I’m delighted to be able to include in our Not the Booker series an interview with DJ Connell, author of Sherry Cracker Gets Normal, published by the Harper Collins imprint Blue Door (and also Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar). This was the book that finished seventh on the original shortlisting procedure and took the place of The Dead Beat, so I have a particular interest in it.
DH: Many of your characters are larger than life. Do you find yourself having to rein them in, or do things develop better if you just let yourself go completely?
DJ: I think I do both of these things in the course of writing a novel. It’s a long process of two or three years and my characters develop as I write. I may start off with an idea of what I think my characters are but by the time the book is finished, they are usually quite different. They’re always better than my original concept because they’ve grown as the story has developed. Writing is a fascinating process. It involves creating a world and then immersing yourself in it. All sorts of unexpected things happen within this place. Connections occur and characters expand and contract. I work from a detailed outline but I also give myself the freedom to pursue interesting narrative threads that open as the story evolves.
DH: If I said Forrest Gump would you be pleased or offended?
DJ: I assume you are referring to the character of Sherry Cracker in ‘Sherry Cracker Gets Normal’. She isn’t a Forrest Gump but she is an innocent. Sherry sees the world without the filters and prejudices of a ‘normal’ person and thus plays the role of a truth teller [DH: yes, that’s exactly what I was getting at]. One of the challenges of writing this novel was having to tell a story through the eyes of someone who is not aware of the subtleties of social interaction, in particular, the lies and deceits that communication often involves. My challenge was to keep the reader informed through Sherry’s naïve descriptions and observations.
DH: Using an outsider’s eyes to make us question the way we see the world is a tried and tested route to take (reaching its apex in something like the Benjy passages in The Sound and The Fury). But it’s also very high risk. It seems to me there are two tightropes to walk – the obvious one of questioning stereotypes vs reinforcing them, and the possibly more tricky one of distancing the reader enough from the protagonist for her worldview to raise questions, and bringing the reader close enough to care for her. I guess both boil down to seeing the world with her or through her. How do you approach that as a writer.
DJ: I’m afraid I haven’t read ‘The Sound and the Fury’ but I will try my best to respond to your statement and question. Perhaps what I can say is that when I write a book, I don’t sit down and think ‘How am I going to make the reader think so and so.’ I don’t write from the outside in. I come to the writing desk with an idea of a character and a story. At this stage, I am already a little in love with this character and excited by the nugget of a story. I then create an outline which I later flesh out in detail. This becomes my guide as I write. Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that I tend to write about people who are different. This I attempt to do with sensitivity and affection. Indeed, tolerance is a central theme of both books.
DH: The structure of Sherry Cracker feels very filmic…
DJ: I ‘see’ my stories as I write. My characters are very alive for me. Their lives and their trials and triumphs are very real for me. Perhaps this is why ‘Sherry Cracker Gets Normal’ feels filmic. As you may know, my first novel ‘Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar’ is now in production as a feature film.
DH: In the space of two books you’ve developed a very distinctive style. Your fans clearly love that style, but it strikes me as one that will be very hard to keep fresh over a career’s worth of books. Have you thought about where next? And do your thoughts match those of your publisher?
DJ: I think I do have a style but like everything, it is evolving as I work. Both books are comic novels but ‘Sherry Cracker Gets Normal’ has been described as a more contemplative novel. I think this is an accurate assessment.
I am currently working on my third novel. Its working title is ‘The Enigma of Don Cheeseman’.
My publisher, Patrick Janson-Smith of Blue Door HarperCollins, is remarkably supportive of my work. He is a wonderful publisher. Indeed, he is one of the greats of the publishing world.
DH: It would be remiss of me not to ask. Is Sam Jordison on your Christmas card list?
DJ: I don’t have anything personal against Sam. I don’t see the point.
What I do think is that a reviewer has a duty to read a book thoroughly and judge it according to its literary merits. This should be done with accuracy, honesty and integrity. There is no excuse for factual inaccuracies. Nor should a review be a space for emotional outbursts or unsubstantiated accusations.