Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, Anna Jacobs. Anna has published over 70 novels in the genres of historical, modern and (formerly) fantasy fiction as Shannah Jay, as well as short stories and articles. She is one of Australia’s most successful and prolific authors, but is published mainly in the UK.
Anna lives in both Western Australia and the UK, spending time in each country every year. She uses her love of these areas to produce powerfully written modern and historical novels that span those countries.
Anna is in her mid-70s but is ignoring the nuisances of older age and not slowing down as a writer. She produces three novels a year, and is totally addicted to story-telling. She writes for two UK publishers, Hodder & Stoughton (one of Hachette’s imprints) and Allison & Busby (a respected independent publisher). She is the sixth most borrowed author of adult fiction in the UK library service and is popular in Australian libraries, too. (Only they don’t give author rankings.)
Norm: Good day Anna and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first realize that you wanted to write novels and what has been the best part about being published? As a follow up, what inspired you to write your first book?
Anna: I realized at the age of ten that someone had to tell the stories I loved reading, and since I was already telling myself stories inside my head, I started trying to write them down. I wish I could say I was a child prodigy, but they always petered out after a few pages.
My first book was a French reader, using simple language. I was very inspired because I’d been given a silly, childish story book in French to use with teenage boys. No, no, no! So I adapted a Ray Bradbury short story (with his permission), producing a chapter a week for the student to read on Fridays, and peace was maintained. Then it got published and stayed in print for 20 years.
My first novel was written in the style of Georgette Heyer, a regency romance, because she’d gone and died and I missed her lovely stories.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Anna: Well, since books have been around for hundreds of years, I don’t see them vanishing overnight. I think they’ll continue in a wider range of formats and unless technology throws us a few more shocks, will settle down again. After all, humanity has always had its story-tellers, right from the cave dweller days. It seems to be an innate need of human beings.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Anna: Telling the truth too baldly when interacting with industry professionals in the early days. Blame that on my Lancashire upbringing. It’s a part of England that prides itself on speaking out. I’ve gradually learned a modicum of diplomacy, but not as much as I’d like. Sometimes I turn to my husband for better ways to deal with a situation. He’s been my mentor in this and he’s now my business manager. I think he was born with the diplomacy gene and I wasn’t!
Norm: What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Anna: To follow so-called ‘rules’ of writing eg you must outline a story first. The only rule I see is to tell a damn good story. Different writers work in different ways. I couldn’t outline a story before writing it – well, not and stick to the plan. I tell newby writers to try all sorts of methods and find the ones that suit them.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer and what makes you write a new book? As a follow up, how much of your novels are realistic and are experiences based on people you know, or events in your own life and where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Anna: I read somewhere that character is plot, and I agree with that absolutely, so I don’t recognize them as two separate approaches. I write a new book because I have dozens of story ideas on the back burner of my brain yelling at me to write them, sneaking into my dreams to show me how the story might continue. I bitterly resent having to sleep 8 hours every single night. What a waste of writing time!
I try to keep my novels realistic, but I’d never base a story on someone I know. Apart from the fact that most people don’t have adventurous lives, that would constrain me to tell the story a certain way. I like to walk through a story with the main characters and let them show us what happened. The details of my life show through, inevitably, because I’m the one writing the story, but not from trying to include them.
As for information, I took a university unit in the social history of England in my chosen period before I settled seriously into writing, to make sure I had the basic facts right and to learn how to research. I find ideas wherever I turn in life, on TV or in factual books – and I get a lot of ideas while driving across England, especially for modern stories, when something inside me whispers, ‘What if . . . ?’ If I’m reading a historical research book, I might suddenly think: What if my character was in this situation? Then I’ll study that particular part of history and off I go.
I try to find minor areas of the past that haven’t been written to death. An Aussie editor once told me if another story about an innocent young woman who gets transported as a convict to Australia appeared on her desk, she’d throw up. So my Traders series is set in Western Australia (whose history is far less well know than the eastern states of Australia) and its neighbours. It’s set from the 1860s to 1870s, mainly Singapore, because I’ve been there a few times, but also in the various ports which ships called at en route from Europe.
you going glassy-eyed yet? If you will ask interesting questions, I’m
afraid I’ll give you longer answers.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing and do you have a specific writing style?
Anna: I’m from Lancashire, England, and I specialize in historical sagas with Lancashire’s history as the background, but since I emigrated to Australia, I include that country as ‘mine’ too. Again, I look for things which haven’t been done to death eg ‘trouble at the mill’ has been written about ad nauseam in Lancashire tales. When I wrote my first Lancashire saga, it featured the other people in a Lancashire mill town from 1820 to the 1860s, eg a doctor, dressmaker, business entrepreneur. After all, I grew up in a Lancashire mill town and had never even been inside a mill.
I try to make my writing style clear and with a narrative thread that keeps pulling the reader along to find out what happens next. I’m not into showing off the long words I know, or even the fancy research behind a story. Readers tell me they ‘couldn’t put that book down’ and that pleases me. One reviewer recently insisted my style was ‘light’ but I disagree strongly. I think I have a medium style, not too easy and not too heavy. I feature important themes in women’s lives quite often. Perhaps that’s considered ‘light’!
Norm: What purpose do you believe your stories serve and what matters to you about the stories?
