Writer’s Block With Jess Kidd

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to JESS KIDD about growing up in WEST LONDON, her favourite bookshop and her idea of ESCAPE

Photograph by Travis McBride

English-born author Jess Kidd might be a recent literary recruit, but this year she will rise from revered rookie to the major league. Her soaring first novel Himself (2016) has received plaudits from just about every major publication this side of the Atlantic and beyond. Vanity Fair called the book a “supernaturally skillful debut. Irish eyes are glowing.”

Far from falling victim to the second novel curse, Jess hit the ground running and will soon delight us with The Hoarder. Building on her gift of suspense, tender empathy and a wild imagination, we are brought into the world of Maud Drennan, a care worker and psychic, and Cathal Flood, a cantankerous hoarder in a house heaving with unused junk – and skeletons in the closet. 

Jess’s own experience shines on the pages, having worked in a community centre with older people, and as a care worker who specialized in acquired brain injury. For research, she has spent time with members of the cross-dressing community and paid many visits to a medium and a spiritualist church.

Jess has a degree in Literature with the Open University and a PhD in Creative Writing Studies, as well as a background in teaching the craft. In 2016 Jess won the Costa Short Story Award for Dirty Little Fishes, while Himself was chosen for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club and short-listed for the Irish Book Awards. Last year, her debut made the short-list for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.  

Jess Kidd lives with her daughter in London. She is currently working on her next novel.

Jess will be in conversation with Rick O’Shea on the 8th of February for the Rick O’Shea Book Club in the Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street, from 7pm. www.dublincityofliterature.ie.

The Hoarder (€13.99) is published by Canongate and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in West London just near Richmond. My favourite café is in Teddington because to get to it I have to go along the river then across the lock bridge and even in the rain it’s a lovely walk. The café is called The Fallow Deer and they allow me to haunt a table in the corner and watch the people come and go. I usually like to edit with a bit of background noise and this place has just the right amount. There are a few alright pubs locally, especially by the river, but not many have been left with their soul intact. I prefer the old-fashioned, time-worn kind, rather than the pristine, kitted-out gastropubs. The ones with threadbare chairs and yellowed ceilings and the feeling that the ghosts of past drinkers are lining up at the bar. The Coach and Horses in Greek Street, Soho, is a great pub. It has cats and a secret tea room upstairs. I’ll nominate the Coach and Horses as my non-local local. I tend to buy groceries randomly as I’m not a fan of cooking and have no organisational skills. I’ll eat whatever I can find in the cupboard and keep to no set mealtimes. Today I had four bowls of muesli. It’s a relief when my daughter is home as that’s the only time I eat sensibly. My neighbourhood is pleasant, leafy and a bit dull. Richmond Park is nearby which is a great place to walk, stuffed with deer and ancient trees. There are a few eccentrics but mostly of the polite middle-class variety. For excitement I tend to go and stay with friends in other parts of London.

On roots

I lived in West London as a child and roamed the neighbourhood from a young age. I loved to go visiting, especially elderly friends and neighbours who were generous with biscuits as there was never any nice food in our house. One of my favourite stops was Sausage Joan. Sausage Joan would get in special fat sausages for me from the butcher and serve them on a glass plate. I thought this was the height of sophistication.

Our house was busy and noisy but I especially liked two places. My father had made me a little wooden seat concealed in the hedge and I’d take a book in there and hide. I had another bolt-hole under the stairs where I’d set up some garden cushions and a torch. This was a great place that smelt of dust and damp and camping. In the winter, the best thing was sliding down a local hill on an old tea tray. In the summer, it was walking to the local newsagent with bare feet and buying ice pops. I adored the sound of water sprinklers and people singing along with the radio and my favourite trick was emptying the paddling pool onto the lawn and squelching in the wet grass.

My mother is from Killala, Mayo and we’d return on the ferry. I’m sure I’m never seasick because I did so many rough crossings on the Irish sea as a child. My Granny was a beautiful person who would patiently let me do her hair. We’d walk around the garden chatting and watch television together. I was fascinated by how quickly and perfectly she’d peel an apple, all in one snaky strip.

