Until 2016, Jodie Chapman had spent the better part of the decade working as a professional photographer. That year, her lifetime love of books led to a place on the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course and now she is publishing her debut novel.
Another Life is the story of Nick and Anna, who fall in – and then out of – young love. When the two are drawn back together years later by tragedy, their story is suddenly complicated by the baggage that comes with adulthood. The novel, sharpened by Chapman’s knack for capturing life through a lens, has been favourably compared to Atonement and Sally Rooney’s work, and was recently chosen as a BBC2 Between the Covers pick.
On the eve of the novel’s publication, we touched base with Chapman to ask her our 21 Questions. Here, she discusses the brilliance of Ernest Hemingway, the enduring influence of Mad Men, and wedding photography.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
Probably Ernest Hemingway, whose economy of style was revolutionary after the wordier novels before him. He conveys the heart and beat of being human in a few words. His iceberg theory – how a writer should not put down everything but let the reader infer the meaning, just as we only see the tip of an iceberg and are left to imagine its vastness beneath the surface – changed writing.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
I was obsessed with the Little House on the Prairie books. I loved the descriptions of the log cabins their dad built in each state they lived in, the harsh winters. I’ve always been fascinated by the late 1800s, so I loved being transported there through the eyes of another child.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
I came of age in the nineties so there were many Point Horrors and Sweet Valley Highs, but one library book stands out: Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence. It’s the story of three generations of a family during the aftermath of a nuclear war. I’ve not read it since, but it remains in my mind as wonderfully unsettling.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
I remember finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and sobbing my heart out. His sentences cut like a knife. The emotion lay in the words unsaid, the gaps leaving space for the reader’s own experience. My husband read the book and thought it was terrible. That taught me a lesson: don’t try to please everyone. Some will get it, some won’t.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I spent a few months training to be a dental nurse when I was 17. I was awful. For some reason, I could not figure out how to use the suction tube effectively to drain the excess saliva whilst the dentist worked. I don’t think a single patient ever sat in my chair who didn’t choke on their own spit. I quit after fainting at the sight of blood during surgery.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Start the scene as late as possible and get out as early as you can. Perfect for nailing pace. And subtext, subtext, subtext.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I’m a slow reader (I like to find every clue) and there are too many books to discover, so I never reread. A book becomes a favourite if I’m still thinking of it a year or more afterwards. The best ones stick in your mind, their mood never quite leaving you. There are favourite books that I’d like to revisit, but I’m scared of not loving them as I did. I want to hold on to the feeling more than the actual book.
What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?
I never feel guilty for not reading books. Read what you like. It’s your mind it must take over.
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
I spent over ten years as a wedding photographer, so probably still that. Definitely something creative. Offices send me to sleep.
What makes you happiest?
An empty day, that first cup of coffee, watching my sons daydream, people-watching through a café window, a conversation where you feel totally connected to the other person.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
Constantly rewatching Mad Men.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
No noise, a locked door, music if I want it, endless coffee, someone else to deal with the courier.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
About ten years ago, I bumped into the writer and actor Sam Shepard in a Costa in South Kensington. I stammered that I was a huge fan, for which he graciously thanked me. I’m glad he didn’t ask which of his works I liked most, because the only ones I could remember at the time were his minor roles in Steel Magnolias and Baby Boom (both of which are absolute bangers).
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
The late writer and philosopher, Alan Watts. I love listening to his voice, which has the most wonderful tone that both relaxes and revives, and I think he’d pair perfectly with red wine and a box of After Eights. And I’m a terrible cook, so a takeaway.
What’s your biggest fear?
Dying before my kids grow up.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Invisibility, but only when my extroverted-introverted self wants it. I’ve always loved that Sylvia Plath quote that describes her wish to “mingle with road crew, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars – to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording,” but sometimes her presence as a woman gets in the way.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
I read The Secret History for the first time this winter. It floored me. And Toni Morrison’s Beloved floored me even more – I had to keep putting it down to compose myself. It’s been a very good year for discovering old greats.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?
How do people get through the day without coffee? I don’t want to know.
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
“Best” is not my ball game so I’ll go with “favourite”. I have a thing for Victorian lit, so perhaps John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. It’s EastEnders with corsets, with a cast of characters, scandals and rich social commentary on old London that keeps you turning for 800 pages. I watch the 2002 TV adaptation every winter.
What inspired you to write your book?
Nick and Sal’s relationship in Another Life came from watching my two very different sons play and observing their dynamic. Nick and Anna’s story arrived fully formed, and although Anna is fictional, I drew on my upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness.
I wanted to capture the mood of the Mad Men episode when Don Draper pitches to Kodak. He shows a slideshow of photos from his life, and says how “in Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” I wanted to write that feeling.
Another Life by Jodie Chapman is out now.