Why some of my protagonists are older people..

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times in interviews: why do you write about older protagonists?

My first reaction is that I don’t – I write about people, all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m comfortable doing that, as long as I know what I’m writing about. This in itself is part of a debate I’ve heard many times: should writers from one social class or specific background write about people from other groups; should writers create characters of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, background to themselves? Is researching a character’s lifestyle good enough preparation or is a character only valid if the writer has personal life experience? That’s an interesting and complex debate for another time.

There is a woman I know – we were students together – whose academic work I admire, who wanted to write about women’s lives in the sex trade and so she integrated herself within the industry in order to discover what she wanted to write about. Not easy research. It’s a similar concept to the method acting work of performers like Robert De Nero, who worked as a taxi driver in order to give his role in the film an authentic representation. Research and knowledge about the character are important, whatever length an artist goes to in order to understand, but should we, in fact, only write about characters when we have first-hand experience? Certainly, for me, that’s a starting point. My protagonists could, arguably, be said to be composites of many people who have been an influence during my life.

My second reaction is that I write about older protagonists because they are perhaps underrepresented in the genre I write. Older women and men have been, somehow, perceived less interesting, less worthy of empathy, less attractive, less likely to be involved later in life in fascinating escapades, romantic or otherwise: less sexy and somehow less interesting. Of course, now that sixty is the new forty, we know that’s no longer the case and it’s a shame that it has ever been perceived otherwise. Age is just a number: we all know health and happiness are more important.

My third reaction is that writing reflects the world:  novels will contain characters of any age and background and older people are very much a part of the world. But it is true: I do like to create some of my protagonists as people in their golden years. Now they have no daily job, no growing families, no looming responsibilities, it’s time for them to make mischief. I enjoy winding such characters up and letting them go.

In my first novel, ‘A Grand Old Time,’ the central character, Evie, is in her seventies. She is witty, feisty and glamorous; she embarks on a journey of self- discovery which takes her through France in a campervan. She meets a septuagenarian hunk. Jean-Luc, who is difficult and brooding: but he has a private problem that will ultimately affect Evie. So yes, the two older protagonists are central to my story, but so too are the marital difficulties of Evie’s son Brendan and his wife Maura. The four characters have needs and problems, they have to bring about changes in their lives and they find themselves in situations which spark mischief, comedy and bittersweet action. I enjoyed writing about all of them.

Although my novels are perceived as being in the category of romantic or comic women’s fiction, I’m delighted for anyone and everyone to read them. I had a lovely comment from a man who read the novel and said that, although he valued Evie and her fun adventures, for him it was Brendan who struck a deep chord. In a job he dislikes, a loveless marriage and blaming himself for his hapless situation, Brendan is depressed and lonely. The male reader suggested that many men would empathise and he found Brendan’s plight moving. I was moved myself to hear his response and very grateful.

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My second novel, ‘The Age of Misadventure,’ is a story of four women of three generations, who go on the run together. The youngest, Jade, is twenty-four; the oldest, Nanny Basham, is eighty-eight. The other two women are in their fifties. Having the opportunity for the three generations to interact together gave me the chance to create comedy, but also to examine the difference between the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour of the women. It’s true, most of the comedy comes from Nan, who is outrageous at times, but her character is inspired by the idea that dependent older people might be lonely and Nan’s brusqueness is a coping mechanism for how hard it is to live a solitary life. As Nan says, she’d rather be faced with the danger and death during their experiences on the run than stuck at home in a cold house eating dinners for one.

I’m currently embarking on a new novel. The main characters are two sisters in their seventies and a very bad man of a similar age. I’ll keep the storyline under wraps for now but yes, I’m writing about older protagonists who are interesting, who are not what they first seem, who are full of mischief and who have the opportunity to be a little iconoclastic. But there will be a whole range of other different characters in the novel, of all ages and backgrounds. I’m looking forward to writing this during the autumn and I know if I have a whale of a time creating the characters and the action, then there’s a good chance readers might enjoy the romp too.

The answer to my question, then, is yes –I do write about older protagonists, giving them the opportunity to misbehave and go on adventures, to fulfil their expectations of life. But they can’t do it alone. The world is full of all sorts of people: it’s a rich tapestry of diverse characters. Ideally, that’s how I’d like my novels to be.

 

 

 

 

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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

Like most writers, I started young, with a pen and any paper I could find to scribble on. I wrote my name on the kitchen walls when I was two and had a slap for my efforts. I penned poems on empty Corn Flakes boxes. I filled jotters with an assortment of stories. In my spare time, I composed some shocking song lyrics on the back of scraps of paper.

