Interviewed by Heather Cripps
Read Jo Gatford’s fiction piece, Flying Ant Day
Heather: The central magic realist metaphor of Alice disappearing works beautifully in depicting what it feels like to have post-natal depression. How did this idea come to you?
Jo: Originally, I just wanted to write a story about a woman who gradually disappears, and what the effects of that might be like, but once I got into it I realised it was probably a bit deeper than that. Metaphors, man. They’ll getcha whether you like it or not.
The early days (years?) of motherhood can feel a lot like being inside a magical realist story, especially when you’re sleep deprived, your body is quite literally putting itself back together, hormones are firing all over the place, and your entire sense of identity has shifted into something completely unknown.
I think a lot of parents feel pretty trapped at times, mostly because we simply don’t have the ‘village’ we need for support. Parenting isn’t usually difficult because of the children—the kids are the amazing part—it’s everything else we’re supposed to uphold alongside that: work, relationships, societal expectations, and these performative roles we’re expected to overwrite our identities with. Then there’s the judgement and the guilt and the frustration and the loneliness… So yeah, sometimes it can feel like disappearing, while the world carries on without you.
Do you use magic realism a lot in your other writing?
Funnily enough I realised the other day that I have a habit of slinging a little bit of magical realism into any story that doesn’t seem to be working. It’s always an entertaining experiment, even if it’s not a guaranteed fix. For example: a story that’s been sitting unfinished on my hard drive for a decade finally got published when I stuck a soul-sucking eldritch sea monster in it. I mean, why not? You’ve got nothing to lose at that point.
A lot of my favourite books and films are pretty absurdist, too, come to think of it. It’s just such a great way to express emotion in situations that feel utterly senseless and incomprehensible. There can be something brilliantly tragi-comic about it that I love.
I also think the shorter the piece, the weirder you can get. Flash and poetry are particularly ripe for playing with magical realism because there’s less pressure to explain yourself. Oh, so she’s disappearing, one body part at a time? No time to dwell on it, let’s just see what happens…
If you could have dinner with one other writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you ask them?
Speaking of magical realism, I’d love to hang out with Kurt Vonnegut. He’s already left us a whole load of excellent writing (and life) advice, so I’d probably just get slowly tipsy and let him regale me with ridiculously interesting stories all night.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Write what’s fun. Write what you want to read, and what makes you excited every time you sit down to it. Cultivate the joy of it and everything else will follow.
Break down your favourite stories to see what they’re made of. Take all your favourite parts and try to emulate them. You really don’t have to have any ‘proper’ training in literary criticism or analysis to know what you like, and figure out why.
On that note, I’m a massive proponent of fanfiction (especially for new writers) because it’s such an amazing sandbox to learn in. Write about your favourite characters in exciting new situations. Explore the backstory you never got from canon. Fix that unsatisfactory ending.
Practising with readymade characters and worlds helps you lay strong foundations for creating your own and makes sure you’re having fun along the way. And don’t listen to anyone who says it’s ‘lesser’ than any other kind of writing—in fact, ignore literary snobbery of all kinds.
P.S. I am, at this point, contractually obliged to plug the creative writing organisation I work for, Writers’ HQ, whose tagline is “stop fucking about and start writing” and has a whole heap of writing advice for newbies and experienced writers alike—and definitely no snobbery.
What else are you working on currently and where can we read more of your work?
I’ve been working on my second (third? twelfth?) novel for more years than I care to count, but recently came to the conclusion it’s actually a six-part TV drama series and am attempting to adapt it into a screenplay, which is proving to be a lot more enjoyable than editing it for the zillionth time (see—fun is the answer!).
I’m also tinkering with a play script and a choose-your-own adventure text game made with a programme called Twine as another (fun) storytelling experiment.
Otherwise, I write a lot of flash and have been trying to get to grips with poetry lately, but as I said above: the shorter the piece, the weirder it seems to get. And apparently my kinda poetry is weird.
Aside from The Forge, my short fiction has been published most recently in SmokeLong Quarterly, trampset, Pithead Chapel and the Bath Flash Fiction Award. There’s a full list of my published work here.