In conversation with... Jessica Duchen

Hi Jessica! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Odette, whose serialisation on The Pigeonhole I loved! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thank you, Silvia - I’m glad you liked it! Here’s the premise. It’s set in present-day East Anglia, in a small university town. Odette, the enchanted swan princess from Swan Lake, in her bird form, is blown across the North Sea and crashes through someone’s window. That someone is Mitzi, a young journalist who reports on homelessness and the exploitation of migrant workers. She wants to nurse the swan back to health. But at sundown, the bird becomes a woman, a 19th-century Russian princess who has arrived with nothing - no money, papers, or clue about how the modern world works… and Mitzi has to decide what to do about her. I see it as a metaphor for homelessness and the refugee crisis, but have tried to keep the tone light and whimsical.

Can you please describe your journey to publication?

A: I wrote the first draft 26 years ago. Since then I’ve reworked it innumerable times. My agent loved it. Her reader loved it. Most people I showed it to loved it. But nobody wanted to publish it, because it’s… unusual. It doesn’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole (except The Pigeonhole, of course!). Then life got in the way and Odette ended up in the bottom drawer while I wrote other books and heaps of journalism. 

My first four novels were contemporary, down-to-earth books, but Odette was different - which seems to be a cardinal sin in contemporary publishing, especially if they add the terms ‘quirky’ or ‘whimsical’... Even my fifth novel, Ghost Variations, a historical thriller-of-sorts based on a bizarre true story, was too different from the others… After much frustration, I sent Ghost Variations to Unbound, which to my delight liked ‘different’ books and took it on. 

Unbound is a ‘proper’ publisher, but uses a new business model in which you have to crowdfund the cost of producing your book. It’s a 21st-century reincarnation of methods that would have been familiar to the likes of Beethoven and Dickens. It has certain advantages: first, instead of accepting that “there’s no market for that, dear”, you have a chance to prove that there is one; and you build a community around the book before it even comes out. The downside is that you have to be quite thick-skinned - the crowdfunding process isn’t something everyone will enjoy. Luckily after 25 years in journalism, my skin has thickened quite a lot! 

Ghost Variations did very well, and I was extremely impressed with Unbound’s editorial and design standards and how supportive they were, so I ran Odette past the head of the list there to see what he’d say. He said: ‘Quirky? Different? Bring it on!’ It took a year to raise the crowdfunding, but we got there, and here we are.

Did you have Odette’s plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: The plot took several unexpected turns. Without issuing any spoilers, I don’t mind admitting that the two biggest twists weren’t in the first draft. Moreover, having ditched two or three endings, I was stumped as to how to finish it. Usually I do need to know what’s going to happen before I even begin writing, so I had to break the block. I sat down one day, decided to write the last chapter without having a clue what it would be, and just see how it turned out. Bingo.

What kind of research did you have to do for this book? Do you enjoy this process or is it merely a means to an end?

A: I love research. The difficulty is knowing when to stop! I had to do a great deal more for Ghost Variations, which was fact-based. In comparison, Odette was a doddle. But I did explore the migratory patterns of the Bewick’s Swan, check exactly when Franz Liszt visited Russia and where he went, and read about the psychology of fairy tales. A few Swan Lake adaptations were fascinating to explore - for instance, Matthew Bourne’s wonderful balletic reinterpretation (the first draft of Odette pre-dated that by several years, incidentally!) and the film Black Swan (which I loathed).

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Odette?

A: Possibly Jodie Comer, who was such a convincing crazy young Russian in Killing Eve. But I imagine Odette looking much like the ballerina Natalia Osipova - perhaps she could be persuaded…

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I have a soft spot for the scene where Harry takes Odette to the Christmas Ball, only for her to vanish at dawn, leaving her dress behind. The difficult thing was to imagine how much Harry would either see or understand at that moment, but I felt there was something in that scene of the magic I wanted the book to have…

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: At one point I literally halved the length. I’d had a break of several years from the manuscript and when I looked back over my old draft it was ‘Tsk tsk, whatever was I thinking?’ I went through carefully, cutting out anything unnecessary - and half the book vanished. The wordage crept up again as certain new elements entered the story, but so much bit the dust that now I can’t even remember what it was.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I have a couple of commissions for opera librettos, which have tight deadlines and will occupy me for most of next year. I LOVE writing librettos - it’s both creative and collaborative, and your words get turned into music. I hope to get another novel off the ground sometime soon, but of two or three ideas I haven’t decided which to tackle first.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I enjoy it very much, as it happens - I love being able to get feedback from readers, because in the Old Days one didn’t. Now, with systems like digital serialisation on The Pigeonhole, you can virtually see people enjoying the book in real time. Still, it’s important not to let social media take over your life and when you’re writing it’s best to log off…

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: You’re not a writer until you’re writing. Sit down and get on with it. 

Thank you for your time!

A: Thank you for having me!


  1. Lovely interview. I hadn't heard of Jessica before now but she sounds lovely.


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