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20 Questions with... Valerie Jack

After studying at Oxford (BA), York (MA) and Brunel (PGCE), Valerie Jack taught English and Classical Civilisation for 12 years, alongside writing poetry and plays. Her poetry has been widely published including in the Times Literary Supplement, Agenda, Stand, Magma and The North. Her first collection, Educational appeared in 2009 (tall-lighthouse) and she has recently been named inaugural winner of the Chesham Literary Festival poetry competition. Following developmental work with the National Theatre Studio and Hampstead Theatre, Valerie’s play, Fireworks was staged in London twice and praised as ‘sparky’ in The Observer. Her narrative non-fiction book Living with Death without God, described as ‘wonderful,’ ‘moving’ and ‘essential,’ is out now! She lives in Chesham with her husband and two children and is currently working on her debut novel. Twitter: @valeriejack, Facebook and Instagram: @valeriejackwrites.

1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?

I don’t really have a sense of being ‘from’ a place. I grew up between South Wales, the Midlands and the South West of England. My childhood was difficult at times, but I always felt at home in books and have now found a more literal sense of home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.

2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?

Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember at one point I used to tell people I wanted to be an author, artist or actress – there was a neatness to the three ‘a’s – but it became clear I had more potential in one of those areas than the other two! I worked as a teacher for 12 years and now home-educate my eight-year-old daughter.

3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.

Living with Death without God tells the stories of non-religious people facing loss and illness, and explores how we can find comfort, hope and meaning at challenging times.

4. What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on my debut novel, working title One More Life, which explores the intensity of first love, in counterpoint with the intense experiences of motherhood.

5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?

My brain works best in the first few hours after waking, so I try to ringfence that time for my writing, as far as possible.

6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?

I am lucky enough to have a garden room, which is my favourite place to write, but thoughts and ideas can come to me wherever I am and I will note them down in my journal or on my phone.

7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?

External validation is nice, but it is out of our control. Write if it is who you are and what you feel you’re meant to do. Write It All Down, by Cathy Rentzenbrink, contains lots of great advice, particularly for autobiographical writers. In order to push through anxiety about how your story may be received and get a first draft down, she suggests you make a pact with yourself: ‘I am going to write my story, but I don’t have to show anyone unless I want to.’ I have found this piece of advice very liberating.

8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?

As an anxious introvert, I find live events challenging, but it is often worth rising to that challenge, because in-person events offer the chance to make genuine connections.

9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?

I’ve had death anxiety from a young age, so a major recurring theme in my work is our mortality: what we can make of this one, shortish life we’re living.

10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?

I feel the value of a writer in today’s society is to cut through all the superficial noise so as to create true and deep connection with other human beings.

11. Do you write between genres or not?

I am becoming a bit of a genre collector! I started off as a poet and playwright, my latest release is narrative non-fiction and I’m now working on a novel.

12. Which living writers do you most admire?

I have been reading auto-fiction lately and admire the work of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Edouard Louis. Narrative non-fiction writers I admire include Larissa MacFarquhar, Sarah Krasnostein and Jessica Bruder.

13. Which dead writers do you most admire?

Robert Frost is probably my favourite dead poet for his ability to convey profound meaning in simple language.

14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?

Wishing I’d written someone else’s book would be like wishing to be someone else and I find it better not to think that way!

15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?

A sense of place has been important for my poetry in recent years. My work-in-progress collection, Water Calls, begun while I was living on a narrowboat, explores lives lived on and next to water. The rapidly-eroding cliffs of the east coast of England are one of my sources of poetic inspiration. Coastal erosion is also one of the themes of artist Julian Perry’s paintings. I love his work. His painting, ’Ash Leaves Under Blue Sky II,’ which hangs on the wall in my writing room and which I chose for the cover of Living with Death without God, for me, shows the beauty to be found through acknowledging death’s presence in life.

16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?

Going for a run or taking a bath often help get my creative juices flowing. Some days it may be better to accept it’s not the right moment for ‘inspiration,’ but there is always scope for ‘perspiration.’ There are always things I can be doing to move forward as a writer.

17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?

Someone who shared his story of bereavement for Living with Death without God let me know that he has put an extract from my book up on his fridge where he can see it every day, because he finds my words supportive and consoling. I was very moved to hear that my words are meaningful for him and I hope this will be true for other readers, too.

18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

Rejection tends to feature frequently in the writing life. The support and encouragement of my family and friends has been immensely important in keeping me motivated and positive through everything.

19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?

Chapter Two bookshop in Chesham, Buckinghamshire is my favourite bookshop. It is primarily a second hand bookshop but there is nothing dusty or musty about it. The shop is fresh, innovative and beautifully presented; it hosts numerous wide-ranging events, creating a hub for the local community; and it raises money for the important work of The Hospice of St Francis.

20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?

I’ll be keeping an eye on the impact of AI tools for writers and writing. Amazon sells convenience and people like that, but people will also always want to make real life, real world connections. Local bookshops have a wonderful way of bringing communities together.

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