By Chloe Scaling
Jen Campbell is an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her debut short story collection The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night is being published by Two Roads and her children’s book Franklin’s Flying Bookshop is published by Thames & Hudson. She is also the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops series and The Bookshop Book. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2016.
In advance of her workshop at the Durham Book Festival this year, Creative Writing was lucky enough to get in contact with Jen Campbell to discuss her first fiction book for adults, which will be published on the 2 November 2017.
What is your preferred genre?
Oh, that’s so tricky. I’ve written fiction, poetry and non-fiction. At the moment, I’m definitely drawn more to fiction. A touch of magical realism, a touch of fairy tale.
How do your processes for writing and researching different genres differ?
For many of the short stories in my new collection, I actually began by researching a topic. The history of hearts and heart transplants; all the strange fish that live at the bottom of the ocean; the history of the freak show; medical cases of plants that have grown inside people. So, I began with fact and moved into fiction, weaving them together. I’m sure this is because I originally wrote non-fiction, so that’s my process, but it really works for me, and I enjoy it.
How do you think writing short fiction differs from writing novels or longer form prose?
Ask me again this time next year, as trying to write a novel is my next project. I love short stories because you can ask the reader to truly believe in something extraordinary over a short period of time. You can have odd situations and build extreme worlds that wouldn’t work with a longer narrative. So, going forward, it’s going to be a balancing act to see what works in longer form and what doesn’t. That’s both scary and exciting.
Where did you get the inspiration for The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night from?
All over the place. I enjoy creating thematic nets. One story in the collection called ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ was inspired by a painting at the Tate Britain. A narrative emerged from that where I brought together the tale of Mary, Christina Rossetti (who had posed as Mary for this painting), Hansel and Gretel and a teenage girl exploring what body is. That sounds like a lot of things in one place. I promise – or at least very much hope – that it’s fluid. Stories cross paths all the time, and I find those intersections the most interesting places to explore.
Which is your favourite short story in the collection?
That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child, so I’m going to politely pass.
What are your plans or goals following the publication of The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night?
My first children’s picture book came out this year, Franklin’s Flying Bookshop. The sequel will be out next year, so I’ll be working on that. I’m also scribbling ideas for a novel.
What advice do you have for students pursuing creative writing in their spare time?
I offer writing workshops, if anyone would like specific, tailored writing advice (www.jen-campbell.com/writing-workshops).
But general advice? In the words of Philip Pullman: “read like a butterfly, write like a bee.” Pollenate.
Photograph: Two Roads publishers