….An interview with Jean Rafferty
To kick off the SWC’s Christmas celebrations – and to ensure all of our lovely SWC members are excited for our next brilliant event on Tuesday – we have an interview with talented novelist, journalist and founder of peace charity Dove Tales, Jean Rafferty! Read on to find out more about her interest in the dark side of life, how journalism has influenced her novels and her favourite writers…
Your event is titled ‘The Dark Side of Reality’, and you regularly feature the underbelly of life in your work. Why is it so important to you to explore this in fiction?
I look at the dark side of reality because I think so many people pretend it doesn’t exist or else treat it as entertainment. The huge popular crime industry makes it safe for people to read about murder, the taking of another human life – there’s always a detective, always a neat ending.
But life is messier than that and I think novels should reflect the chaos and ordinariness of life, not just wrap it up into a neat package. In Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, my novel in which I imagine Myra Hindley’s life if she had ever been released from prison, the worst thing that happens is that a cat dies of natural causes. There are a few flashbacks to the murders, and some people questioned the inclusion of them on the grounds that the victims’ families might read the book. I can’t imagine why they would.
What attracts you to recounting reality in fiction?
I don’t actually recount reality in fiction. I write fiction, not faction. Sometimes there are flashbacks to historical events but they’re never the focus of the plot. They simply provide a background and context in which perfectly ordinary events take place.
In my set of novellas, The Four Marys, I did use historical material in the final story. That book was longlisted for a Jerwood Uncovered prize and one of the judges, Matthew Bates, the travel buyer for W.H.Smith, suggested I write a full length historical novel. I didn’t admit to him that my historical knowledge comes mainly from the many Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer novels I read as a teenager.
How has your work as a journalist – dealing with prostitution, torture, refugees and suicide – influenced your fiction?
I think it exposed me to things that I might never have encountered, and expanded my understanding of the world. You can very easily get locked into your own society, and think that represents the whole world, but visiting countries in the third world made me see poverty and destruction on a scale we don’t have to deal with here. It probably made me more grateful for the place and times I’m lucky enough to have been born in. Although I love 19th century art – the Victorian novel, the Italian opera composers, the Pre-Raphaelite painters – I wouldn’t have liked living then. There’s too much dirt and too little freedom for women. Some of the things I’ve seen are the way this country would have been around a hundred years ago.
I don’t tend to make much of a distinction between novels and journalism. For me the process is not dissimilar. I can’t understand people who automatically dismiss journalism. There are some wonderful journalists out there – Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, Gordon Burn, A.A. Gill, and Scotland’s own David Pratt and Billy Briggs.
Do you have a favourite writer or novelist?
I have so many favourites! In no particular order I love Emily Bronte and Dickens, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Hemingway, Iris Murdoch, Zoe Wicomb, Jane Austen, James Kelman, William Faulkner, Rosamund Lehmann, Edmund White, Marina Warner, Evelyn Waugh, Jeanette Winterson, Edward St Aubyn, Graham Greene, DH Lawrence. My tastes are pretty wide. A friend recently recommended an Irish novel which is one long sentence, but I read a bit of it and was just irritated. Thank goodness you can look inside Kindle!
I tend to go for extremes of style, from quite florid people like Mailer to the economy of Hemingway. I like reading books about different cultures very much. I’m less keen on the stuff of domestic life – I can get that at home! – though recently read Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I loved.
My most recent passion was Elizabeth Jane Howard. I read her novel The Sea Change years ago and didn’t like it much, so didn’t bother reading any more. What a mistake. When I read the Cazalet Chronicles I was hooked and read fourteen of her books, one after the other. They’re so human and warm, character-driven and hugely compassionate.
Have you ever felt dissuaded from pursuing the dark side of reality by public reaction?
No. I think people should look at the truth.
What will your next book be?
It’s a very dark subject, a novel about satanist ritual abuse, which is coming out in the spring with Moth Publishing, an imprint of New Writing North.
Before I wrote it I was speaking to a BBC producer about the idea and she was very keen that there should be ambiguity, that we should be left wondering whether it really exists. I’m sick of our society denying the existence of something that has produced so many victims and don’t see why I should collude in pretending it doesn’t happen when I believe it does.
I think some people feel that that sort of certainty goes against the spirit of the novel as a form, but I didn’t want to turn this subject into a spooky entertainment. I know too many people whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by the cruelty of it. They carry on but they hook up with abusive lovers or get bullied. I want people to acknowledge that there are satanists and that we should be doing something about their abuse. I don’t care what they believe – it’s what they do that counts.
One of the things that journalism taught me is the importance of bearing witness – to the truth and to people’s pain. I wrote this book because a survivor told me I should. I hesitated because I thought the material was too sensational and that people would think it simply lurid. But sometimes the truth is lurid. I’m very grateful to him for pressing me to do it – it wouldn’t exist without him.
I just hope it’s interesting enough as a story to keep people reading what is an undeniably disturbing subject.
Thank you so much to Jean for her insightful and fascinating responses. You can find Jean talking about ‘The Dark Side of Reality’ on Tuesday at 7pm in the CCA Clubroom – we’d love to see you there!
Interview by Rachel Walker.