Author Q&A: David Barnett

The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 (Trapeze, £8.99) 

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The Wigan journalist and author has written a speedy follow-up to his debut Calling Major Tom. Set in Morecambe, the novel follows a teenage student trying to carve out an identity while living in an old folks home. 

Tell us about the real life housing experiments that inspired the book.
It was something that came to light about two years ago. A Dutch nursing home began this experiment where it would offer rent-free accommodation to university students in return for 30 hours a month of their time interacting with the older residents. It seemed to be quite a success, in terms of bringing two quite distant generations together. And it reminded me of when I was at school in Wigan, and we had to go and sit with the residents in a care home for an hour or so every week for a term. The worthy social angle of the Dutch project collided with my memories – which I basically recall as just being a bit funny – and the germ of the new book was born.

Your last book referenced the EU referendum quite soon after the vote. Was The Growing Pains Of Jennifer Ebert an opportunity for you to explore one of the key factors in the result – inter-generational conflict – in more depth? 
I think so, definitely. In the wake of the EU referendum it became apparent that one of the lines of battle the Brexit vote was arranged across was definitely an age thing, with it being generally assumed that older people were pro-Leave and younger people were Remain. I certainly had many heated debates with older members of my family about Brexit, and while we never agreed on the subject I did get an insight into other points of view. So when it came to writing Jennifer Ebert I realised I had to at least try to represent the views – on a wide variety of topics – that divided the young and old cast members.

Last time we spoke you told us how you wrote Major Tom in only a few months, and there has been a graphic novel and journalism in between the two books. Don’t you ever get writer’s block?
Ha ha, when you’re a freelance writer you can’t afford writer’s block. In fact, having several different writing strands – the novels, journalism and the comics – keeps things fresh. They’re all forms of storytelling in one respect, but exercise different writing muscles. I had a comic series called Punk’s Not Dead out from IDW/Black Crown this year, and that’s a much more collaborative process from the off, working closely with an artist, Martin Simmonds, who is an equal partner in the storytelling team, as well as editor Shelly Bond. Writing novels is a more solitary process, at least until the first draft is handed in, at which point it becomes more of a collaborative effort, with my editor Sam Eades and her team. And journalism is more immediate and quick-fire. So switching between the three means I don’t get bogged down in one discipline and get stale.

Why does Morecambe provide a good setting for the novel?
With Calling Major Tom set in Wigan, I wanted to remain in Lancashire but wanted a coastal setting. The novel is hugely influenced by film noir – its main character Jenny’s speciality at university – and I wanted a setting that was able to provide lashings of rain, a sense of isolation and the opportunity to bring in Morecambe Bay’s treacherous shifting sands.

Jenny cultivates an image as a film noir-inspired femme fatale, far from the reality that the MeToo campaign has revealed women’s current position in Hollywood to be. Do you think young people are overly nostalgic because things are so dire in their own era?
Are young people too nostalgic, though? I think the reverse might be true. You reference MeToo, and perhaps the past is seen as a place where the problems that led to that were born, and enabled. Things are dire, yes, in a huge number of respects, but I tend to see younger people as more forward-looking than escaping into nostalgia. It tends to be older people who think things were better in the old days, and they’re usually wrong. That’s why Jenny’s a bit of an anomaly at the start of the book. She escapes into the past because she doesn’t really know who she is in the present, and is looking for a life-map or road-plan, rather than looking forward and forging her own path.

Space ships and old folks homes provide some escape for your protagonists. Was becoming a writer an escape for you and, if so, from what?
There’s a scene in Jennifer Ebert where one character tells another that it’s OK to run, but it’s better to run towards something rather than away from something, and I think that holds true for writing as well. Writing – and reading, of course – is a form of escapism, especially my books, which are often marketed as feelgood fiction. So I didn’t think I was escaping from anything by writing, but rather moving towards something. That “something” could be described as “making good art”, but that’s a bit lofty for me. I think once a book is published it forms a contract between writer and reader, a relationship is temporarily forged. What I’m running to, rather than escaping from, is giving people their own opportunity to put the real world aside for a few hours. There’s no better feeling than the one that comes from a message or review where someone says something you’ve written has helped or just entertained them.

Do you have plans for another novel? 
I’m just about finishing up on the first draft of my third novel for Trapeze/Orion, which is called Things Can Only Get Better. It’s set in 1996 in a northern town – probably Wigan – and has two narrative strands. One is about an old man who is plagued by the mystery of who is leaving flowers on his wife’s grave every year on her birthday. Then other concerns three teenage, working-class girls who, inspired by Oasis, decide to form a band to rise up from the lack of expectation and opportunity their lives offer. The two stories converge and the novel does share a lot of themes with Calling Major Tom – generational clashes, loneliness, and the overcoming of that, and working-class lives. That’ll be out in 2019.

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