DJ Connell has created an outsider who delivers some home truths about modern-day England
DJ Connell talks about her new characters discovering the world and old characters being made into movie stars
�Sat in her modest Parliament Hill flat, buoyant with enthusiasm, Diane Connell is telling me just how many words she has written and then thrown away. “With Julian, I threw away 40,000 words. With Sherry, I didn’t like the second half, so I threw that away and rewrote it. When you write, you’re always throwing stuff away anyway, stuff that doesn’t work. There’s no use keeping junk because you might think it was funny or good or interesting when you wrote it. But, when you go back, you realise it just doesn’t work and it’s poisoning a paragraph, which in turn poisons a chapter, which in turn poisons the whole book. When you’re reading a book, you immediately know when a writer is trying to pull a fast one, when they are trying to fudge it. You have to be able to slaughter your babies.”
It says a lot about Connell, otherwise known as DJ Connell, that she refers to her book by the main character’s name. “Julian” is short for Julian Corkle Is A Filthy Liar, her first novel, which is now being made into a film. “Sherry” is her recent baby: Sherry Cracker Gets Normal.
Sherry’s story is so enchanting that I devoured it at every opportunity. “I always had this idea of this young woman who is an innocent looking at the world and she doesn’t have the filters that we have. So she sees the world in a different way to how we see it. Then, of course, the obstacle for me is, when I wrote it, I had to be able to convey to the reader what was going on, even if Sherry didn’t know what was going on, because it is in the first person. That’s the complexity – she tells the story but a lot of the time she is unaware of what is happening around her.”
Its true: as you read the book, Sherry’s “gems” are a common thread which ties you to her until the last page. She wanders around her neighbourhood after being given �100 by her boss Mr Chin and told to “get normal”, coming across some pretty horrible characters but always applying a keen rationality to her surroundings. She wonders why Britain is so rich when the only things we supply are armaments and observes that one of the few places that true racial harmony occurs is in the betting shop. In Sherry’s observations, Connell has created a state-of-England novel, with some home truths observed by an outsider. “I’m attracted to people who are different, people on the fringes. The world has these people, often they are not treated with respect, they are the people who get left out. I find them fascinating because they can show us things, I think.”
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Connell is a New Zealander and everything she says seems to bounce off me happily. Still, she’s no fool: before her books she saw the world, working in Japan for 12 years and then living in Paris too. “I worked on a newspaper in Japan. I started off as a proof reader then I worked up to being writer. I was a cub reporter. I’d been there for a month or two, suddenly I was sent to what I thought was a press conference. It wasn’t, it was a one-on-one with Mel Gibson. I didn’t know what I was doing. He was sitting there a metre from me, less, and I had to think up something to say to him. It was an absolute nightmare.”
Connell leaped between countries and different jobs before settling in London with her savings to write her first book. “That was the way it went and I went with it,” she says in her softly-spoken Kiwi accent. Now Julian Corkle is being made into a film, so it looks like she went the right way. Production has started and it should be finished by next September. Is she worried about how it will come off on screen? “No,” she says immediately. “It will be a different product than my book, that’s clear, but you know, these people are such professionals and they know exactly what they are doing. So it’ll be their thing and it will be exciting to see what they’ll do. My job is to let it go, although technically I am a consultant, but I don’t know what that will entail.”
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After taking a bet on her life savings, having a movie made out of your book must feel good. “It does after years of struggling,” she says, “and I did struggle for years.”
With the notes from the first draft of her next novel, a story of dating in the digital age, already pinned up on her copy holder, it seems that the struggle for Connell to become a writer is over now. Although maybe it has just morphed into the struggle to keep the original voice she struck up with her first two books. “The first draft of a book is always painful, imagine having a pencil stuck up your nose. Thinking of ideas is OK – there’s always something to write about, but sometimes you sit down to write and think crap crap crap. Everything you write is crap. But you just have to keep doing it and then something good comes. You have those joyful moments where things connect. You’ve created a situation in an earlier chapter that allows your characters to do something in a later chapter. In Sherry Cracker, certain things happen at the beginning that seem separate, but at the end, everything has a meaning.”
n Sherry Cracker Gets Normal is published by Blue Door at �12.99.