Lovely to “e-meet” you Annabel! Thank you for joining me on Food for Bookworms today to answer a few questions about The Joyce Girl. I really enjoyed the book –it’s so interesting to see these enigmatic literary figures in a more intimate setting and you can tell from the energy and pace of your writing that this is a subject you’re extremely passionate about. What was the impetus for writing this novel? Why now?
When I stumbled across Lucia, I felt her story had to be told – not the biographical facts of her life but the story that’s been suppressed, the story of her inner life at her moment of glory and beyond. I wanted to understand what had happened to her, how it felt, why it happened.
In The Joyce Girl it feels very much like you’re liberating and giving a voice to a previously ignored figure in James Joyce’s history. What first drew you to the figure of Lucia Joyce? What did the research process look like for writing this novel?
I was drawn to her because she was so clearly a very complicated person. I was moved by her plight and angry at how she’d been abandoned and forgotten while the men who had featured so prominently in her life had all gone on to enjoy huge success.
The research was extensive – mostly reading but also some travel to where she lived and danced, and watching countless films of everything from Josephine Baker to Margaret Morris. I learned to dance, re-read all Joyce’s work (including a six-month study school on Ulysses), listened to the music she danced to, went to lots of Beckett performances and visited the amazing Calder exhibition three times, including the curator tour. For three years, I lived and breathed ‘Lucia’!
This is one of the first fiction books I’ve read in which the characters and events are so heavily rooted in real-life. Did you always intend for this book to be fiction piece? How did you decide where to draw the line between fact and fiction?
I briefly contemplated writing a biography but when I realised just how much material had been destroyed and/or lost (letters to, about and from her, medical records, all Jung’s notes, poems and a novel she wrote), I realised this would be impossible. I decided fiction was the way to go – particularly as I wanted to try and understand her feelings. Ultimately her emotions were of more interest to me than biographical facts about her life.
You certainly don’t portray James Joyce in the most flattering light! Did you feel any pressure when portraying your own take on famous (often beloved) literary figures?
Biographers frequently fall in love with their subjects, hence I think there are often biographies of illustrious people (like Joyce) that don’t paint the full picture. Literary celebrities often inspire awe – but these people are as flawed (often more so) than the rest of us. I tried to be balanced. I tried to be respectful of their talent while showing them as Lucia might have experienced them.
It seems like the cause of Lucia’s mental illness and the nature of her relationship with her father are heavily debated among scholars. Have your received any replies from Joycean academics in response to your novel?
Not yet, as the book has only just come out… I’m sure I’ll have upset and outraged several people though. But that’s good. I think these things should be discussed. Personally , I love it when people have differing views.
Both in the book and in real-life Lucia had a strong bond with her father and spent a lot of time considering her romantic relationships. Do you think Lucia’s identity was defined by the male figures in her life?
Unfortunately, it seems that way. But I expect it was like that for most women, historically, when your stability in life depended on securing a husband. For her, this was hindered by her father – who by all accounts was extremely charismatic, manipulative and clever. It’s hard to believe, but he was a celebrity in in his time. Everyone who came to the Joyce house came to see him. He was stopped in the street regularly. ‘High brow’ authors don’t enjoy that notoriety now. Her mother, meanwhile, was almost entirely uneducated. Lucia (who was reputed to be very clever and jumped grades at school, for example), clearly identified with her father rather than her mother. Perhaps if her mother had been more of a role model, she would have been less in awe of men and more able to step out on her own?
I found The Joyce Girl really emotionally compelling and as the story went on I couldn’t help but find myself developing a strong empathy towards Lucia even if I didn’t necessarily agree with her actions. Do you think by her very nature she was doomed to a tragic life or could she have prospered had she been allowed more independence or had circumstances been different?
That’s a great question – one that has given me many sleepless nights. I think if she’d been born today and perhaps into a more ‘stable’ family, she would have had a completely different life. I like to think of her dancing with the Ballet Rambert at Sadlers Wells. She was certainly not doomed to a tragic life although she was a little obsessive. But so am I!
In the novel you are quite bold in implicating the Joyce’s into Lucia’s eventual breakdown. Do you think her family realised the part they played (if indeed you do think they had a part to play) in the lead up to their daughter’s mental illness?
I think her mother saw it as ‘shameful’ and her father definitely thought she’d inherited a spark of genius from him that had transmuted, somehow, into mental illness. Lucia’s biographer, Carol Loeb Schloss, has described Lucia as ‘fragile’ but probably nothing more – and certainly not schizophrenic. It was quite normal to lock up women in those days – for any behaviour deemed difficult or unusual. Of course, being locked up wouldn’t help someone trained to express themselves through their body (as a dancer). This must have compounded everything happening to Lucia at the time of her breakdown.
I get the feeling that this book is just as much a labour of love for you as anything else and I certainly felt heartbroken for her at times! Do you feel that through the process of writing The Joyce Girl you’ve developed a strong connection to Lucia? Was it a particularly emotional novel for you to write?
Yes, it was. The last chapters made me cry every time I wrote/re-wrote/edited/proofed them (which I did hundreds of times!), even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. I really didn’t want to benefit from what she had been through, so I felt much better once I’d made the decision to give the profits to a mental health charity. There’s something slightly unpalatable about making money from the story of someone like Lucia. If I can help just one person from this, I’ll be happy. The crisis in mental health at the moment defies belief and yet it still struggles to raise the sort of money that animal and cancer charities make.
Have you got any further novels/research projects in progress?
I’ve just finished my second novel. It’s the true story of a woman who did break free from all that bound her – but at what cost?
Finally, have you read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake? I have to admit I’ve had the former on my bookshelf for years now and just find the mere thought of tackling it intimidating!
I’ve read Ulysses three times, but it’s not a book for reading. It’s a book for studying. I only really enjoyed it when I took a class over six months. Some of the writing is beautiful and it’s been a huge influence on me. Joyce had the most incredible vocabulary! Finnegans Wake is a book for listening to (and this is how Joyce wanted it to be ‘read’) and the last page is probably my favourite page in all literature – I quote from it on the last page of The Joyce Girl. Having said that, I also think it’s the least readable book in history. My advice? Download the abridged audio version and have a listen. Alternatively, dive in and read a paragraph here and there (preferably with a ‘manual’ – I recommend Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake by Philip Kitcher). It’s essentially the story of a mind at night so it should be read like that – and not worried over!
Thank you again to Annabel and Impress Books for offering me the opportunity to do this Q&A and don’t forget to check out my own thoughts on The Joyce Girl and the rest of the blog tour below.