Literary Sisters: Author Interview with S J Bradley

SJBradley (2)

Photo credit: Ricky Adam

On International Women’s Day it seems appropriate to be posting an interview with an up-and-coming woman writer.  Ages ago, before Sisterwives was published, I had an email inviting me to an event in Leeds called ‘Fictions of Every Kind.’  S J Bradley (Sarah) was one of the convenors: warm, friendly, impressively organised.  ‘Fictions’ do great work. They describe themselves as a DIY writers’ night.  The format comprises a mix of established and published writers and newer writers in an open mic format who find a ready audience for their work.  There’s often live music too.  ‘Fictions’ is a fantastic social opportunity for writers to meet each other and share work.  I love the democratic feel to them: everyone is welcome.  This accessibility is clearly very important to S J Bradley.

First and foremost, though, she’s a writer.  And a bloody good one at that.  She has finished a novel.  Her short stories have been published in Even More Tonto Short Stories (2010) and Cutaway Magazine (2012).  And – hugely excitingly hot off-the-press – she was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize.  Her story ‘Dance Class’ will be appearing in the New Short Stories anthology soon.  I’ve read it, and it’s brilliant.

On Tuesday 12 March S J Bradley will be changing hats and appearing as one of the speakers at Fictions of Every Kind at Wharf Chambers in Leeds.  I’d advise you to get down there if you fancy a beer or two and an evening of excellent words in fine company.  The event is called Blast Off!  I think, though, that S J Bradley is well and truly launched.  She is a writer to watch.

Here’s what she had to say about the writing process and on the importance to her of the ‘Fictions events’…

How do you juggle writing with other work? 

Well, I’ve been writing seriously for 4 years now, fitting it in alongside a day job. You can’t expect too much from writing, financially. I work at my day job between 3 or 4 days a week, and spend my weekends and days off writing. I’m lucky enough to have a job I love, with short hours and long holidays. The job isn’t related to writing, which works well for me. The bonus of having a steady income means I don’t have to worry about making money from my work. It’s great if writing does pay, but it’s not something I have to be concerned about.

My day job brings me into contact with people from all walks of life. There’s a richness in sharing offices and staff rooms that I wouldn’t have if I worked by myself at writing all day. I’m the sort of writer who would quickly go mad if she was always on her own. I need something to get me out of the house!

Where do you like to write best?

At a desk, somewhere quiet, and preferably with some natural light. My usual places are the kitchen table, or else I go to the library. But I’m not precious about having a particular desk. The most important thing for me is quiet – to not be able to hear other peoples’ conversations, and to not be interrupted.

Who is your most significant influence (literary or otherwise)?

My biggest influence is EM Forster. I love his prose style, and the way he brings the political into the personal. The situations he puts his characters in highlights their positions in society, and yet it’s never done in a way that feels dogmatic. Every time I read Howard’s End (usually once every couple of years), I always turn the pages wishing I could write the way he had. I was amazed to find out recently that he didn’t consider himself to be a great writer.

Another big influence is Paul Auster. When I first read The Book of Illusions it totally blew me away. His characters are so enigmatic. They do all these strange, self-defeating things, and you don’t always know quite why. And that was a new idea for me – the idea that, as well as taking place on the page, there’s a part of the story taking place in the reader’s mind. It totally changed the way I thought about fiction.

Name your favourite time off activity.

I’m not very good at having time off. Even sitting down feels wrong. But I like TV – my favourites are 30 Rock and Arrested Development, and trashy things like Made in Chelsea. At the moment I’m working my way through the excellent remake of House of Cards. But I can’t even properly rest watching telly. I’ll be trying to knit a hat at the same time.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?  And the worst?

Best thing: You invent a load of people in your head, put them wherever you want, and make them do things and go places. They say and do whatever you make them say and do. Your characters can be awful. They can betray one another and stab one another in the back, tell lies and double-cross each other, and do all sorts of things that you would never dream of doing in your own life. It’s a way of living vicariously that can be tremendously fun.

Worst thing: Working really hard for long periods of time without much encouragement. You can go for months without having anything published, and that’s tough. You have to have faith in your own work when it seems that nobody else does. That part of it sucks.

Can you tell us a bit about the initial stages of your writing process – how you capture your ideas and how you tackle the first draft.

I’ve got a system! I carry a notebook around with me everywhere and when I have an idea I write it in the book. It can be anything from a fully-fledged story idea, to a little snippet of how a character might smell.

Most of the time I know what’s going to happen in a story before I write a single word. A first draft is just getting that story down onto the page. I don’t worry too much about how well it reads. It’s just a case of writing 100 words, then another 100 words, then another 100, until the whole of the story is told. Then I come back and fix it all up when I edit.

