My guest this week is Jules Horne, a Scottish author who understands that the best way to read a book may not be only through the eyes. With the rise in audiobooks and podcasts, we’re returning back to the age of oral storytelling, and Jules is probing the borders between reading and listening, between the eyes and the ears.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Writing as Music
So, when I write, I definitely read it aloud. I always read it back and I hear it shape in my head and how it will, not necessarily perform, but how it kind of lives as music.
On ‘Audio First’ Books
My sense is that writers will be more influenced by oral forms of storytelling and maybe this’ll come gradually more and more into prose. You do occasionally see publishers, they’re doing audio first commissions and that kind of thing. And I think this is definitely something that’s going to take off.
Listen to My Interview With Jules Horne
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript of my Interview with Jules Horne
Howard Lovy: My guest this week is Jules Horne, a Scottish author who understands that the best way to read a book may not be only through the eyes. With the rise in audiobooks and podcasts we’re returning back to the age of oral storytelling and Jules is probing the borders between reading and listening, between the eyes and the ears.
Jules Horne: Hello there Howard. I’m Jules Horne and I’m a writer based in the Scottish borders, which is kind of where Scotland meets England, and it’s an odd place because it was the inspiration for the Game of Thrones, but it’s a very peaceful, rural area where I live now.
And so, I have a background in fiction and also in dramatic writing. So, I write for theater and sometimes radio. So, I’m really into storytelling as a kind of performance way of working. It’s funny, because I grew up in this area and then lived abroad for quite a few years, so I came back. I lived in Germany and Switzerland, where I’ve always been very interested in language. I think, because, you know, growing up with Scott’s language as well, I studied German and got really into languages and then came back and I’m rediscovering Scots.
And so, I suppose I grew up here, but I think the seminal thing, I was thinking back, we had this wonderful teacher who was at primary school. He was Mr. John Stables, and he came from Manchester, which was the North of England, to our place. And for us, he was quite exotic, so the way his accent was different, and he really was a wonderful performer and storyteller and reader.
And, so I think we were very wrapped by his storytelling and he started making creative writing. And I remember my mum actually, she keeps a lot of things, and she found a book recently, it was a little pamphlet that was produced at school. And it was when I was quite young, and I think, my God, John Stables must’ve had quite radical ideas there because, my little story, which was the first one I had published, was called, Somebody Said, God is Dead.
And I thought, oh my God, and it turned out it’s because he was talking about nature and getting us at that age to actually look at these things. So actually, that’s quite incredible to think that he was, I suppose, you know, it’s maybe not an idea that you accept, but it’s an idea that he was awakening us to different ways of thinking.
And I think growing up in a small town where we were, I think libraries and books and being opened up to different kinds of ideas was incredibly powerful.
Howard Lovy: So, Jules went on to study literature at university where she felt a little intimidated and didn’t think she really had what it took to be a writer. Then she discovered another form of literature, playwriting, and that’s where she put it all together. Her love of story with a love of performance.
Jules Horne: So, went from being a kid, really encouraged creative writing, great. Which is lovely in the Scottish school system to university where I thought, oh my God, this towering, you know, influence of everything that’s ever been, you’re never going to write, but always wanted to. And so, I didn’t write all through university and I then got involved in an amateur dramatic society.
In my work after uni, I was living in Bonn, I was working as a translator for the German government, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds. So, we did a lot of speeches and that kind of thing, but also translating menus for dinners and that kind of thing so it was some unlikely skills called on in that job.
And, there was an amateur dramatic group, and I got involved in with them and I think something came up, which was an opportunity to have your own play performed. So, I thought, oh, that sounds fun, and I had a go and actually sort of, that was where it took off from again and rekindling the spirit of wanting to write.
Howard Lovy: Through playwriting and radio journalism, Jules learned the art of writing for voice.
Jules Horne: ‘Cause I did radio journalism, you get used to editing sound and voices and so you’re really listening to the kind of shape and the melodies and the kind of idiosyncratic things that people have in their voices, their words, their delivery and so on.
And, I love sound editing. I really love it because it gets you sort of tuned into voices and maybe also, there’s a story-telling tradition in Scotland, although it’s not as celebrated and maybe as present as in Ireland, but there is an element of that and perhaps if you live in a kind of, certainly cross-lingual way, you are very tuned into the options and the sort of freedom of different kinds of expression.
