Barrister to author – Clare Jacob's story
Now it's not often you hear someone say they trained to be a writer by becoming a barrister. But lovely Clare Jacob did just that. Her new book is 'Ophelia in Pieces' and if you liked the law TV programmes 'Silk' or 'The Good Wife' then you'll love this debut novel.
Why do you try a new author? Usually? Think about it. Is it because the subject matter resonates? In which case, how about woman whose home-life is turned upside down when husband has affair, coupled with troublesome son, coupled with work-life falling apart. Ringing any bells so far? We all know people who've been in those positions even if we haven't. So why read Clare's take on it all?
Because she's funny, and has some lovely turns of phrase. The sort of vocabulary which makes you feel as though you've eaten a blueberry muffin washed down with a warm cup of tea. Music for the psyche.
"Your dad used to call my hair 'the golden threads that bound his heart'".
"They didn't work so well in the end, did they?"
Her turn to blush, to feel her internal lift in freefall. People still sometimes told her she
was beautiful but she knew she'd aged in the last year.
Or maybe you like to be enlightened about new worlds – well this book also educates a little in the ways of the law. And some of the behind-the-scenes foibles. Like the barristers who show off about the crates of wine they have delivered from clients, walking around being 'conspicuously pleased'. 'But,' says Clare, 'the client who says 'I'm going to give you a carpet' is most likely to end up sending you a bunch of dried flowers.'
As a woman at the Bar, she sometimes had a tough time – Clare's just written an article in The Mail on Sunday too. It's an absolutely fascinating insight into life at the Bar – where top bosses still treated women in an archaic way akin to 'Mad Men' – especially at the start of her 19-year career, which was spent learning how to listen out for a lie, battling against loud male colleagues – and males in general - and finding good things in unlikely clients.
In the end Clare got fed up rushing into battle against the big booming voices. As she said in the Mail article 'In one trial, a male barrister co-defending with me stood up and repeated all my points verbatim – only louder. Everyone was acquitted, but it was he who the client singled out for praise. His type – aggressive and intimidating, and usually with a big signet ring – can often be found defending armed robbers or members of criminal families who ask their solicitor to select them ‘a proper barrister’. Recently I was told that a senior male barrister discounted the advice his female junior had given, in front of her, the solicitor and the client, on the grounds she was 'a slapper from Essex'.'
But Clare still made her mark in winning a change in maternity policy, and even came in for an annual meeting, breastfeeding her baby! A woman after my own heart.
It was a pleasure to chat to Clare – I particularly loved her story about how she got published – a vast contrast to the last blog I wrote about Elizabeth Chadwick. And her agent, Oliver Munson, is a charming chap who I also chatted to recently about all things publishing. Read on to find out more…
Debbie's chat with Clare Jacob
I spoke to Clare just as she was 'nerve-wracked', awaiting her first reviews, including the all-important Times review due on June 18th. The book itself had taken over a year to be published, from when her agent, Oliver Munson from Blake Friedmann had first spotted her, and also she explained how it felt to be sitting looking at a pile of copies of her very first novel.
Having read through the first few chapters so far, it's charming and quite an original spin on a work-home drama for a working mother. As Clare is herself – but she is at pains to point out the book's not about her own life!
So how did your writing career begin?
It may sound funny, but I decided to become a criminal barrister almost as 'training' to be a writer. It certainly gave me some experience of life! My book pays homage to that world – but I have to emphasize, it's most certainly NOT autobiographical! I'm happily married and have three children aged 8 – 12. I gave up the Bar when I knew it was time to get my stories written.
How did you actually get your first novel published?
I'd written some short stories and poems – one of which was about a mother's relationship with her teenage son who comes home one day covered in blood. It turned out to be a fox's blood, but it highlighted the conflict between duty as a mother and duty as a lawyer.
I expanded it as I found I wanted to explore the conflict at work as well as home. There's almost nothing of that original inspiration in the book now, but it just grew and grew until it became a full length novel.
Did you do it alone or study?
I took a fabulous course at the City University – the Certificate in Novel Writing. It offers a unique opportunity to work on a novel in classes twice a week for a year, from the earliest stages through to revising and editing. The best thing was meeting a peer group who would form a valuable resource to help each other along – offering praise and critiques to each other without hurting each other's feelings or just saying everything's 'good' or 'fine', which family and friends tend to do.
How did you find your agent? The million dollar question, giving how vital an agent is nowadays in reaching publishers!
Well at the end of the course, City do an industry open evening – where the 12 of us each put in £20 and bought some wine, and invited several guests along. The course has built a reputation now, and quite a few agents actually attended. We each got to stand up to do our two-minute readings and we handed round a sheet with contact numbers on for them to take home.
