Award-winning journalist Jean Rafferty is well known for her highly respected features on subjects such as prostitution, rape and abuse. She has also written Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, and The Four Marys, and is chair of Scottish PEN’s writers in prison committee. Today, Jean reveals how she works through “writer’s terror”; enjoying the small pleasures in life is essential to get through the difficult times; and how she uses creativity as the best way of staying positive.
Are you a naturally cheerful person?
Yes, I am quite sunny in my everyday life. Very much a hedonist, I suppose. I love the sensory things of life – my cats, beautiful countryside, good food, too much wine, fashion, having a laugh. But more importantly, art. Books and music particularly are part of my everyday life so I have consolation in difficult times.
You have written on some very confronting topics such as prostitution, abuse and rape…what is the most difficult piece you have written?
I think the first one I wrote on satanist ritual abuse. It was about a family in Ayrshire, where a little boy from one of the families had spoken out about weird and abusive ceremonies held by his extended family. He and his brothers were taken into care. The families took the legal process to the final legal appeal. They won, but my reading of the court documents and interviews with people around it led me to believe they were guilty. The way satanist ritual abuse controls people’s thoughts damages them for life. The whole thing seeped into my spirits, to the extent that a very close friend said, “You’re not yourself.” It was the lack of mental freedom that really upset me. The little boy was returned to his family at the age of 10, having been told by the judge that he was a liar. I still think of him and wonder what happened to him.
How do you personally cope when you do the research for dark topics?
It’s a curious process, dealing with these dark topics. You have to absorb them emotionally to be able to write truthfully about them – a writer can’t stay detached; you have to empathise with how the people involved feel. But thinking and writing in themselves are detached acts, so a kind of schizophrenic thing is going on! You’re feeling the emotions of what you write about but also considering how best to shape the material. I go to the utmost lengths to understand the emotions and the facts. After I’ve written I can sometimes let them go but the things that really touch you are with you forever. So the simple truth is it’s difficult.
What draws you to delve into these dark topics? What are the positive aspects of such work? And the negatives?
I think shock that humans can do such things. And anger. An editor once said he’d asked me to write about the human fallout from Mrs Thatcher’s policies because no one else was as angry as me! The real task is trying to understand them, though sometimes I think I never will. The positive side is that no matter how extreme things are in your own life, you know you will have the strength to cope with them because you know other people have coped with far more. Visiting Third World countries, as I did for my journalism, has made me very grateful that I live in the West. The negative side is that you don’t relax very much.
You also write light-hearted pieces… how do you rate the importance of laughter in your life? Who makes you laugh the most?
Laughter’s very important to me personally – I‘ve had a lot of difficult circumstances in my life and if you‘re not ready to laugh at the vagaries of life you‘d be sunk. I laugh a lot. They say that children laugh between 300 and 500 times a day, whereas adults only laugh 15 times a day. My life is not so carefree that I’m down with the kids but I do laugh much more than that. I have two cats, who do the most comic things, and I live with my sister, who’s very witty. The professional comedian I’ve found the funniest over the years is Billy Connolly. I think he’s a genius, the way he observes people. So the irony of people’s behaviour is probably what makes me laugh the most, particularly that of family life. I grew up in a family of six children, so you can imagine the variations in human behaviour I encountered at an early age!
What were the pressures of writing your first novel (Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, based on a fictional Myra Hindley) and how did you overcome them?
The pressures were mainly external ones. My sister and I looked after my mother for a number of years and she had multiple health problems – Parkinson’s disease and severe arthritis. I developed arthritis myself after a fall, so the years of lifting her up and down exacerbated that and by the time she died I was in a very bad way physically myself. Humour was a real help in coping, though I think we used to shock some of the other members of the family – they thought the humour was a bit black! My brother died – completely unexpectedly – during the writing of the book and I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from that. Writing the novel felt like coming home in a strange way. I’d earned my living as a journalist and had only written short-form fiction up to that point – the extended form of the novel really suited me.
Why did you choose Myra Hindley as a subject?
It was the story, the idea that she hadn’t really died. If you compare photos of her in later life with the infamous mugshot there was such a contrast, as if she was two different people. I wanted to explore how someone “normal” becomes involved in such extreme behaviour. I had always been interested in serial killers, perhaps because I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood when it first came out. The elegance and power of the writing combined with the complexities of people’s behaviour really got to me. It’s a book that’s been with me ever since.
