INTERVIEW BY CESCA MARTIN
Jo Rees is a fabulous novelist who started out as simple Josie Lloyd writing chick lit ('It Could Be You'). The book perhaps known by many of us is the hugely successful 'Come Together' (an international bestseller and an absolute must-read for chick lit fans). Jo and her husband Emlyn have written seven books together in total. More recently Jo has branched off on her own again. Her latest book is published by Corgi and is entitled 'Forbidden Pleasures'.
You can follow her exploits on her blog at: www.mumwritesbooks.com
It's all about the glamorous and addictive world of international gambling, following the characters to Las Vegas, Shanghai, San Francisco and London. I have two heroines – Savannah Hudson – a beautiful self-absorbed It Girl who gets everything she wants apart from the approval of her ruthless father, Michael. Then there's the highly driven, work-a-holic ex-cop Lois Chan, who has recently been promoted to run the gambling business of Michale's greatest rival. When shady billionaire Chinese industrialist and world class gambler, Jai Shijai, sets the two women on a collision course as rivals, the stakes get higher and higher and both of them have to learn what's really important before the gambling world consumes them forever.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a new book for Macmillan called 'Torn'. And this time, once again I'm changing my name and going out as Joanna Rees. It'll be out next summer. This is a much more dramatic read. Like Platinum and Forbidden Pleasures in its international feel, it's a tangled tale of two sisters separated at birth. I'm loving writing it.
Your latest books are glitzy reads. Do you get to research in far-flung places? Ponce about the house in diamonds?
Ha! If only. I'm usually sloping around in jeans and old t-shirt or tracky bottoms. I tend to use places that I've either been to, or know someone who has. I do do a bit of research online, but it's all smoke and mirrors and putting some authentic details in the right places. The stories are fast paced, so there's no room for vast amount of research details to go in anyway. For me, the important thing is getting the emotional journey of the characters right. That's why people want to read to the end.
You seem to change your name a lot. Has your writing style changed with it?!
I have, haven't I! Yes, the name change was to do with a change of style. I felt that Josie Lloyd is associated with chick-lit and comedy and when I wrote 'Platinum', I wanted people to know that it was a much more grown up book, so I used my married name. I've moved publishers, and again, I feel that my books have moved on a shade again, so I'm using Joanna Rees for 'Torn', which I like a lot because, it is actually my name!
How did you get that initial break as an author?
I've always wanted to be a writer. Ever since I was very small, I've always been writing stories and descriptions. I did and English and Drama degree, then all sorts of jobs and finally landed up working in a Sales Promotion agency, writing copy for the back of cereal packets. My epiphany moment of 'I have to write a novel' was when I was writing the copy for a coca-cola poster that was going up in the staff loos at service stations and my boss was shouting at me to get the terms and conditions right. I was twenty-five when I wrote the first draft, then gave the manuscript to a friend of a friend who had a very lowly job working in a publishing house. She gave it to her boss, who recommended that I got an agent and I was lucky enough to get an appointment to see Vivienne Schuster, who is a big agent at Curtis Brown. She took me on and got me my first deal with Orion.
How did you meet Emlyn, and how on earth did you agree to start writing a book together?
Well, Emlyn helped me get my first break too, as he was Viv's assistant at Curtis Brown. So he was the first one to read 'It Could Be You' and to recommend that Viv took me on. He was writing his first book too, a thriller called 'The Book of Dead Authors.' We became mates and then confidantes, as we were both single and would sound each other out about what was going on in our love lives. One night we got very drunk after work in Soho and Emlyn said, 'We should write all this down.' At the time, there was no such thing as chicklit. Nick Hornby and Bridget Jones were around but it didn't feel as if anyone was writing what life was like for single twenty-somethings, so we thought it would be a good idea to write the truth about our own experiences. The next morning, Emlyn called me at home from work and asked me if I was still on for writing a book together and I said yes. And that's how it all started.
As much as I love my boyfriend I'm not sure we could work on a novel together, get through the publishing process and survive. And you did this 7 times. How did the writing process work when there were two of you?
It all stemmed from that experience of writing 'Come Together'. Emlyn went away on holiday with some mates and asked them for all their worst 'lads' stories and then wrote the first chapter from a character called Jack's point of view. Then he handed it to me, and I wrote Amy in reply. We weren't living together, and didn’t have any kind of relationship apart from writing partners and friends. We wrote in alternate chapters and handed them over to each other. So it was a really fun way of writing, as I had no idea what he was going to throw at me next. We were both so excited about the book, that we really worked hard and learnt how to give each other feedback. It was only toward the very end of writing 'Come Together' that we got together romantically. So for us, our writing relationship was established first, so it was easy to carry on. We've both found it hugely enjoyable and creatively satisfying to work collaboratively. We both agree that comedy works so much better if there's more than one person writing it. If you'd told me when I first met Emlyn that I'd land up writing seven novels together with him, I wouldn't have believed you. But it has worked for us.
