Author Q&A: Jill Hopper

Elise Valmorbida interviews 26er Jill Hopper about her debut book, The Mahogany Pod, recently published by Saraband and described by Horatio Clare as “rich and tender”. It’s a gentle, finely written memoir about a long-ago love marked by the anticipation of grief: Jill’s beloved Arif had only a few months to live. Years later, Jill rediscovers the African seedpod she has kept hidden in a box with letters, notes and an unplayed mix tape. Through research and reflection, she writes her way to a new understanding of the past.

Author Jill Hopper

Kate Kellaway (The Observer, 7 March 2021) describes The Mahogany Pod as “a work of literature: beautifully written, meticulously structured and heart-rending.” Was the process of writing this memoir “heart-rending” for you? How did the writing affect your current emotional life?

Arif died in 1994, on the eve of his 25th birthday. Over the years since then, memories would spontaneously come back to me – a moment, a place, something he said – and I’d feel a sense of panic. What if this was the last time I happened to remember that particular thing, and then it was lost forever? When I sat down to write The Mahogany Pod, it was a very different activity to random remembering; it was a purposeful attempt to reconstruct the whole experience. I’ve never done anything like that before, and it was incredibly intense. But it was also transformative – I understood lots of things I hadn’t before. And now I’m left with a sense of completion and relief. In the pages of a book, a person can live forever.

At your book launch you talked about the writer’s duty to go to difficult places and report back. Please tell us more about this.

The books I love most are the ones that change the way I see the world. I feel like this has to be the writer’s responsibility – to notice and record and transmit the experiences others may skate over or avoid. I knew this was a powerful story and if I was going to do it justice, I had to face up to a lot of things. I was scared at the beginning, but the act of writing gives you a special kind of armour, and the more I risked, the more I gained. I saw a TV documentary a few years back, about the poet Lemn Sissay, and he told a group of young writers: “Go into the burning house of your own story.” That’s what I tried to do in The Mahogany Pod.

My impression is that the narrator (you) looks at the world around her with an almost forensic gaze. Without dwelling or indulging, you perceive and portray all sorts of detail in extremely sharp focus. How much of this acute awareness is down to your notebooks and diaries?

The mahogany pod itself

I’ve kept a diary since I was about 12. My diaries from the nine months I spent with Arif were very useful, and so were the entries I wrote in the months and years afterwards, when I was struggling with grief and incomprehension. I also had a shoebox containing a few photos, a mixtape of music Arif made me (which I’d never played), some love letters between the two of us, and other letters written to me by friends and family after his death. And there was the mahogany pod itself, which Arif brought back from his travels in Zimbabwe and gave me shortly before he died. I was sure it had something to tell me if only I could listen carefully enough.

In the narrative, you balance youthful idealism and wise reflection, sometimes realising that earlier assumptions were in fact mistaken. Please tell us more about this.

I wanted to explore how we construct ourselves against a defining event, and to do that I needed to set up a dialogue between my young self and the self I am today. I tried to be honest about my 23-year-old emotions and behaviour, even when it didn’t make for a very flattering self-portrait. I discovered in the course of writing that I’d been wrong about quite a few things, especially my relationship with Arif’s mum, and seeking for a way to mend that relationship is an important part of the book.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to someone thinking about writing a memoir?

Viv Gornick in her book The Situation and the Story says a writer needs distance in order to be able to shape and structure her material and make something of value to the reader. I think that’s right. If I’d written a book in the aftermath of Arif’s death it would have been a blurt of grief and rage, therapeutic for me maybe, but of no interest to anyone else. So I would suggest allowing yourself quite a while, probably years, before writing a book about something that’s affected you deeply. You’ll have a whole new vantage point and find insights that may surprise you. That feeling of being able to surprise myself is, for me, one of the most exciting things about writing.

Jill and Arif in Wales

In The Mahogany Pod, you write about named friends and colleagues, Arif’s family, your own family… Memoirists are often concerned about how to represent others without exposing or displeasing them in some way. How did you navigate such territory?

I wrote nothing about an individual that I wouldn’t be happy to read aloud in front of them. I rang each person up, told them what I was doing, gave them drafts of the manuscript to read, asked for permission to use their name. Many of them contributed important details or confirmed things that were a bit hazy. Feeling the warmth of their support and getting their permission was the only way I could contemplate publication.

Are you a reader of memoirs? If so, please tell us about your favourites. If not, why not?

There are a few touchstones. First is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which I have returned to again and again since my early teens. It’s rare to read about the First World War from a woman’s perspective – Brittain nursed wounded soldiers and lost her close friend, her brother and her fiancé. Her book is devoid of self-pity and all the more devastating for that. The second book is A Life of One’s Own by Marion Milner, published in 1934 and reissued by Virago in the eighties. I discovered it in my twenties and I reread it every couple of years. The author describes it as “a seven years’ study of living […] to find out what kinds of experience made me happy”. It’s a fascinating read because Milner is so honest and determined in her quest. More recently, I’ve devoured Just Kids and M Train by Patti Smith – her writing is wild, seemingly spontaneous, poetic but never overblown, and a totally effective blending of past and present. Three inspiring women from very different time periods. I’ve learnt a lot from each of them.

At one point late in the book, a friend and colleague says to the younger you: “Somehow I seem to picture you surrounded by books and papers, writing, writing, writing.” At the time did this feel prophetic, or was it already true for you? Please tell us about your sense of being a writer.

It was my boss at the time, Jawaid, who said that. I remember feeling a bit crestfallen, as if he was saying I wasn’t going to have a full life. I took it as a warning – I can be a bit obsessive and have to take care not to live only through books but to keep filling the well with travel, relationships, curiosity about the world and other people. It was only when I got to my mid-forties that I felt I’d amassed enough life experience to have something worth saying.

What advice would you give to writers about the journey from creating through to publication and beyond?

The most difficult thing I’ve had to learn is how much stamina is required to get from first glint of an idea to book on the shelf. Talent does exist, but the main thing is work, sheer bloody hard graft day in day out, and a willingness to prioritise the writing above almost everything else. Another vital thing is the need to be receptive to criticism. Find a few experienced people whose opinion you trust, and listen to them without being defensive or resistant. If their comments chime with something you know in your heart isn’t working, you have to go back and put it right, no matter how daunting that may seem.

This is your debut book but at your launch you mentioned that you’re now working on a novel. Are you at liberty to talk about it? Please tell us what you can!

I wanted The Mahogany Pod to read like a novel – to have a strong narrative drive that kept the pages turning. Wrestling with the structure gave me sleepless nights but it taught me lessons that I’m now applying to fiction. I’ve been working on the new book since last summer. It’s told from an unusual narrative viewpoint, and it’s been my escape during lockdown – turn on my laptop, crawl through the screen into a different reality. I feel like I’ve come late to publication (I’m 51) so I have a great sense of urgency to get on and write all the books I want to write.

– Interview by Elise Valmorbida

The Mahogany Pod is available to buy now.

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