Did you expect the reaction the book received?
It may be naïve but not really. I was surprised at the personal comments. But then people often call me provocative when I think I’m just talking common sense, saying what everyone thinks. I suspect some of the criticism was from people who didn’t read the book. It was in no way an apologia for Myra Hindley. But I suppose people think the act of writing means you empathise with the person. You do, but the detachment side of it means you may still make a judgement about the person. Unlike some novelists, I don’t believe you have to love your characters – your job is to understand them, not sentimentalise them.
Did you enjoy writing The Four Marys?
Yes, very much. I think it probably shows, as lots of people have told me they love the book. Two of the stories were already written when I submitted them to Sara Hunt of Saraband. She suggested a third, to bridge them, perhaps a historical one. When I suggested the four Marys as a topic, she seized on it and said, “Let’s do four stories.” I’ll aways be grateful to Sara for seeing something in it.
It was huge fun for me trying to marry the other two stories with the themes and imagery of the first ones. I’m obsessed with the craft of writing, so that was like a nerd’s dream!
When you write your books, do you have a daily ritual?
I’m afraid not. I wish I did. I think people who do are much more productive. I sometimes try to establish one but they never last, so now I just persevere. I will always be chaotic and a night owl.
Have you ever suffered from “writer’s block” and if so, how did you work through that?
Not so much writer’s block as writer’s terror! I get very anxious and I’ve had to take a break from writing. Many writers have displacement activities preventing them doing the writing and I’m no exception. I’ll go and put the washing on or binge eat. Amazing how many disparate foods you can consume in trying to allay anxiety! Fudge, cauliflower cheese, olives… completely random.
Do you have a go-to place when you need inspired to write?
No, not particularly. I can be inspired in my back room. And often you write without inspiration anyway, though I do prefer when the work invades my dreams, waking or sleeping. I believe in creative sleep and often have whole paragraphs come to me when I wake up.
Have you had any difficult times and how have you got through them?
So many. Suicide of friends, deaths in my family and friends. There was about a decade when we lost so many people – that was a very dark time. Then I had a period of chronic pain and immobility before I had two hip replacements last year. A long period of debt.
Rejection as a writer comes with the territory – I’m going through that just now, trying to place my latest novel. Only up to 36 rejections, so a long way to go! (Myra, Beyond Saddleworth was 42.) This one is about satanist ritual abuse and is set in Orkney, which seems to be considered provocative – that word again! The only way to get through difficult times is stoicism, I think. Determination to keep going. And of course enjoying the small pleasures of life, a beautiful view, a new frock, fish and chips! The small pleasures are sometimes the most intense.
What are your top three joys in life that make your day?
First, the people around me – my family, especially Mary, the sister I live with as we have a laugh together every day; Rosie and Coco, my cats; my friends.
Second, art – music, books, paintings.
And of course, that point in the day when you have your first glass of wine!
Describe your perfect weekend
I don’t tend to do weekends as such. I like my work so just do it all the time unless I go on holiday. A perfect day on holiday would involve books, heat, family or friends, seeing new things – and loads of Cava!
Do you have a favourite, most peaceful spot in Scotland?
Glencoe is probably my favourite place in Scotland, though it’s turbulent and dramatic rather than peaceful. I guess peace is not my default position!
What’s in the pipeline for 2017?
I’m writing two novels just now – one about young love in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, and the other a kind of post-apocalyptic adventure. And hopefully the publication of Dark Web, the one about satanist ritual abuse.
How do you rate positivity in your life and how do you practise it?
It’s essential. Without it you become self-absorbed, which is my definition of mental illness. I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from depression – only its corollary, anxiety. Anxiety tends to push you to do things and I think the act of having done something lifts you up. So I keep busy and also I keep grateful. This may sound Pollyanna-ish but I know there are many people who have worse problems than I do. There are people living in war zones, sleeping in the streets in our unkind climate, children living with parents who abuse them. That helps put my problems in perspective. I also use my anger. That helps.
What is your top tip for a happy, positive mindframe?
Make music. I’ve been doing singing lessons for a few years and it’s so exciting to learn a complex skill like that. I’m useless at it but it’s great fun trying. If you can’t make music, listen to it. Or make cakes, make love, make bed socks. Make a friend. Creativity is the best way of staying positive, I think.