|Jessica Rhodes at a book signing|
for Lady Cannibal, her debut novel.
Photo used by permission of
And now, without further ado, please join me in welcoming Jessica to Drink Read Love., and enjoy the Q&A.
First, would you tell us a little about you and how your experiences/education helped form Lady Cannibal?
I was born on the southeast coast of England, in a little town called Ashford, before moving to Ramsgate for another sixteen years. I grew up with a love of reading, which I inherited from my mother, and first became interested in writing when I did my GCSEs and wrote a short story about the grief a mother feels after her daughter dies. The feedback will always stay with me - “You have a great capacity to write about human grief” - and it's informed everything I've written since.
What inspired this book?
I don't exactly remember, to be honest! I remember waking up at 2 am with the line “Nobody knows how it started, or even how it ended” in my head, and I wrote it down on a whim. 6 hours later, when I woke up again, I typed it into OpenOffice and away I went! A lot of Serena's character and past is autobiographical, which helped with the more emotional scenes, and that comes out more in the second novel, Never Surrender, which is my current work in progress.
What kind of research did you do in writing this book?
Not a great deal, which is a little bit bad. I did a brief session of research into mental health facilities in New York so that I didn't accidentally write about a real place, and I did Psychology AS Level so I have a basic knowledge of conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar etc. Most of the research I did was into locations and street names.
Have you ever visited the U.S./New York?
Not yet! One day I will, when I can afford a plane ticket there and back. It's on the bucket list!
Can you tell us more about the kind of facility you imagine Twin Streams as? It's strictly a mental health institution for people convicted of crimes, right?
Twin Streams is a facility for people who have been convicted of crimes, but whose mental health has deteriorated to the point where they wouldn't survive in any other form of facility – not even a mental health prison. It's sort of the “last chance saloon” for those who are completely detached from reality.
Is it based on a real facility?
I did look at real facilities to get a sense of what they looked like, since Lady Cannibal is a modern book, but there are some more antiquated elements too, such as the infirmary and the practice of shipping other patients out to similar facilities when they become rowdy, or leaving them to die.
What about Athens?
Again, I did look at real-life facilities to get a sense of what they were like, but I had a more tyrannical authority figure to jazz it up a little.
What was your writing process like?
Initially it was easy, but as I delved more into the darker side of Serena's life, and into Sarah's past, it became harder to write without needing a drink afterwards. The emotional toll was pretty intense, but when I read it over, it was definitely what I wanted out of the book. I have to say, though, a lot of tea and whiskey was drunk in the process of writing it!
Why does Sarah call Harry "innocent"?
Mostly because he is – he's guilty of his crimes, but he's very much like a child in that he has no concept of right and wrong. He knows that he did something that other people think was bad, and he knows that they want to punish him for it, but he doesn't exactly know why.
Was Sarah's cannibalism the result of her mind cracking or did it actually happen?
It didn't happen, fortunately! Sarah believes that it happened because her mind is so shocked by the murder of her husband, and the fact that she was his murderer. She invents an alternate reality and sticks to it until it becomes all that she remembers. When Serena reads her diary, she realises that Sarah was in fact innocent of cannibalism, even if she was only guilty of murder.
Will we ever find out why Sarah was moved to Athens and by whom?
Sadly not – it's one of the great mysteries of the book. Serena never finds out, nor does Alexander, because it's not something they want to address after the hell that they go through with Sarah's suicide.
Will we learn more about the random call to tell Serena that charges wouldn't be pressed? If not, what do you see the story behind it being?
I'd like to think that Dr Strahovski comes to her senses and finds out what actually happened, before apologising to Serena for basically screwing up, but I haven't decided yet. Maybe the guard turns himself in ….
Will the guard who raped Sarah be brought to justice?
He comes back! I can't say too much about it, but he plays a rather interesting part in the third book, The Shattered Crown, and more is learned about his story in that book.
Will Sarah's story come into play in future books?
Yes, it will. Sarah's death will always haunt Serena because she feels that it was preventable, and when she's put in a situation where a similar case comes up, we'll see her true feelings about it emerge.