And yeah, I think radio really helped me to maybe have that focus that you need to learn your writing craft. So, when I write, I definitely read it aloud. I always read it back and I hear it shape in my head and how it will, not necessarily perform, but how it kind of lives as music. So yeah, the music of writing’s really important to me.
Howard Lovy: Jules would create exercises for herself, writing a short novel a day. It wasn’t about coming up with a groundbreaking story, but keeping her voice in tune, keeping the music going. That worked, until the theater called again.
Jules Horne: And I wrote these short stories at one a day, which were written in five minutes, and it was purely, almost like, an exercise to get around writer’s block.
So, I knew I had to kind of get through that and to think about the process rather than being intimidated by product or not product out the other end. So, it was almost like a practice, you know, you can have meditation practice or musical practice, which we take for granted as a way to do things, but in writing we tend not to.
And so, I kind of thought, well, let’s try that. And so yeah, these five minute a day short stories, written from random stimuli, and these became that. I called them nano novels. They were really tiny little nuggets, but I think that practice thing I learned from that, that the practice, the regularity, a bit like music.
Then, the Traverse Theater, which is a new writing theater in Edinburgh, came to the borders. So, they’re based in Edinburgh, but they quite often do outreach projects to different parts of Scotland. So, they came down our way and said, would you like to go on theater writing workshops? I mean, there was such a hunger for these workshops, I can tell you that we nearly bit their arms off. It was just fantastic. From that, I ended up getting a play commission with that theater company and that led to some radio plays and I wrote a few plays for BBC radio.
Howard Lovy: But she had the most fun, not with radio plays, but with one site-specific play, an allotment. And for American listeners, an allotment is a community garden where individuals have their own little patch to grow vegetables or flowers.
Jules Horne: So, I wrote a few more plays and I think one of the really lovely ones that happened, which I think where I kind of found my voice, ‘cause it was bringing together what’s rural and country, and as opposed to maybe the big urban theater building types of theater. So, this was doing a site-specific play. So, a friend who was a director, she had an allotment. It was kind of right in the fringes of Edinburgh. She said, let’s do a play in the allotment. I thought, what, how can that work?
And I think that’s a really useful thing to have learned, that I was put in a situation where I had to write for, here you go, two actors, here they are, here’s the place, this is what we’ve got to do, write a play around it. And, I had to kind of, yeah, using these parameters, make a play happen. And we had a bit of development time, like a day or something, and they’re playing around the spades and clambering on shelves and almost like showing me the vocabulary or some vocabulary to work with.
Then I went away and wrote a draft and they tried it out, but it’s very much sort of rooted in the place. And, this was a play which took place outdoors, and people sat on kind of, bins and things on the ground, and if it rained, they had umbrellas. My God, we have some wonderful pictures of actors soaked to the skin.
I mean. God, what they went through, but it was just very elemental because it often rains in Scotland. So, we had those, the play taking place outside. Yeah. And it was, it felt very earthy and I really enjoyed this site-specific way of working.
Howard Lovy: The play ran for two years at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, winning an award. Best of all, she grew as a writer when she collaborated with actors and producers. She called it a sculptural way of producing a story, altering and shaping it as it’s being produced. From there, she wrote books for other authors on what she learned as she bridged the worlds of drama and prose.
Jules Horne: Yes, I also write nonfiction books about writing and they’re kind of filling in gaps that I felt, I wish I’d known this. So, there are things about dramatic writing. These are the things that are almost like silos that don’t cross over the dramatic world and the fiction writing world and, you know, maybe the copywriting world and so on, they’re slightly in their own kind of arenas. And, I think I really wish I’d had some of this knowledge before I’d gone into a theater rehearsal room because it would have saved a lot of intense pain and embarrassment. So, that’s what’s in that book. And also, yeah, anything that I felt I’ve learned from my journey through having the privilege of working with these other people, which I feel writers would really benefit from and be able to learn from.
So, when I did the audiobook recently that was about what radio tricks and techniques have I done that can feed into your writing? So, I’ve sort of corralled them all into a book. Yeah, I think a really interesting example from working with actors, is they talk about this concept of landing.
So, quite often, I’ve heard an actor saying, ah, that line’s not landing. And they kind of mean it’s not landing with the audience in or it’s not got the shape that’s kind of allowing it to connect. And, I think the equivalent thing, maybe in fiction is where the emphasis is at the end of the line.
So, quite often lines can sort of slightly dribble on with the intensity lost because they go on too long. Whereas if you pick the really salient word that’s meaningful for the storytelling and give that a real space around it by putting it at the end, then it lands more strongly. And, I think when I feedback to writers quite often in fiction, there’s a body of prose, which is very dense, and you might find the murder weapon sort of buried amongst all these words. And yet, actually it’s the huge thing, it’s the knife. It’s that, you know, and it’s kind of buried, allowing that very important thing to land by either creating space around it so that it’s, you know visually, maybe at the end of a paragraph or it might even be in its own line. But also reading it aloud, and feeling where it, you know, as a storyteller, I mean, it’s back to being in the cave and telling a story in an oral way, where does it land if you present it?
So, yeah, that landing I think’s an important concept. And kind of the opposite side of that is the idea of attunement, which is in radio, and people in radio news, for example, know this takes a little while to tune in to people’s voices and into a new topic. So, there’s a kind of moment when the first few words that you speak are kind of almost not really terribly important. They are about settling the listener in or kind of pulling focus. You get this in meditation settings, so there’s maybe an attunement moment in the room when everyone kind of settles into a shared focus. And, the tip there is allowing a few words that don’t mean very much before you settle into the knife. Things like, and in other news, or you know, the famous one is, once upon a time there was a young girl wearing a red cloak who was going through the forest.
So, ‘once upon a time’, and, in ‘other news’, and in, ‘turning now to’, are little attunement phrases.
Howard Lovy: In other words, there’s a cadence, a rhythm to good prose that both reads well and sounds good when spoken or performed. Something more and more writers are going to have to think about with the increasing popularity of audiobooks. Jules compares it to composing a symphony.
Jules Horne: I think absolutely, this sort of musical analogy is really helpful because if you think about maybe, I don’t know, symphonies or songs and things. There are kind of these shapes, which are rising shapes and falling shapes. There’s refrains, and there’s questions and answers also in music and their silences, and so they all have this kind of life that goes through music that I think is very much life that goes through the best prose, but we don’t often think like that when writing it.
Howard Lovy: So, where’s all this going? Jules hopes it means more hybridization between audio and written prose.
Jules Horne: I think that’s a really interesting point because I think now there’s such a convergence of audio writing and prose type writing. And, I think my sense is that writers will be more influenced by oral forms of storytelling and maybe this’ll come gradually more and more into prose. You do occasionally see publishers, they’re doing audio first commissions and that kind of thing. And I think this is definitely something that’s going to take off. And so, writers who are kind of more tuned in to that way of thinking will definitely be at an advantage, as I think will performers, cause they’re kind of used to that.
Now a lot of actors, you know, increasingly write for themselves. And that’s a really interesting place to be I think because audio and fiction are kind of crossing over in that interesting way through audible and these other audiobook platforms. Really exciting. And of course, it’s not just fiction, it’s other, you know, semi-dramatized and all these interesting in between genres.
You know, fiction with semi-dramatized bits or scenes, or fully dramatized, or, I think as a solo writer who’s interested in audio, you can do some fascinating things, which I think people are just starting to explore. Imagine, you know, the monologue, which is the standard kind of narrative viewpoint if you’re doing a book, but then inserting scenes that you’ve recorded with someone or doing things that are close-miked rather than distant-miked, to bring someone, you know, intimately into the microphone, into someone’s head.
It’s amazing. I mean, the viewpoints that are possible through audio are just tremendous.
Howard Lovy: As for the future, Jules will continue to navigate the border between audio and print, with audio getting more and more of her attention. But there are other borders Jules plans on exploring.
Jules Horne: Well, at the moment, I’m finishing up audio versions of my written books and then I’ll kind of draw a line under writing first in prose and start writing audio first.
My last book was written audio first and that’s what I’m going to do as the next thing. And I’ve got one nonfiction coming up, which is, Deliberate Practice for Writers. That’s something I’ve been working on for a while, and I’m writing that in an audio first way. I’m also coming up to a theater attachment.
So, they want me to look up place and writing around the borders. So, I come from this border area, which has got this interesting, very turbulent history, but it’s also on land where three tectonic plates collide. So, it’s got this kind of really strange underlying geology and they want to explore place.
So, I’m going to write mini plays, which are set around the border as the next thing.