Jo Ullah grew up with her two siblings in a small village in Dorset. There were lots of animals and her imagination to keep her busy. Her mother was an amazing story teller, she had to be as they were all dyslexic and unable to read – including their father, who was an inventor. Jo is married, has four children and lives in Bristol with too many cats.
1. Tell us about your approach to creativity because, based on your telling, it’s about more than just writing.
Stories pop into my head from a variety of sources. Some are dreamt and then fidgeted about in my imagination for months until they have developed into a writable whole. Others are ‘what ifs?’ grown out of a sudden thought. I love talking to people and they tell me amazing things. Some stories are built out of a collection of all three sources. I just know when something has gestated enough to become a full-blown novel and I keep a book with all my story ideas in it. Some of those ideas are over 30 years old and I only got to writing them down 20 years ago. Keeping those stories unwritten has felt like being pregnant – only for years and years.
2. For example, you call yourself a mixed media artist. What does that mean?
I love art, and always have. I’m a self-taught artist and I’m fascinated by everything, so I want to do it all – paint, sculpt, sew. There aren’t enough hours in the day? When I’m making a piece my mind is free to wonder and narratives grow during this process. I have a large cross stitch tapestry of a woman that took me nine years to make. While I stitched I composed her story. I made a miniature book of her tale and sewed it into a handbag that she has hanging over her shoulder. I like the idea that it is hidden there, in plain view. If I could combine all my art; writing, painting, sculpting and textiles in to one piece – that would be the penultimate.
3. I noticed on your website some featured spot painting. Tell us about that.
I’d seen some paintings, and mandala painted rocks on Facebook and really like them. I started painting spots on things about three years ago. It’s so relaxing as an art form, like a meditation because you are just concentrating on one spot after the other while your thoughts flow free. Apparently when you concentrate on something in that way, as a repetition, it uses a different area of the brain allowing you to think about things and emotions without them effecting you as they normally would. When we think of an event that upsets us we feel it in our body as if it was happening right then – athletes use this technique to think through their training and it actually affects their muscles and performance – as a writer I’m always thinking through events, often made up ones, and I ‘feel’ them too. Spot painting raises me above the painful feelings to a more analytical space.
4. When did you decide to write your first novel? What is the novel and what is it about?
‘One day I’m going to write a novel’, lots of us think that. I’d even had a few false starts, plus lots of short stories. Then I hit 45 and thought, if I don’t do it now it might never happen. I picked a story out of my collection, The Locksmith, and started writing. 20,000 words later I wondered if I had any idea what I was doing. Looking online for writing classes I found that everything clashed with child care. The same person I had been considering for classes also did mentoring, and she lived down the road from me! My mentor was Rosemary Dun, a Bristol novelist. She not only helped me on the road to writing, she gave me a thirst for learning. I started an Open University literature/Language degree and worked on that alongside with writing my novel. It felt like learning to drive – all different disciplines at once supposedly working in harmony. Driving gradually becomes instinctual and I feel that my writing has developed like that too. Of course all first novels are semi-autobiographical so there is quite a lot of me in The Locksmith.
Jude, my protagonist is an artist who lives in Bristol. She goes to stay at a farm in rural Dorset, which is where I grew up. It had to be a psychological thriller with a lacing of the super natural because I grew up with that too. The novel is about Jude, who is newly married to her second husband, Spider. After difficulties in their family dynamics, she becomes determined to find out what happened in her husband’s childhood, something he refuses to talk about. She takes her three young children to stay with her mother-in-law, Audra, at her isolated farm in Dorset. The two women have never met before and Jude quickly becomes aware that Audra is a difficult person with sudden mood swings who is used to doing things her way. As the two grow closer it becomes more and more apparent that Audra drinks, self-medicating a deep sadness that she isn’t keen to discuss. Jude believes she can help Audra, and Spider, if she can uncover these deep concealed secrets. But Audra will stop at nothing to keep her secrets buried.
5. Tell us how The Locksmith became the Kindle Scout winner? What is this award, anyway?
After chasing an agent for almost two years, and despite some of the positive feedback from some of them, I realized I didn’t want to hand over my story to someone else and relinquish how it got adapted, packaged etc. I wanted to self-publish. I was very lucky and met Alliance of Independent Authors member, Kate Frost, who was most generous with her time explaining the process to me. I joined ALLi and it was at one of their local meetings last November that someone mentioned Kindle Scout. I was literally about to publish my novel. I had everything done – editing, cover, blurb and formatting – my main concern was how to get my first readers and book sales. When I heard about Kindle Scout this seemed to answer all my concerns. Basically a writer uploads the first 5,000, a blurb and book cover to the Kindle Scout site where the public was invited to vote for it. A novel stayed on site for one month and depending on how many voted for it, the Kindle Scout team, plus other unknown factors never fully explained, it might be picked to win. My book was picked and I got a $1,500 advance, further editing, and publication with Kindle Press as my online publisher. I publish the paperback myself. With Kindle Press as my publisher I get 50% on sales and they promote my book online. Everyone who voted for it received an advance copy to review so that when my book went live in April this year it already had its first reviews on Amzon.com, mostly, and some on Amazon.co.uk, plus Goodreads. Sadly after only about four years running Kindle Scout closed in May. So I consider myself very lucky to have got in there by the skin of my teeth.
