Justina Hart is a professional writer who writes novels, poetry and non-fiction. Unfortunately, Justina and I had a few technical problems and a slight delay on Skype so I have also had a transcription made which you can find below.
Justina Hart Podcast Transcription
Tara: Hi Justina, thanks for joining me on the podcast. Just wondering if you could tell me a little bit about you, where you’re based, a bit about your background and what you do.
Justina: Hi Tara.Thanks for asking me to speak today. I’m a novelist, a poet and non-fiction writer. I live in Staffordshire and I live and write aboard an ex-working narrow-boat that is very old, that has been beautifully renovated. So that’s my exciting day-to-day life. And I’ve got a background as a features writer and journalist working for national newspapers, and as a commissioning editor working on- and offline.
Tara: So what is a features writer?
Justina: Oh, it’s basically somebody who doesn’t do news.
Justina: Who sort of writes pieces that are not direct news stories. So, expand to a lot of different subjects and pieces from sort of arts reviews to, I don’t know, lifestyle features. A lot of writing about education, travel pieces, all sorts of things like that.
Tara: Ah you have to have a real knowledge of everything then.
Justina: Well and then a sort of, I think one of the things I used to love about it as a features writer was, I mean you would…the turnover of your articles was very fast so you would become a kind of expert very quickly in something. Well, “expert” in inverted commas, but then you would drop that knowledge to replace it with the next thing so you were a mini expert for about two seconds.
Tara: So your current creative projects, the novel: is that the big one you’ve got going on? Or perhaps you could tell me a bit about what you’ve got going on at the moment?
Justina: Yeah, yes. I’ve… my two biggest projects are the novel and a poetry pamphlet. I’ll tell you about the novel first. So, I’m finishing—and I love that word because it’s been a long project—so it’s also a long novel, about 140,000 words. And it’s a book called Oyster Man and you wanted to know what inspired it, so that was originally inspired by renting a kind of rickety old house by the seaside in the winter, which was very atmospheric and a little bit spooky
Tara: So what sort of book is it then? What’s it’s…Can you give gist of what it’s about?
Justina: The genre, it is I would say it’s, oh gosh it’s a very mixed genre but I say it’s loosely a kind of murder-mystery-cum-detective story with a bit of ghostliness and some surreal elements thrown in there so it’s quite a lot going on. And yeah it’s about a couple of girls who, I mean women, who buy their dream seaside house. They’re just friends and they buy this house and everything goes wrong, basically. They buy this house that’s sort of right on the beach, looking at the sea and yeah, everything goes from bad to worse.
Tara: Aw. So did these ghostly happenings happen when you were at the house?
Justina: No, no. It’s a work of fiction but I did, I don’t know if this is common for creative people but I did think that I should experience time there on my own and I think that at some points I sort of overdid it, you know. I spent two weeks in this house in the middle of nowhere on my own. I mean, it wasn’t quite in the middle of nowhere but in the wintertime when the weather was not good, you know, you got very isolated and you know, you’re hearing the storm howling around you. And I did get quite scared. I also spent time on my own in another house that was quite on its own, an isolated place up in Yorkshire and I got pretty scared there, and I think it’s those sort of psychological elements—
Justina: I took for the book really. Yeah the emotional content is real to some extent.
Tara: So when’s your book going to be out, do you know?
Justina: Well, first it can be a really long process if you want to get it traditionally published, you know through a mainstream publisher, so first of all I need to get a new agent, a new literary agent. So, I’ll be polishing the book soon and then sending that out to agents. And then once I find somebody to take me on, which can be a little bit like gold dust these days, then the agent sends the book to publishers, and they aim to get the best deal that they can for you. With fiction it then takes around two years for the book to get into print. So it can be coming out, you know, sometime after you’ve written it.
Tara: Two years. I can’t believe it!
Justina: It’s very slow, whereas with non-fiction the process is getting much shorter, it can be sort of 6 months or less. So yes the other projects I mentioned, yeah sorry
Tara: No, I was going to ask you about the other projects.
