Emily Wright: Congratulations on publishing your novel The Bay with Saraband. It’s been wonderful to watch your journey to publication since you won the Northbound Book Award in 2022. How has the process felt for you?
Julia Rampen: This last year has been a crash course in publishing. As a first-time writer, you spend years learning about structure, character and language but you don’t actually really know much about how publishing a book actually works. I spent about a quarter of the time working on final edits, and the rest of the time has been spent thinking about everything from the cover, to the different choices for an audiobook, to how you actually sell books at a book launch. To be honest, most of this is Saraband’s expertise rather than mine, but it’s been very interesting learning about the process.
I’m still hyper aware of how many amazing writers there are who struggle to get published, and I’m very grateful to New Writing North and the NorthBound Book Award for the opportunity. I can very much see an alternative universe where the novel ended up being a thick wad of print outs stashed below my bed.
EW: You write about the difficulties facing characters in The Bay with such tender compassion and in the case of Suling, we are offered insight to the life of somebody behind tragic statistics and headlines. What inspired you to write Suling’s story, and how did you begin to approach such a harrowing topic?
JR: The Bay started as a short story, in which I tried to explore the contradiction between a sleepy rural location and a modern-day tragedy. But when I look back, there were other influences as well. As a student, I visited detainees in a detention centre, and was really struck by the euphemisms the guards used for what was a place of clear despair.
By the time I was seriously redrafting the novel, I had met a few people who had experienced journeys similar to Suling and visited ‘The Jungle’ in Calais. I think we’re used to considering Europe a fairly ‘safe’ place, but for those who are displaced or being trafficked, it can be terrifying.
I was very aware that I was writing outside my personal experience, and I approached it the same way that I would any of the subjects I reported on as a journalist, or when I was studying history – by reading first-person accounts, talking with specialists and trying to piece together what the world would look like through Suling’s eyes. I read Hsiao-Hung Pai’s undercover reporting, which really brought into sharp focus the way unscrupulous bosses use their workers’ debts to control them. I was also lucky to stumble across Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls, which tells the story of hundreds of teenage girls who moved to China’s cities from the countryside at the turn of the 21st century. I imagined Suling as a normal teenager, who is learning about herself but doing so in the most challenging of circumstances.
EW: Suling and Arthur’s lives run concurrently and then intertwine. There’s plenty of obvious differences between the two but I wondered if you see any similarities between the characters, and their situations?
JR: Arthur is a product of a very unique time in 20th century British history where a smart, ambitious kid born to a poor family had a real chance of ending up living a comfortable life. I think he’d have made very similar choices to Suling if he’d found himself in her position. They are both very lonely, and yet don’t know who to trust, even though the reasons they’ve ended up on the margins of society are very different. I also wanted to explore the way they use language to advance themselves. Suling is learning English, while Arthur had to change his pronunciation to get the career that he wanted.
EW: Tell us a little bit about your writing process. How do your ideas develop? For The Bay, did the characters come first, or the narrative?
JR: Writing The Bay has been a learning process – I probably wrote the first short story ten years ago. Back then, I tended to just write ideas as they came, but I learned a lot through the redrafting process. One of the best tips I received was to reduce the number of characters and simplify the plot. Another was to write treatments before diving into the redrafting. Over time, Arthur became more grumpy, and Margaret more sympathetic.
One thing that has stayed the same throughout is the dual perspective, even though at times it was quite a challenge trying to make sure the two narratives kept roughly the same pace. However, in this world of internet echo chambers, I felt it was really important to have both.
EW: What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?
JR: One of the risks of writing about the recent past is that people will assume it’s fact – I’m always at pains to remind people it’s fiction, including the town and the main characters. But I’ve been really touched and inspired by the observations people have made after reading the book, especially friends who have experienced something that the book touches on. One of the magical things about writing is that it’s a joint enterprise between you, the writer, and the reader’s imagination. If it resonates with them, I’m happy.
EW: Thank you, Julia, for taking the time for this interview – and for writing such a beautiful and important book.
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