After spending a decade as a broadcast journalist for the BBC, Jo Furniss gave up the glamour of night shifts to become a freelance writer and serial expatriate. Originally from the United Kingdom, she spent seven years in Singapore and also lived in Switzerland and Cameroon.
As a journalist, Jo worked for numerous online outlets and magazines, including Monocle and the Economist. She has edited books for a Nobel laureate and the palace of the Sultan of Brunei. She has a Distinction in MA Professional Writing from Falmouth University.
Jo’s debut novel, All the Little Children, was an Amazon Charts bestseller and one of the Top 50 Kindle titles of 2017. Her second novel, The Trailing Spouse, is released in August 2018.
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Q&A with Jo Furniss
How did you become a professional writer?
I started my career at the BBC, which demands many styles of writing. I dabbled with fiction too, but didn’t prioritize it until I took an MA in Professional Writing in 2012. One short story I wrote as an exercise struck me as having the potential to be a novel—I expanded it to be my final project and eventually it morphed into All the Little Children.
It’s been a long road to publication and I’ve attended courses, workshops and writer groups. As well as the nuts and bolts of writing, there are two key skills I learnt: you must be disciplined and you must be open to feedback. In that respect, starting as a journalist was good grounding—I’ve always seen writing as a job and, of course, you have to turn up and do your job even when you don’t feel like it!
All the Little Children has dark themes and scenes. Did you find it easy to write?
I wanted to push the two mothers—Marlene and her counterpoint, Joni—to face their worst fears. For Marlene this would be anything that seems to prove she’s not a good mother, while for Joni it would be failing in her role as protector. This all seemed fine during the planning stage, but when I came to write these scenes—and push myself into their emotions—it was traumatic. There were certain scenes that I avoided for a long time. When I finally wrote them, I shed tears and even now I have mixed feelings while reading those sections.
Where do you get ideas for your books?
Both of my novels were born of frustration!
All the Little Children came from my early years of motherhood, when I got side-swiped by the judgmental discourse that rages in the media and online—and sometimes between mothers in the real world! All the self-righteous commentary made me feel like I was failing (looking back, I was doing fine as a mother, and I did even better when I stopped trying to be as perfect as all the people on the Internet). The continual criticism is pernicious, and I really think there’s been a glitch in the feminist matrix that’s let our generation of mothers down in this respect. Anyway, I set out to write all this into a character, the type of person who would be fodder for a capricious media; the press would either hail Marlene as a “superwoman example-to-us-all” or condemn her as “egocentric”.
The second novel (due 2018, title TBC) draws on my experience as an expatriate. I left the UK in 2002 and since then I’ve made five inter-continental moves to follow my husband’s job. It’s a great lifestyle and my career in journalism means I’ve always been able to work, but my husband holds the all-important work permit. So my dependence goes beyond simply financial: my right to reside in the same country as my kids depends on him, as well as my right to work, and even signing a contract for a mobile phone requires his permission! So again, I wrote this frustration into a character in order to explore the potential impact that the loss of independence might have on a person’s psyche. Happily, neither my husband nor I struggle with expat life as much as my characters do!
What kind of books do you read and who are your favourite authors?
I’m a butterfly reader, so I don’t have a favourite author or even genre. But I do suffer literary crushes, whereby I read everything by and about a writer in an obsessive fashion. I’ve fallen in literary love with the late Iain Banks, as well as Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and Kate Atkinson. At school, I was a lunchtime librarian and set myself the task of reading the classics, so I roamed the rows from Aristophanes to Zola. Then, at university, I rebelled against myself by studying sci-fi and westerns in fiction and film. Now I’m an author, I find my reading is mostly research. While writing All the Little Children, I read a lot of apocalypse fiction, as well as stories set in forests or books about trees. For my second novel, I drowned myself in domestic/psych thrillers. My TBR pile is always toppling!