Justina: I think the journalist in me, isn’t it. “And part B was”. So yeah the other thing is the poetry pamphlet, which is sort of… A pamphlet is kind of a smaller than a full book, it’s sort of 15-20 poems. And these are some poems I wrote a few years ago but I now want to finish—that magical word again—get them out and send those off to a publisher. So yeah you… maybe again this is something that you’re finding with creative people, that we’re not always, the finishing isn’t always our strongest suit. But so these poems were inspired by the ending of a big relationship and there was a lot of grief and leaving my home and so forth. But it was also about building a new life, mapping out a new life, and there’s a theme of kind of, I love maps and there’s a lot of kind of map references going on. There’s also a sense of direction and finding that out when you don’t actually have such a good spatial reasoning yourself.
Tara: So I was gonna ask how you get ideas? So ideas are all around you I guess. You’ve taken them from life, have you?
Justina: Ideas, yeah, I don’t know again if other people say the same sort of things really, but novelists particularly are always being asked about how they get ideas. And it’s, it is kind of the stuff of life really, that’s not the hard bit generally speaking. Yeah, it’s really something that comes from everything you see and everything you do and everything you experience. But I am very grateful for ideas. I mean, I could talk briefly about how there was a time in my life when I was needing to fit into some sort of corporate jobs, and to do so it felt that my imagination was really absent and not required, and I really didn’t have time to do my own creative work. And I kind of really felt that I, to do that successfully, I had to sort of, I really switched off the tap of my creativity, it was quite a conscious effort in order to sort of survive in the corporate world. Or else it would just be too painful to have all those ideas—
Justina: —and the imagination I couldn’t use. And then something that I discovered years later when I was wanting to get back into my creative writing, that that was a very, very painful process getting that turned on again. You know, once it’s open it’s flowing and I think even if you’re not using ideas all the time, you’re not using all the ideas that come to you, I have learnt that it’s very important to say, “even though I’m not using these ideas, I don’t need this many ideas, I’m grateful for them.”
Justina: You know, keep that tap open, keep the water of the ideas flowing.
Tara: So how did you get the tap open?
Justina: Oh, gosh, that’s a really good question. Trial and error and a lot of pain. I, well, I mean I just started writing for one thing. I joined a creative writing crit group, you know, where they look at what you’ve written and feedback on it, which was… I didn’t necessarily so much need the criticism at the time because these pieces, these stories that were just coming out of nowhere after such a long time of nothing, were very new but I did get really positive approbation that this was, that they were something really interesting. And from that course I met some likeminded friends. I think likeminded friends are really essential. People doing what you do and who kind of understand you. That’s really, really essential. And also, at that time, I read, I did The Artist’s Way, which one of these friends told me. She basically said it was a rude word, but a rude word that works. Basically it’s rubbish, but rubbish that works. I think she felt it was a bit hippy-ish. It’s a bit mind-body-spirit-y and she wasn’t into that, and there’s quite a lot of God stuff in it for anyone who’s used it, but it actually it is very helpful and it’s kind of been, that’s been a very useful touchstone.
Tara: Oh say, Richard actually also, who I’d…Richard Pettitt who I’d interviewed, he found he loved that book as well, which is quite interesting. It’s obviously a common theme that runs through. So,
Justina: Oh it’s good, I think it’s useful… I sort of mentioned it because I think it’s useful…can you hear me?
Justina: I think it’s a useful book if people are blocked creatively.
Tara: So how do you keep track of ideas? Do you notebook or journal them?
Tara: Do you keep your ideas in any way?
