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Interview: Jemma Wayne, novelist

23 January 2015

'Friends wonder where the darkness in my writing is born'

Writing has always been my passion, and my therapy. But, leaving university, I realised that declaring myself a writer did not amount to an actual job; so I went into journalism.

I still freelance, and write a political column, which I greatly enjoy. But it didn't take long for me to realise that my heart was in fiction. After a while, I decided to follow my heart.

Of course, it doesn't pay the bills; so at first I tutored A-level students, and freelanced as a journalist. And I have a very supportive husband, who, unlike me, does have a real job.

After Before is my first novel, a contemporary story about three women: a Rwandan refugee, a cancer sufferer, and a young, newly engaged Londoner trying to escape her wild youth by coming to a Christian faith. They're linked by deep betrayals that each of them has experienced in their pasts. Each is consumed by this.

But, as their lives intersect, amidst what becomes an exploration of identity, particularly modern womanhood, the relationships between them force a confrontation with their pasts, and enable them to begin a journey to forgiveness.

The inspiration began at a fundraising event that my husband helped organise for the charity SURF, which supports survivors of the Rwandan genocide. One of the survivors spoke of horrors that it is impossible not to be moved by.

What got me most was the lingering sense of betrayal: the enduring disbelief, even so many years on, that in a community that shared the same language, the same culture, the same colour, in a place where there was such little difference, still neighbour could have betrayed neighbour, friend betray friend. Days later and it still haunted me - how betrayal can become all-consuming, tying you to the past, stopping you moving on, stopping you living.

I started thinking about other kinds of betrayal: not cheating lovers, but small, barely percept- ible things: untrue words, unkept promises, unfulfilled dreams. The Rwandan strand is just one thread of it. And, for each character, generations and cultures are crossed by the common threads of grief, guilt, regret, faith, friendship, and, more than anything, forgiveness.

Forgiveness isn't about forgetting - I don't think you'd ever forget certain events - but about letting go of the hold it has over you. Dark emotions of resentment, anger, and regret are all quite debilitating. Each of the characters has to find a way to forgive, before moving on to embrace life again.

In the character Vera, I was writing a Christian character from a Jewish perspective. I've had a couple of friends who made that transformative journey, and who were overwhelmed by the change in their lives. I wanted Vera to be left with that real sense of hopefulness, having a freshness to her life and a relationship with God.

I was also exploring the tensions of religious legalism and freedom. It's something a Jewish person could experience, but it would come with a whole load of different baggage. One of my close friends invited me to her church, and I was very struck by the people I met there. I wanted to put some of that sense of hope on the page.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Although there is still much work to be done, there is some sense of hope there, too, about how the country has rebuilt itself. It is hard to believe that so recently almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days beneath the gaze of a watching world.

That's the aspect that disturbs me most: how passive the international community was throughout those terrible 100 days; how they were afraid to say the word "genocide" for fear of having to act. After the Holocaust, we promised "never again"; and yet here was a clear "again". In smaller ways, every day, terrible injustices continue to occur across the globe.

Violence against women in particular is receiving a great deal of attention at the moment, and it's a prevalent strand in After Before. I don't see it as my job as a novelist to highlight any issue, or to understand it: my work is fiction. But there are inevitably issues that are important to me, that I wish to shine a light on, and, to do this with any authenticity, it's important to understand the roots of them.

I'm in the midst of a second novel. I am also working on a new play, and a children's book, which I am co-writing with a friend, based on a sacred Hindu text.

My proudest achievement? Each little moment in which I see love or hope or excitement in the eyes of my children, and know I've helped put it there.

I'm one of four children, second in the pecking order. My father is a composer and musician, and his father was a singer-actor-writer. We lived in California, then in leafy Hertfordshire in the midst of farms and woodland, until I moved with my husband into London. My family contains a variety of strong characters who sometimes clash, but we're blessed to be able to surround each other with love, debate, support, and humour. Friends sometimes wonder where the darkness in some of my writing is born.

My great-grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. His son rebelled, and my father is an atheist; so it was my mother who instilled the Jewish element in our family. We had quite an open education, lots of debate, very questioning. I'm more close to the traditions than my siblings now, perhaps because my husband comes from an Orthodox family.

My faith is a very personal relationship with God, influenced by Judaism, but not steeped that closely in the institutionalised version of what that means. It's an ongoing exploration.

I love sport, especially running; film and theatre; eating good food. But these days, most of the free time we have we spend with our two young daughters, doing whatever they love. It usually involves running after them, watching children's theatre, and eating their leftovers.

I'm definitely happiest when I am with all of my family: they are my life's adventure, and that's also when I feel most complete. But I also get a strong sense of peace and serenity when I'm alone, running, preferably around Regent's Park, and ideally on a day when I feel like I'm beating the elements: rain is great running weather.

I'd love to stage another play, make a movie, write for The New York Times. And I like to travel. I'm half American, and frequently visit New York and California, where I have family. I love the American vibe, the positivity, the get-up-and-do-it-ness.

We visit Israel regularly, where we also have family. Despite the political troubles, the place exudes an alluring combination of dynamic modern innovation, natural beauty, and history in every part of its geography. But my favourite destination has got to be Italy: I'm a sucker for a great cappuccino.

It's hard to pick one sound that reassures me. My mother's voice. The deep breath of my children sleeping. My father improvising at the piano.

My greatest life influences have got to be my parents. Their values and love informed every moment of my childhood, and still do.

Some of the most influential books in my life are those that I read as a child. Perhaps our imaginations are more vivid then, or perhaps we are less cynical, more willing to be transformed. I think of The BFG, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Narnia. As an adult, the dark early works of Ian McEwan stayed with me, In Between the Sheets particularly. Also The Namesake by Jumpa Lahiri - poetic and soulful; Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.

I pray every night over my children, and I ask for their health and happiness. I used to pray more often for specific things, and occasionally I still do, but more recently I feel that we can never really know what will bring us happiness, so I leave this in God's hands.

If there was one person I could be locked in a room with? I should probably choose some great philosopher here, but I'd rather see my grandpa again. He died when I was 16, quite suddenly. There was so much more I wanted to ask him.

Jemma Wayne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

After Before is published by Legend Press at £7.99.

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