Anna: I get a lot of reader emails and have had many saying they’ve been ill and my books got them through, or they’ve lost a spouse and turned to my stories for escape as they tried to adjust. I feel honored that I have helped people through troubled times by taking their minds off their woes. I’m currently corresponding regularly with a woman of my own age who is caring for a husband with Alzheimers. I admire her so much and she says she loves to hear from me.
People also enjoy the social history and I try very hard to get it accurate. My 90 year old aunt recently read a book of mine set in 1945 and said it reminded her of life then and the sort of things people used to talk about. That made me feel great, as you can imagine.
I also make sure all my stories have happy endings. Yes, I know that doesn’t always happen in real life but I have the choice as an author and I choose to leave the reader misty-eyes with happiness at the outcome. I recently heard from a woman who’d made a new start after many years of an unhappy marriage and she said my modern stories (which are often ‘coming-of-age’ stories for older women) had helped her make a new life. I had tears in my eyes reading her email.
Norm: How does your writing day begin and how do you start writing a particular book and what is your work schedule like when you're writing? As a follow up, how long does it take you to write a book and how do you know when your book is finished?
Anna: I get up a 5.20 roughly, not from virtue but because my body wakes up around then. I check my emails, have breakfast and after I’m dressed, I play cards on the computer. It’s a habit my brain is used to – playing cards is followed by creative writing time. And if I get stuck in a book, I play cards again. It’s got something to do with right brain/left brain but I can never remember exactly how. I just know this habit works for me.
I write for about 5 or 6 hours a day, and then there are business matters and PR stuff to deal with, not to mention research. Oh, and household duties, shared between my lovely husband and myself. We neither of us have the domestic gene, but we do have the clean gene!
At first it took me two years to write a book. Now it takes about 3 months. Well, I’ve had a lot of practice. I work to word count, judging the final crisis by how much I’ve written as my contracts specify the word count wanted by the publisher. I aim for about 3,000 words less than the word count. That gives me the dirty draft, a term I invented and which suits how I regard the first draft.
Then I go back to the beginning and polish with every ounce of skill that’s in me. That’s my favourite writing task of all. Usually one polish is all it takes these days. Then I give it to my husband and elder daughter to read and comment on. They’re very shrewd analytically. After that my agent reads it and comments, but she doesn’t usually have much to say. My editors don’t usually need to suggest any revisions.
I don’t need a lot of editing because I know my grammar etc, but I have an ambition to write a chapter that has no copy editing corrections. I’ve several times had only one correction, but never made it to the perfect chapter. I will one day!
Norm: Which of your fictional characters would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Anna: Bram Deagan, the hero of my Traders series, simply because I like him best of all my characters. He’s not a heroic figure, being of medium height, scrawny, Irish and not particularly good looking, but he’s the most wonderfully loving male character I’ve ever created. And enterprising, because he starts a successful business. I’ve finished writing the series, sadly, but I still ‘see’ him and wonder how he’s getting on.
The female character I like best is from an early fantasy novel called Envoy. She’s a fascinating, complex and courageous woman, a soldier living in a hard, military world, and she has to be the change agent for ending the war. It’s the only one of my books to have had a film option taken out on it. They’ve renewed the option too, so I cross my fingers and toes every time I think of that book and Channa.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Anna: The imagination is like a muscle. If you feed and exercise it, it’ll work well for you. I read three novels by other authors every week and watch TV dramas. There’s such a rich world of the imagination to explore out there. And when I wake during the night, I watch my internal TV and tell myself stories, as I’ve done since I was two years old.
Norm: Can you share a little of your most current work with us?
Anna: I’m just finishing the fourth and final book of the Rivenshaw series, set in Lancashire immediately after World War 2, well, starting after VE Day (Victory in Europe) which was the first stage ended, with Japan still to follow. I’d expected the books to span a few years, but there’s been so much to tell about, that I’m still only at the end of 1945.
This series is particularly important to me because I remember those times with a child’s eye, and have loved researching them with an adult’s eye. I didn’t meet my father till I was 4 because he was serving overseas and I lived with my mother, aunt and grandparents during the war. My aunt is still alive so I’ve talked about that time with her.
The series is about four men who served together in the Special Operations Executive during the war set up a business together, and the strong women they meet. Of course they face problems or there wouldn’t be a story, would there?
The first two books have been published (A Time to Remember and A Time for Renewal) and the other two come out next year. I shall be so sorry to finish writing this series, which has gripped me by the throat for the past 18 months.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your novels?
Anna: They can visit my ‘Anna Jacobs Books’ page on Facebook, go to my very expensive WEBSITE which has a page about each of my 70+ books, and the first chapter of each for people to try out. Or they can sign up for my readers’ email newsletter.
If they read the Rivenshaw books, each one starts with a letter to readers, reminiscing about my early life in that era.
Norm: After your phenomenal success as an author, what, if anything, remains "undone" for you? What is the one thing you haven't done, that you are still "itching" to accomplish?"
Anna: I haven’t reached No 1 on any books sales list. Wistful sigh. My books don’t sell quickly enough, you see, but they’ve stayed in print right from my first historical saga in 1994, reprinting regularly and continuing to attract new readers. My first agent said I had a strange selling pattern. Hmm.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Anna: Oh dear! I think you’ve well and truly covered everything, and drained me dry. The readers of this interview will surely be glassy-eyed by now. Thank you so much for having me and asking such interesting questions.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors