I think sometimes I assume that stories that are hopeful are saccharine. That anything which reinstates your faith in humanity must be naïve. With Braver, the novel by Deborah Jenkins, I was very pleased to be proved wrong.
The first impressive writerly feat is the handling of multiple perspectives: We see the world through the eyes of a teenager, a middle-aged female priest and a young woman who struggles with anxiety. Each of these characters is wonderfully portrayed, peeling back their insecurities and showing the ways the world can be frightening to all kinds of people.
The next is the compassionate portrayal of humanity. Its flaws, its idiosyncrasies, its turmoil and, ultimately, its ability for compassion. I devoured this book in two sittings, mostly because I was achingly drawn to the characters and their fragility. I was buoyed up by the sense of community that is possible even on the busy streets of London and the tiny acts of kindness that saved her characters in tiny ways. Truly a hopeful, glorious novel.
Give yourself a treat and pre-order this brilliant novel here (out in June 2022)
I wanted to find out how Jenkins managed her perspectives so deftly, and why she chose the potentially alienating topic of religion in her book. Read on to find out more:
One thing that struck me was how incredibly real and vulnerable all the characters felt in this book. This was true for a teenager, a young woman and an older woman. Why did you choose these characters in particular and how did you make them so vivid?
I suppose I’m fascinated by what it would be like to live another life, be a completely different person. It must be the same for other writers, loving the challenge of getting into a character’s head and seeing how it feels to live there. But although I chose three protagonists from very different backgrounds, we all have the same basic needs and motivations – to feel secure, to be accepted, to be loved. Everyone else seems to know how to live life, don’t they? But we’re all muddling along really, a little bit hurt, a little bit hopeful. We can be each other’s harshest critics, but there are also moments of great tenderness. This is what I wanted my characters to offer each other.
I really loved the sense of community in this book. Why was this something you were drawn to when writing?
Thank you! I‘m glad that came across as a sense of community is something I’ve learned to value. It can give us a much-needed sense of belonging, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Interestingly, this is said to be one of the keys to positive mental health – to feel connected via our passions or callings, to work with others towards a common goal. Research shows the give and take of community life boosts our mental and physical health, improves resilience, and raises self-esteem. People can experience this through membership of local groups like clubs or churches but also via online communities like the Women Writers Network. A sense of community is a precious thing which not everyone thinks to nurture.
Community: A powerful force we often forget to prioritise
It’s rare to see a positive representation of religion in a book. It can also be an alienating topic. Why did you decide to make religion a central idea in the book and what messages were you hoping readers would take away from it?
Well, I wanted to write a book about the positive impact of community, and they always say to write about what you know. I’ve been involved in close-knit church communities all my life so that seemed a good place to start. I think the media can present churches as being irrelevant or out-of-touch, full of narrow-minded, judgy people. But this has not been my experience. I suppose I would want people to be as open-minded about the Christian faith as we are asked to be about everything else. Ultimately, faith is a lens through which life is seen and lived. It brings many of us peace and courage, and hope for the future.
There’s a real sense of the possibility of hope and redemption for your characters. Why did you choose to use such vulnerable characters and is hope something you often use in your writing?
You know, I think everyone’s vulnerable to a certain extent. Life can sometimes feel like a series of challenges to be overcome from smaller ones, like feeding ourselves and keeping clean(!) to bigger ones, like finding work and managing long-term relationships. These are hard for everyone at times though when things are going well, we forget this. And when you’re trying to manage them on top of other challenges like anxiety or loss or an abusive relationship, they can seem impossible.
Yes, hope is a common theme in my writing. It’s something we can’t live without. It’s quite extraordinary what human beings can endure if they have hope. I think of what people like Corrie ten Boom and Terry Waite went through. But their faith, and hope for the future, kept them from despair.
Faith can bring strength in many ways
How did you go about publishing your book and what advice would you give to other writers?
Well, it was a long-term campaign! With two unsuccessful novels under my belt, I decided I needed more writing experience generally if I wanted to convince someone to take a risk on me. So, I self-published a novella to hopefully garner good reviews with which to woo publishers. I also started a blog. And I took every writing opportunity I could find, initially using my teaching experience. I wrote textbooks for Macmillan, pieces for the Times Educational Supplement and short stories/inspirational articles. I finished Braver during the first lockdown and submitted it to around 30 agents and independent publishers. I had two offers from publishers and decided to go with Fairlight Books who have been an absolute dream to work with.
My advice to other writers: –
- Write for a range of purposes, starting small and seeing where it takes you. All types of published writing will help you because publishers are impressed by breadth of experience
- Edit and improve everything you write (even a paragraph for the freebie paper) until it’s the very best it can be. Over time, you’ll build your reputation as a writer who can be trusted
- Build your tribe – through online writing communities, local writers’ group, writing conferences
- Never give up. The book you’re meant to write will find its way out. Give it time.
Deborah Jenkins is a primary teacher and author of textbooks, educational articles and short stories. She self-published a novella, The Evenness of Things, in 2014 and her debut novel, Braver, will be published by Fairlight Books on the 30 June 2022. She writes a blog at stillwonderinhere.net
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