Justina: Yes. Yeah I mean I have quite a few thoughts about this really because sometimes I have so many ideas that I know in a way it’s not worth keeping track of them. For instance if I have lots of ideas for new businesses, perhaps, some of those businesses I know that I’m never going to do. You know, ideas for a new project or a new way for a business to run what they do, you know. I know, I’ve learnt from experience to focus on what I do or else you know you’ll just be run ragged. I’m not going to do all those ideas. So it’s about being discriminating, but you know, for instance if a beautiful line of poetry comes into my head I would be a fool not to write that down. So, from the ideas I keep, when I do keep them, I keep them all over the place really. I’ve kind of gone back to an offline note app on my phone. I keep them in Scrivener files, which is a writing program. I keep them in real notebooks. But I would say that sometimes if I have an idea and I don’t actually execute the idea right away…let’s say it’s an idea for a short story or a poem, if I don’t execute it right away, sometimes it can also be a waste, almost a waste writing it down because to actually execute the idea I have to be almost in that exact same state and have that exact same thought process going on so you know, often I just write them down for writing them down’s sake.
Tara: Do you ever draw on any of those ideas?
Justina: —if you come up with novel ideas you…Oh I do a little bit, not a lot but I do really, really love visual things and I find that very helpful. I do an awful lot of sort of scatter-maps. A lot of little maps using coloured pens. That’s how I will—
Tara: Is that almost like mind mapping?
Justina: Yeah, it’s like a simple form of mind mapping and I can use those to extrapolate the seed of an idea very often.
Justina: But I could also use them to plan my day, you know. Or I can use them to plan my holiday packing or work out a short story, I find that very useful. But I think colours as well, the different colours also somehow stimulates my brain anyway. And sometimes little drawings if I’m not too embarrassed by my own drawing.
Tara: Many creatives—and I think I know your answer to this—including myself, have too many ideas, they find it hard to choose or stick to one at a time. Do you have this problem?
Justina: Yeah, yeah I do. It pretty much comes back to the answer to the last question really.
Tara: So, so you keep yourself on track by just trying to focus on one or two ideas, is that?
Justina: How do I keep myself on track?
Justina: Well I think that’s actually been, that’s taken a long time to learn what works for me, really. Particularly with a bigger project like a novel, or a long novel in this case. I think of myself as sort of more of a sort of natural sprinter who’s become a marathon runner, so I have had to learn how to do that. And one of the things, one of the tools I use is just a really simple log, you know, like a mileage logbook. I actually keep that on my computer but you could just as easily have that in a diary or notebook. And I literally sort of write down the date, the time, the number of hours I spent, what I aimed to do in that session and what I actually did do in that session. I mostly use that for the novel rather than just creativity in general.
Tara: Oh that’s a, do you use that for your sort of freelance work as well? Do you do it the same?
Justina: No because I’m incredibly motivated by a deadline. So if I schedule it, it gets done. Anything with a deadline gets done whereas if you’re at the point of being an unpublished novelist, basically a friend of mine…
Justina: Well I’ve heard, a friend of mine once described, if you’re doing a very long project but you don’t have a publisher yet, yeah it can feel like never-ending homework, because there’s nobody waiting for it at the end. So you have to find tricks to basically keep yourself going, sometimes over a period of years.
Tara: Yeah. So have you got any favourite creative tools? Could be physical or you know, apps, anything like that.
Justina: Yeah I mean really I would probably come back to those sort of mind maps, the kind of scatter maps that I do do a lot. I like, I haven’t used it for a while, but I do like a blank A3 sketch book so that I can go big with my felt tips and so on, and just map things out. And I really like colours so I’m a big obsessive about pens and sort of
Tara: Stationery! Good old stationery.
Justina: Yeah I do find I love stationery, so I do, although on a boat I can’t have too many notebooks, as you can imagine, but I do like, I do find the act of doing something sort of physical, you know, real world, rather than keeping it on my computer, is sort of more creative, more helpful in a way.
Tara: So are there any books, people or courses that have really inspired you creatively?
Justina: I actually can’t, I couldn’t off the top single out anything really, I just think it’s an absolutely ongoing process of you know, everything you see, everything you do. I mean I, I’m aware that, you know, that I have certain friends who are also creative and when I see certain people I come away really fuelled and really inspired. So it’s important to have people like that in your life. I find going to an art gallery or an exhibition really helpful, I find the visual very helpful. Getting away from books sometimes. What else is, what else? You know, being in nature, all those obvious things.
