Carys Vickers: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel! We’ve been excited to see your name on the shelves since you won the Northern Debut Award in 2019. What has the journey to publication been like for you?
Jane Claire Bradley: I went back and forth with myself about how to answer this, but I’ve decided to be candid because it’s tempting to romanticise this process, even or especially when the truth is complicated! So, in all honesty… it’s been an experience of extremes. The mentoring I received from Naomi Booth as part of the prize was incredible, and really amped up my confidence in the novel I won with. I signed with an agent a few months after winning the award, and we’d just gone out on submission in early 2020 when the pandemic hit. From there, I had a TV adaptation offer withdrawn, a ton of rejections, and there was so much industry uncertainty that my dream publisher kept me dangling for 18 months. I eventually signed with another publisher, then had a really hard parting of ways when it became clear our visions for the book were totally unaligned. But in the midst of all that, I started writing Dear Neighbour, and the collaboration with my editor at Sphere has been an absolute joy. I’ve felt so supported through the entire process, and that’s been such a contrast to other experiences – and one I’m truly grateful for.
CV: You speak in your introduction about how you wrote this book during the pandemic and the accompanying mental health crisis. Did this influence your writing or impact the direction of the story in any way?
JCB: For sure. It was such a precarious, vulnerable and uncertain time – and yet there was also a nationwide emergence of mutual care – people learning their neighbours’ names, sharing resources, checking in on vulnerable nearby residents – that gave some much-needed comfort and hope. Support systems have become so threadbare under austerity that people often have no other choice than turning to each other – and while that can be incredibly complicated and of course is no replacement for proper access to mental health services – it can mean we forge connections and relationships we otherwise might not have found. During the pandemic, my day job as a mental health practitioner became more intense than ever, so writing Dear Neighbour felt like an act of resistance and a way to reaffirm to myself the strength, power and necessity of community.
CV: Why did you choose Leeds as the setting for the novel?
JCB: Writing during the pandemic, I wanted some escapism – but I also needed somewhere I knew well enough to write about from a distance! Although it’s been many years since I lived in Leeds, I was still familiar enough to imagine and describe it. Manchester – where I live now – is undeniably also being transformed almost beyond recognition by gentrification, but I wanted some distance (both geographical and psychological!) rather than setting the book closer to home. And my time in Leeds was so formative that in many ways Dear Neighbour is a love letter to the street I lived on and the communities I was part of during that time.
CV: One of my favourite things about the book was the well-developed and diverse cast of characters. The small details about their clothing, house decor and food preferences made them feel alive and relatable – I almost felt like I knew some of them in real life, and it was clear that a lot of love went into writing their stories. What was the process of creating these characters like?
JCB: First of all, thank you for the beautifully kind way this question was phrased! For me, it’s always the details that connect me to a character, and imagining those details is a big source of pleasure when I’m writing. Writing is observation, people-watching, nosiness, and there are so many details in Dear Neighbour that have been magpied from real people. Part of how I write is imagining the characters’ embodied experiences – how they physically interact with the multi-sensory environments they navigate – so exploring what kind of food or clothes they might choose is a fun, intuitive extension of that.
CV: Dear Neighbour deals with some quite serious topics – gentrification, post-natal depression, grief, and the plight of refugees, to name a few – and yet maintains a hopeful and feel-good tone. Was it challenging to find this balance?
JCB: Short answer: yes! I’m not scared of writing about hard topics – my work in mental health has made me more confident in that arena – and I am fascinated by the darker and more difficult elements of the human condition. But we need hope – maybe more now than ever before. To quote the late great Harvey Milk: “I know you can’t live on hope alone. But without hope, life is not worth living. So you, and you and you: You got to give them hope. You got to give them hope!”
CV: And finally, what do you hope readers will take away from the book?
JCB: When we resist injustice, we might not always win — but it matters that we fight. That we’re stronger together than we are apart. And to never underestimate the potential impact of practising compassion – to ourselves and those around us.
Dear Neighbour is published on 15 June with Sphere, and we have three copies to give away!
For the chance to win, tell us what you’re reading on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using the hashtags #NorthernBookshelf and #DearNeighbour. Winners will be drawn on 19 June 2023.