Writer’s Block With Joe Heap

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author JOE HEAP about BLINDNESS, POETRY and WORKING ODD JOBS

Photograph by Phillipa Gedge

Englishman Joe Heap is the author behind The Rules of Seeing, an astounding debut novel about what it is to be blind – both literally and figuratively. The story is centred around two remarkable women; Nova, an interpreter for the Metropolitan Police who has been blind since birth and Kate, a successful architect. Where Nova is outgoing and almost childlike in her unspoiled state, Kate is a more quiet and reticent figure, suffocated by her marriage to a dangerous man.

They first meet in hospital after Kate suffers a blow to the head and Nova recovers after an operation to give her sight. Although they may not realise it at the time, the unlikely pair will see the world for the first time together, with all its flaws. How many of us walk around from day to day without really absorbing what’s in front of our very eyes? As their shared experience binds Nova and Kate together, a unique love story unfolds, one that will linger in the memory for years to come. One by one, positive reviews have rolled in for The Rules of Seeing. Dawn O’Porter has said of the book, “This has made me see the world in a different way, I loved it.”

Joe was born in Bradford and went to university in Scotland. He has a BA in English Literature from Stirling University and a Masters in Creative Writing from Glasgow University. In 2004 Joe won the Foyle Young Poet award, and his poetry has appeared in several periodicals. As well as working in publishing as an editor of books for children and young adults, Joe has been a subtitler for BBC News and Sky News and Sport, a face painter at a safari park, a removal man for a dental convention and has even manned a text service (before mobile phones) where people could “ask any question.” After finishing college, Joe wrote a total of four novels, before fetching a six figure book deal with The Rules of Seeing.

The Rules of Seeing (€15.99) is published by HarperCollins and available nationwide.

Joe Heap lives near Twickenham, London, with his girlfriend Alice and their young son Sam. He is currently working on his second novel.

On home

We live in a place near to Twickenham called Whitton. It used to be a village but, like everything within a certain radius of London, it became subsumed into the metropolis a long time ago. On the horizon is Twickenham rugby ground, and on match days the streets are full of people and hot dog vans. We’re very lucky with our high street – we still have independent bakers, a butcher, florists, and a pet shop. We have several places that do great coffee where I go to write (Coffee Ways is my favourite), and some good restaurants. Anyone visiting should check out Sushi Manga – their chicken or pumpkin katsu curries are the best comfort food.

My mum grew up close to here, and my grandparents still live just down the road. It’s been good to get to know them better as an adult. My second book is based on many of their stories.

On roots

Our house in Bradford was up a steep hill that was excellent for tobogganing when it snowed. Just down the road was a huge industrial bakery, and the smells of baking hot cross buns takes me right back to my childhood.

On creating

I’m a nomadic writer – we have no space for a study in the house, so I’ve always worked somewhere different. My first book, The Rules of Seeing, was written mostly on train journeys to and from work. My second book, written but yet to be titled, was mostly written on an actor friend’s houseboat while she was away on tour (the book is set on a boat, so this was very helpful for a landlubber like me). I’ve started my third book, and yesterday we were digging a patch on our new allotment so we can build a shed. All being well, that’s where most of book three will be written, looking out over people’s crops and the poplar trees that border the allotments.

On bookshops

There’s one independent bookshop that has an almost mystical quality for me, perhaps because I’ve only visited it once – Atlantis Books in the town of Oia on Santorini. I went in there a few years ago, having finished my holiday read, and I wanted to buy everything they were selling. I bought a book by Russell Hoban, a favourite writer, that I hadn’t seen before, which became a direct inspiration for Rules.

Closer to home, The Kew Bookshop is excellent and always has something surprising to tempt you.

On his “To Be Read” pile

I live in a “To Be Read” pile with a house built around it. There’s no escape. Honestly, I feel a little targeted by this question. Have you been speaking to my girlfriend?

Next up is La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I can’t wait to return to Lyra’s world after so many years.

On travel

I’ve been to Ireland twice, both times to celebrate a friend’s wedding. Perhaps because of that, it exists in my mind as a place of warm welcomes and celebration. Or maybe that’s just the Irish. I would love to come back and spend some time getting to know the Irish countryside. I grew up close to the Yorkshire Dales, and I love open, untrammelled spaces. We have so many on these islands of ours, but they’re all different and all special.

On how The Rules of Seeing came to fruition

I think I tell a different story to everyone who asks about how these elements came together in my head. That’s not because I’m trying to spin a lie, but because I’m not sure myself. But there is one moment I can be absolutely sure of. I was out for a walk, down through suburban streets on my way to Richmond, for coffee and tarte au citron in my favourite cafe. It was a bright, slightly muggy day. I often think of things when walking – it just seems to loosen up my brain. I was half thinking about something else when, suddenly, I realised that the two book ideas I had come up with, one about a blind woman learning to see, the other about a woman in an abusive relationship, could actually be the same story. The two characters were two sides of a relationship. I literally stopped still in the street for half a minute, letting the idea catch up with me. Then I took a picture of my feet on the pavement and walked on, knowing that I would go home and write that book.

On blindness

It’s human nature. We get used to the good things we have automatically, so that we go out and look for other good things. Through most of our evolution, that was incredibly useful – we went and looked for another wildebeest instead of being happy with the one that we’d already killed. We made a fire instead of being happy with the shelter we’d built. Nowadays, where survival is less of a minute-to-minute affair, the habit of constantly seeking the next thing is less useful. We stockpile things that bring us joy, but only a tiny portion of them actually register with us. We become blind to objects and to people.

It’s not bad to keep looking to the horizon. But we need to find ways to step off the treadmill occasionally. To look at what we have, and treasure it, without reaching for something else.

On what he’s learned

I guess you never know it’s going to be different until someone buys the book. But writing Rules definitely felt different. For one thing, it was relatively quick – about a year from start to finish. I also knew I was having fun writing the characters. In fact, it didn’t really feel like I was writing them at all, just taking dictation of the things they were saying to each other. I don’t think that enjoying yourself as a writer is a reliable indicator that people will enjoy reading the book, but it’s not a bad start.

On poetry

I do still write poetry, though I don’t submit it anymore. I have an idea for a kids book where the story is told through a poem, but that’s for the future.

Good poetry is like good song – there’s something magical in the interplay between the meaning of the words and the sound of them. My favourite poem is Kubla Khan by Coleridge. I’ve known it by heart since I was sixteen. You can take a lot of meanings from that poem, but it’s also beyond meaning – the images it conjures up are like half-remembered dreams of a foreign land.

On odd jobs

Worst job: Face painter at a safari park. It sounds great, but it was dreadful. Long hours on your feet, an endless stream of snotty children who don’t want to sit still, and angry parents criticising your representation of green Power Ranger. I ended up catching glandular fever and going AWOL.

Best job: Subtitler for BBC and Sky News and Sport. This job could be hard work, but there were often breaks between broadcasts where we could go to the canteen or play games (we spent five unbroken hours playing Texas Holdem Poker on a night shift once). I got half decent at pool before I left. A character in my third book works there.

On what’s next

I’m really excited about my second book, which contains seven original pieces of music by my Grandad, John Sands, who is a musician and composer. I’m working at the moment to record them all for a free album which will accompany the book. After that, who knows? I just want to keep going. There’s nothing more exciting to me than creating something new.

@SophieGrenham

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