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Derby writer Jo Jakeman's debut novel Sticks and Stones

PUBLISHED: 09:43 12 December 2018 | UPDATED: 09:43 12 December 2018

Jo Jakeman  Photo: Ollie Grove

Jo Jakeman Photo: Ollie Grove

as supplied see caption

Catherine Roth meets local writer Jo Jakeman whose debut novel was published earlier this summer

Jo at the book launch in DerbyJo at the book launch in Derby

An author from Derby is realising her dream with the publication of her debut novel.

Jo Jakeman’s Sticks and Stones, a psychological thriller, was published in July and immediately attracted attention. It featured as one of The Guardian’s crime books of the month, was on the Mail on Sunday’s 100 summer reads list and was reviewed in The Times, i News and Take a Break magazine.

Jo says, ‘I used to read the newspapers online. Now all of a sudden I’m down at the corner shop buying copies with reviews of Sticks and Stones in – and an extra one for my mum for her scrap book!’

Sticks and Stones tells the story of Imogen who, given an ultimatum by her husband to leave the family home or fight him for custody of their son, locks him in the cellar. Then, as the plot thickens, his previous wife and current mistress also become involved.

The launch party - complete with a specially-created cakeThe launch party - complete with a specially-created cake

‘It is a novel about domestic abuse and strength in friendship and female solidarity,’ explains Jo. However, despite its subject matter, she was adamant that the story would end well: ‘A lot of psychological thrillers are fairly dark and can leave you feeling awful. In Sticks and Stones there is quite a lot of humour and a positive ending.’

Jo continues, ‘I was reading Jane Eyre and instead of Rochester locking his ex-wife in the attic, I thought about a woman locking her husband in a cellar, and what would force her to do that? I then started thinking what the worst things were that he could do and put that into a contemporary setting, so by the time I’d finished the book it was not like Jane Eyre at all.’

Jo has always loved reading and writing stories, penning her first tale at the age of seven. Work took over as she grew older and pursued a successful career as an executive ‘headhunter’ in the City. That was until she was signed off sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She says, ‘When I was ill writing seemed like the perfect thing to do. I sat in bed with my notebook and it was a real escape for me.’ As she was writing it never occurred to her that one day she would be published. ‘I wrote for relaxation and enjoyment. If I’d thought someone would read my words – apart from my husband and mum – I would have felt more constrained in my writing.’

Jo spent ten years writing and as her health began to improve she decided to pursue it more seriously. She found an online writing course, the only one run by both agents and authors, with the closing date for applications just two weeks away. At that point Jo only had a vague idea of her story and harboured no thoughts of being successful in her application. However, her 3,000-word chapter submission was accepted and Jo realised she now had to write a 90,000-word novel!

Outside Goldsboro Books in LondonOutside Goldsboro Books in London

Jo’s big break came at the York Festival of Writing when she won its Friday Night Live competition. Shortlisted entrants were required to read out the first 500 words of their novel to an audience and the winner was the person who received the loudest applause. ‘It was a terrifying experience for me as I was not used to reading my work aloud and not used to seeing the reaction,’ she reveals.

However, it was worth it as four agents approached her afterwards with a request to look at her manuscript, and a month later she had secured an agent.

That was the point when editing began in earnest. Her book went through one draft, and another when it was accepted for publication. Then Jo got an American book deal, so it was back to the editing process: ‘My publisher and I thought we’d finished the English book but my American book editor wanted a bit more humour.’

Despite the delay, Jo couldn’t have been happier: ‘I thought, “What a wonderful problem to have – my American editor wants some changes!” Being so close to my story it’s difficult to get an overview. To have two highly regarded editors read through it and pick out what wasn’t working was really great.’

Sticks and Stones was launched at the Derby branch of Waterstones with an event that Jo likens to her wedding day. ‘It was the most amazing day and so special to be able to hold a party for everyone who’d helped with the book and supported me. Derby Book Festival was also a great support when I featured at their debut author event in June.’

Jo’s writing space is her spare bedroom which doubles up as the laundry store. Above her desk hang several cork boards on which she has pinned images of actors who resemble the various characters in her novel as well as the time line she has plotted out. Writing time is planned around her family and Jo tries to keep her writing to school term times so that she can spend as much time as possible with her ten-year-old twins.

She says, ‘I can get so engrossed in my novel that I need to set an alarm to remind me to stop writing in time to pick my children up from school!’ Holidays and weekends are filled with bike rides, swimming and spending time together. ‘I’m a family-orientated person. Give me a barbecue and a glass of wine on a Sunday evening and I’m about as happy as a person can be,’ she smilingly confesses.

Jo is currently working on her second novel, due for publication next July, as well as visiting various writing festivals and events across the country to promote her book. She is enjoying every moment, remarking, ‘It’s the most amazing feeling and still a little bit surreal to go into shops and see my novel. I don’t think it’ll ever become commonplace to see my book on a shelf!’

Yet despite her publishing success, Jo remains firmly grounded. ‘If I ever got too big for my boots my kids would bring me straight back down!’ she laughs.

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