Beth: Hi, Jon. My first question to you is this. In Ordinary Joe, Joe West is approached (and hit on), by one of the world’s most beautiful film stars. So, tell us the truth – is that based on real life?
Jon: This is a question I’m often asked – not least by my wife. Sadly, no, I have never been approached in real life in the way Olivia approaches Joe. However, part of the inspiration for Ordinary Joe did come from a couple of real incidents involving actual film stars. On the precarious assumption that neither of them will read this, I can reveal that the two ladies in question were Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham Carter. With Sandra it was nothing more than a shy little wave she gave me when I was walking round a film studio where she was filming In Love and War (which, in the book, I have Olivia do to Joe when they first meet on the film set). With Helena, I was chatting to her at some glitzy reception and she told me that, unfortunately, she had to leave, early trip somewhere the next morning etc. Half an hour later, I caught her talking to Charles bloody Dance!
My question to you now. Between us we spent about 20 years trying to write and get our first novels published. Why did it take you so long? What kept you going through those 12 long years?
Beth: The only thing that kept me going through the 12 years a slave to my book was the thought that if I gave up now, I’d have wasted all the previous years. The stakes got higher with every passing year. I guess I’d still be working on it now, if When We Were Sisters hadn’t finally got published in 2014.
It took so long because I didn’t know how to write a novel. I didn’t know I needed a story, or a plot, or character development, or anything. Also I kept having long gaps between writing. So each time I returned to it, I couldn’t remember anything, and had to start from scratch. I didn’t realise I was setting myself up for a great career in telling other writers how not to write a novel. I know ALL the moves.
However, I couldn’t seem to start something else till I’d blurted it all out. It was a teensy bit autobiographical so I guess I was working through something, man. I’ve worked through it now.
So now we know that Charles bloody Dance ruined your chances with Helen B-C, tell us more about the film industry. You have worked in it, I believe?
Jon: Well, I worked on the fringes of the industry – more peripherally even than Joe West does in Ordinary Joe. For about four years I advised various government ministers about film policy, and then for another five years I worked in senior roles at the British Film Institute. I managed to blag my way onto various visits to America and Cannes and a lot of the scenes in Ordinary Joe draw on these experiences. The opening scene in a makeshift film studio in Queen’s, New York, for example, was sparked by a visit I made to watch Martin Scorsese shooting some new scenes for Gangs of New York.
One of the nicest compliments I received after OJ came out was from a former colleague who recognised Buddy Guttenberg’s fictional apartment as being based on the real pad of a studio exec in LA. In contrast, one of the worst moments was when another former colleague pointed out an egregious error in the Cannes scene – the price I paid for relying on my memories of the locations rather than re-visiting them!
Right, next one for you: The characters of Miffy and Laura are beautifully drawn, both as children and then as adults. On the basis that ALL first novels (except perhaps The Hobbit) are essentially autobiographical, which of the two main characters do you identify with most strongly both as a girl and as a grown woman?
Beth: Ah ha, you saw through the cunning fictional disguise. I identify with Miffy as a child, and Laura as an adult. Like Miffy, I was geeky and speccy. I was definitely NEVER cool like Laura. Miffy and I both had batmitzvahs, though I had to wear an absolutely hideous outfit, whereas in the book I let Miffy have the gorgeous dress I dreamed of. As an adult, though, Miffy is much more closed off and defended than me, so I’m probably more like Laura. I’m not as much of a bitch as her, and hopefully not quite as selfish. But there are a lot of things about her I admire, and I love the fact that she isn’t completely likeable.
So, Jon. If you were casting Ordinary Joe for a Hollywood movie (I’ve no doubt that it’s only a matter of time), who would you have in the main roles? Money no object.
Jon: I actually find this question strangely difficult. The movie rights have been optioned by Trademark Films, so this scenario is not beyond the realms of possibility but (fortunately perhaps), I will have nothing to do with the casting if it goes ahead.
I think the awful Joseph Bennett is probably the easiest person to cast – I could see a snarling, aristocratic Benedict Cumberbatch in the role – but Joe West and Olivia Finch are more difficult. Ideally, Joe would be played by a British Jewish actor, rather than a comedian, which would rule out Matt Lucas, and he is too short to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The problem with casting Olivia Finch is that she has to be very young – I see her being in her early twenties. Margot Robbie has the right look but even she is already 26 and by the time the film gets made . . .
The absolutely dream combination for West and Finch would have been Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe but sadly they are no longer available.
OK, next one for you: None of the male characters in When We Were Sisters are particularly likeable. Was this a deliberate or sub-conscious decision on your part? And do you actually think that all men are egotistical, vain, unreliable bastards?
Beth: Before I answer that, I want to say that I think Tom Hollander would make a very credible Joe.
OK, I am SHOCKED you didn’t think any of my male characters were likeable! Not even Danny? I also have a soft spot for Huw. I know he’s unfaithful, but we only see him through Laura’s (biased) eyes. I most certainly don’t think all men are unreliable bastards. How can you even think that, Jon?! Some of my best friends are men. And in my second book (plug: The Good Neighbour), there are two prominent male characters, one of whom is absolutely lovely. Ok, the other one is a bit dodgy but that’s not bad odds, 50%.
Your next question: Does your Jewish background inform your writing? If so, in what ways?
