A chat with author Joy Fielding

Joy Fielding is a Canadian author living in Toronto. She is a New York Times Best Selling author. Her books have been published in multiple languages worldwide.  I came across her book The First Time recently, and the title struck me as it was the first time I’d read her work. I was immediately taken with it and wanted to chat with her straight away, as the book involves a cause that is close to my heart, Motor Neuron Disease, which I recently spoke to the J9 Foundation about. 

Joy’s new release, Shadow Creek is in bookstores now. Order you copy today!

Joy was kind enough to chat to me about her life and work

I find your biography fascinating – the acting and the writing are both fields that I’m interested in and tie into pop culture. How did you come to kiss Elvis? 

Well, truth be told, it wasn’t that difficult. I was young, reasonably attractive and in Las Vegas with my sister and a girlfriend to see Elvis perform. This was in 1969, when he was slim and beautiful. We were staying in the same hotel where he was performing and we found out what floor he was staying on – again, not hard. I think all we had to do was ask the front desk. (Times have really changed.) Anyway, we went up to his floor hoping he’d come out to say hello. There were perhaps another half dozen young women standing about, and suddenly there was Elvis. He stood around, chatting to us, and then one girl shouted, “Kiss me, Elvis. Kiss me. Kiss me.” Obliging fellow that he was, he then proceeded to kiss each girl on the cheek. I held back, but he cocked his index finger and beckoned me forward. I was expecting the same little peck on the cheek, but instead, he swooped me into his arms and kissed me full on the mouth, tongue and all! It was quite a shock, albeit a very pleasant one. 

Writing is something that allows us to create a world we want, for whatever reason. I liken it to imaginative child’s play and I see that you too have drawn that parallel with a comparison to creating a story with paper dolls.  Is writing (and by extension, reading) a form of this child’s play in adulthood?

I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that writing is a form of child’s play in adulthood, as there’s quite a lot of hard work, as well as worry and despair, involved in actually writing, but I do often feel as if I’m still that little girl playing with her cut-out dolls when I’m creating characters and situations at my computer. And while I believe a love of reading is fostered in childhood, I think it’s something that grows up with us. We relate to different books in different ways at different times in our lives, and what we take from a book is dictated by what our life experience allows, so I don’t think I would categorize reading as a form of child’s play. Reading helps us learn about other cultures and people and, by extension, ourselves. It helps develop empathy and shows us we’re not alone. In short, it helps us grow up.

I asked the above question because of your book “See Jane Run” which you’ve mentioned is one of your favourites. The title “See Jane Run” is a reference to the Dick and Jane books which help children learn to read. 

One afternoon in late spring, Jane Whittaker went to the store for some milk and some eggs…and forgot who she was. Jane Whittaker has awakened to a nightmare. She doesn’t know her name, her age…or even what she looks like. Frightened and confused, she wanders the streets of Boston wearing a blood-stained blue dress and carrying $10,000 in her pocket. Her life has become a vacuum, her past vanished…or stolen. And all that remains is a handsome, unsettling stranger who claims to be her husband, whispered rumors about a dead child whom she cannot recall…and a terrifying premonition that something truly horrible is about to occur.

Do you see anything of yourself in Jane, or is she based on someone you may know – or 100% fictional in every sense?

I actually see a lot of myself in most of my female characters. While I haven’t actually been in a situation such as the one Jane finds herself in, or for that matter, any of the situations my characters are confronted with, I tend to put myself in their shoes and try to figure out what I might say or do. Having said that, the situations that Jane dreams about – hitting a man with her purse, almost being run down by an angry motorist, and another altercation are things that actually happened to me. I’ll use anything as long as it’s interesting.

Are women with strong identity or being able to create an identity for themselves something that’s important to you? Your characters are really easy to relate to. I think most people could relate to Jane, which makes it all the more terrifying that she could suddenly lose her identity. Do you write with the view of making people confront their fears or is it something from within that you’d need to express?

I think most women are strong and much more complicated, and therefore more interesting, than men. Men are simpler – they’re more straightforward. Women have so many layers, and I don’t think much of commercial fiction does us justice. I try to create real, believable women that women readers can really relate to. One theme that recurs in virtually all my books is a woman’s search for her identity. I find this very interesting because it’s something I have very little patience for in real life. I think that who we are is the way we behave, how we treat others, the things we do. I don’t really write to get people to confront their fears, although it’s something I often ask myself before starting a book – what do I fear the most right now? What is concerning me? What preoccupies my mind? I figure that if something is concerning me, it’s probably concerning a lot of other people as well.