My teachers, the nice ones anyway, said they expected to read my work in print some day and I thought I’d achieved it when I had a non-fiction book published about Drama teaching.

Once I’d made the decision to write full-time, however, I concentrated on being published anywhere I could. Niche is good. I made money from having all sorts of short stories included in all sorts of publications. I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. I entered competitions, being placed in a few, including a second prize for a story about a hedgehog cake and a second place at The Winchester Festival for a piece about a woman searching for the same man throughout time. I liked the idea so much I wrote it into a 90,000 word novel last summer: it’s the only serious one I have ever written and I think it is both tragic and uplifting.

A year ago, I was a hopeful writer, with an ambition to be published. I had written my first novel, found a great agent and believed I could actually do what I had dreamed of for so long: I would see a work of fiction with my name on it for sale in a book shop.

It didn’t take long for my agent to find me a two-book deal with HarperCollins Avon, and I was on my way, hardly believing my luck. I had always intended to do it and I suppose I always believed that I would.

Being published has taught me so much. I didn’t realise how my thinking had changed until other writers handed me their work and asked for an opinion. I suddenly started hearing the voice of my editor and suggesting important details which would upgrade the readers’ enjoyment. There is much more to writing than interesting words and characters. I now think much more visually about what the readers will see in their imaginations. I’ve always been a bit of a cimematic writer  but now I focus totally on what images the reader will experience.

The same goes for feelings. I’d assumed if a character sighed, for example, every  empathic reader would automatically know how she felt and be able to understand her plight. Now I focus much more on inner dialogue and thoughts, what has led to emotions and how they manifest themselves.

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The most interesting part of the journey in many ways has been to do with my character’s impact on the reader. Evie Gallagher, the 75 year old role-model in ‘A Grand Old Time,’ is inspirational, as she takes off on a road trip in a camper van, having adventures. She learns a lot about the world and even more about herself, and develops her capacity for enjoying life independently.

Interviews and questions are part of writing a book. I have loved the opportunity to go on the radio, talk to newspaper reporters, complete questionnaires, write articles and guest blogs.

The question I’m asked the most is ‘why did you write about a 75 year old woman?’ This makes me smile. I wonder if Thomas Hardy was asked why he wrote about 16 year old Tess, or if Vladimir Nabokov ever explained about why he invented 12 year old ‘Lolita’? Age is a number. It defines my character less than traits like a sense of humour, altruism or a positive attitude. Yet repeatedly, people are fascinated by a 75 year old protagonist who defies stereotypes and has a tendency to behave badly.

I couldn’t be more delighted by the responses to my 75 year old role model as she takes off in a camper van and has crazy adventures. Reviews have said things like ‘I want to be Evie’ and ‘I want to go travelling with Evie.’ Someone else said they ‘laughed and cried in equal measure’ and, honestly, there can’t be better praise than that.

One woman wrote that her mother is 75 and has recently embarked on a jaunt to Amsterdam, just to behave like Evie. Another person said that her mother was delighted to read a book about an older person living life to the full and now had a role model.

However, I believe readers who will enjoy the novel won’t just belong to the category of women in their seventies and beyond, although I’m delighted that older people have a trail blazer in Evie. There aren’t enough stories about brilliant people enjoying their golden years.

I have farmed early versions of the novel out to friends, including  young men in their twenties, who’ve found Evie hilarious and upliftingly iconoclastic. They decided that the scene where she pretends to be a porn star is hilarious and, equally, when she sings karaoke, gets drunk and lies to the police officer, they loved her sense of mischief.

But there are tender and poignant moments in ‘A Grand Old Time.’ Evie finds love where she least expects it. As a widow, she’d had no thoughts of meeting her soul mate, but when she does, this part of the novel is both comic and touching.

Now I am a full-time writer, and published, with a real novel I can hold in my hands, I can reflect on the past year, going from aspiration to publication. Yet I’m still aspiring. That’s the point of a journey: you never get there. There is always so much to find out, to learn, to reconsider, to aim for and to try again.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is out in paperback on 3rd May. It’s already an ebook and an audio book, read gorgeously by the talented Aoife McMahon. I’ve written several other novels and the second one is currently at the editing stage, scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2019. I’m living a dream.

Like any journey, any dream, I have no idea where it is going, but as long as I’m in the driving seat with the wind in my hair I know it will be a blast. I have many people to thank for this first year: my agent, publisher, publicist, reviewers, all the loveliest of people. Kind and encouraging friends, the very best family. It is good to feel blessed and it is great to get up every day to do something you love doing. There may be many more novels out there. I hope so.

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

Image result for a grand old time judy leigh