In Conversation: Jen Campbell, Writer and Poet

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Image description: Jen Campbell surrounded by books

Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and award-winning poet. Her most recent books include ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’, ‘The Girl Aquarium’ and a series of children’s picture books. I was lucky enough to talk to Jen about poetry, the importance of children’s voices, and the magic of online literary communities. You can find her at www.jen-campbell.co.uk.

Your latest book, The Girl Aquarium, is an enchanting collection that is as dark as it is whimsical. Do you find yourself re-reading this collection, or do you find it strange to be a reader of your work? Do you see yourself in this book after it has been released, or does it belong to its readers now?

I have to reread my work for events and performances, which can feel a little strange, but you get into the rhythm of it. I can see many parts of myself in the poetry collection but, as you say, it doesn’t just belong to me anymore. It’s nice to scatter it into the world, and to hear other people’s interpretations of it; how they have read themselves into the text, or carved out meanings that I perhaps hadn’t considered before.

Your inclusion of a Georgie dialect in The Girl Aquarium is striking, as it is a celebration of an English dialect so many people have grown up speaking but have barely seen represented in literature. What has the response been from readers from the North East?

Positive, from those I’ve spoken with/those who have come to readings of my work back yem (home). Writing in Geordie/Mackem feels like giving a voice to my younger self. I grew up in a small village by the sea in the northeast, and it feels like a secret whisper. The dialect has a musicality. It’s brutal, too. It’s interesting to retell memory-story hybrids through it. As so much of this collection examines bodies, I wanted to play with the idea of ‘bodies of text,’ as well — what we might consider ‘correct/incorrect’ and break that down.

One thing that is particularly notable about your career is that you have a wonderful online presence, something that some authors shy away from. You demystify the often intimidating character of an author through your YouTube channel, which shares a true enthusiasm for your craft. You have created a literary community online, but does having such an active YouTube account help or hinder your writing, and would you advise aspiring writers to avoid social media?

I started talking about books online primarily as a bookseller, and as a book reviewer, rather than as an author. I’d been working in the book trade for about five years when I started my channel; I’d recently moved from working in a new bookshop to working in an antiquarian bookshop, and I missed recommending new titles. Making bookish videos has now become part of my job, alongside other freelance work, and work does have a habit of getting in the way of writing, that’s true, but most writers have other jobs. I thoroughly enjoy talking about books and writing on YouTube, but it’s certainly not something I would advise writers do in order to get their work published. I had four books published before I started my channel; it wasn’t how I got my books out into the world. Work on your writing whenever you can. Read things. Finish things. Those are the important bits.

You are not just a poet but a writer of children’s books, too. The Franklin’s Flying Bookshop series is a love letter to bookshops and the magic that books can bring us. You have been open about talking about topics of otherness when speaking to primary school children about your books. What has been their response to the topic of disfigurement and what can we learn from them?

Children are, on the whole, a lot more accepting than grown-ups. They ask questions, mostly politely, they are intrigued by the world, and are accepting of those who are different. We could learn a lot from them. I have a medical condition which means, amongst other things, that I’m missing fingers. All too often in literature, the ‘bad guys’ have visual differences to tell the reader that they are ‘bad.’ Think of James Bond villains, horror movies, etc. It’s a damaging trope, and it’s important to discuss that, and the implications of that, with both children and adults. It’s too big a topic to cover here, but if anyone is interested in learning more about disfigurement and representation, I have a playlist of videos on my YouTube channel on this subject (www.youtube.com/jenvcampbell).

What is a book that you recommend to your younger readers – or a book that they are already reading – that more adults should read?

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr (sorry, I know that’s two!)

You were a bookseller for ten years, and the best bookshops continue to enchant us and give us hope. Did working in a bookshop make you optimistic about the future of bookselling? What did it teach you about books, people, and the reading habits we have?

The book industry is a tough place, but it always has been, and something that’s worth remembering is that when the printing press was invented in the 1400s, a bookseller in Florence closed his bookshop in disgust, declaring the death of the book… and we’ve done ok since then, ha. I adore bookshops and the world of bookselling; it’s a magical place, and more people are reading now than ever before. I wrote a book called The Bookshop Book all about the history of bookselling, where I think the trade is going, and talked about weird and wonderful bookshops around the globe, including travelling bookshops, bookshop towns, and bookish facts. I’ll leave you with its epigraph, which sums up my feelings on the subject:

bookshops are

time machines

spaceships

story-makers

secret-keepers

dragon-tamers

dream-catchers

fact-finders

& safe places.

 

Image credit: Jen Campbell