Interview: Jennifer Strawson

Image by Stephanie Blantin

We talk to Jennifer Strawson about her short stories “Musings Of The Stick People” and “Safe As Houses”, both of which appear in Neon #29.

Your short prose piece “Musings Of The Stick People” gives a voice to the familiar stick figure symbols that often appear on signs, imagining them as complex creatures with lives, desires and thoughts all of their own. Where did this idea come from?

I happened upon this idea whilst waiting for a train at Marylebone station. Travelling in and out of London from Beaconsfield to get to university, many an hour had been spend at the station musing on the nature of mankind. I find rush hour particularly fascinating. Needing to spend a penny I  was contemplating whether this activity was indeed worth the inflated 30p the sign said I would have to pay for the privilege, when I found myself focusing on the icon for the disabled toilet. I had just come from a poetry workshop where we had been introduced to the concept of concrete poetry and for some reason when I looked at the sign on this occasion I saw something I had never seen before: a stick man sitting in the crescent of a moon. As my abstract thoughts took flight, the Stick People were born.

I enjoyed the written style in this piece. The stream of consciousness approach seems appropriate for the semi-human stick figures, and the busyness and complexity of their thoughts is contrasted nicely by the static, unemotional images.

I’m glad you appreciated the “stream of consciousness” approach I was after–on showing it to a friend of mine, they said it was very different, but  that I would have to tighten up the grammar if I was ever going to get it published!  I chose this style for “The Stick People” because I felt the interior monologue would reflect their absence of  an external voice.  Despite their generic exterior, I hoped to demonstrate the very different lives hidden beneath, the secret thoughts, dreams and fears of the more marginalised of society. Given that the images are computer generated, I hoped the jumbled syntax and punctuation might act as the literary equivalent of JavaScript, mimicking the mysterious language of computer programming.

Were these images always part of the story? Why did you decide to include them?

The images are the story.  I suppose they were my muses in a way.  On reflection, perhaps the poems are more ekphrastic than concrete.  It was the images that “spoke out” to me and helped me find a voice for them and not the other way around.

In your short story “Safe As Houses” the narrator withdraws from the outside world and becomes a shut-in. Were you inspired by any real-life cases?

I don’t think I had any particular case in mind, but I have always been interested in the concept of agoraphobia. The word itself comes from the Greek meaning “fear of the market place”, but incorporates a number of environments where people suffer anxiety when exposed to outside situations where they feel they cannot escape. Although seemingly rare in its most serious form, I think many of us experience this anxiety on a smaller scale, as our lives become more complex, more public and increasingly exposed to the outside world.

In your biography you mention that you are a doctor. Do you feel that having this profession affects your writing? If so, how? Do you think your writing would differ greatly if you worked in a different field, or would it still remain essentially “you”?

That’s a difficult one!  Well I suppose it is fair to say that I was writing long before I was a doctor, so at the core of my writing still lies the same girl scribbling love poems into her diary at night.  But I am also a strong believer in medicine being more of an art than a science.  During my medical training in Newcastle I was lucky enough to spend some time completing a module in Medicine and Literature, a growing branch of the medical humanities, that hopes to demonstrate how the reading and writing of literature can make better doctors.  After all, at the heart of medicine lie narratives, patients in distress trying to tell you their stories, full of toads and princesses, hoping for a happy ending, just as we all are.  So yes, I feel my writing would be different had I not worked as a doctor; without it I would not have had the privilege of meeting so many different people, of being entrusted with so many of their stories.

How are you finding your experience of studying for a masters in Creative Writing? Do you plan to continue writing after your year out?

Well as you can imagine my medical colleagues in Newcastle thought I was mad to leave medicine and when I arrived in London my creative writing colleagues were equally bemused.

“A real doctor?”

“Yes, sorry.”

The masters degree at London Met is great, there are so many different students from all around the world and  it’s a really rich environment to learn from each other.  As for next year, I’m still uncertain, but obviously I’ve got that number one best-selling novel up my sleeve.

*

Jennifer Strawson is a 28-year old doctor living in Buckinghamshire. Currently in the throes of a third-of-the-way-life crisis, she has taken a year out to pursue a Creative Writing masters at London Metropolitan University. She has sporadically had articles published in medical magazines such as GMC Magazine and Surgeon’s Weekly.