This month’s guest is both prolific and successful saga author, Bill Spence a.k.a. Jessica Blair.
You have such a broad spectrum of life experience on which to draw: from teacher training, to Bomb Aimer in the RAF, to journalist. What triggered your initial venture into fiction?
Brought up among books and magazines; encouraged to read from an early age, I think, unknown to me, stimulated in me a desire to write. On leaving the RAF in 1946, I wrote a few articles but I always had the desire to write a book. Liking fact and liking fiction I thought I would write a novel based on my experiences as a Bomb Aimer during the war. I really wrote it for my own satisfaction. I had no idea of the publishing world at that time. After a chance sighting of a short piece in a local evening newspaper, saying a paperback company was looking for war novels, I thought I might as well send mine. They offered a contract to publish (1959) which of course, knocked me sideways and made me think what do I do next. I had always been interested in the West, knew a lot about its history and had read numerous Westerns, so I wrote one! That eventually landed on John Hale’s desk and he offered to publish (1960) 36 followed, the last in 1993. During that time I also wrote two more War novels. A Romance and 3 non-fiction books about aspects of Yorkshire and had become interested in the history of whaling.
Jessica Blair was a pseudonym created in 1993. Why did you switch both genre and gender at this point in your career?
The study of the history of whaling over a considerable period of time resulted in Harpooned – the Story of Whaling being published in 1980. It was highly illustrated and writing it and gathering the illustrations was a very interesting experience. I decided I would use the knowledge I had gained as background to fiction. The result was the first Jessica Blair novel, The Red Shawl. (1993) It was submitted under my own name but the publisher, Piatkus, who offered me a contract, wanted to publish it under a female name and suggested Jessica Blair. The reason, I believe, was all to do with marketing. It has paid off for me — the twenty-third Jessica Blair novel will appear early next year.
Whitby is a pivotal town in Jessica Blair’s novels. How and when did your interest in this beautiful northern seaside town begin?
Whitby was an important whaling port in the 18th and 19th centuries and this was the background I used for The Red Shawl. Whaling does appear in other Jessica Blair novels but not in everyone. I knew Whitby from my school days and then after the war. I realized there was a wealth of stories there, throughout its history and into recent times and I am fortunate to be able to absorb the atmosphere of the times I use.
Every author has their own preferred method of working. For the benefit of aspiring writers would you share yours with us?
I look into a background I would like to use. I place my main female and male characters against that background and ask myself, ‘What if …?’ That question will keep recurring as the book develops. I work from a brief outline and sample three chapters. If my publisher, Piatkus, like those and the idea behind them they will issue a contract – then my computer gets working over-time ! I cannot work to a detailed outline because at that stage there are aspects of the story I know nothing about. Characters react to circumstances, and to each other – so the story develops as those change.
During your extensive research you must have come across some fascinating local characters. Do you ever use real people within your novels or are they all fictitious?
Yes I have met many interesting characters throughout life and whilst they might stimulate ideas I don’t use real people in my novels.
Of all your published work do you have a ‘favourite child’ or is it impossible to choose?
Probably The Red Shawl; it led me much deeper into the worlds of writing and publishing and extended a fascinating life. I must say that my first Western led me to meet my first other writer and that brought a long friendship.
A Tapestry of Dreams is based in the West Riding of Yorkshire (woollen industry) and the Lincolnshire countryside (sheep farming). Set in the 1850s these were the backgrounds against which I placed my two leading characters and asked myself ‘What if?’
What project are you working on next?
That has yet to be decided wit h my publisher, Piatkus. Ideas are out there but I don’t want to mention them yet as I don’t know what road they will take.
Many thanks for your time in answering my questions and sharing your career with us.
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