Friday 15 April 2016

Interview: Jeannie van Rompaey

Today is my stop on the Ascension blog tour, and in addition to my review of the book, I also had the chance to interview the author, Jeannie van Rompaey. Read on to find out all about Ascension, her writing process, and why Pride & Prejudice is Jeannie's favourite book.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I’m passionate about reading, writing, art and the theatre. I was born in London, brought up in a village in Northamptonshire and now live on the subtropical island of Gran Canaria with my husband, TJ, a historian. I love living in a warm climate with blue skies above and sea breezes; but enjoy visits to London to see my daughter, go to the theatre and visit art exhibitions.

I have an MA in Modern Literature from The University of Leicester and have had a varied career as lecturer, theatre director and actor. As Jeannie Russell I’m a member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators and adjudicate at drama festivals in Britain and Europe. Next year I’m off to Frankfurt to adjudicate there.

I write novels, short stories, poems and plays on subjects I feel strongly about, including: the complexity of human nature and the future of our planet. I also think it’s important to have humour in my writing.

How did you first become interesting in writing?

I was an only child so had plenty of time to myself. I was sometimes lonely and writing stories was one way I could express myself. My characters became my friends. My favourite lesson at school was English and I had a teacher who encouraged me. Unlike the other kids in my class, I actually loved writing essays. I loved words. Still do.

How do you get inspiration for your books?

I think of my mind as being like litmus paper, absorbing everything I see, hear and feel. The result is lots of material to write about. I also have a dream life that informs my work.

What draws you to writing dystopian fiction?

I often wonder about the future of our planet. I look at all the problems environmental, social and political in our world and wonder how we could make it better. It would be good to invent a utopia, a perfect world, but as we are all flawed human beings that would be impossible. The idea of inventing a future world and its inhabitants is a challenge that excites me. My dystopias can be seen as a warning but they also celebrate the resilience of human beings in adversity.

Tell us about Ascension.

Ascension is the first book in the Oasis Series. It is set about 200 years into the future. There are two worlds: Earth, contaminated by plague and Oasis, a man-made satellite in the sky.

Those left on Earth are mutant humanoids who live locked up in compounds, safe from the polluted wilderness outside. They have neo-power which gives them light and enables them to use compus (computers) their main source of knowledge.

The mutant humanoids are as varied in character as in appearance. Kali, in charge of Compound 55, has snakes at her neck and wrists. Mercury, her ersatz son and compu whizz kid is passionate about learning. One-eyed, dedicated historian Odysseus is determined to preserve the artefacts and paintings that come his way. His assistants, three-legged, arrogant Heracles is ambitious and ruthless while moon-faced Isis with her extra little arm, is more interested in beauty treatments than history. Three-headed Ra is head of all the English speaking compounds and rules through fear. But how long can he remain in power?

Those living on Oasis have no mutations and are known as completes. They are the elite who escaped contaminated Earth and set out to make a utopia in the sky. Alexander Court is an idealist, but Orlando Wolfe is unscrupulous in his search for power.

When Mercury has the chance to go to Oasis, he is excited by the prospect of starting a new life there. But will he be happy living as a complete? And is Oasis the perfect world he thought it would be?

Unrest on Earth leads to mutant humanoids looking skyward, determined to share the lifestyle of the completes. How successful will they be?

Ascension explores with humour and compassion the way humans respond to change. The future worlds of Earth and Oasis mirror our contemporary society. The division between the haves and the have-nots widens and the lust for power leads to corruption. Luckily there are some optimists determined to build a fairer, more egalitarian society.

What inspired you to write Ascension?

My dreams, my imagination and my view of our current world. I was also inspired by one of my own paintings that hangs over my desk. A three-headed man. I like painting faces – not portraits of people because my drawing and painting is not good enough to produce likenesses – but imaginary ones. From looking at this painting came the character, three-headed Ra. As my work is always character-led rather than plot-led, the seed of my story was planted.

What’s your writing process?

I find I write best in the mornings, but I have to do my boring household chores first – make the bed, clear up the kitchen etc. I’m usually thinking about what I’m going to write while doing this, so – by the time I sit at my computer in my study my fingers are itching to get going. I then write from about 10 o’clock to 1.30. I also write from about four to seven in the afternoon. Please note my long lunch hour. This is my normal schedule but of course, like everyone else, I’m human, which means I do like to socialise and take a break. When I’m sitting in the sun or shade in my garden or walking by the ocean (I live in Gran Canaria so am obliged to take advantage of the climate) I have a notebook with me, but this is only to jot down ideas before I forget. Actual words and sentences come easier to me on a computer.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

The plot. Especially the last chapter and the ending itself. In the case of Ascension I wanted an upbeat, optimistic ending that would make readers want to find out what would happen in the next book. My problem is how to keep up the tension to get to that point.

What do you love most about writing?

The satisfaction when I’ve got to the end of the first draft. I also love hearing what readers think of my writing – especially if they enjoyed it.

Which authors inspire you?

As far as dystopian fiction is concerned Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguru, although I do like their general fiction as well. The most important aspect for me is not the plot or story, but the ideas and, most of all, the quality of the writing. These two authors write so well.

I’m also inspired by Kate Atkinson and Rose Tremain and I must include that great stylist, Ian McEwan. And so many more….

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Write everyday. Write freely at first, let your ideas flow. You can go back later and edit it.

What’s your all-time favourite book?

That’s a difficult one. There are so many to choose from.

I admire Jane Austen’s ruthless view of her own society, her use of irony and her enjoyment of the relationships she creates. Which of her books shall I choose? Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Mansfield Park?

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has to feature for its narrative structure and wild romanticism. The use of different viewpoints to tell the story was quite revolutionary for its time. Having re-read this recently, I still feel a little cheated by the second half of the book, the young Catherine not being as fascinating as her mother. But the denouement and final lines redeem it.

Another contender is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, 2009. I enjoy all her books but this one really gripped me – maybe because it’s concerned with the power of words.

Another choice would be Nice Work by David Lodge (1988). I like the clever juxtaposition of Robyn Penrose, the university lecturer, and Victor Wilcox, the industrialist: the idealist and the capitalist. Their amazement at the glimpses they are given into very different worlds from their own appealed to me. Like most of Lodge’s work the novel is well-laced with satirical humour, the author not afraid to encourage us to laugh at his characters while still having compassion for them. I appreciate this book because he draws on his academic knowledge and I read it when I was doing my MA.

Do I have to choose one? OK, Pride and Prejudice.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

I would like to build up a 'fan-base' of people who appreciate my work and are interested in reading my next novel.

What are you currently working on?

Two books. One is the third book in The Oasis Series to be called Renaissance. I’m still spinning ideas in my head and my notebook for that.

I’m nearly at the end of writing a psychological thriller called Sunshine Skyway. As usual I’m having trouble with the final chapters. I know how it ends but not exactly how….

Do you prefer self-publishing or traditional publishing?

I’m not sure. I like the kudos and excitement of a mainstream publisher making an offer for my book but the author has much more control when self-publishing. Either method requires the author to do a lot of the marketing.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa, (Faber and Faber 2012), translated by Edith Grossman. This book is an epic novel spanning three continents as Llosa re-imagines the life and thoughts of Roger Casement, the controversial hero of Irish nationalism. I’m still in the eye-opening section about the Congo – an indictment of colonisation. Vargas Llosa has a talent for writing powerful historical narrative.

Many thanks to Jeannie for agreeing to be interviewed! If you want to find out more about her work, simply visit her website.

Will you be adding Ascension to your wishlist? Let me know in the comments below!

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