Janice Galloway Interview


How long have you been a published writer?

My first stories were published in November 1986. I’m interested in writing stories about problems which don’t necessarily have answers, which is I think more of a female concern than a male one. Science and technology is male-orientated – it’s like hunting: you track something down and stab it, get the better of it. Women are far more interested in the sideways possibilities – the reasons and psychology behind things. I’ve always thought that Philosophy contains the male perspective on the world, and Psychology the female. The ‘maybes’ and ‘probablys’ and the ‘hunchy’ side of life fascinates women. When I was teaching, and sat with a group of female colleagues in the staff-room, it was astonishing to hear the number of jokey references from male teachers about witches! Two of the older women always knitted, in a particular corner of the room, and it would be referred to as ‘the coven.’ Some of the men actually signed a petition to stop women knitting in the staff-room! There was something about it that made them feel threatened. I’m sure there are all sorts of strange things going on in the male psyche, and I’m interested in writing my own perceptions of it as a woman.

Have you ever thought of writing from a male perspective?

I don’t know. I think it’s highly unlikely. Unless it was a pastiche. I was asked a question on the radio that made me laugh out loud. The interviewer said didn’t I think that The Trick is to Keep Breathing was very self-indulgent. I thought, dear God, how many books are there which are an examination purely of the male psyche? For some reason, it’s self-indulgent when a woman wants to do it. You should never be afraid to write even if you are regarded as being self-indulgent by some people. It probably means you are getting a little too near areas which people think shouldn’t be touched.

Joy reads a lot of women’s magazines and has many ‘silly’ female inclinations, like dieting and reading horoscopes. Why did you stress this stereotyped view of women?

Well, I think women do that and I don’t think it’s silly. I’m writing an introduction at the moment for a book about ‘the canon,’ about things that the male literary establishment has propounded as being important. With astonishing regularity, anything that has much significance to women is seen as trivial… which is of course why women ‘can’t write,’ because they don’t have experience of ‘important things.’ Part of what I was consciously trying to do was to say, ‘Look, a large part of women’s lives does involve things like cooking and baking and looking after people.’ I personally am addicted to women’s magazines! The way some women crave chocolate, with me it’s a magazine. Women tend to enjoy things which are regarded as slightly ‘alternative’ – like vegetarianism, homeopathy, astrology and so on – and far from these being cranky, I think they are frequently female concerns. I wanted my character to be a woman who did recognisably female things. I was taking the thin end of the wedge of women’s lives, and making Joy the ‘thick’ end. She was the logical extreme – her food obsession for instance is something with these magazines encourage.

So are you criticising magazines, as pandering to women’s vulnerability?

No, but I am saying that a magazine is something that a woman will often turn to when she is ill or lonely or unhappy. It’s like comfort food – I remember when I was a wee girl I was often given rice pudding if I had been good, and I can still find comfort in a bowl of it. There is a cosiness about being part of an amorphous mass of women reading the same magazine. Some of them are actually bloody good – they’ll tackle feminist issues side by side with other stuff.

How important was the Scottish context?

There is a Scottish dimension. In many ways the ‘Scottish’ question and the ‘Woman’ question (if there is such a thing) are analogous. There is a sense of colonisation on women’s territory as there is on Scotland.

Why are there so many subsidiary male characters as opposed to female ones?

One resource that single women usually do have is other women. I wanted to take that companionship away from Joy to see what would happen. She was meant to be a woman ‘in extremis.’ Single women’s lives fascinate me. They are often portrayed as slightly comical – sit-com material, centred around domestic sagas, whether they are going to ‘get their man.’ I don’t think being a single woman in today’s society is necessarily all that amusing. John Linklater described the book as a ‘woman’s survival novel’ – like one of these books where you stick a man in a prison camp and take everything away from him, and ask what it is that keeps him waking up in the morning.

When Michael is drowned, Joy is outcast from the ‘accepted’ role of grieving woman – because she was his lover, not his wife.

I tended to pile everything up for Joy – all the attitudes from society that make her unacceptable. If you don’t live within society’s rules I think that some kind of revenge is still exacted. You don’t have to sit on a separate stool at church and have a finger of scorn pointed at you, but there is retribution. Single women are breaking one of the cardinal rules in not getting married and having children.

Did you base any ideas on your own experience as a teacher and social worker?

Experience is the only thing you have, even if you’re writing a science fiction novel, where something is happening on planet Koozebend – there’s still got to be something there that you’ve seen through your eyes.

Did you find it difficult, writing in the first person, to avoid making references that were very particular to you?

Naively, I thought it would be a help. I like writing in the first person because I’ve got an attraction to drama and the dramatic voice. If I can assume a persona, what that character sees is going to come more readily to me. One day the voice suddenly came into my head, and when I got home I bashed the first few pages down on the typewriter and thought ‘well, that’s it.’ It was a frightened but very grimly determined voice. It was only later that I realised that I’d set myself up for a series of depressions. I’d come away from the word processor after I’d been sitting there for maybe three or four hours, and there were times when it would be quite blinding, having looked through that perspective, and very difficult to shake the mood off. My experience in writing the novel was that I had to be utterly absorbed by it. I would sometimes go downstairs to buy a loaf of bread and would come back up without anything. It’s a relief when you can become obsessed by a technical problem, rather than by the character’s neuroses. That can be scary.

Why did you decide not to create chapters?

Well, it was far more continuous at one stage, and I thought I’d better do something to hold it together, but then I thought, this is daft, it’s not the way I wrote it. Abrupt beginnings and endings to chapters didn’t feel natural.

There is a good deal of anonymity in the novel. Joy calls her psychiatrists at the hospital ‘Dr One’ and ‘Dr Two.’

It’s just her way of self-preservation, and her fear of letting anything in. She is a little uncomfortable with names. Something that is personal, even a little thing like a name, is a bit sore for her. There are a lot of people whose names you know, but the way you say them, they might as well just be a number.

How about Joy’s own name?

Finding a name was a wee bit tricky. It was almost an after thought. I don’t think that her name suits her all that well. It’s been grafted on her. All the names in the book are like pseudonyms, which don’t really become personal to the characters.

People do odd things to names and attach associations to them, like saying ‘He doesn’t look like a Michael to me.’ There’s a certain mystical significance linked to the naming of someone. Names are quite sacred things to me. It would be almost unthinkable to open a book and call a child the first name you come across. There are always perfectly innocent names that people can’t stand. If a person doesn’t suit their name it will be abbreviated, or added to, or they’ll be given a nickname.

I know what you mean. It’s illogical, but I’ve always thought that certain names suit certain appearances – like the name Sarah – it always seems a ‘fairhaired’ name to me, even though I know lots of Sarahs with dark hair.

Yes, that’s something else that I wanted to write about in the book – these odd feelings that people have which they seldom discuss because they feel they’re somehow absurd. That interests me – off-beat reactions to something everyday.

There’s a child-like side to Joy’s character. She does things which most adults would be too inhibited to do – like running away from someone who comes to visit her when the situation becomes too much.

gallowayj02pic2.jpg I don’t think it’s so much a child’s reaction as discovering that you can’t stand ‘normality’ a moment longer, and you have to do what your feelings tell you to.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway is published in Minerva Books (ISBN 0749391731 £6.99 PBK)

© Ruth Thomas


One Comment on "Janice Galloway Interview"

  1. Consuelo on Wed, 15th Jun 2011 10:25 pm 

    I would like to quote some fragment of the interview. I would quote Intertextualities and the author of the inteview, of course. But I would like to know the date of it, number in which it was published. Thank you very much,

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