Fiction, non-fiction and creativity – an interview with author Jane Badger

hand writingWelcome to a new interview in my series on creativity in non-fiction writing. Today we’re having a chat with Jane Badger. I met Jane because of her blog on pony books, and I own her marvellous history of the pony book, “Heroines on Horseback”, which I reviewed over on my book review blog, but she’s also a fellow-editor and writer of both non-fiction and fiction, so a great person to mine for information and thoughts on my topic. Oh, and didn’t we ALL write some very odd fiction for our English Language ‘O’ Level, if we did one? I certainly recall producing a very miserable piece about a dying carthorse, inspired by a Christmas card from a pile with which we were all issued in the middle of an exam. See – I do write creatively, too (hm).

Hello, Jane, and thank you for joining the discussion! First, please tell us a bit about yourself and your books.

I spend most of my life crawling over what other people write, adding what I fondly hope are tactful comments asking them to explain this ambiguity, and check that inconsistent fact. My one published book so far is “Heroines on Horseback”, which is an examination of the pony story in English literature. I’ve also written a sequel to Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” books, which I hope will be published next year.

How did you start writing, and which came first, fiction or non-fiction?

As a teenager I wrote very odd fiction for English Language O’ level, but that was about it as far as fiction went. I was far happier writing funny stuff for the school magazine, to the horror of my English teacher, who wrote on my report that I’d get on far better once I’d learned to channel my eccentricity. Once my children arrived, I wrote pieces for the local NCT magazine, and when I became a bookseller, starting writing a website about my speciality, pony books. On the back of that I wrote a general blog with book reviews, and life in my garden: anything, really, as long as it wasn’t too personal. I was asked to write a book on the history of the pony book by specialist publishers Girls Gone By, who have the patience of saints because it took me years to deliver the goods.

At various points when I was writing the book, I do remember thinking that writing fiction must be so much easier because you didn’t have to do a month of solid research before you could even begin a chapter. That didn’t stop me thinking that yes, writing fiction was more creative, because you just made stuff up out of your beautiful imagination, and it all made sense, and you had a plot, and characters, and you said profound things, and made acute observations. About life. Whereas what I did was analyse stuff. And attempt to be vaguely amusing about it. Full stop.

I was then asked to write a time slip pony story, and agreed because I thought if I committed to it then I might do it, and I was interested to see whether I could actually write a work of fiction. So, I started off, not at all sure what was going to happen. What happened was that I got a few chapters in, got bored, and so did what I tend to do when bored, prevaricate. I am a highly experienced prevaricator, and am good at doing something that could justifiably be described as contributing to the thing I’m avoiding doing, whilst still not actually doing it. I’d been contributing to one of those memes where you write a paragraph, and someone else writes a paragraph and so in the end a story emerges. I was contributing to this with gusto, and then wrote a paragraph in which Ruby Ferguson’s Jill appeared, and explained what she’d been up to since the series finished.

Ah ha, I thought. I really want to see what Jill did do after she disappointed generations of readers by tamely agreeing to do a secretarial course rather than go off and work with horses. And whilst it’s not exactly writing my time slip story, it is historical, because it’s set in the 1950s, and I will use it as an exercise to practise writing fiction, because what I will do is write it online, chapter by chapter, and see what people think. And if I write it online, I will get plenty of comment, which is good, because I do like being edited, and if I am tempted to prevaricate and not do it, I will be doing so very publicly and that might be enough to make me stick to it. And I will learn masses of lessons on how to write fiction and I will use them to finish my time slip story.

It sort of worked – Jill is a fantastically popular figure, and so plenty of people were interested in what I was doing, and made whole heaps of useful comments. As I was using characters I knew extremely well, I found it fairly easy to set them going and then write about what they did, which in itself was a very useful lesson. Having people comment as I went along was incredibly useful, and led to me re-jigging the plot and changing a lot of things. And I did finish it.

The time slip story is still languishing, just as I left it. I did write a Nanowrimo novel last year, but hated the process with a passion. I like to write in short chunks which I polish and polish and polish, and having to churn out thousands of words in a day was awful. I did it, but haven’t looked at the ghastly book since, because the emotion I recollect in the relative tranquillity of now is still loathing.

Did you always want to write non-fiction or was this a relatively late development?

There are masses of things I want to write, mostly non-fiction, but the ones I get paid for have a magnetic attraction. But yes, I was glad to provide in “Heroines on Horseback” a resource that I hope will be useful for all fans of the pony book.

I’d like to write a book on the welter of stuff that surrounds the horse world and how it has changed over the last hundred years or so: why the elephant ear Jodhpur? Why the jute rug? Who else lusted over the Jacatex ads for cheap riding clothes?

I’d also like to write more horse history. What I have been asked to write is more fiction, so we’ll see.

I started this whole series off when I blogged about finding that writing non-fiction was still “creative”. Do you agree, or is only fiction writing truly creative?

It is creative, but in a different way. You need to be creative in order to create something readable out of a whole welter of facts.

I’ve heard it said that memoir should be considered as “creative non-fiction” – do you agree with that description? How do you think writing memoir differs from writing fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other?

In the sense that you’re putting your own particular gloss on something, then yes, I suppose you are being creative. I do write the odd autobiographical piece, and if they’re going to be any good, I think you actually need to reveal something of yourself. Or be amusing. Or preferably both. Certainly the autobiographical pieces I’ve written that have had the strongest reaction have been the ones where I have said this is how I feel about what’s happened. It’s not something I do often.

If you use your own life in your fiction, was writing a memoir different from doing that?

I’ve never written a memoir, so I don’t know. The secretarial college in my Jill book was based on the one I went to (albeit in the 1980s, but the college was really out of the Ark), and I used bits of my London life.

Have you got anything else you want to add about creativity and writing (with particular regard to non-fiction)?

Go with what you love. I love research, and exploring new things that crop up, and then lassoing the whole lot into something that makes sense, and I hope entertains.

Thank you so much for that! Now, tell us where we can find your books …

My website is at Heroines on Horseback is available from the usual sources (Waterstones, Amazon, Book Depository), or from me if you want a signed copy. Jill I hope will see the light of day as an actual book sometime in 2015 but nothing’s set in stone yet! Until that point, you can dig her out on my forum here (though this isn’t the final version – just what I wrote online).

You can read new interviews in the series, either by subscribing to this blog (see the links in the top right if you’re viewing on a PC or on the drop-down menu if you’re reading on a phone or tablet) or clicking on the “non-fiction creativity” tag at the top of this post, which will give you access to all the interviews published so far, as well. Happy reading!

My own books are all firmly in the non-fiction area, but I do involve aspects of my own life and experience to make them more accessible and welcoming. Take a look by exploring the links on this page, or by visiting the books pages.

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