Super excited by today's post! I get to interview one of my best friends, the incredibly talented Julianne Benford, whose Unlucky In Lockdown novella is a wonderful read about the developing friendship between two flatmates caught in the early stages of the first UK lockdown.
Unlucky in Lockdown does a great job capturing the strange feeling of the first couple of weeks of the lockdown period in the UK. How important was it to you that the novella was released while this was fresh in people's minds?
Vitally important. I decided to self-publish it because I wanted people to be able to read it while they were still living through it and the immediate fallout. I wrote it as a way of exploring my own feelings about what was happening and I knew I was very lucky to be able to do so. Lots of writers were saying that they couldn't write at all, that the pandemic was too overwhelming, which I totally understand, but I had the opposite experience and felt like all I could do was write - to try and make sense of everything, or to at least get my emotions out of my head and onto a page where I could dissect them. And I was desperate to read stories about people coping with the situation in whichever ways they could. I read a lot of non-fiction pieces about life in lockdown, but they were all very short. I wanted something longer and I wanted fiction, so I thought it was quite reasonable to assume that there would be some other people out there that also wanted that, people longing to see their own experiences and emotions in a story now. I wanted it to help people feel less alone while they live through the pandemic, and I think it has achieved that - lots of readers have messaged me saying that they see themselves in the characters' attitudes and feelings.
Cora finds the lockdown incredibly stressful right from the outset, worrying about being unable to see her grandmother for fear of infecting her, while Xandra is initially significantly less concerned - although she obviously has her own problems. Which of the two characters do you feel your own attitude was closer to?
Definitely Cora. One of my colleagues came down with what was probably Covid-19 (this was back when nobody could get a test) two days after we were in an office together and I did not enjoy that. I pretty much self-isolated just in case! I also think a lot about my nans, both of whom live alone, though thankfully both in London near my parents, and so far they have been okay. One of them had her 85th birthday in August, which we celebrated outside in her garden.
I completely understand why people don't want to worry, and it is very difficult for our mental health to not be able to see family and friends as we normally would. But life is precious. The vulnerable people in our lives are precious. I couldn't have written about characters that didn't believe that, so although Xandra is slow to catch on she does take it all seriously once the lockdown starts.
How do you think the book will read in a few years' time when (hopefully!) this is all a distant memory and the world is somewhat more normal again?
Good question! I have no idea and I don't mind. I don't think all literature needs to be timeless - I'm okay with it becoming a historical artefact rather than something that people find fully relevant and relatable for the rest of time. However, although Covid-19 will hopefully become a thing of the past, friendship won't, so I hope that readers will still be able to get something out of that part of the story, even if the scenario itself is something they hopefully won't have to experience.
And - also post-lockdown! - where do you envision Cora and Xandra being in five or ten years' time? (And would you ever write about them in the future?)
I have never thought about them in five years time before but I know exactly what they would be doing! Cora will pack in her current job and go work for a small business where she's the sole graphic designer and feels more like an important part of the team. She'll buy a one-bedroom flat, probably shared ownership because that small business won't pay that well. Xandra will (mostly) be living with Daryl, but hopefully she'll have found a better, more creative day job, and will still do weird experimental theatre stuff in her spare time, and some form of panto! Will they be friends? That would be telling.
I have had a few requests for an update so I think once Covid-19 is over or at least under control (fingers crossed for that) I'll have a go at writing a sequel that drops in on them every few months, so we can see how they cope with the shifting situation. I don't think either of them are going to be big fans of Rishi Sunak...
I love the friendship between Cora and Xandra, which is at the heart of the novella! Who are some of your favourite pairs or groups of fictional friends?
Thank you! Obviously, the Scooby Gang in Buffy is one of the best friendship groups of all time, they literally save the world together! When I was a teenager watching it I idolised their friendships, but as an adult I have realised they're far from perfect and admire the writers for making them so complicated and yet solid. My favourite more recent TV friendship is Taystee and Poussey in Orange Is the New Black. I loved them both so much and that show broke my heart.
I've read quite a few books this year that have amazing friendships in. During (the first) lockdown I read The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, which is about a girl in pre-World War II Britain who first gets a scholarship to an alternative boarding school full of delightful weirdos, then befriends a very lonely prince on a school trip! Loads of children have to extend the conspiratorial hand of friendship in order to rescue him from the Nazis, it's so much fun.
I also love the friendships in The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, published in the 1920s, which is about two dowdy and bored middle-class women who, despite having never met before, decide to book their dream holiday together and find some other women to share the cost. They recruit a beautiful aristocrat who desperately wants to be left alone, and a wealthy snob who looks down on all of them. But the Italian Riviera works its magic and as they relax and shake off their ordinary lives, they start to open up to each other.
I really loved the relationship between Bilal, the protagonist of This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik, and his best friend, the local vicar. When Bilal announces his plan to build a mosque in their village, it makes things a bit awkward, to say the least, but their friendship endures.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, The PLAIN Janes by Cecil Castelluci and Jim Rugg, and Boy Queen by George Lester are all YA books with amazing friendships that I've read over the last few months. I especially love reading YA novels that focus on friendship because YA is all about becoming the person we want to be, and friends not only help us work out who that is, but support us as we grow.
My reading has varied wildly during lockdown, between losing the will to do any early on, and getting a ton done recently because there's nothing else TO do (until I get my Social Security Number and can work again, at least.) How about you - have you been reading much? Anything good?
I have been reading a LOT. I read a bit less when I was working on Unlucky in Lockdown, but books have really been my lifeline. I have read 90 books since lockdown began! I've spent several weekends doing almost nothing other than reading. At first I wanted to read purely to escape, to travel inside my mind while I was stuck indoors, but now I've turned it into a bit of a challenge, to see how many books I can read and then give away to new homes! I'm hoping that by the time this is all over my bookshelves will be a lot tidier, I won't have any random proofs from 2014 lying around unread, and I'll be able to donate an enormous stack of read YA novels to local schools via BookBuddy.
As well the the books I already mentioned in the friendship question, I've read and loved: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, 26a by Diana Evans, The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary, Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron ed. by Jonathan Strahan, Piglettes by Clémentine Beauvais, 7 Days by Eve Ainsworth, The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Outsiders ed. by Alice Slater!
In addition to the book and your blogs and YouTube channel, you also have several courses on Udemy, looking at igniting your passion for reading, running a book club, and planning your work wardrobe. What first got you interested in doing courses like this?
Money! It's true. I got really into personal finance a few years back and one of my favourite blogs, Can't Swing a Cat, featured a guest post by Louise Croft, who creates lifestyle courses on Udemy and has done really well out of it. She offered a code for a free enrolment on one of her courses and immediately I decided I wanted to create courses of my own as a "side hustle" (phrase used with great amounts of eye-rolling).
But although I got into it for the money, I created Ignite Your Passion for Reading: Fall In Love With Books for love. It's a free course targeted towards adults who have either fallen out of love with reading or never quite managed to click with it, designed to help people who know nothing about the online book community find recommendations and get involved in all the fun. I have no intention of ever charging for it, it's got over 5,000 students and my only hope is that it continues to grow and grow.
Is there any question you've always wanted to be asked in an interview? And if there is, what's the answer?
No! I have daydreamed about being interviewed, but never got as far as imagining what the questions would be! So thanks, Jim, for asking me such interesting questions, despite having nothing to live up to!
You can also check out Julianne's video about the book!