Did you consider putting some kind of warning about the explicit abuse and rape descriptions? Why or why not?
I did consider it, but eventually figured that if someone's going to read a book called Lady Cannibal, they've got to be just a little bit twisted! In all seriousness, the rape and abuse is alluded to, and had it been any more graphic I would have put a warning there so that triggers etc could be avoided.
Did you feel that any of the abuse/rape descriptions were gratuitous? What do you see as determining gratuitousness in that type of thing?
I didn't, really, mostly because the idea of a battered woman killing her husband and inventing an alternate reality was just twisted enough to avoid it. I can see how it may come across as gratuitous, but to my mind a gratuitous scene is something like Sarah being gang-raped or Serena having sex with Alexander, both of which are clichéd (and boring!). It's definitely a very fine line, but as long as it's true to the story and it fits the rest of the book, it works.
Will Athens feature into the series again in the future?
It may do, I haven't decided yet!
What was your favorite scene to write?
Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the scene in which Sarah forgives everyone. It was lovely to feel like that loose end had been tied up, and that Sarah could move on without any bitterness in her heart. I'm a big believer in forgiveness, and whilst Barnaby's actions were deplorable, they were the actions of a man who'd let power go to his head, rather than someone who was deliberately malicious. He's quite a sad man in a way – he wants the career and the girl, but when he marries Sarah he doesn't quite get what he wants and it leads him to try and control her. When that fails, he turns to violence to get his own way.
The cover is gorgeous, did you design it yourself?
I wish! Sadly my design skills aren't that good. My publisher, Rachel, sources all my covers from various artists, and we choose them together. Then they go back to the artist to put the title and my name on, and we tweak until we're happy. It usually takes about a week, although my second cover took longer because the artist got a little precious about it!
Do you have any books or other projects in the works?
Yes! I have my second novel, Never Surrender, slowly taking shape at the moment, and I have a basic plot for my third novel, The Shattered Crown. Very exciting, although reining in my male lead in Never Surrender is proving difficult!
You said Lady Cannibal goes well with whiskey, what's your favorite kind?
I adore Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey (and of course the original Jack Daniels!), but I do also love Isle of Jura single malt, Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie. Can you tell I'm a whiskey fan yet? If I honestly had to pick just one (you're torturing me here!) it would be Isle of Jura on the rocks.
If there's one thing you wish you could say to your readers - on any topic - what would it be?
Oh lord … there's so much to talk about! My current passion is autism awareness, because I'm autistic and I've noticed that there's a distinct lack of provision for autistic adults in my home town of Margate. So I'd probably talk to people about that, although we'd need several drinks and possibly a weekend to do it in!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or anyone who's written/writing a book and looking to get published?
Rule 1: Write for yourself. If you write for an audience, it gets very clichéd and unoriginal. Write for yourself, and if it doesn't sound right then don't do it. Lady Cannibal went through about six or seven rewrites just to get the tone right! There's no shame in rewriting as many times as you want, as long as it's your voice we hear.
Rule 2: Do your research on publishers. I cannot stress this enough! Big red alarm bells need to start ringing if any publisher asks you for money to publish your book – that's vanity publishing, and it's not worth the money. If you can't find a “traditional” publisher, go through CreateSpace or any other form of self-publishing. It's way better to self publish than to go through vanity press.
Rule 3: Make sure you have input on what you do. I'm lucky in that I've become good friends with my publisher, so she'll ask me what I think of a character, she'll give me feedback on my books and ask me where I see the characters going, or the plot, and it works brilliantly. Seriously, make sure that you give an opinion on everything from the cover to the promo materials, right through to any events you do.
Rule 4: Last rule – get it in writing. Seriously, there's no shame in asking for a contract, especially if money's involved. The only time you wouldn't need one is if you're self publishing because there's usually T's and C's on the website, and any decent self publishing site will tell you how much profit they're taking etc. I have a contract for every book I write, and if anyone asked me to publish without one I'd refuse.