Justina: But as for a particular course, I can’t, you know… I think it’s always about going on a search for the next thing that’s going to be, you know…that you do have to find, you know, the old stuff that works for you, and then be in touch with the new and the innovative. Oh I know that I wanted to say that actually books about and programs about other creative people and creative lives I find can be very, very inspiring. You know, how somebody overcame all the obstacles and stuck to their path.
Justina: Especially didn’t spend their entire life necessarily fuelling their creativity into a corporate job but kept some of themselves free to actually do their art. That I find helpful.
Tara: I haven’t put this in my questions, but I was really interested that you do songwriting. Are you happy to talk a bit about that? How you mentioned it recently?
Justina: Oh the singing, yeah the singing course, with the songwriting, composing. Yes. Yeah I am because again it kind of refers to a previous question about kind of remaining inspired to an extent that I really, I just wanted to do some kind of a course that wasn’t, that actually wasn’t related to writing, that was creative. And I thought it would be something, I thought it might be painting or something visual. I really did. And then this email about this sort of singing/songwriting course landed in my inbox and intuitively I just felt that it would be really good for me, right for me at this moment. And I did sense that it would be very helpful in other ways, in a sort of transferrable way. I’d been sort of moving towards getting my work out in to the world a lot more, whereas I had this sort of issue that through set backs I kept a lot of my creative writing to myself. So, getting back into that sort of sharing your work with other people, which, you know that reciprocity which is so vital and lifeblood to you and helpful and entertaining to the audience. So the course has helped me with that, because it’s about performing to some extent. Also the songwriting element has been really interesting because it’s something, I love achieving something or trying something that I never in a million years expected to do. So never had the ambition to write a song. Had no idea I knew how to write a melody, so it’s been a real challenge, and one that I’ve achieved, certainly, with one professionally recorded song. And I’m so chuffed to have done that. And I think, I think when you try a different thing that is sort of related it’s again, it’s a form of writing, it can you know kind of refresh those other writing bits of you, it keeps you going. But I had to be careful that it doesn’t take over, you know, that I don’t put too much time and energy into the hobby, I suppose.
Tara: So have you got the album coming out soon?
Justina: We have actually, there’s an album but it is just each person in the group. I think there are about ten people in the singing group. We each created our own song, so it’s just this kind of private album with ten different songs. And we were very encouraged to write that deep and meaningful stuff, so people have written about things that are very, very powerful to them, you know. Like somebody had just lost their mother and he’s written a song about having just lost his mother, so you know it’s really, really deep stuff, but very beautiful.
Justina: And not on sale, I should say.
Tara: Okay, won’t find it on Spotify. …So where’s the best place for people to find out about you? And are you still doing your writing sort of retreats? Or writing days?
Justina: Oh yeah, I’m actually currently, I’m currently still running a writing club. It’s called The Writing Ramp club and that can be found on my website which is justinahart.com H-A-R-T. And the writing club is, it’s a really, for people who want to, they can be new writers or experienced writers. But it’s for people who want to complete a project that might be a little bit bigger. So it could be completing an e-book or a book. It could be completing a radio play, it could be completing a travel book. You know, they’ve spent a year travelling and they want to write up their book. And I’ve had all those different people in the club. And it kind of gives people, well it kind of gives people everything I wish I had found in a club when I was sort of struggling to get back into my writing and struggling to stay the course years ago. So it includes all those things, it’s like a very safe environment with lots of tools to help people keep going week on week and month on month. Yeah so that’s on my website. And I’ve got a Facebook Author page, Justina Hart Author. And I’m on Twitter because the book, literary industry loves Twitter. They think that’s, you know, THE social media to be a part of so you’ve gotta be good at Twitter. So some annoying person had already stolen my name, so I’m—I know, how dare they! So I’m late to the party!—so I’m @JustinaHart_ with an underscore at the end which is very irritating…
Tara: Nevermind. Well thank you very much.
Justina: Thank you very much, thanks a lot Tara. It was great fun.