Janet Dean Knight explores contemporary themes through historical fiction. Her debut novel, The Peacemaker is a moving story of a young woman’s struggle to make peace with her father on the eve of the Second World War.
Born and raised in a coalmining village, Janet draws on her experience and family history to tell compelling stories about the past that resonate with current issues, particularly in the lives of women and working class communities. Janet writes strong characters and engaging plots about the past which help her readers to think more deeply about what matters now. Her writing is challenging yet respectful, passionate and accessible.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
My mother told stories all the time and she often talked about her parents and her mother’s first husband who died in the First World War. When the 1911 Census was published I started doing family history research I was able to both corroborate and correct some of my mother’s stories. This is what inspired my debut novel The Peacemaker which is about a young woman who discovers that that her life in 1938 is about to follow the path of her mother’s in 1914.
What came first the characters or the world?
The characters, but they are in their home settings of industrial South Yorkshire and the North York Moors, and when I decided to focus on the two world wars, the whole thing came together.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
I tried for about a year to interest agents and through them mainstream publishers without much success, despite reasonable feedback about the book. I then tried independent publishers who take manuscripts direct and Top Hat Books offered me a traditional publishing contract without an advance but with slightly higher royalties than normal.
How long did it take to write?
The family history research was an obsession for a couple of years, then I started an MA in Creative Writing because as a poet I wasn’t confident about my ability to write long-form prose. I started that in 2013 and graduated in 2015 with the first few chapters forming part of my dissertation. I completed a first draft in 2016 and final edits in 2017. It was accepted for publication in 2018 and published in 2019. Put that way, it took at least 6 years if not 8!
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
No, I don’t although Violet my heroine, likes music so there is reference in the book to some of the music of the time, which my parents would have danced to – big band tunes, songs from the Hollywood musicals, crooners like Bring Crosby.
How many publishers turned you down?
I only had a couple of direct rejections from publishers before I accepted the contract from John Hunt. I had some feedback that the lack of interest was because I hadn’t got a series lined up, or that my book wasn’t commercial enough.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
Very positive. It deals with some difficult issues and because it has a female heroine, it is seen as ‘women’s fiction’. But it also focuses on Violet’s father Ellis, who is based on my grandfather and takes a viewpoint of his experience in the First World War. The feedback I’ve had from male writers has been particularly positive and rich. Quite a lot of readers have described it as absorbing, a page turner which is always great to hear.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
Two very different ones. A writing friend compared my book to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, not sure about that, but I’ll take it, and a woman with a small boy asked me when I was promoting my book in WH Smith if it was about trains because it has a picture of the North York Moors Railway on the cover. She said her little boy liked trains, but I couldn’t recommend it to her – although there is a train journey in it.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I have a completed manuscript called Does She Love Us? which is in search of a publisher. It started as a sequel to The Peacemaker, which a lot of readers asked for, but I couldn’t make it work that way. It’s a family drama set in 1963 about working class women trying to find independence through work and through living their own lives. I think the challenge I have is that the book is what I would call accessible literary fiction – this means it is not as commercial as some publishers would like, nor as literary as others would want.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Yes of course, if they’re positive! I have one one-star review on Amazon which is from somebody who bought the book by mistake. They were very annoyed, my guess is more with themselves, but they took it out on me. I use the advice that writers often give – check the reviews of your favourite book, somebody will have hated it, there’s no such thing as a book that everybody loves.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Yes, I have ideas for all sorts of plots – crime, psychological thriller, romance. Some historical, some contemporary. I am unlikely to write fantasy or sci-fi, but never say never.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I worked in the public sector as a Director and Non-Executive Director in housing, health, social care and regeneration. I still do some voluntary non-exec work, but mostly I write now.
Which author(s) inspire you?
A long list: Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, Sarah Waters, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, Donna Tartt, James Baldwin, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Patrick Gale, Sebastian Barry.
Which genres do you read yourself?
Mostly literary fiction at the moment, although I go through periods of reading a lot of crime – I like Michael Connelly, George Pellicanos, Nikki French, Jo Nesbo. I tend to read something from a prize list followed by something lighter in rotation.
What is your biggest motivator?
Getting feedback from readers, and talking to readers about writing. I love talking at events and book groups.
What will always distract you?
Lots of things – emails, Twitter, Wordle, The Guardian on my phone, writing prompts, webinars, Zooms, lunch, dinner. This is why if I really want to concentrate I need to go away to write – to the library or an isolated cottage or a friend’s house if they’re away.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
I was asked too suggest three images that I liked and the publisher chose one of them and designed the cover. I could make comments about the layout and fonts, etc, and this was taken on board. Overall the design has a vintage feel which is great.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, I liked to read, but we didn’t have a lot of books in the house. My parents read – my mother borrowed books from the library, my father swapped books with his friends, but there were very few children’s books until we got a new library in the village when I was about 10. My love of books really took off from about 12 or 13 and I went straight to adult books – there was nothing in the middle back then, really.
What were your favourite childhood books?
The first book I remember was a picture book called Prudence and Priscilla about two cats who go shopping for hats and gloves. I loved What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next and at school I remember reading The Television Twins. A family friend used to send the Scottish comic books The Broons and Oor Wullie for Christmas and I would pour over them for hours.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
The Little Apple Bookshop in York is 10 minutes from our house on the way into town, so I’m often drawn to its window. It provides a great personal service. We have friends who live in Portobello near Edinburgh and the bookshop there is stunning, bright, stylish and full of wonderful books.
What books can you not resist buying?
If I like a book by an author I tend to buy up everything they’ve written, or ask for them as presents – Maggie O’Farrell and Sebastian Barry are doing very well from this at the moment.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
I am a plotter, so I will write an outline before I start writing. I then write freely and edit when finished, not as I go along. If (when) I get stuck I make mind maps to look at possibilities. Not sure if these are rituals or sensible methods. I always make a coffee before I start.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
I have two on the go at the moment on my bedside table, about eight under the table, only two of which I am likely to read soon, and then another pile of ten or so on a table in my study from which I will pick. But then, if I read a new author, I might buy another of theirs and I won’t get round to the TBR pile.
What is your current or latest read?
I am finishing Lowside of the Road by Barney Hoskyns, which is a biography of Tom Waits. It’s a thick tome, so I didn’t take it on a recent holiday, so am also reading Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, which I did. I should also be reading Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon for my book group next week – I’ve started it on Kindle.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
A couple in particular where I bought but didn’t read the debut and now plan to read that and the follow up – Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart and Queenie and People Person by Candice Carty-Williams
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
I also have a book called The Man In The Street Has No Shoes which is at final edit stage and this is probably a little more commercial. It is about a woman who passes a homeless man in the street and recognises him as the person she almost married forty years before. Set between the present day and the 1980s, the novel explores how people’s lives are affected by decisions they made in the past.
Any events in the near future?
I’ve missed events over the past two years, but this March I was lucky to be able to speak about writing as a later life or ‘encore’ career at the York Literature Festival with my friends poet and memoirist Yvie Holder and novelist Jane Austin who was launching her new book Renegade. I’ve got a private event lined up for a group in September and a book group in May, but would love to get back into the swing of small festivals and book groups. I am involved in poetry events online in April and May which is great, but there’s nothing like real life, is there?
and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
I was never a great reader of historical fiction, so surprised myself by writing it. Family history inspired me, especially my mother’s willingness to talk about the past, and I really enjoyed the research, so I hope to do more in future.