To quote from your website, “since my books are sold all over the world and in almost every conceivable language, it strikes me increasingly that as long as one is writing about the basic human emotions we all share, then it doesn’t really matter where one is from.” This is something close to me. My site was inspired by the actor John Ritter who said in an interview in the late 70s, when asked how he would like to be remembered, “Just as a guy who was interested in the golden thread that intertwines all of us together.” This is incredibly powerful to me, I mean here I am in South Africa chatting to you in Canada because of a work of yours that has touched my heart. Chat to me about the power of the golden thread of humanity that all authors have the power to tweak. 

I think we’re all much more alike than we are dissimilar. We share common human emotions. We’ve all felt love, hate, anger, envy, fear, etc. etc. A writer is most successful when (s)he can tap into that common thread. Interestingly, in order to do that, you have to make your story as particular as possible. Only by making a story unique can you make its appeal universal.

I found your book “The First Time” in our library and this is how I discovered you. I’m ashamed to admit that before I realised that Mattie had a physical condition, I was becoming annoyed with her. I was thinking “why does she keep falling and doing daft things? She’s a grown woman!” But as soon as I realised something was wrong I was won, and it made me confront some uncomfortable things in myself. I have previously done an interview with the J9 Foundation for Motor Neuron Disease (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS) and I’ll be sharing this link with them. MND is something I’d like there to be far greater awareness of. Mattie is again a woman in the prime of her life who we can all relate to, who is struck by something terrible. Also, what was it like to write from a man’s perspective and how difficult was it to ‘get into Jake’s head’?

 I actually didn’t do a lot of research for this book other than finding out the basic symptoms, general progression, and treatments of the disease. I had two friends who had MS, which is similar in some respects, although different in significant others. I decided to write this book because a friend of mine was dating a man who had been through a similar experience. He and his (now-deceased) wife were already separated when she was discovered to have a terminal illness and so he moved back home to try and make what was left of her life as pleasant and easy as possible. I wondered about such a man and what that situation might have been like, so I created a family of my own and watched how they coped. As a writer, I chose MND because I needed a disease that was fatal and had no real treatment. I didn’t want it to be a book about a disease. I wanted it to be about a family discovering love for the first time, so while the disease is always there, it’s never the whole story. The story is about how a family comes together and heals. As I was writing it, and I found myself getting more and more attached to Mattie, I kept hoping a cure would be discovered and she wouldn’t have to die. For whatever reason, I didn’t find it that difficult getting into Jake’s head. Men tend to want to solve problems, then get away from them as quickly as possible. They also are able to compartmentalize things better than women. Mattie’s disease forced Jake to confront a lot of issues he’s been avoiding for much of his life.

Something I personally find challenging as a writer is being able to get my foot in the publishing door. The publishing process is daunting. What was it like for you getting that first book published – how did you get into it? There are some vast differences in the publishing field now than there were even 10 years ago, with the advent of ebooks and online publishing. What do you think about the technology and what are your preferences?

When I was starting out, publishers were still willing to take a chance on unknown writers and you didn’t need an agent. I simply sent my first manuscript off to five different publishers and two of them accepted it. That wouldn’t happen today – you absolutely must have an agent – and I’m very glad I’m not just starting out. There are far fewer publishing houses and editors have much less autonomy than they used to. Everyone’s running scared, desperate for the next big hit, when the sad truth is that 90% of all books sell fewer than 5,000 copies. Books are sold primarily through word of mouth and unfortunately books are being pulled from the shelves before word of mouth can spread. It’s very tough out there, despite the advent of ebooks and self-publishing. Reading is not a growth industry. Personally, I prefer the written page and I buy books voraciously. I have nothing against ebooks. Anything that gets people reading is fine by me. But the danger is that this technology will be abused, that books will be pirated and sold without compensation to the author, that the book business will go the way of the music industry. We raised a generation of children who think it’s okay to steal music, and I think books are headed in that direction. As for self-publishing, just because you write something and put it online, that doesn’t make you a writer. The sad fact is you’re going to be spending most of your time marketing and promoting.

Please chat about Shadow Creek and any new projects you may be undertaking?

Shadow Creek is the story of a group of unlikely campers who find themselves in the Adirondacks at the same time as a couple of crazed killers. Frankly, I thought it would be fun to write. I was in the mood for a good thriller, one rooted in reality, populated by real, believable women coping with problems both large and small. The thriller format lets me get deeper into some important issues while entertaining the reader at the same time. My next novel is called Someone is Watching, and it’s about a rape victim who begins to suspect that a man in a neighbouring high-rise might be the man who attacked her. I’ve also just started work on another novel, but it’s too early to talk about that one yet
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Writer, transcriber, proofreader, editor, lover of the arts.

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