Jon: Good call on Tom Hollander. I think it is much easier on screen to convey the message that you want someone to be likeable – just cast a likeable actor. In a book it takes pages of hard work to get that across (if the character has any depth to them at all).
Talking of which . . . Huw, I’m afraid, is repulsive – and as for Miffy’s father! There is a circle of hell reserved exclusively for that man.
Turning to less contentious subjects: Judaism. I wear my Jewishness very lightly – even more lightly than you, I think, as I did not have a barmitzvah and was brought up in an entirely secular household. Being Jewish is for me a cultural rather than a religious thing, something I keep hold of mainly now just to annoy Nazis and the Anti-Semites of the Regressive Left. And yet . . . Joe West was always going to be Jewish and one of Ordinary Joe’s themes was always going to be Joe’s sense of being an outsider at his very old school, blue chip City of London accountancy firm. [When I first typed that sentence, I inadvertently renamed my novel Ordinary Jew. Freud (also Jewish) would have had something to say about that.]
I have never experienced direct anti-Semitism, and yet despite this, I am fascinated by the position of the outsider and the way that something as random as what religion your parents, grandparents etc were brought up in can affect how you view the world and are viewed.
The other way in which my Jewish background influences Ordinary Joe is, I hope, in the humour. The Jewish comic tradition – through novelists like Joseph Heller and Philip Roth, filmmakers like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks and comedians like Larry David and Billy Crystal – is very strong and a central part of my cultural upbringing. Earlier drafts of Ordinary Joe were significantly more Jewish than the published version – we heard more of Joe West’s kvetching interior monologue and I also included a couple of my favourite Jewish jokes – but it didn’t really work and so these aspects got pared back in later edits.
My current work-in-progress also centres around a Jewish family but that might be as much because it has strong autobiographical elements as being a reflection on my thematic pre-occupations.
Instead of asking you another question, I’d like you to comment on my answer and link it to your own writing – why have novels number one and three reflected Jewish themes but not number two? (Aach, that is a question.)
Beth: Like you, I think I wear my Jewishness lightly now. Even when I was growing up in a household where we went to synagogue every week, it was no secret that my father regarded himself as a secular Jew who did not believe in god. These days I think of myself as culturally Jewish only. I never experienced anti-Semitism, though my mother is always on red alert for it, not uncommon in someone of her generation who lived through World War Two.
Also like you I was seeped in Jewish humour growing up. We had Woody Allen’s stand-up routines on LP and I listened to them so many times, I learned them by heart. Various funny Jews have been really important to my development, and there is some overlap with your list: Howard Jacobson, Nora Ephron, Billy Crystal, Fozzie Bear (yes of course he was!)
I guess I wrote about a Jewish family in my first book because it had autobiographical elements, and in the second book I was trying not to be autobiographical. I think it mightn’t be anything more complicated than that. The third book (my current work-in-progress), concerns a Jewish family who are far more religious than mine. I’ve always been interested in the differences between Orthodox and Reform Jews, and how they don’t really understand each other at all.
Final question to you: Why do you write comedy?
Jon: I write comedy because I am too bad at creating clever plots and too good at writing dialogue to write thrillers! (OK, this is a bit of a blanket condemnation but I have just finished a really gripping, brilliantly researched thriller from a well-established writer who writes dialogue as if he believes that people actually speak as if they are in a 1930s B-movie!)
Seriously? I write comedy because I am not yet mature enough to take anything seriously for the entire length of a novel. Even when I started to plan out my next book to be about my much-missed late brother Mike, I felt it had to be a comedy – and then abandoned the idea because I couldn’t make it funny. Comedy does run in my family and is almost certainly related to that Jewish humour thing of taking the piss out of ourselves first and better than anyone else can do it to us. My dad was a member of the Unity Theatre before and during the Second World War and used to entertain people down in the Underground stations during air-raids. My older brother, Pete, is a very good semi-professional stand-up comedian, and the rest of my family are also largely involved in frivolous activities.
Finally, when you are spending so long writing something, I think it is important to enjoy that process. I know that some people can get huge satisfaction from writing a great death or break-up scene knowing that it will reduce their audience to tears, but for me the real pleasure comes from writing something that I feel confident will make people laugh. The best lines in Ordinary Joe, I think, are the ones that I genuinely wasn’t expecting. There’s one line – almost a ‘sight gag’ (on page 170 of the UK paperback edition if anyone’s interested) – that came out of absolutely nowhere and still makes me chuckle now!
OK – final one for you: One of the questions I am often asked about Ordinary Joe is whether there will be a sequel, and I did, indeed, write a short story addendum at Christmas to satisfy the need of some readers to know what happened next. Are you happy to leave Miffy and Laura where they ended up in When We Were Sisters or do you ever worry about what happened to them after you drew the curtains across their lives?
Beth: Ooh where is the Ordinary Joe sequel? Is it published? Can we read it anywhere?
I think I left Miffy and Laura in a good place at the end of WWWS, and I have no urge, really to revisit them. The ‘present day’ part of the book was set in 2003, so by now they would be pushing 50. I’m sure Laura would NOT be pleased to be that age, and has probably long since gone down the cosmetic surgery route. Miffy would likely be more comfortable in her skin. I expect they have fallen out and made up again a number of times. As for Jonathan, Laura’s love interest at the end of the book, I bet he’s… no. I’m not even going to speculate.
Oy vey Jon, that was fun!