Welcome to the next in my line of Creative Interviews. My guest this time in Jean Rafferty. Jean Rafferty is an award-winning journalist and writer of fiction. She has worked for papers including the Sunday Times Magazine, Sunday People and Sunday Herald. In 2016, her article on the 25th Anniversary of the Orkney sex scandal of 1991 received praise from Sarah Nelson, author of the book, Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support (Policy Press | Tackling Child Sexual Abuse – Radical Approaches to Prevention, Protection and Support : By Sarah Nelson (bristoluniversitypress.co.uk). Jean Rafferty has had several factual books published, including The Cruel Game, in which spent a year on the snooker circuit in the early 1980s. Adding to this, she has released several works of fiction, including Myra, Beyond Saddleworth and Foul Deeds Will Rise, both of which examine difficult subjects. Her novella collection, The Four Marys, was longlisted for the 2016 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Awards.
Harrison Hickman: What got you into choosing the written word as a career?
Jean Rafferty: It was just something I always thought I was destined to do. I was a huge reader as a child, as so many writers are. My favourite book was The Eaglet and the Angry Dove, by Jane Oliver, which featured a Pictish boy struck dumb by trauma, St Columba, a journey up the Great Glen and the rescue of the Pictish boy’s drugged sister as she was about to be sacrificed in a ritual! Some themes have endured. I borrowed that book from the library so often that my dad bought it for me. A real hardback book. I still have it.
After university I worked in the theatre and went along for an interview for a director’s scheme. One of the interviewers cornered me in the Ladies afterwards and asked why I was applying for this when I so clearly wanted to write. Lightbulb moment. I read an article which said there were still some places left on university courses so applied to a postgrad journalism course in Cardiff and got in. We were on tour in Wales at the time so the team dropped me off in Cardiff docks after our Cwmbran show and I never looked back.
HH: Your book Myra, Beyond Saddleworth was met with critical acclaim. What made you choose Myra Hindley as a topic? How did you find the process of writing this book?
JR: I’d always been both fascinated and puzzled by the Moors Murders. Many people were just repelled, as anyone would be, but I found it incomprehensible that anyone could do that to children. I was visiting a friend and had to cross the M62, which has a turn-off for Saddleworth Moor. When I said what a creepy feeling it gave me the friend said did I think Myra Hindley was still alive. I said no, but it triggered off the idea for the novel. What if she were?
The first thing I did, apart from reading all the literature, was to write to Ian Brady, something I continued to do till the end of his life. That was illuminating, not because he talked about the murders – he didn’t – but because of his nostalgia for his childhood and his anger at everything. He was consumed with anger at the political scene, and at humanity in general. He thought everyone wanted to do what he’d done but we were all just too hypcritical to go for it.
It was a difficult time for me personally as my sister and I were looking after my mother, who had come to live with us when my father died and who had multiple health problems. I did the book as a doctorate with Professor Zoe Wicomb, a wonderful South African writer who was the winner of an inaugural Windham Campbell award. She was not just a rigorous thinker but a very generous and sociable person, so our monthly meetings were in her house over dinner.
I found writing the novel like coming home. I’d written journalism and short form fiction but the novel gives you space to breathe.
HH: Your book Foul Deeds Will Rise, launched just over two years ago, was an extremely interesting read, with very gripping characters. Again, you have written about a subject most writers would be wary of approaching. How did you approach this topic?
JR: I had written a lot about the topic as a journalist and it was the most frustrating process as the media had decided satanist abuse didn’t exist. They’d commission you and then not run it. Sometimes they wouldn’t believe what victims had told me, but they wouldn’t let the readers decide, just spiked the article.
I regularly speak to a survivor and he suggested I write it as a novel. I thought it was too lurid a subject at first so when I came to write it I tried to rein back the sensationalist elements. They’re graphic enough without introducing the Devil as a character, which of course Dennis Wheatley did with great success. Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit, which was televised, also features the supernatural as the main character, Merrily Watkins, is a church exorcist. I suppose I wanted to emphasise the human side rather than the ritual or the strangeness of it.
Despite that it had a difficult road to publication, with two publishers taking it on and then pulling out. But it has made no headway whatsoever, despite my nephew making me a wonderful trailer for it. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxxstKyZsdI)
A friend has recently suggested a Twitter campaign for it, using certain hashtags to reach a different audience – Goths and so on. I think he may be on to something. The first time I read in public from the Myra book a young Goth girl came up to me and told me how cool she thought it was.
HH: We live in interesting times. How do you think that Covid-19 is impacting the world of the Scottish arts scene?
JR: At first it made discussion very toxic, but as the pandemic has dragged on I think people are weary of division and more respectful of opposing views. I’ve been against lockdown from the start and have been discovering lately that many other people think as I do, whereas at the start I had some quite aggressive exchanges with people I knew.
The most obvious thing is the lack of live events. In one way that has made life easier. My work with peace charity Dove Tales has been easier in the sense that we haven’t had to travel long distances to do events and could keep going on zoom – though the preparation for zoom, sourcing images and so on, has been an extra layer of work. People can do workshops without leaving their homes.
But I think there’s a huge loss in terms of sharing with people – sharing ideas and just fun. I’m really looking forward to our first live event, which is at Big Lit in Gatehouse of Fleet. That’s a literary festival run by the poet Chrys Salt, who does amazing things for Gatehouse. It’s in a beautiful setting but it’s the people, not least Chrys and her husband Richard, who make it. (Our event is about Women and War and is on Sunday 22nd August at 11.30am)
HH: You have recently re-released two of your early books, The Cruel Game and Ladies of the Court. What was it like returning to these early works?
JR: Surprising! I didn’t know I knew so much about women’s tennis and found it interesting to read things I’d forgotten. The snooker book was the same. It was a riot of a year and I found it very amusing looking back on the whole experience. I had been contacted by some documentary makers who did Gods of Snooker, the series about 80s snooker which went out recently on the BBC. I had also been contacted by Nick Pitt, who used to be a sports writer on the Sunday Times. He’s doing a biography of Barry Hearn and Barry had mentioned the book to him. Those two things made me think I should bring out the e-book. It has become, after all, a piece of history, which is rather like discovering you’ve become an antique yourself.
Of course when you come back to anything you’ve written you always want to cut it back. I streamlined it a little but basically left it as it was. I know a lot of writers who don’t think the book works till they’ve re-drafted it many times over, but I tend to agonise over it as I go along and don’t mess too much with it afterwards. The wise and great Fay Weldon once said she doesn’t over-edit because she feels it takes the life out of it and I tend to think like that – though only for my own work. Everybody has their own approach and you just have to do what’s right for you.
If you want to find out more about Jean Rafferty and her work, check out the links to her website and social media: