Jane Austin

Author of Renegade and News From Nowhere

On a visit to York to see old friends and city haunts, I popped into the City Library, and to my surprise, saw my novel, Renegade, on prominent display! The librarian came over and asked to take a photo for their website, so here I am, with News from Nowhere, my debut novel, and Renegade, published last year. Top tip for authors – if your local library buys a copy of your book, offer to donate a set for book groups. I know mine have been borrowed multiple times.

One of my old schoolfriends, Liz, suggested Renegade for her book group and invited me to join the Weymouth group on Zoom to answer questions. About a dozen people sat in Liz’s sitting room, all very friendly and welcoming, and it was almost as if I was there. Liz kicked off with, What inspired you to write the book? Questions followed about how long it took to write, how I got into writing, and what was I writing now. Questions about writing routine are popular, and I understand why. It’s about understanding the process and what happens between the germ of an idea and getting it onto the page. My writing habits vary. There are days when I’m reading round a topic and jotting things down, or just thinking about the story while washing up. I’m spurred on by deadlines and the desire to submit my work for critique to the writers’ group I belong to.

Members of Liz’s book group are now reading News from Nowhere, passing it round to those interested. Meeting readers is such different dimension to my writing life and reminds me of why I write: to connect with others through story and share thoughts and feelings about real and imagined lives.


What I’ve been watching


I’ve seen two remarkable films recently; Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley, and Mario Martone’s, Nostalgia.

Women TalkingWomen Talking, is based on Miriam Toews’ book (2018), about a remote Mennonite community, with resonances of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. It’s about a religious colony where women and girls are knocked unconscious and raped, explained away as ghosts or demons punishing them for their sins. The book and the film show the women’s imagined response to these violations. They meet in a hayloft in secret to decide how to protect themselves and their daughters.

In the days of rainTheir discussion is fierce, passionate and often tearful, ranging from questions of salvation, freedom, safety, and forgiveness. They are there to consider whether to stay or to leave. Not all the men are monsters, must they leave their husbands? And their sons? They chew over the options and the uncertainties each presents, until there can only be one choice. No spoilers here, but they delve deep into issues of life and death, sacrifice, power, and what it means to be free from tyranny. Sarah Polley’s film is riveting in its emotional power, founded on the women’s love for each other and their unbreakable bonds. It reminded me of Rebecca Stott’s memoir, In the Days of Rain, A daughter, a father, a cult. This is a woman’s journey to make sense of her childhood in a Jehovah’s Witness sect and to complete her father’s tumultuous life story.

NostalgiaNostalgia is a film about a middle-aged man coming to terms with his delinquent youth when he returns to his native Naples after forty years’ absence. He lives in Cairo where he’s happily married and runs a successful building enterprise. The film opens with Felice walking the streets of Naples where he drinks in the past, triggered by views of churches, balconies, little shops and children. We feel for him as he visits his mother, now old and frail, and he tenderly takes care of her in the last weeks of life.

The dangerous past is revealed in the shape of Orestes, Felice’s childhood friend, now a notorious local gangster. Felice is impelled to meet him, the only way to heal old wounds, as he sees it. Don Luigi, the local priest, tries to pull Felice away from the dark side, as this prodigal son blunders uncomprehending into Felice’s circle. There’s a mythical inevitability to the outcome, set in this edgy city of winding streets, dilapidated flats, catacombs, and overrun by motorbike gangs firing guns into the sky. The counterbalance is Don Luigi, who lives to save the youth from crime. He runs workshops, offers boxing practice and has created a young persons’ orchestra to help them escape the city’s insidious undertow. Felice is a son of the city who longs to reanimate a childhood friendship that can only exist in the mists of the past. Nostalgia draws Felice into an underworld from which there is no escape.


Tips for Writers


Oliver Burkeman’s, Four Thousand weeks, Time and How to Use it, is a reassuring lesson on how to free ourselves from the tyranny of the passing of time and embrace our limitations. In his latest blog, The Imperfectionist, https://imperfectionistblog.com/, he meditates on the pros and cons of notetaking on reading. He asks what the point of reading really is. ‘Is it to add to your storehouse of data, hoarding information and insights…ready for some future moment when you’ll finally take advantage of it all?’ The answer, of course, is no. ‘Better I’d say, to think of reading not as a preparation for living later on, but as a way of engaging with the world, one way of living, right here in the present.’

He also helpfully suggests that keeping your notes messy ‘seems to keep them more alive.’ He advocates a relaxed approach to taking in information, using one’s natural filter to determine what’s worth remembering. The point of reading, ‘isn’t to vacuum up data, but to shape your sensibility.’

When I’m reading, I jot down images that delight me, which is like sensitising the surface of my imagination. I don’t know how it works, but something seeps under the skin and eventually into my writing. I also write brief summaries of novels in a reading journal, to jog my own memory and to help in writing my newsletters. I make brief scribbly notes as they occur to me, noting my overriding impressions rather than detailed accounts of plot and character.

What are your reading and notetaking habits? Do you have any you’d like to share? Do drop me a line through my website.