alice Through The Looking Glass scenario and, particularly, the sense of a striking individual in the narratorís voice. I wrote my way into Carolís story from there. She kept dropping hints and asking questions that I hadnít planned, so I had to find out the answers. Her voice was a bit of a gift to me, I didnít have to invent it. From the start she was sharp and knowing, and inquisitive and innocent, too. I just had to keep it up, and work out why she was like that and what might happen to someone like her.
You capture the sense of the period perfectly in the novel without inserting glaringly obvious cultural references. Were you very conscious of this while writing?
Thatís good to hear, as sometimes I felt that I hadnít put in enough Ė for example, I decided not to name-check any music of that era. I found it easy to remember everyday details - Paynes Poppets, tinned mandarin oranges, dirty white tennis shoes... and itís the sort of thing I might talk about with friends, recalling what we did at school or the different ways our families were organised. What was very conscious in the writing was an attempt to capture the total immersion of a childís and a teenagerís perception, the nearness, narrowness and freshness of everything.
The book is very much about identity. Did your work with alcohol and drug dependents give you insight into problems people experience around this subject?
One of Carolís key phrases is ĎIt was all information, but was it good information?í as she struggles to navigate her way through life, trying to work out what to believe in and who to trust. Iíve always worked with people who are finding life a real struggle, for one reason or another, and Iím sure this must have filtered into my creative process, but I think just as much insight comes from ordinary everyday life with family and friends, the world around me, from what I see and hear and read. For as long as I can remember, Iíve been interested in peopleís ideas about identity, which I find are so bound up with family, class and opportunity. One fascinating aspect of identity is adoption, both real and imagined. It must be a core human concern as it crops up repeatedly over the centuries in drama, myths and fairytales Ė think of Oedipus, or Rapunzel. Quite a lot of my writing has revolved around a mystery within a family, which often turns out to be a mystery of identity. There are just so many stories within families to explore.
Carol/Cora is vulnerable yet, in many ways, strong and (towards the end of the book) sheís quite cynical. I think many late-teenage girls/young women would identify with her. Were they your target audience for the book and do you see it as a so-called ďcrossoverĒ novel?
In hindsight, I think this is a cross-over novel, though when I was writing it I had never heard of that term and did not have young adult readers in mind. Some of the reviews on the web show that LIVING IN PERHAPS strikes a real chord with adolescent readers, even though itís set in the 1960s and 70s. Emotions and key dilemmas donít change. Iíd love to think of readers the age of my 18-year old narrator enjoying this novel.
You were a finalist in the Daily Mail First Novel Award. Do you think entering competitions like these is a good way for unpublished writers to try to get their work ďout thereĒ.
Any route that gets interesting writing to the attention of people who can do something about it seems worthwhile to me. Novels that come to light like this are very rarely the first and only piece of writing their author has ever attempted; it just doesnít work like that. Iíd had a number of short stories published and broadcast, but it took me ten years to get a novel published, and in that time Iíd written three.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
Of course - Iím always writing, if only in my head. Iím halfway through a novel set in the 1920s, about a young Russian refugee who finds herself step-mother to four resentful children. Itís about memory, loyalty, revenge; and family, again.
Which writers do you most admire?
Where to start? Those that come to mind include William Trevor, Jane Gardam, John Updike, Alice Munro, Carole Shields...so thatís probably not war, politics or dead bodies. What links them is an astute eye, perfect language, domestic detail, the wider world encompassed in a smaller one. Kate Atkinson and Jonathan Franzen are scarily clever and funny writers. The peerless E F Benson, Alan Bennett and Jane Austen make me laugh.
Julia Widdows

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