❉ We chat with Jason Charles about his latest novel, set in both the present day and the 15th century.
Jason Charles took to creative writing at an early age as a form of self-expression, and had churned out three novels by the time he turned twenty. After a year of placing his short stories with literary magazines, he turned to playwriting.
Estranged was the first he wrote, but not the first that he had performed. In 2006, his play Steam packed out London’s White Bear Theatre, followed by two very successful runs of his dark comedy, Counterfeit Skin, at the city’s Courtyard Theatre in 2008. Estranged finally received its premiere at the same theatre in 2009.
Charles then adapted his third novel for the stage for his next production, Beyond Flesh and Blood, a dark psychological piece that opened at London’s Tabard Theatre just one month after Estranged closed.
Since Beyond Flesh and Blood he has turned his attention to performing his poetry on stage and rewriting his first novel The Claws of Time for publication. In February 2014 he saw Estranged receive a much enjoyed revival at the Tap Gallery Theatre in Sydney, Australia. The Claws of Time was finally published on October 9 2017, and Jason kindly took time out to tell We Are Cult all about his new novel, his journey as a writer, and his inspirations and influences.
Tell us a bit about your background, where did you grow up and how did your environment shape you?
Well, I grew up in the claustrophobic suburbs of North West London. The Wembley/Harrow area. I was a very quiet and lonely child who did not make friends easily. I spent much of my childhood isolated in my bedroom writing stories, while my older brother, who was much more gregarious than me, was out partying. I suppose the only good thing about growing up in that area was its close proximity to London, and when I was 17 I started going to gigs on my own because I developed a thing for obscure, tortured female singer songwriters.
Were you creative as a child and teenager?
Yes. I was one of those kids who spent hours alone in his bedroom filling up journals with short stories and novels. I was always fascinated by English and Scottish history, especially kings and queens. I remember when I was very young my uncle had a kings and queens family tree poster on his bedroom wall, detailing the lineage from William the Conqueror to the present day, and I would stare at it for hours on end, and from that I invented stories about royal historical characters and their plights. One of the first stories I wrote was called Lady Mizrabella, about a lady who married an elderly king, only to end up losing her head when he died and his jealous daughter became Queen. By the end of my teens I had written three novels, the first draft of The Claws of Time being one of them. I also wrote songs and recorded them onto cassette tapes in the bathroom to get the great acoustics. Those tapes are probably worth a fortune now. 50p or something.
What have been your main inspirations?
Relationships. Psychology. Obsession. History. The lives and lyrics of female singer songwriters – most notably PJ Harvey, Bjork and Tori Amos. The three main characters in The Claws of Time were inspired by that holy trinity. Also, any art which is unafraid of exploring the dark side, such as the plays of Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane and Philip Ridley, the novels of Jeanette Winterson, and the recordings of Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch.
When did you know you wanted to write?
When I was about 13/14, doing creative writing exercises in English literature classes and discovering that they gave me a free ride for my imagination to take over. It was thrilling to realise that a blank page is a canvas to create whatever magic and mischief you want.
How did you begin writing?
Creative writing exercises at school. Like I say, I was about 13/14 when I caught the writing “bug,” and from that age onwards you would find me in my bedroom filling out journal after journal with short stories and novellas, and then later in my teens this developed into song lyrics, poetry, and then later, plays.
So, what have you written so far?
Well, it started off with a load of strange juvenilia (some of which I have thought about converting into young adult novels), and then when I was 18 I wrote the first draft of The Claws of Time. When I was 19 I wrote a very peculiar novella called The Secret History of Women, which was about a load of psychologically unhinged women struggling with split personality disorders, rejection, abandonment, isolation, and life-altering obsessions. When I was 20 I wrote Revelations of a Fallen Christ which again was about split personality disorder but this time mixed with religious fervour and urban insanity. After this I concentrated on being a short story writer for a while and got a large handful of them published in obscure literary magazines. And then I discovered playwriting when I was about 22. My first play was called Estranged and was about the things we cover up in our lives and why. My second was Steam, set in the men’s locker room of a corporate company’s football club where a bit of after-work five aside football is not all it seems to be. My third was Counterfeit Skin, about the breakup of a relationship and the self destructive consequences of getting our priorities wrong. I mark the age of 27 as the start of my writing career as this is when Steam sold out a week at the White Bear Theatre in London. After this the other two plays I mentioned enjoyed successful runs in London and Sydney. In 2010 I made the decision to re-write The Claws of Time, not realising it would take me SEVEN YEARS until I would complete it. And last year I wrote a play set in 1483 about how Richard III managed to become king after his brother, Edward IV, died.
