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Author Q&A: Annabel Abbs on The Joyce Girl

October 17, 2016

We chatted with Annabel Abbs about her debut novel The Joyce Girl, her interpretation of Lucia’s story, her research and writing journey, and the theme of mental illness that runs through her book.

Before reading your moving and heartbreaking book – The Joyce Girl – we knew nothing about the fascinating life of Lucia Joyce. How did you first learn about her? And why did you decide to write a novel based on her life?

I came across Lucia in a graphic novel called Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by an English husband-and-wife team called Mary and Bryan Talbot. It was essentially Mary’s autobiography, through which she had woven the story of Lucia, but in a very basic way as graphic novels don’t allow much space for exploration. But it was enough to hook me.

We’ve read that you share one thing in common with Lucia – you’re both the children of poets. Did you draw on your own experiences at all to get inside your protagonist’s mind?

Yes, I did. The sense of being in thrall to the creative spirit was very much part of my childhood, as was the regular moving and changing of schools (as we followed my father round), and the poverty that the children of unsuccessful artists endure. Lucia and Giorgio grew up believing the only careers worth having were creative careers. Fortunately me and my siblings overcame this and went into very commonplace, steady jobs. My brother became a policeman and my sister became an actuary!

It’s hard to believe that this is your debut novel – the writing is so assured. Especially as you had a whole other career – and a family – before you embarked upon this. Tell us about your writing journey.

I didn’t start writing until quite late in life. I wrote half a (very bad!) novel in my 30s but then stopped for a decade. But I’m a compulsive reader – I’ve learnt everything I know about writing from reading. The Joyce Girl was my apprenticeship and I rewrote it several times. Writing a novel about other writers (Beckett and Joyce) really helped. I learned a lot from studying their lives and writing. I took particular heart from their stamina and perseverance. They just never gave up. I worried that I hadn’t been on any writing courses – but neither had they and that gave me confidence too. However, my writing style is very different from theirs. It took me a while to find my voice. But reading 2-3 novels a week really helped.

You really bring to life not just the Joyce family and their intimates (including the young Samuel Beckett) but a sense of the Paris avant garde of the 1920s – that flowering of bohemia in Europe between world wars. How much research did you do to get a sense of that time and place? Not to mention the people who populated it?

I did a vast amount of research. I specialized in modernist literature at university so I knew a little about the writers of that period but I knew nothing about the dancers, for instance. I spent a long time pulling together all the details (the clothing, the characters, Paris, even the furniture) – reading books, collecting old postcards, going to exhibitions and museums, learning to dance. I immersed myself in the 1920s for three years.

Lucia really is a classic faulty narrator – not always seeing things that the reader can readily spot. What kind of writerly sleight of hand do you use to create this kind of character?

She was a complex character – simultaneously naive and perceptive. Closely observing my teenage daughters helped me to capture some of this. As I researched Lucia it seemed to me that, although she was 21 when she met Beckett, she was more like today’s sixteen-year olds. That fragile blend of sophistication and vulnerability, insouciance and naivety, was very marked in Lucia and it fascinated me.

Mental illness is a theme that runs throughout this book. And the question of how much of Lucia’s deteriorating condition is down to her father’s hold over her – not to mention her own frustrated ambition – is left an open question. (It’s probably no accident that you included F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife – Zelda in the cast: another woman whose talent was famously dominated by her ‘genius’ husband. And who also wound up in an institution.) Can you talk a bit about this aspect of the book?

Lucia’s later life was entirely determined by her mental illness. Like Zelda (and many other women of that time), she died in an asylum, while the men in her life went on to have illustrious careers. I found this infuriating and I’m not sure it would have happened if she’d continued dancing. Dance was her way of expressing herself and asserting her independence and individuality. Locking her up and putting her into a strait jacket seemed unbelievably cruel. My sense was that, after such an unsettled childhood, she really needed support. Instead she was subjected to one setback after another. Another woman whose life followed a similar trajectory was TS Eliot’s wife who also died in an English asylum. Emile Fernandez’s sister (Joyce’s first French translator of his first book, Dubliners), and Giorgio’s wife, Helen Fleischman Joyce, also ended up in asylums. It’s the dark underbelly of the jazz-age.

The scenes with Carl Jung are particularly affecting – Lucia’s feeling of being backed into a corner is palpable. How did you create these scenes?

I imagined Lucia as someone who might be acutely uncomfortable in the small enclosed spaces reminiscent of her childhood. As a dancer, she often danced outdoors or in studios or on large stages. It seemed to me that a consulting room would have made her feel constrained and restricted. I knew that Jung sometimes took his patients out in his boat and so I created one ‘talking cure’ session out on the lake. It was only afterwards that I realized it was one of the few sessions where she opens up to Jung. I’ve since wondered why more therapists don’t offer some sort of ‘walking cure.’ It certainly might have been more productive in Lucia’s case.

If Lucia had been born in the late 20th or early 21st century, do you imagine her story would have had a very different outcome?

Yes. There’s far less stigma attached to dancing now, so her family might have been more supportive. Mental health support is much better now – and there’s less stigma attached to mental illness. Her diagnosis would have been more accurate and today’s therapeutic services are far more sophisticated. There’s also a wide range of proven medication now. In addition, marriage is no longer viewed as a panacea, so she would have been less convinced of the need to marry – and less shamed by the non-marriage of her parents. Thankfully, the days of the mental asylum are over too!

Writing The Joyce Girl made me incredibly thankful for the progress we’ve achieved. Having said that, in many parts of the world women are still seen as second class citizens and deprived of basic human rights. I’m also worried about the rising tide of mental illness among young women. There’s still a lot of work to be done…

To purchase a copy of The Joyce Girl click here!

Click here to read the first chapter or head here for discussion questions!

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