A voracious reader since childhood, Jen Williams’s path took her to art college before she decided that creating her own tales was the career for her.
Jen Williams (40) has always held books close to her heart. Now, on the publication of her latest novel Dog Rose Dirt, she tells The Courier about her writing journey.
“Reading was enormously important to me as a child,” says Jen, who grew up in and around London and Kent. “My mum read to me when I was very small, and I quickly started reading anything I could get my hands on. I was down the library all the time (usually alongside my nan, who was constantly devouring Catherine Cookson books) and I zipped through everything in the kid’s library and started borrowing books from the adult library as soon as they would let me.”
Finding solace in fantasy worlds
“From that period I specifically remember Narnia, The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, any book about ghosts or spontaneous human combustion I could get my hands on, and a lot of Stephen King and Terry Pratchett. I remember being told off frequently because the only thing I ever wanted to do was read… But those worlds were an enormous solace to me, a very introverted kid dealing with upheaval, with being bullied at school, and so on. I spent time in those worlds even when I wasn’t reading, and this is probably where being a writer is born: exercising your imagination constantly, because you want to spend more time in Middle-earth or Mid-World or Narnia or the Discworld.”
The writer had a passion for fairy tales too, a love which has never left her. ” My mum ordered me a complete collection of the Grimms fairy tales when I was around four or five, but quickly realised when it arrived that the original versions aren’t exactly child friendly.” she says. “She waited a while to give it to me but being the reader I was, I sought it out early and devoured it. The figures that interested me the most in fairy tales were always the baddies; the witches, the wolves and the devils. Witches in particular fascinated me because they seemed to be the only women with any real power in these stories.”
Today, the lasting influence of those fairy tale characters and plots can be identified in Dog Rose Dirt- just without the wolf costume! “For me the big bad wolf is a stand in for all predatory men,” explains Jen. “Of course, as a kid when you read Red Riding Hood, you’re horrified by the idea of being stalked by an actual wolf, by the gruesome fate of the grandmother (I always preferred the version where granny was actually eaten and not just hiding in a wardrobe).
“But if you read Red Riding Hood as an adult, it has all these other connotations. Red’s mother warning her not to dally in the woods, not to speak to any strangers, and beware of the wolf – this is all only half a step away from all the warnings your mother gives you about talking to strangers, not walking home alone late at night, or perhaps, most significantly of all, beware of the charming man who means you harm.”
Fairy tales and folklore
“I’ve always enjoyed fairy tales and folklore, and both story types are threaded through Dog Rose Dirt in several ways. It was interesting to me as a young person that these stories, particularly fairy tales, have changed over the years depending on the audience and the teller; the differences are especially stark if you grew up with the Disney versions of these sorts of tales, for example. With Dog Rose Dirt, I wanted to include someone who was deliberately changing the endings of fairy tales almost as a way to communicate. There’s so much symbolism in stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Snake-Leaves and so on that it’s a bit of a treasure trove for a writer.”
This novel has offered Jen the chance to examine the reasons that someone can become a ‘monster’; “In fairy tales the Big Bad Wolf is just there; he’s a part of the wood, and its simply his nature to want to eat you,” she points out. “When it comes to serial killers, the question is a lot more complicated, with all sorts of factors to consider – were they born with this urge to hurt people? Or were they so damaged by their childhood they grew into something awful? Or is it a mixture of both? Serial murderers are fascinating, I think, because the question of ‘why’ haunts us.
“Dog Rose Dirt was partly inspired by reading a great deal of true crime, and a number of awful real life cases that stayed with me: Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader, Peter Sutcliffe. All these monsters had a beginning.”
While Jen is fascinated in examining the motives of male serial killers, she is also determined to feature strong female protagonists in her work. “There are a lot of conversations at the moment about how women are depicted in crime fiction, and they are all very important discussions to have. Women have been faceless, titillating victims in more crime based media than I can list here, and it reinforces the idea that we are disposable objects.
“I also feel that it’s important that we don’t stop talking about violence against women as a consequence of these conversations. The truth is that most serial killers are male. Most women who experience violence will experience it from men. It’s a fact I’m not willing to look away from in my fiction.”
At the beginning of Dog Rose Dirt we meet Heather, who has been through a lot. “She’s fiery and stubborn, but I think that need to know the truth also makes her very relatable. I’m sure we’ve all thought at one time or another that if we could just get the answers to certain questions, our lives would be better.” Jen won’t say much more about her: “It’s difficult to talk directly about the inspiration for Heather without venturing into spoiler territory!” she says.
Looking to the future, the successful fantasy author has been bitten by the thriller bug.” I’ve been working on a second standalone thriller, which I think will be released in 2023. It’s in the editorial stage at the moment, so in the meantime I’ve been writing a new fantasy book – after a long break it’s fun to be back in a world with magic, although the body count is still fairly high…”
Dog Rose Dirt by Jen Williams is available from January 20, £8.99.