Did you ever have a massive fall out over something and then realise you'd have to make up so you could write the next scene?
Yes. We both work and live in the same house twenty-four seven. And whilst we were writing our books, we also moved several times, got married and had three kids! So at times it got pretty pressured. If we have an issue with each other, we both have to sort it out quickly. We can't slam the door and go off to work and brood all day, so we've learned to be very honest with each other, even if it’s painful. We were once nearly thirty thousand words into a book and it was going brilliantly for Emlyn, but I didn't feel that it was working. I had to sit him down and tell him that we were ditching it and starting again. That was painful, but in the end we agreed that it was the right decision and for the best. For me, keeping our relationship healthy is crucial to writing – even now. I have to have a clear head to write. I can't function if we have a row and haven't made up.
Do men and women work differently?
I don't know about all men and women, but Emlyn and I are totally different. He sits and perfects each sentence as he goes along. He's methodical and polishes as he goes. I'm much more haphazard. I'll faff about all day and just before I'm about to leave and do the school run, I'll get the golden nugget that I've been waiting for – a phrase, or a scene and bang! I'll write two thousand words at the speed of light and I'll be completely in the zone. I'll edit afterwards, but rarely does the structure of what I've been writing change. I've learned over the years to trust that my sub-conscious is doing all the work.
Will you be writing anymore together in the future?
I hope so, although we're both enjoying our solo projects at the moment. Emlyn had a thriller coming out in September, 'Hunted' with Corsaire, so he's busy writing the sequel. We both still very much use each other as sounding boards and cross-edit each other’s work. Nothing leaves the house until the other person has given it the royal thumbs up.
What is a typical writing day?
I'd love to tell you that I float around arty cafes and write in little notebooks, but it's much more about getting the kids out of the house to school. Books don't get written, unless you put in the hours at your computer, so I'm very disciplined. We live in Brighton, so I get up early and get the kids ready, then Emlyn gets up and does the school run whilst I go for a run along the seafront. We meet, rain or shine, in the cafe on the beach for a coffee, which clears our heads. Then we're both back at our desks, bums on seats at 9.30am. We'll have a little break for lunch when our little one comes home from nursery, then we'll work until 4pm, when one of us will pick up the other kids. We both often work in the evenings if a deadline is approaching.
Where do you like to work?
I have a study at the back of our house overlooking the garden. It's incredibly messy, but I can't write if everything is ordered. There's piles of papers and books and the walls are covered in the kid's paintings and photos and book jackets from the foreign editions of 'Platinum' and 'Forbidden Pleasures'. Now in the summer, it's warm and I have a big window looking out onto all my pots of flowers and herbs on the balcony, but it's freezing in the winter, so I write in hats and coats and look pretty eccentric.
If you weren't a writer what would you want to be?
I loved my days as a waitress when I first started out writing. Emlyn and I are both foodies and spend our days obsessing about what we're going to cook for dinner. I could see us running a little restaurant. I'm no stranger to hard work or crazy hours in the pursuit of satisfied customers. Whatever I did, I'd want it to be completely absorbing. I also teach creative writing to kids, so I'd do more of that. I find it so rewarding.
As someone who likes to write chick lit and historical fiction (although never at the same time) is there another genre you would like to explore?
I'm really into writing what I'm doing at the moment and I can't imagine doing anything else. I love big story telling, with high stakes. It's so much fun blending a punchy emotional story with thriller elements. For me, it's about starting with the characters and scenario I really want to write. I'm sure I'll explore more in the future though. One thing I've realized is that the more you write, the more there is to learn about writing.
What is the best thing about your life as a writer?
I get to do the thing I'm most passionate about every day. I've also been lucky enough to have a successful career and be at home for my kids. I consider myself very blessed in this respect.
Who do you love reading when you have the time?
I love reading and I've always got at least one book on the go. However, I find it hard to read commercial women's fiction when I'm writing it. I rarely read books more than once, but I do have authors I go back to, usually ones who are great at plotting, like Jackie Collins, Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier. I like reading American fiction writers, such as Alice Hoffman and I'm a sucker for a thriller. Harlen Coben is very good, although I have to say out of loyalty – and also because it's true – that 'Hunted' by Emlyn Rees is fantastic. I get sent a lot of books, but I mostly go on recommendations. This year, I've really enjoyed 'Jamrach's Menagerie' by Carol Birch, 'Sister' by Rosamund Upton and 'Visit From The Goon Squad' by Jenifer Egan. Which is why I think that sites like Novelicious are the best invention for keen readers.
Thank you very much for talking to us Jo