You’re a careful and painstaking editor.  What’s your relationship with the editing process?  How do you go about editing your work? 

Thank you for noticing. I love editing, which I think is an unusual thing for a writer to enjoy. There’s something about it that appeals to my pernickity side. I can easily spend twice as much time editing – more, even – than I spend on a draft. The initial writing is fun, and I often have some really exciting ideas while writing early drafts, but it’s in the editing where things really come together. A story is never just about “Character does this, then that, then they have a moment of realisation, and then x, y, hey presto, the end.” Underneath it all there’s a larger theme. It might be about redemption, for example, and it’s during the editing that you can make the way the story is written echo what the story itself is about. So for example, while paying close attention to the prose at one level, I’m going through and choosing words and metaphors that echo the larger theme of the story.

I’m also thinking about how the story itself trots along. Maybe I’ll rip out whole passages that add nothing to the narrative. That’s a hard thing to do, because it means being ruthless. You might spend one day writing 800 words, and the next day take them out. But you can’t think of it as being a whole day’s work lost. Just having written those passages might have added something to the way that you think about the story and its characters. You always have to consider the readers’ experience.

What are you working on just now?

I’ve just finished work on a novel called Brick Mother. It’s set in a secure psychiatric hospital, and is about a dangerous patient receiving psychotherapy from a jaded and exhausted art therapist who would rather be doing something else. It’s about the dehumanising power of institutions. After I’d finished it I started working on a crop of anti-capitalist short stories. They’re about the unfairness of the economic system. I’m planning to do a whole collection of them. We’ll see how that goes…

Tell us about your experience of organising ‘Fictions of Every Kind’ – how it started, what are its aims and what you get from doing it.  

Fictions of Every Kind is a non-profit writers’ social. The germs for it started in August 2010, and we had the first actual event in November the same year. I had a friend, who I knew through the DIY music scene in Leeds, an excellent writer called Saul Franks. We were both struggling a bit, but neither of us really wanted to start going to a writers’ group. Critique is useful, definitely, but I only find it so at certain points of the writing process. And I’d started to notice that a lot of writers, regardless of their level of success, go through the same bleak process of struggling to have faith in their work. So our aim was to provide a social outlet for the bookish, and to give support and encouragement to anyone involved in the lonely act of writing. We have an open mic for people to share their work, then a couple of invited speakers, and usually a band too. Our aim isn’t to critique peoples’ work, because I sort of think that people should furrow their own path, providing they work hard at what they want to do.

It’s a funny thing, running a social night for writers. We focus a lot of our efforts on getting people to talk to one another. One of the problems is that if you’re an introvert, a writer especially, you maybe don’t go and strike up a conversation with other people. So that’s something we really want – for people to make new friends. New nerdy, bookish, slightly awkward friends.

Fictions of Every Kind happens four times a year now, and I love running it. It’s hard work, and we’re all volunteers. But I get such a lot out of it. There are three of us in the organising group – myself, Ian Pepper, and Mason Henry Summers – a group that has been steady since December 2011. Our personalities and skills complement each other well. Over the past 2+ years we’ve had some amazing writers come – you came in October 2011, when Sisterwives had just come out, the same night we had Zodwa Nyoni, who’s an award winning Zimbabwean-born playwright and poet. We’ve had Claire Massey and Benjamin Judge, Mishka Shubaly and Jenny Oliver, all of whom are brilliant writers, and others, too many to mention really. I’ve learned a lot about writing and a little about publishing, and have made a lot of great friends along the way. People often say they feel more welcome at Fictions of Every Kind than they have felt at any other social. That means a lot to us.

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?  And in ten years?

In five years I’d like to have my novel and short story collection out. I’ve got a wishlist of writers that I’d love to have come read at Fictions – people whose work is great, and who I’d love to bring to Leeds if only we could afford to pay for their travel. As for in ten years’ time… well, I’d like to write more, and publish more. I don’t have a ‘plan’ as such. I’ll just keep going and see where it takes me.

If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?

Going to church is a waste of time. Reading, socialising, and having hangovers are not. Keep being curious. Go places and do things, and don’t worry – you don’t have to live in Wakefield all your life. Sit tight and wait until school’s over, because that’s when the fun really starts. Make lots of mistakes, stay out late, and keep on reading all those books. You’ll be glad of it later.


Visit S J Bradley’s blog and read her stories here.  She tweets as @BradleyBooks – have a look here on Twitter.

And more information on the Fictions of Every Kind events in Leeds can be found here.






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