Book Reviews, Interviews, Other

Author Interview – Jaq Hazell

14042558Not long ago, I read and reviewed the brilliant novel My Life As A Bench (here). After that, I had the pleasure of corresponding with author Jaq Hazell online and even asking her a few questions. To celebrate the publication of My Life As A Bench earlier this week on May 2nd, below is the complete Q&A.

If you don’t know anything about My Life As A Bench, you can find some useful links at the end of this post!

 

Where did the idea for My Life as Bench come from?

Sounds mad, but a bench spoke to me. There are loads of memorial benches near where I live and I often pause and read the plaques. One day I was out with my dog when I imagined one of the benches complaining about being a bench. The voice was young, someone that wanted to be free and have a laugh.

Did Ren come to you as a fully-formed character, or did you spend a lot of time developing her personality and family situation?

It began as a 300-word story, so all I knew was that Ren was a teenager and wanted to hang with her mates and have fun. Ren’s background, her love of singing and the story of how she abruptly left her life in Devon to move to London all developed over a long period of time.

The novel is told from the perspective of Ren, but she is trapped inside a bench. Did you find this difficult and what were the biggest challenges?

It was difficult and I almost gave up at one point. The first draft didn’t work. I had to find a way to make Ren (who is dead) remain active. She had to want something and that triggered the idea about Ren learning to “break through” in order to talk to the living.

There are a lot of references to songs that Ren loves. Did music play a big role in the writing process?

I love music but can’t sing a note so it was fun to write about someone who has a talent for singing. Ren is a massive Amy Winehouse fan and I enjoyed researching the artists that inspired Amy, while also checking out more recent tracks that feature in the party scenes.

Do you have a favourite scene in My Life as a Bench?

I’m particularly fond of the character Lionel and I like it when he makes his entrance. Lionel wasn’t planned. I didn’t know he was there until he started to speak. I also like it when Ren tries to break through and talk to people that sit on the bench. We’re all hardwired to be frightened of ghosts, but maybe it’s really tough being a ghost.

Is there a particular message or lesson that you would like readers to take from this book?

I never write with any message or lesson in mind, but I suppose the message that Ren’s life and death conveys is that we should all grab life while we can and make the best of it.

How long did it take you to write My Life as a Bench and did you always know how the story would unfold?

It probably took a couple of years on and off. It’s hard to say because I did leave it alone for a while (as I rewrote my psychological thriller I Came to Find a Girl), and then I went back to it for yet another rewrite. I had a rough idea of the ending when I started, but the first draft bears little resemblance to the finished novel. Ren is dead but she’s still active. She can’t rest because there is something she wants.

What are the best and most challenging parts of being a writer?

There’s nothing better than a day when you feel your writing has gone well. Every novel is a challenge and they all present their own problems. Solutions to plot issues can’t be forced and if a novel has stalled it’s best to do something else – take the dog out or cook dinner. The answer will always arrive when you least expect it, perhaps while taking a shower or when you’re about to fall asleep.

When and where do you write?

I’m up early and out with my dog, Basil, and then it’s back to my extremely messy desk where I sit for most of the day. Eventually, Basil hassles me for a second walk and my family arrive home. I can, however, write pretty much anywhere – trains are good, and I often write if I’m stuck in the car waiting for one of my kids.

What five books would you take with you to a desert island?

I’d take Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte for its mad passion, atmosphere and gloomy weather to remind me of home. Solo Faces by James Salter is a novel about mountain climbing that could just as easily be about writing and I love his spare, deceptively-simple writing style. ‘I know a Man’ by Robert Creeley is my favourite poem and I’d take his collected poems to gain an overview of his work. I’m currently reading The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. It’s darkly funny and sweary and I’d take that along to finish and my last choice would be Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s only just come out and I’m curious to see his take on the afterlife – it has talking ghosts!

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Goodreads / Amazon / Waterstones 

Thanks so much to Jaq Hazell for answering these questions with so much thought and care. I really hope you all enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed being a part of it.

 

 

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

My Life As A Bench – Jaq Hazell Review

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Expected publication: May 2nd 2017
Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book was such a pleasant surprise. I was intrigued by the description, but to be honest, I was more curious than optimistic about it. It seemed like it would be weirdly executed and feel disjointed, rather than what it was, which was so much fun to read!

My Life As A Bench is about a seventeen year old girl called Lauren, or ‘Ren’, who is dead. That isn’t a spoiler, by the way, it’s just how the story begins. Ren has died, but she lives on in the bench that her father has had made in memory of her. Day in, day out, she looks out at the view of the River Thames from her bench, and relives her life. Although she has some companionship in the form of Leonard, the bench beside hers that houses the soul of an elderly man who died over twenty years before, she is completely alone, stuck watching as passersby walk past, sit on her, let their dogs urinate on her. Her family visit her regularly, but really it is her boyfriend Gabe that she is waiting for. When she finds out why Gabe hasn’t visited her, she is devastated, and must find a way to communicate with the living to help him.

What I really loved about this book is that although it is supernatural in a sense, it doesn’t feel like it. This book feels firmly like a YA coming of age story, even though the protagonist isn’t dead, and she isn’t going anywhere. Ren still goes on a journey over the course of the book, and she experiences vivid emotions like joy, love, sadness, anger, frustration. Even better, she is such a brilliant character and Hazell, in my opinion, captured the voice of an English teenager today so well that Ren jumps right off  the page. I felt like I knew her, like she was talking to me directly. Ren’s voice felt so real and personal that I didn’t even mind the way that the love story dominating the novel. Although I would have liked to have seen more of her life and relationships, it felt normal and fitting for her character; Ren was a selfish, and perhaps naive, teenager, and so even though I might not relate to the head-over-heels love for Gabe, it makes sense that after death, she would also be worried about the same things that she was worried about in life – her boyfriend.

Ren’s lively character contrasted so much with the fact that she is literally trapped in a bench, unable to communicate with the people that she wants to communicate with, that this book was often quite sad. It was interesting to read a book that felt so happy at times, but at other times made me feel so sorry for the main character. Every night, Ren relives her life, the friends that she made at her new school, her relationship with Gabe, and we are waiting for her to relive her ‘death day’ so we can find out what happened. These passages, where she is reliving falling in love and hanging out with her friends feel like any other YA contemporary drama, like a Jenny Han novel, but then Ren is brought back to reality by someone’s dog urinating on her bench, or kids making out on her. You really feel for her and her situation, and you want her to figure out whatever it is that she needs to figure out.

My only issue with this novel was that, in hindsight, there didn’t seem to be a clear plot progression. Yes, Ren was trying to find out how she died, and she did so,  and there was closure, but the problem wasn’t really solved. Although this was explained and in a way that is quite realistic, I just found myself being genuinely concerned for Ren. Was she going to be stuck in the bench for decades just like Lionel was? It was implied by Lionel’s character that the dead can ‘pass over’ in a sense and no longer live in their bench, and I thought that this would probably apply to Ren, but at the end, she is still in the bench, and I don’t want her to be stuck in the bench! She doesn’t deserve to be stuck in a bench, even if the people she loves do visit her all the time.

Overall, this book was great fun and a really unique and original concept. I was so impressed by the way Jaq Hazell captured Ren’s voice and character so well and made her feel so read, and the way that the concept itself didn’t feel weird or out of place. The whole story flowed and the two storylines, Ren in the bench and Ren’s memories, gelled together really well.