Author Jayne Joso's most recent novel is Perfect Architect, from Y Lolfa.
AmeriCymru: Hi, Jayne and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. An architectural competition is an unusual and fascinating scenario for a novel. How did you come to choose this theme?
Jayne Joso: I began writing on architecture when I lived in Japan. This was mostly journalism but eventually led to my being commissioned to edit and then to ghost-write on the subject between the UK, Germany and Japan. At one stage I worked on a book about star-architects (starchitects as they are now often called, and which sounds rather fun), the research and interviewing involved in that fired my imagination enormously and in many ways was the starting point for Perfect Architect.
JJ: I researched many architects, working partly on my own personal encounters, from interviews, and also from reading their published works. Some architects are also very prolific writers, publishing their sketchbooks, parts of notebooks, discussion about their own personal philosophy, influences, along with discussion about process, how they work, how they deal with their initial ideas, perhaps how they visualise such things; and in many cases, particularly among the older generation of architects, the writing is accompanied by pencil or ink sketches, perhaps watercolour images or drawings, or basic plans, and maybe also photographs of things which seem stimulating and in some way pertinent to the ideas they have at the time. I am fascinated by how people work out their ideas, and in terms of the novel I thought that working with a stream of ideas when first conceived and seeing how they are rendered in sketchbooks, or having an architect gather things on the beach for inspiration perhaps, or showing how seemingly accidently someone might happen upon an idea, seemed like an interesting set of scenes to set in motion, and a fun way to display this creative verve. I very much wanted it to seem playful and exciting, so the characters are in many ways larger than life (as many starchitects are in fact), full of passion and opinion, and the ultimate workaholics.
AmeriCymru: Perfect Architect reveals a good deal of knowledge about the world of contemporary architecture. How did you go about researching for the book?
JJ: When I settled down to think about how such a novel might work I began attending lectures on architecture and design, some of these at the RIBA and the V&A in London, but I drew heavily on my experience of writing non-fiction on architecture, the research that had involved and then also drawing on my own encounters with architects. The structure of the novel was also very important to me. I wanted it to have a ‘built’ effect, using the letters between characters earlier on and then contrasting this with the scenes from the architects lives, so that you have a sense of moving through the novel as though it has been ‘constructed’ as much as it has been ‘written’.
AmeriCymru: Can you talk a little more about how you chose to depict the architects themselves, and the intimate or private settings we find them in?
JJ: We are used to being presented with the lives of famous figures in quite particular ways, and it struck me how often they are photographed in magazines to appear simply distant and glamorous, and the information we are delivered about them in magazines again reveals more about the public persona than the private – I’m speaking mostly about architects now, of course. Having been privy to the more private environs of several architects it struck me that what would be interesting to do might be to allow the reader into these more private spheres, to show them when they are off-camera, when they are at home, perhaps playing with their children; or walking along the beach, or left alone late at their office with their own thoughts.
Soothing Music for Stray Cats
JJ: Yes, my pleasure. A common thread to my work so far, seems to be an interest in finding the right place, and the right space in which to feel at ease, whether it is psychological, geographical, architectural... In Soothing Music for Stray Cats, the main character Mark dreams of finding better ways of negotiating the disconnectedness of modern life and the loss of his closest friend as he wanders the streets of London. I wanted to write about someone who managed to walk away from a life that was leaving them feeling empty. I had researched cases of people doing this in real life, and it seemed that it always took the most ferocious courage for them to do so.
In many cases, it seemed that people had grown into their adult lives and taken on relationships and responsibilities and then found they were simply too far in to bail out. People are sometimes locked into a life that doesn’t fulfil them or lines up roles they find they are struggling to live up to, but by this time a certain standard of living is expected and they cannot simply stand up and holler ‘I can’t do this!’ - often it seemed that the individuals were considering suicide as an option, but what happened was that rather than take their life they quite literally just kept on walking – and I wanted to work with this in the novel, not being able to cope at all, not being able to tell anyone, and the idea of leaving the house one day and walking, not to work, not to the grocery store, but to some as yet unknown, unplanned destination. In fact, there often isn’t a destination, what seems important at that time is the need to just keep on going, travelling, moving away in the physical sense from all the emotional distress of their current situation. In that sense, I wanted to chart the main character’s journey through the underground and parks, wandering the streets of London absently as he steps out of the fast lane of life. And I wanted to show him wrestling with ways of making sense of difficult things, drawing on music and lyrics that have meant something to him at different times, and lines from the novels he’s read – which is, I guess, at times as useful as it is futile. But I like the idea of drawing on music and fiction to help work things through, and the experience we might all have had of running particular lines through our heads.
AmeriCymru: Are there any particular writers who come to mind whose lines you often recall on a personal level?
JJ: Yes, and it’s probably a strange mix, but I suppose I most often think of lines from Kurt Vonnegut or Virginia Woolf – it’s whatever seems to fit.
AmeriCymryu: You have lived and worked in Japan and China. Care to tell us more ? How did your experiences there affect your writing?
JJ: My experience of Japan is very different and separate from my time in China, and I am fascinated by both cultures and countries. But I think that my life in Japan (which was much longer than the time I spent in China) has impacted on my writing enormously, particularly in terms of writing about nature. I feel that writing about the natural world, the weather, temperature, the impact of things such as the level of light available at a particular time of day, just how hot the sun might be or how it can appear like drops of colour in a warm haze... all of this sort of thing I sense I now pay far more attention to having lived in Japan. I think of it is as looking at things slowly, and I try sometimes to look at things or listen to things as though I can slow them down, and I try to walk slowly, so that I don’t miss things.
AmeriCymru: Who do you read for pleasure?
JJ: At the moment I am reading Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete, Max Frisch’s Homo Faber and re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
AmeriCymru: What are you working on at the moment?
JJ: I’m partway through a new novel. It’s set in Tokyo, it’s about a young Japanese guy, shadows, boxes, watermelons... I hope that’s enough of an answer. I don’t want to say too much too soon. Let’s see how it goes, but basically just that: a young guy, shadows, boxes, watermelons.
AmeriCymru: Where can people go online to buy your book?
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
JJ: Thank you for all the kind support and interest you have shown. It is all appreciated far more than you might know. If you want to know about details of other writing or events you can find these on my website.