Jane Rogers has published eight novels - the most recent of which, The Testament of Jessie Lamb won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for The Kitschies, a rare feat of recognition from both genre and literary prize panels that places her amongst authors such as Kingsley Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood.
Her other writing awards include the Somerset Maugham Award, Writers' Guild Best Fiction Book, a BAFTA nomination for Best Drama Serial, Guardian Fiction Prize runner up and an Arts Council Award. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Jessie Lamb takes place in a world caught in the grip of an unknown virus – one that wipes out all pregnant mothers before they can bear their child to term. Although the doomsday scenario is fascinating, Jessie Lamb’s critical success stems from its compassionately written protagonist and realistic depiction of the dynamic between parents and children.
We spoke to Ms. Rogers to gain some insight into how she approached her novel and its compelling heroine.
Pornokitsch: What do you keep in mind when writing a teenaged protagonist? Do you approach them differently from adult characters?
Jane Rogers: To state the obvious, every character is different, and I think what I try to do is find the character’s voice (particularly for first person, like Jessie, but also for third person – the language reveals the character). So what mattered in writing Jessie was to find a teenage voice which I could hear in my head and which rang true. Once the character’s voice has come clear, I find it fairly straightforward to know what she would care about and understand, and what would be outside her ken. So no, the approach is not different from the way I approach other characters – each character is different, and age is only one difference. I guess I drew on many sources for Jessie: my own teenage years, my own children’s teenage years, the teenagers I have loved in novels and films, and so on.
A key for me, in writing Jessie, was thinking about the kind of fierce idealism that teenagers can have – how they hate hypocrisy, and how the world can seem very clearly black and white – while adults see in shades of grey, and everything is complicated and dependent on other things.
PK: That idealism comes with a cost. How do you convey the frustration of being a teenager without turning off readers?
JR: It was something I grappled with, and it is where the other characters and their subplots come in. At those points where Jessie herself is blocked and frustrated in the things she wants to achieve, either something happens between her parents (with hints of her mother’s affair, and the rows between them) or with her aunt, who veers from manic to deeply depressed, or with her friends (Sal’s rape) or in the wider world – for example, the birth of the first MDS babies. Having quite a few subplots going helps to generate suspense at those moments where Jessie herself is stalled.
PK: Why have a flawed teen for a hero (naïveté, warts and all) when you could have a more idealised protagonist for readers to follow?
JR: For me, character is the most important ingredient in a novel, I need a character I can believe in – as Virginia Woolf said, "You start with the little old lady on the train". I’m not interested in super-heroes.
PK: Despite the sweeping changes going on in the world around her, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is very tightly focused on the relationship between Jessie and her parents. Why was this the priority?
JR: For me the core of the book is the parent-teenager relationship. I wanted to explore that moment when a young person becomes independent and defines herself against her parents: I wanted to look at it from both sides. The dystopia I created is there in order to make that coming-of-age moment more extreme and dramatic.
PK: What does the book’s near future setting add (or take) from the story?
JR: I wanted Jessie to take an action which her parents would find appalling, and I wanted the reader to have divided sympathies. We have all been teenagers, we can all identify with the need to reject our parents’ world.
Initially I thought of setting the novel in the present and making her a suicide bomber. But I wanted to give her a cause which readers would not feel prejudiced about, I didn’t want them to dismiss her because they didn’t like her politics. So I had to shift it either into the past or into the future. Since I have set two novels in the past, I decided to move into the future. I wanted a scenario where a young woman might be called upon to sacrifice her life, and I wanted it to be difficult for me as the writer, and for my readers, to know if she was doing the right thing or not.
The futuristic setting also allowed me to explore a range of subjects about which young people are quite justifiably angry, and also to generate some black humour. I was interested in the idea of heroism, also, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was very much in my mind: his novel is set in an alternative version of our world.
PK: Heroes in genre fiction normally don’t have the problems that Jessie does. Jessie wants to rescue the human race, but she encounters practical barriers in her quest. Why can’t Jessie be a normal hero and just save the day?
JR: Labels for fiction are often problematic. I don’t see Jessie Lamb as genre fiction, and it also seems to me that the best genre fiction is not escapist in the way you describe: that kind of escapism can lead to rather two-dimensional characters. The essence of drama is conflict. That is to say, the protagonist has to overcome many obstacles – surely that is at the heart of all good story-telling?
PK: What young adult protagonists do you find personally influential or memorable?
JR: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Vernon God Little, Cassandra Mortmain, Maggie Tulliver, David Strorm from The Chrysalids and the narrator of Miles’ Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.
But most important of all, and also the voice that helped me most in writing Jessie’s voice, is the non-fiction book – Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I read this over and over while writing Jessie. Hers is the most moving, funny, profound, trivial, engrossing, heart-breaking teen voice I have ever read.
PK: Do you have any other suggestions for other novelists writing young or teenage protagonists?
JR: Talk to teenagers. But I am sure they do!
PK: Thank you very much for your time.
A new edition of The Testament of Jessie Lamb is out now from Canongate. Our review, for The Kitschies' shortlist, can be found here. If you're not yet convinced, you can read more about Jane Rogers and her work at her official website.