On creating

I can generally work anywhere, I prefer editing in public places like a café or a pub, but I like writing the first draft of anything at home. I don’t have any flair for decoration and my house is not a bit homely. Up until recently I had only a desk and a chair in the living room. I struggle to hold onto possessions and try and give things away whenever I have visitors. However, I do have my late father’s notebooks and a few pieces of his artwork that are precious to me. The last painting he did was an imagined cover for my first novel, Himself. He didn’t live long enough to see the book in print but this was his way of telling me that he had faith in it.

On bookshops

The Open Book in Richmond is a wonderful bookshop, run by Helena Caletta and her partner Michael they have an incredible selection, including some great books on the local area. They have always been immensely supportive. They also welcome dogs and have a big jar of puppy treats, which makes them the best kind of booksellers in my eyes.

On her nightstand

Room Little Darker (2017) by June Caldwell and The Street of Crocodiles (1934) by Bruno Schulz. Both are collections of short stories as I prefer to read short stories and poetry at night. June Caldwell’s collection is stunning – brutal, acerbic, twisted and in places wincingly funny. It’s a book about the darker side of human nature, full of deviant behaviour and nasty longings. I love this collection for Caldwell’s use of language, it’s raw and vivid and surprising. An interest in stop-motion animation and the work of the Brothers Quay led me to the world of Bruno Schulz. This is a collection I’m reading slowly because I’m beguiled by the beautiful observed details, the flights of fancy and the wonderful imagery on practically every page.

On escapes

I enjoy travelling as much for the movement as the destination. My idea of escape is a road trip – I love driving alone with no real plan and a bag thrown in the back of the car. I’ve done this since I was a teenager. Gone wandering off for a few days. I like to keep it as unplanned as possible. When I’m at home I walk by the river or in the local park for peace – I tend to put the headphones on, pull my hood up and charge off at a good pace. It’s very hard to get peace and quiet in an urban environment. I think you have to accept that at some point someone in your road is always going to be renovating their kitchen.

On social care

I worked at a local community centre for over nine years for a charitable trust, spending a lot of time with older people in a job which at times included day trips, cooking and serving lunch and planning fundraising events. I also worked as a support worker which I loved. However, I often found it challenging, especially as I tend to be someone who invests a great deal in my roles and find it hard to switch off at the end of a shift. I was also a team leader which meant I was contacted if there was an emergency. I love working with people but hate the idea of being stuck in an office all day with the same faces and with a boss looking over my shoulder. As a support worker, every day is different and even though you report to a case manager and follow a care plan you work on your own initiative. It can be tremendously satisfying when you can see improvements in your client’s quality of life.

On research

I am always amazed by people’s generosity and willingness to open up to me and share their stories and experiences. The characters, settings and scenes presented themselves at the planning stage. For example, cross-dressing was just a facet of Renata’s personality – not the defining element of her. However, I always undertake research in order to give an accurate portrayal of whatever I’m writing about – I think this is one of the best aspects of writing. I didn’t feature any one person’s story – that wouldn’t have been appropriate – but I did want to make sure that I was creating an accurate representation. I am always careful to reassure the people that I meet and speak with that my research was confidential – in this respect I think having a research background with my PhD really helped. I also make sure I don’t go in with any preconceived ideas or judgments. I spoke to a number of self-confessed hoarders – who were willing to talk to me despite all the negative connotations surrounding compulsive hoarding. One of the best outcomes was that I’ve made several very good friends I wouldn’t have if not for embarking on this research.

On possessions

I do think personal objects become imbued with their owner’s personality to an extent. They seem to soak up elements of the environment they’ve lived in. I think this is why objects link us so readily to the past. They are also anchors for our memories, they help us remember our loved one’s preferences and interests and the moments we spent with them. I love to write about sentient, misbehaving objects. I don’t hoard at all, in fact I’m the opposite in that I struggle to keep possessions and always want to give them away. I find clutter overwhelming which I think is why I wanted to write about it. For me letting things go is easier than keeping them. However, I do have certain things that are precious to me but they don’t have monetary value.

On what’s next

I’m currently working on my third novel which is set in Victorian London with an Irish protagonist and a large cast of eccentric characters. It’s due to be published in 2019. I’ve loved writing this being a big fan of Charles Dickens. I’m also working on my first children’s book and some original ideas for TV series.

@SophieGrenham

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