RED: A History of the Redhead

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky Colliss Harvey

Jacky, like many artists your career has taken many twists and turns from jobs in art history and museum publishing to actor and life model. Did you always think of yourself as a writer?

Yes, always – and I have always written, too, although now my other writerly (and published) friends tell me I have to start referring to myself as ‘an author’, instead. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in creating some sort of narrative, from daydreams as a child to trying my hand at short stories to novels as I got older, I was always making up stories and as soon as I knew how, writing them down. I still think the best words in the English language are ‘Once upon a time’, and I have always loved books as objects too – I am never without something to read, and as a child used to take my favourites with me as companions. I was a bookworm from the moment I learned to read, devouring everything I could get my eyes on. One very wonderful teacher at my junior school arranged for me to have access to the senior school library, as I had read everything the junior library had to offer by the end of year two. If you’re a writer-in-embryo, access like that can be life-changing, and I thank her for it still.

I also always had a very active imagination – over-active, my parents might have said. This could at times make the world a very scary place to grow up in. Writing stories about it, even in my head, was a way of using narrative to control my surroundings and empower myself within them. I think many, many writers start writing from some similar impulse

Tell us about the moment when you decided to write Red. From your background in art history to your beautiful red hair, it seems like it was inevitable.

You learn a lot about yourself in the process of writing a book. Reading back though RED now I can see so many themes in it that have always fascinated me – the parallels between one age and the next, the unchangingness, both good and bad, of human nature. So I guess you’re right – there was an inevitability to it. But the actual moment of inspiration – the lightbulb over head – happened while I was sitting in a sales conference, watching another publisher present, and set myself as a mental exercise the task of coming up with a similar titles to theirs. Shazam. A history of the redhead!

What is your favorite genre to write? To read?

I have hugely enjoyed writing RED, to an extent that has surprised me – I always thought of myself as a fiction writer before. The discipline and detective work of creating a narrative from historical fact and scientific investigation completely possessed me as I was writing. And being on such a tight deadline (contract signed in April of ’14, delivery that December) really kept me moving along – every single evening and weekend for 9 months was devoted to nothing else but. I think it also changed my writing style – I didn’t have time to be discursive, to set the scene; I had to plunge straight in with each chapter, each sub-section, and once it was done, get on with the next.

I will read anything, literally – the backs of cereal packets at the breakfast table, adverts on the tube… fiction-wise I love big, bold fat books that take chances: Dickens, George Eliot, a lot of C19th American fiction, the French novelists. I adore Hilary Mantel. I read and re-read her writing, as I do Dickens, just for the pleasure of rolling her sentences around in my head. I loved The Crimson Petal and the White. I loved H is for Hawk.

Recently however I have been reading Patrick Modiano (my partner is his translator), a very different writer – spare, and elusive, haunting. It doesn’t really matter for me what it is, as long as it’s not crap – my idea of hell would be to be locked in a room with nothing to read but a Jeffrey Archer. Or a Dan Brown.

What’s your typical day like? Do you write early in the morning? Do you have a morning ritual?

I work full-time at present, so my writing was usually in the evenings. I’d get home, change into my writing gear – ancient track pants, wash-dead t-shirt (oh the glamour!), make a cup of tea and start. I always had a goal to get to – write till 9pm, say, or finish this section or that. I’m very lucky in that my employers have been so invested and supportive of the idea of my writing this book, right from the start, so allowed me a month’s unpaid leave to finish it, in December. During that month I would get up with my partner at the unearthly hour of 5.40 or so (I am so not an early bird), go running with him round Prospect Park in Brooklyn, come back to breakfast, then sit down and start writing. I’d nap at about 2pm or so, to give my brains a chance to cool down, and allow my subconscious to resolve whatever bits of writing I was unhappy with, then tap away again for the rest of the afternoon. That seemed to suit me very nicely as a routine.

What do you do to de-stress? Yoga or meditation? Running?

Running. I am not at all a sporty type, but running really suits me. It’s solitary and anti-social and it re-sets me in some way. The process of running – one foot in front of the other, just keep going – is very similar to the act of setting words down on a page. And just like writing, the more of it you do, the better you get at it.

Tell us a little about the agent/publisher submission process.

I met my agent at a party in a bookshop. I found myself in conversation with one of her other authors, on – you guessed it – the subject of red hair, and at the end of the conversation suggested that there might be a book in it. And my agent, Chelsey Fox, agreed. It was a huge stroke of good luck. I put together a proper proposal for her, and we had interest from a couple of UK publishers at once. Then Black Dog & Leventhal, came along. Black Dog really excel at taking niche and making it mainstream. Again, I was very lucky. I now have two more publishers for the book – Allen & Unwin in the UK, and Terralannoo in Holland. More luck – but also, I hope and think, the result of this being the kind of subject that people just ‘get’, instantly, and whose potential they can see at once.

How has your life changed now with the book coming out?

It’s got very interesting and very full. These days the work once you have written a book has hardly begun. My book has a FB page, I have had to learn to tweet; I have had to learn to publicise myself, and to pursue every connection I can. I’ve given talks, I’ve done podcasts, and next month I will be recording the audio-book version of RED in London. It’s full-on!

What can you say to encourage women who don’t have the time or the family support to sit down and write that book that they’ve been dreaming of writing?

If you are a writer, and not writing, you are only half living. Be selfish. Make the time, however difficult, however unpopular it makes you, however many invitations you have to turn down. Glue arse to chair and do it. Prioritise it over everything. You may be surprised at the interest and support people give you – the idea of someone writing is hugely intriguing to most folk; they want you to finish and they want to share in the process, too. Friends will get used to the fact that you’re a hermit; they will understand. But you have to be fierce about it; you have to turn those invitations down, you have to claim ‘me’ time, and that is something many women find hard to do. Our culture kinda frowns on it – most unfairly.

Some years ago I also found attending a writing class was hugely helpful. It created that ‘me’ time, for three hours in the evening, once a week. I would recommend that.

What’s next for you?

Oh good question! Come October, by which time RED will have been published in the US, the UK, and Holland, a week on a beach, slathered in factor 50, without a single literary thought in my head. And then – well, my hope is that RED does well enough to make a Book 2 possible. I have a number of ideas for a follow-up, one of which really seems to snag people’s liking, and which I have started noodling about with already. But I’ll say no more about that now – mustn’t jinx it!

Jacky Colliss Harvey is a writer and editor. She read English at Cambridge University and Art history at the Courtauld Institute. She has worked in museum publishing for the last twenty years and is known as a commentator and reviewer, speaking in both the U.K. and abroad on the arts and their relation to popular culture. At the same time, her red hair has also found her an alternative career as a life model and a film extra playing everything from a society lady in Atonement to a Parisian whore in Bel-Ami. She lives in London. (Pre-order RED here.)