Literary agent Juliet Pickering looks again at THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING, recently published as a Vintage Classic. What do you ask the author who has been asked everything? Not only do we find out, but we get to hear Janice Galloway's brilliant response in this special dual blog.
I was introduced to THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING when I began working with Janice, in my mid-twenties, and what I found in it then was a certain amount of comfort. Here was a woman, Joy Stone, who was as confused about life and what it offered as I was. There is great sadness in the novel, but also great humour. Hardly any other book I’d read unpicked the mind of a woman in a way that felt so authentic and challenging (although THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is up there). As we learn of Joy's situation, piece by piece, Janice uses small excerpts of text that sit in the margins to take us occasionally out of the narrative, reflecting Joy’s more erratic thoughts, and this felt – and still feels – an innovative way of using her words – a different way of reading them that reminds the reader so effectively of Joy’s mental state. One of the many reasons I admire Janice is for this bold originality and imagination, and for using words to portray something extra to the reader in an entirely natural way; she’s unafraid to write as she feels, rather than to the conventions of a regular text.
On re-reading THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING I was surprised by how strongly I felt about Joy and her story, all over again. THE TRICK… is ageless. It keeps coming to mind in odd moments: the particular dynamics of Joy’s relationship with her sister, and how resonant this is of many strained familial ties; the brief comfort a new (or old) relationship can offer when we are lonely, no matter how troubled that relationship might be; the idiosyncracies of many colleagues and bureaucrats, who fail to understand any personal complexities, but often view a person in terms of problems and solutions. The novel offers a wry, real account of a young woman's breakdown as she tries to cope with the death of a lover. We see the struggle to get through each day alone – very alone – and how Joy tries to help herself, even as she’s often helpless. When it comes to finding this help she needs elsewhere, people aren’t always kind or responsive.
Eight years after first reading the novel I am struck by the alone-ness of each of us, that we really have to forge our own way through life, often despite those around us, and that a little kindness goes a long way. Joy’s survival felt more tender, more fragile, this time around. But Joy emerges resilient, and alive. If being alive is all she is capable of in the middle of everything happening to her, it feels like a real achievement. Perhaps we should all stop and consider that just being alive in the midst of our lives is an achievement for us, too.
I wondered what I might ask Janice about her first novel that she hadn't been asked before (a probably impossible task, since THE TRICK is now on school curriculums and Janice does regular school visits!). One of the questions I had was what Janice might say to Joy, if she met her now. Would it be only "the trick is to keep breathing", or would there be some other crumb of advice that Joy might respond to? If we meet a Joy, could we say anything to them that might go some small way to helping, when they need it most?
This is difficult to respond to! I guess it has been hard enough for you to go first because we’re used to being private with a book. That’s one of the luxuries books offer – one-to-one sharing of ideas and complex feelings, with a stranger who will never see you blush. In some ways, Joy's kind of a stranger to me too, certainly after decades.
I hope it doesn’t sound odd to say I didn’t make her up: she was somewhere fully formed and I wrote her down. Chekhov: 'The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.' It’s up to me to describe a character accurately, whoever he or she is. Joy learns 'the trick is to keep breathing' from a literal truth; i.e. you can’t swim till you learn to breathe while you’re doing it. Through literalism comes simplicity: the most basic recognitions can transform the complexities we would otherwise talk ourselves into. Metaphors refresh perspective. Managing to keep going is the first step in everything, and a first step is a start. It’s not the saying of it, or the reading of it that makes it true: you don’t learn much from simply reading, for crying out loud! You learn from thinking about experience and a book is a presentation of life experience. Plots, my ass. Plot is a thread through the labyrinth, that’s all. Recognition is what makes someone love a book, not the unravelling of a satisfactory device.
What I want to do is to write enough to draw a reader in enough to let it feel real, so that a reader works hard to make decisions about what they’d do. It’s great to hear dramatically different things about characters from readers – it means they’ve used their own thoughts, their own experience, to have their own opinion. Chekhov: 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' My job’s to make stuff – er – visceral. Felt.
What would I say if I met her!? Nothing – she’s a book! The reader has to reach their own conclusions! And if you meet a Joy (my guess is you have), wait till she speaks first. We’re throwing out lifelines all the time: just catch.