How do you feel about your stories after you’re done writing them?
I am never happy with them. I have a long to-do list of writings that I need to revisit, rework, remould, re-shape. This is why I have not published my plays yet, as I want to rewrite them all and improve them.
What is your writing process? How many hours a day do you devote to writing?
I am extremely undisciplined. Sometimes I can’t get my arse into gear until midnight. But most writing is actually rewriting. The process of writing something from scratch is probably only 1% of what a writer does. Most of a writer’s time is taken up with the laborious and painstaking task of editing and re-editing. And research too. Research is one of the reasons The Claws of Time took seven years to rewrite.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
For a very long time I did not want to read other author’s work because I was too preoccupied with creating my own. I realise now, however, that a writer does have to read a lot if they want to get better at what they do. I am someone who dips in and out of novels, but my favourite novelists are Lesley Glaister, Jeanette Winterson and Harriett Lane. The unpeeling of psychological layers fascinates me. But I do think I stay away from reading too much fiction because I don’t want it to influence my own work.
Tell us a little about your latest novel, The Claws Of Time.
River wakes up in the Tower of London wearing fifteenth century clothes, with no memory and no ability to speak. Slowly she pieces a life together for herself in modern day London, including getting herself a boyfriend, while all the time trying to work out from flashbacks of her past who she really is and what happened to her. Meanwhile, Petra Sherry is a singer songwriter who cannot get over being abandoned by the man she loved. At the behest of her record company, she moves from Devon to London with the rest of her band in order to start work on her second album. But after meeting River’s boyfriend, well, you will have to find out…
How long did it take you to complete this novel?
Ha, don’t ask! I wrote the first draft in 1996/1997, and then in 2010 I decided to rewrite it, but it took me a lot longer than I imagined.
What were some of the themes you wanted to explore in The Claws of Time?
Identity. Obsession. The conflict between reality and illusion. Karma, fate, and divine judgement. The dark side of love. Trauma and self destruction. The life of the struggling artist. Loneliness and isolation. I am making it sound a bit bleak, aren’t I? Much of it is actually quite funny. Especially if you like cats.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Great question. Don’t ever feel that you need to fit into anything. Reject boxes. Reject labels. Never try to be part of the crowd. Never be self-conscious for being an introvert. Embrace your uniqueness.
What struggles have you overcome as a writer?
Insomnia. Chronic self doubt. Depression. Anxiety. A complete and total lack of discipline. Taking rejection and criticism far too much to heart. Comparing myself to other people is a huge problem for me. Envying those who have ‘made it.’ Despair at the realisation that we live in a capitalist world that prizes money, wealth, fame and looks over talent. And naysayers who tell me that writing is just a “hobby” and that I should become a train driver because it pays better.
Where do you see publishing going in the future?
It is interesting because when I tried to get the first draft of The Claws of Time published in 1997 there were loads of adverts for ‘self publishing’ in the press. It was called ‘vanity publishing’ back then and it was heavily warned against. Before I read the warnings I sent my script off to a company who wrote back to say they loved it and wanted to publish it. I was nineteen and thought I had made it. In their next letter, however, they said they wanted me to pay them £3,000 for the privilege! But now, self-publishing has become something else entirely, and I think that is an extremely positive thing, because it potentially gives every writer a platform, rather than just the one percent who managed to get their work accepted by the traditional printing press.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I need to do something with that historical play I have recently completed. If all the theatres reject it, maybe I should turn it into a television script. That would be a first for me. Plus I am very soon going to start work on my new novel, which will be very different to this one.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
Michael Jackson got me fired. In 1997 I was a teenage office junior in a building right next door to Wembley Stadium where he was performing. As a security measure they sealed up all the post boxes, which meant I wasn’t able to post the evening’s letters. I brought them back to the office where someone else said they would post them, but they didn’t, so they fired me, and it’s all Michael Jackson’s fault.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth. But no one will ever take you seriously if you perform your poetry with a tambourine.
How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/theclawsoftime
Thanks for chatting with us, Jason!