Lots of Bookish Love: In Conversation with Jen Campbell

By Aaron Bell and Ellie Scorah

With online exclusive questions!

Jen Campbell is the author of the wonderful Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, as well as having her own YouTube channel, judging for the Costa Poetry Award, and being the vlogger in residence for Durham Book Festival. Jen met us in a lovely cafe to talk about her projects, diversity in vlogging, and how a bookshop can be the “curated mind-space of the owner” …

Palatinate: Hi Jen! What is your role at Durham Book Festival?

Jen Campbell: My official role is ‘Vlogger in Residence’, I think this is the first time they’ve had a vlogger. I’m here with a camera to shove in people’s faces and talk to people about books!

Palatinate: How did you get involved with the festival?

Jen: I’ve worked with New Writing North before, and I’ve done some lectures at Northumbria University, and from working with some people at the festival last year. Also, I’m from the North East.

Palatinate: Are there any particular events that you are looking forward to?

Jen: I had a list! Laura Bates, Andy Miller (‘What Makes a Classic?’), ‘A Country of Refuge’ (Sebastian Barry, Lucy Popescu, and Tim Finch). I don’t want to miss any out! There’s lots of different things, and music as well.

Palatinate: How are you finding judging the Costa Book Prize for poetry?

Jen: I’m in the process; it’s something I need to reflect on. You know what you like, so when it gets down to the final few it’s difficult. But I think engaging with something this critically does make you a better writer. Maybe it’s by learning what you like, and maybe what you don’t! Poetry is very subjective, there are inevitably going to be presses you focus on and styles.

Palatinate: What do you think about how the way social media and books are interacting nowadays?

Jen: I think it means it opens the discussion out to more people. In mainstream media, [and] we’re talking about national newspapers, they have a limited space for what they can talk about. Not as much gets talked about, especially in poetry. They might only review one poetry collection a month.

Vloggers can talk about whatever they want, they control their space, their platform, and it opens up to more diverse voices. The national newspapers are very much middle aged white guys; it’s not a diverse set of opinions!

It’s not to say national press is bad – far from it! [But online] it’s more exciting, you can pick and choose who you want to listen to. You can have an academic discussion, or choose to watch or read something informal and it’s like getting a recommendation from a friend.

Palatinate: Do you think that gives you a responsibility to get voices out there that aren’t covered in mainstream media?

Jen: Yes, but also what works well with vlogging is being genuine about what you’re reading. With that comes freedom and responsibility to talk about things in a respectful manner. You’re really engaging with the material in an open minded way. There are lots of campaigns to raise awareness about a variety of literature, such as LBQT, disability, Black Lives Matter. There’s a whole host of things happening out there. It’s great!

Palatinate: Do you find that you can have more dialogue and discussion with your watchers?

Jen: Yes, I think that is the case. With newspaper articles if it’s in press and you’re reading it, that’s not a conversation. Well, you could write a letter! We have a more immediate response online. Things grow and get passed on with tags and such like.

Palatinate: Did you see your channel growing big?

Jen: It’s not huge! You like to reach as many people as you can, you just hope you’re going to reach somebody in some capacity.

Palatinate: How did you make the change between writing about books, to talking about books online?

Jen: I started as a blogger, I had a blog in 2008 or 2009 when I was a bookseller. That was to talk about books while doing my degree – just talking about books I was reading and enjoying.

That turned into my first book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, completely by accident! When writing became my day job the blog was a bit much, and I wanted a different format [in which] to talk about books. The best way to talk to people was to have my own channel.

Palatinate: Bookshops feature a lot in your work. What would you say to convince people of the independent bookshop?

Jen: Give them a copy of the bookshop book! (Laughs) I think from growing up in the North East, there aren’t that many here, so I grew to love them. When I went to Edinburgh [to study English] I thought there were so much more! This is so exciting!

There’s something so lovely about an independent bookshop. People buy their books at so many different places and that’s fine. I think lots of people use different book destinations for different things. The internet is great – if you know what you want!

A bookshop is the curated mind-space of the person who owns it. There’s also so many wonderful stories behind bookshops. In Wigtown [South West Scotland] – which is a bookshop town – there are twelve on one street. The biggest is called “The Bookshop” for easy Google purposes! It’s run by a guy called Sean who’s lovely! A bit like Bernard Black from Black Books. He writes fake Trip Advisor reviews of his bookshop pretending there is a restaurant in it! Lots of things in it are done as a bit of a nod, and a giggle.

A woman called Jess who worked for NASA decided she hated her job in LA and wanted to work in a second hand bookshop in Scotland. So she Googled for it and this one was the first that came up! They’re together now!

Palatinate: That’s so great!

Jen: Opposite them is a shop called ‘Reading Glasses’ which is a feminist bookshop run by a woman who is also a humanist, and marries people in the bookshop!

You don’t think stuff like that exists and it does!

Palatinate: Is there anything you particularly miss about being a student?

Jen: I don’t miss the cold, or the student accommodation! But I do miss learning stuff, that’s why I started on my channel the ‘Fairy Tales with Jen’ series on the history of fairy tales. It’s fun for your own research.

Palatinate: How do you decide what you’re going to read? And how did you find the time to read while studying?!

Jen: I’m a mood reader, and I normally have one book of many different styles on the go. Maybe one short story collection, one poetry collection, and so on. When I say one I mean like, five!

I probably read more now than I did then. I had book club, with a circle of maybe thirty people, and we passed on our favourite books around the circle. Also, I definitely read everything for my course (or maybe not!)

Palatinate: What was the last thing you read?

Jen: I always forget this when I’m asked! But I actually do remember this time. I’ve just finished reading Autumn by Ali Smith, which was amazing.

Palatinate: Can we ask for a three-word book review?

Jen: Hmmm! Brexit, Art, Love.

Palatinate: Thank you! Sorry for putting you on the spot!

Jen: It’s fine! I like the challenge!

Palatinate: You write a lot of short fiction and poetry, are there any plans for a novel?

Jen: My agent would love that! It’s like: “Jen, when are you going to write a really commercial crime thriller with an unreliable female narrator!” That’s not really my thing. I would like to mash up several different genres and types, like poetry and non-fiction. I admire Max Forever and Maggie Nelson who create these weird crosses and genres.

I may well write a novel. I wrote some when I was younger! They may never see the light of day. One was basically a rip off Angus Thongs, and Perfect Snogging! I’m not saying no, but I’m not sure now.

Palatinate: That book must be a good thing to own!

Jen: (laughs) I’m not so sure!

Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book is available from Little Brown. 

Image credit: Jen Campbell

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