I recently read The Mark and was lucky enough to get the author JL Fontaine (aka: Judith Williamson) to answer a few of my burning questions. This is the first book Williamson has had published and I was so impressed by her ability to get me to empathize with her deeply flawed characters. I find it really interesting to hear other writers talk about writing. I hope you do too!
KO: My first question is one that hit me in the middle of the night. I think I read a review that suggested the title was a reference to the biblical ‘Mark of Cain’ and Liam’s struggle to overcome his complicated history with his brother. But as I was thinking more about it, isn’t Laura ‘the mark’ because she is so vulnerable to the con? Or is it both or neither or purposefully ambiguous?
JW: Yes, there are two meanings to the word ‘Mark’. One is the Mark of Cain which according to the Bible, God placed on Cain after he killed his brother. But, also, Laura could well be a mark, in the sense of a conman’s singling someone out to trick them. So, purposefully ambiguous.
KO: How long did it take you to write this and can you talk a bit about how your real life influenced the creation of these characters?
JW: I started writing this book years ago, when my fourth daughter was aged four and she’s now thirty. I wrote it and rewrote it on and off over the years. Then I put it on Authonomy and it made the Desk and I subbed it a few times, direct to publishers, and then kind of put it on a back boiler and moved on. I then did a rewrite after the Editor’s Desk review, but didn’t do anything else with it.
The character of Danny was very much based on people I met during my time working as a sessional supervisor on a young offenders group. This was extremely interesting, if challenging, work, as the group consisted of men aged between eighteen and forty who had offended, been in prison and then re-offended. Instead of being sent back to prison, they were referred to the Probation groups. Danny’s cheeky attitude and sense of humour, coupled with very real and ever present aggression, I took from several of the group members.
A few years later, when counseling former drug addicts, I met a conman who was the most frightening person I’ve ever known. Liam is very much based on him.
KO: How did you find your publisher and has this experience been what you expected? How so or how has it been different? Is this something you always dreamed of or something that came as a surprise? How did you celebrate the book launch?
JW: I think, at heart, every writer wants to be published, either by a publisher or doing it themselves. We are story tellers and need an audience. I had submitted The Mark to several publishers and also tried to find an agent, but to no avail. A friend of mine had been published by Holland House and so I submitted to them and was taken on. That was a big surprise, as I really wasn’t expecting it at all. Strangely, after dreaming for years of being published, I felt very weird and distracted by it. I felt wrenched out from my cosy, anonymous little haven behind my computer screen and exposed to reality. It was quite scary, at first. I wanted to scurry back into my lair. There was a lot of editing to do and discussions over the artwork and as the whole thing took shape, I began to be excited about it.
The book launch took place in an independent bookshop, City Books, in Brighton, UK. Robert Peett of Holland House Books organised it and the evening went very well. I had family and friends there and even some fellow Authonomites, who I hadn’t met before. I felt very supported by everyone coming and taking part. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
KO: Tell me about your writing process. Are you self-taught or did you study creative writing in school? How do you come up with story ideas? Your dialogue is particularly excellent- how did you learn to do that?
JW: I haven’t studied creative writing at all, beyond the ordinary English lessons at school. I have always written stories and when we were young, my sister, who is six years younger than me, was kept awake many nights while I told her the latest one.
Story ideas come out of the blue. I don’t plot them out, they grow organically. One book I wrote grew from a moment when I was crossing the road and a man in a car smiled at me, admiringly. I suddenly thought, ‘What would it be like to be sitting in a car and to see an angel walking along the street?’ (not that I looked like an angel!).
The Mark began with the character of Liam, who sprung into my mind, wearing a long black coat and looking charmingly villainous. I have no idea where the story came from. I do believe, though, that all my characters have an element of my personality in them. That might sound egotistical, but it’s the only way I can explain how I get into the character’s head.
When writing dialogue, I can see and hear the characters, like on a film screen. This helps me to make the dialogue more natural, maybe.
KO: Are you working on a second book? Tell us about it.
JW: My current project is a book called Stonebird. It is about a young man who has been in Care all his life and who is now living, independently, with the help of a Community, Psychiatric Nurse. It’s about the interaction between the young man, Matthew, his nurse, David and a family that takes Matthew under its wing. It is quite dark, in its present version.
(I want to thank Judith so much for answering my questions and wish her the best of luck with her next book.)