Jane Harris was born in Belfast, Ireland and raised in Glasgow, Scotland. Her short stories have appeared in a wide variety of anthologies and magazines, and she has written several award-winning short films. In 2000, she received a Writer's Award from the Arts Council of England.
She started writing by accident while living in Portugal in the early 90s. She says, "I had no TV, hardly any books, no money. And so, just to amuse myself, I started writing a short story. It was about an ex-boyfriend who happened to be a transvestite. I had such a great time writing that story that I immediately wrote another one, about another ex-boyfriend; all my early stories were about ex-boyfriends. I kept writing these stories and they were getting published in anthologies and magazines. By this time, I had moved back to Scotland, having decided that I wanted to be a writer."
She studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and then became writer-in-residence in Durham prison. It was there that she began her first novel, structured as a set of short stories. One of these short pieces was about a farmer-poet and a girl he acquires songs from. However, Harris says that as soon as she invented the voice of the girl, Bessy started taking over and she ended up ditching the farmer and focusing on Bessy and "Missus" - the woman who employs her as a maid.
The project ground to a halt at about 10,000 words when Harris started to write short scripts for her husband, film director Tom Shankland; two films, Going Down (2000) and Bait (1999), were nominated for BAFTA awards. When she rediscovered her novel in a box in the attic in 2003 she says that she couldn't believe she had abandoned Bessy. She sent the first 100 pages to publishers, and a bidding war took place between Faber, Fourth Estate and Hodder for UK rights. The Observations was published by Faber & Faber (UK) and Viking (USA) in hardcover in 2006, and Gillespie and I, her second novel, was published in 2011.
Jane Harris's website
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A Conversation with Jane Harris about The Observations
It seems that everyone who reads The Observations is fascinated by the
narrative voice of Bessy Buckley - by the freshness of her diction, the earthy
glow of her humor, and her inventive use of slang. How were you able to devise a
voice that is so coarse and untutored yet so thoughtful and engaging?
I think it comes mainly from my background, from my Irish and Scottish family and friends, in particular my mother, Kate, and my aunt Sheila and my friend Noeleen. Lots of Bessy's sayings and turns of phrase belong to them, as does her sense of humor. My mother, who was brought up in Belfast, is always saying "Jesus Murphy," for instance. I checked that these phrases would be historically feasible and then used them. Both my mother and aunt are great storytellers and have wicked senses of humor. And my aunt is a very optimistic person, so I gave Bessy that indomitable quality. In addition to what I used from family and friends, I found a few dictionaries of historical slang that were useful. There were also times when I simply made stuff up - so some of it comes from my imagination.
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