Oli was one of the agents who were complimentary about my work – I remember just as I was leaving he told me he found it 'very accomplished'. Then I followed up afterwards. He was very kind and wanted to take it further – at our meetings he'd done a lot of research about the publishers he wanted to take it to whereas some of the others were a bit more vague and didn't feel the need to show you their process, as they're so used to authors chasing them.
I was impressed with Oli, and he further nailed it when just before the big important European book fair he said he'd like to take my book with him 'next week to Frankfurt'. That and being part of a big successful agency meant I signed up with them.
How long was it before you found a publisher? And what di d you have to do next?
Of course I had to finish the SFD as authors call it – it was the most horrible experience, writing the First Draft. The story changed so many times and in the end the problem was I was too in love with my material – an issue many authors face – and the draft I gave to Oli had several more minor characters, especially in the central third of the book.
He began putting it out to publishers and they commented that there were too many funny stories about subsidiary characters and it got in the way of advancing the plot. So many of them had to go – even ones Oli had loved! In the end we went with the publisher 'Short Books' who said they really liked it and once it was reworked there may be space to bring it out in a year.
They had just one more slot to fill and the lady at the publishers, Aurea, had loved the American TV show by HBO, 'The Good Wife'. The central character is a lawyer whose husband kept letting her down, and Aurea thought my novel was similarly commercial. They were very helpful with the sub-editing process – every change was a clear improvement. They've also been great with publicity – for instance getting the Mail article – it all helps with a new author.
Are the publishers keen for a sequel?
Yes but I'm currently working on an idea for a historical novel with a trial theme – set in 1559. I'd been thinking about it for ages – it's about a feisty female prisoner of the inquisition – a Calvanist – whose desire for independence of thought and her obsession with her inquisitor make for an interesting court room drama of another age. One where the stakes are higher – it if all goes wrong she'll be burnt at the stake. It means a lot of research at the moment, at the British Library.
But a sequel to 'Ophelia…' may well follow after that. Who knows – I may even get to resurrect some of my beloved minor characters and their weird and wonderful stories!
And how does it feel, now finally to have your own book in print?
Well I've got a little stack of them at home – one of which I'll be signing for the winner of your competition!
I look at them with pride but also a sense of it being out in the world now, and no longer my baby – like I'm a contributor but it's no longer just mine – it has its own cover that the publishers created, it's being sold out in bookshops and online, and it's a product of what was a lengthy process to arrive at the end result I now hold in my hand. I'm immensely proud though.
Will you be doing many signings?
Several – but the funny thing is many of the bookshops have their hands a little tied right now, due to having to keep stocks low in store – one big bookshop near where I was visiting told me they only had four copies in store and they weren't allowed to order any more for a signing, so it wasn't worth doing one! Shame when that happens but with other events, reviews and all the social media, it's going to be busy. To buy the books, I tend to direct people towards Amazon (see review below).
Is it on Kindle?
It is, but I'm more a fan of print books myself. However, when I recently went back to my writing class to speak to new students, two days after the publishing date, two of the students there had already downloaded it and read it on their Kindles. So I'm sure it's a very important part of the market for the future.
And what do your family think now?
At first they were saying 'how can you give up the Bar? It's so silly – can't you get a proper job?' But now that the book's been accepted and published, they're all much more encouraging. My daughters are now doing stories of their own and they're all terribly proud.
And so they should be! Clare Jacob, good luck with it and thanks for talking to us!
Your chance to win a signed copy of 'Ophelia in Pieces'
Just leave a comment below – tell us what book you're currently reading, why you would or wouldn't use a Kindle, if you like law stories, or anything else you'd like to comment on. The winner will be chosen at random from all the comments left below by Friday 1st July, and announced on my blog on Thursday 7th July.
For more information about Clare and her work, go to http://clarejacob.com/ where you'll find Clare's list of book signings and appearances, as well as the latest reviews for her work.
Review for Clare's book on Amazon –
'Overall, I think this is a fantastic debut novel, and certainly opened my eyes to a new genre of books I usually wouldn't bother picking up. The courtroom drama adds a whole new perspective to a traditional women's fiction plotline of the wronged woman, and allows the book to branch out with much grittier topics too. The realistic characters, dramatic settings and plot twists and turns ensure the reader is rapt by the tale, and you will want to keep reading until the final page is finished. 'Ophelia in Pieces' is a well written, enjoyable story that I will definitely be recommending, especially to those who think they wouldn't normally like this sort of book – surprise yourself, just like I did! Fantastic.'