6. Tell us about your experience with dyslexia. How does dyslexia affect your living that would help someone else understand what it means to live with dyslexia?
As a dyslexic in the 60’s and 70s I had some very odd schooling. I went to eight different schools with varying degrees of success. The oddest was a boarding school called Ravenscroft, in Somerset, which I can only describe as Hogwarts on acid. I was seven years old and dyslexia, and all those other brain oddities that are along the spectrum, where only just becoming classified. Consequently a lot of children, mostly boys, with varying kinds of learning difficulties were lumped together to see how best to untangle our budding brains. I think the staff were a brave lot and the ethos of the school seemed to be that as long as we were all moderately healthy and happy, they were doing their bit. They made school fun, and I had a, mostly, magical time there. The trouble with main stream school is that it is learning by rote.
Dyslexics notoriously do not learn by rote, something to do with the neuron in our brains being too far apart so the message gets lost on route. We have to find our own way to learn things. So I spent a lot of time being told what I couldn’t do. I wanted to be a vet – sorry, too difficult for you. A psychologist – sorry, same problem. Animal behaviorist, entomologist and a host of other things too difficult for my brain, apparently. Then there were the teachers who think dyslexia is a fallacy, so that just meant I was lazy or naughty, obviously, because they knew I could talk as intelligently as the rest of the class so I must be making up a problem just to be special. Great!
Unsurprisingly I left school with few qualifications and a pretty awful attitude. I went to London and got a job, my spelling and other related difficulties always an embarrassment. It took a long time but spell checkers are a wonderful thing. I tried Dragon Naturally Speaking but haven’t got comfortable with it. And I have found that being dyslexic has its upside too. I learn differently to other people so when I learn something I feel like I have seen it from all angles, if that makes sense – because I’ve had to make my own rules to learn it. I think it makes me a good problem solver because I can see a lot of different solutions and possibilities, maybe what you would call ‘thinking outside the box’. Being a writer has made my spelling a lot better too, or maybe my spellchecker has just got me sussed!
7. What, if any, is the connection between your dyslexia and your creativity?
As above – I think outside the box. Like the Elephant’s child I suffer from ‘insatiable curiosity’ and my nose just gets longer and longer. I love talking to people, everyone is interesting and what they say makes pictures in my head. Some of the things I see and hear get slotted together in interesting and unusual ways to become art and stories.
8. What are you writing these days? What inspires you to put words down on paper (or the computer screen)?
I’ve literally just finished my second novel – currently call Sweet Dreams – a psychological thriller about a prophetic dreamer being stalked by a madman in the streets of Bristol. I have a third novel, Breaking Boxes, waiting in the wings. I’m considering writing my fourth about Immy, Jude’s psychic daughter from The Locksmith, all grown up and getting too much feedback from the old items in the charity shop she works in.
9. Are you reading much? What do you like to read?
I read pretty much everything. I do a lot of beta reading too. I love seeing people’s work in that early raw state. Also I think it teaches me a lot about the writing process – I’m getting better at spotting what is and isn’t working and why, which I can then translate to my own writing.
10. You’re studying literature with a bias in creative writing. How has that affected your writing?
The OU course is amazing. It’s multi modal; see it, hear it, read it – which is great for me. The creative writing modules covered so much that I couldn’t put it all here. Things I hadn’t considered like; take a short story and convert it into a film play. Then write an essay about what elements you learned from that experience that you can put back in to improve your short story. The language elements are very useful too, although I find grammar instruction is about as fun as pulling teeth. One interesting exercise I had to do was watch a short video of a group of people interacting at a tea party. They were all new to each other and of varying nationalities. I had to break up their speech and body movements and transcribe it into a notation grid. It explained loads about how people communicate, spoken and unspoken, and the unwritten ‘rules’ that we all wriggle our way round.
11. Have your studies given you any new insights into your creativity?
Yes, definitely. I love the way everything they teach, interlocks and can be carried over to another discipline. I met a woman the other day who told me she had five degrees and two MAs. I can see why she would do that, it’s very addictive.
12. What else would you like readers to know about your writing and creativity?
I love writing. I think my first book was a very cathartic process. Lots of people could benefit from getting all their stuff out in a constructive and creative way and then thank it and let it go. Free writing is a good practice too. It’s a bit like the spot painting. Just you, a pen and paper and write whatever you like; no rules, no right or wrong. Being part of ALLi has helped a lot too. I think my creative life can be quite isolated so meeting up with like-minded people once a month or so is brilliant, and I always learn something new.
Questions for Jo? Leave them in the comments section below.
Click here to read other contributions in Jay Lemming’s interview series with authors of literary and contemporary fiction.