By Julie Mayhew, a former Jerwood/ Arvon mentee
Comedy is my happy place. As an actress I performed big, silly sketches on BBC Radio 4 and when I first began to write, I teamed up with a fellow performer to plot funny plays where women were centre-stage.
Funny is measurable. There is a reassuring mathematics to it. If your writing makes people laugh, you can mark it up as a success.
When I turned to novel writing, I continued to tap that humorous vein. Even though Red Ink, my first book, is about the untimely death of the protagonist’s mother and the experience of grief, each scene is mined for everyday, recognisable awkwardness. The things that make us laugh or smile because we know them too well.
But then came my second book, Mother Tongue, started while Red Ink was still sitting in my bottom drawer unpublished. Very quickly I realised this was a different beast – a novel where jokes had no place. Following the fate of 18 year old Darya Ivanova, it begins with a terrorist attack in a school in Russia in which the protagonist loses her little sister.
My usual writing weapons were useless here. I could not end each section with an upward inflection, drop in natty phrases or litter my dialogue with comic retorts. There could be no tip of the hat and a knowing wink. And it was terrifying.
At one point I considered – no joke – deleting my document-in-progress and burning all my notes so I would have to give up on the idea and never return to it.
I am grateful that I did, instead, send an early section to the Jerwood / Arvon Mentoring Scheme. In my application, I talked about how I wanted to tackle heavier subjects but was finding the process bewildering. Did I have permission to turn real-life tragedy into fiction? Did I have the skills to do it well?
My eventual mentor, Maria McCann, is a writer who does not shy from dark themes. Her characters, often anti-heroes, occupy the shade. They nurse murderous and disloyal feelings and frequently act upon them.
Her initial acceptance of my work – her acknowledgement that it was worth pursuing and that she could help me tackle the obstacles this kind of book would throw up – was the first giant step towards me completing it.
Instead of focusing on where the next joke might land, Maria urged me to concentrate on line-by-line thoroughness. This would give my writing the weight that its subject demanded. I became alert to clumsy repetitions in paragraphs. I reworked metaphors and similes until they were muscular enough to leap from the page.
I submerged myself in my protagonist’s emotions, researching carefully, building soundtracks and collections of images that delivered me subliminally into her world. Through this, I discovered that, though her precise situation was alien, many of her feelings were not. And here was the permission I had sought to tell her story.
Maria taught me that moving away from easy subjects and comfortable habits leads towards more powerful writing, a stronger sense of authenticity. While the revelation of everyday truths can make you laugh, it can also make you squirm or flinch or cry, I now understand.
I still felt uneasy while writing Mother Tongue (worried that it was too dark, that I was not portraying the situation with enough sympathy, that I was being too voyeuristic) and I retain that feeling as it goes into bookshops. But I’ve come to see the positivity of this uneasiness. It means I took the risk.