Cause UK Director and freelance feature writer, Ann Chadwick, spoke to Janet Ellis for the Telegraph and Argus.
Former Blue Peter presenter turned novelist Janet Ellis talks about facing her fears before her appearance at the Ilkley Literature Festival.
In 1984, Janet broke her pelvis training to make a free fall jump from a Hercules aircraft at 12,000 feet. Back in training, in 1986 she jumped 2,000 feet.
But her biggest leap of faith was starting her path as a published author.
“I was just too scared to do it before to be honest,” Janet said. “People’s first reactions are to say ‘well hardly anyone gets published’,” she laughs. “Any profession I’ve chosen that seems to be the reaction! You say you want to be an actress, and they say, ‘oh well hardly anyone works you know,’ and it’s the same with writing.”
Ellis wrote her debut, The Butcher’s Hook aged 60. The psychological thriller set in 1763 received critical acclaim, but it took years for Janet to commit.
The longer she held off, the more nervous she got.
“How audacious is it?” she says of becoming a novelist. “Nothing’s new, everything’s been written before. I just want people to know what I think and how I see it, which is a really audacious act, you know quite an arrogant thing to do. So I made lots of problems for myself to not do it – that I can’t really give the time, I want to see my friends, you know – I think if I’m honest the only thing that underscores all of that is enormous fear. And not a fear of failure, because that means you’ve set out to do something and it’s just bombed, it was more a fear of a kind of terrible indifference that people would read something and think, ‘right, well done, great’ and then just move on. I wanted to jolt – to stay in people’s minds – and the more it went on, I thought this is never going to happen and this is so painful.”
The Butcher’s Hook was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, and crime author Clare Mackintosh declared her a ‘masterful storyteller’.
The debut was submitted under a pseudonym under her agent’s advice.
“Initially I was, ‘no don’t do that! I’ve actually written a book!’ But he was right really, without giving myself any airs and graces my career has an ‘oh yes’ quality to it. If people say, Janet Ellis from Blue Peter, people say ‘oh yes’, or Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s mum, ‘oh yes’ – all of which is lovely, I wouldn’t stop being any of those things – but it also meant people might have been expecting a particular type of book…it just absolutely meant that it was only about the book.”
Her follow up, the immersive and compelling, How It Was, is set in the ‘70s and explores the tensions at the heart of a mother-daughter relationship and the pressure women face to be the perfect wife and mother.
Janet will be on a panel at the Ilkley Literature Festival alongside authors Emma Kennedy and Amita Murray discussing the theme ‘Mothers, Daughters, Sisters’.
“I’m really looking forward to it because Ilkley is such a respected festival and it’s just such a treat,” Janet said. “What unites us – all of us who are going to be there – is a love of books.” The panel she promises will be enormous fun with Emma Kennedy, the actress, novelist and TV writer who has appeared on many comedies including Goodness Gracious Me and Miranda.
“Emma is a very funny women, her book is great but she herself is very funny, you know she’s written for other people to be funny, so the words coming out of her mouth will be great…The hour probably won’t be long enough, we’ll certainly do it justice, and I think it’s also going to be huge fun.”
Did Janet worry her book might invite comparisons to her real life?
“I was slightly hostage to fortune writing a book about a mother and a teenage daughter,” she laughs. “I’ve got two daughters. But I can do it from a position of security because hands on heart, it’s not about my relationship with my girls and it’s not about my relationship with my mother either, we were very close. But I like tripping myself up on the ‘what if’ – supposing you didn’t get on, supposing it was bad.”
The darkness, particularly of her debut, surprised critics perhaps because of her Blue Peter image.
“I had such a brilliant time on Blue Peter and I would be the last person to say I wanted to run away from all that because I loved it and it’s been very good for me, but on the other hand that’s not necessarily all of me. When I started writing I realised what fascinated me was the dark side – who are people really? What are they hiding? It wasn’t a conscious decision to shock people. I think it’s a good thing there’s been quite a long gap between me leaving Blue Peter and any possible audience cross over as the kids who watched me are all in their forties now and old enough to cope. I can understand if people think that’s quite a swap, but of course, I knew I was like that all along!”
Writing, like her first passion acting, offers a platform for her love of storytelling – something she traces to childhood. Janet’s father was in the Army and she attended seven schools. Books were her constant.
“I’ve always been a voracious reader and as a child the first thing I ever did wherever we were is find the library and work my way through it. It probably does have a real link with acting – what you do is create a world which is entirely portable because it’s in your head and you can create it wherever you are and you can be those people whenever you choose … it’s a way of anchoring you really in a world that is entirely likely to be packed up in two years’ time.”
It’s a theme she’s talked a lot about with her friend, the writer and comedian Jenny Eclair, whose dad was in the RAF.
“You’re never dropped into a new school neatly on the first day of term, so you end up in a new school where everyone else has got their cloakrooms sorted out, and their friendship groups – so it does make you resilient. I didn’t want it for my own kids if possible. I wanted to anchor them, but certainly it makes you realise that as much as you dislike change, and I’m not a big fan, it is possible, you can get past it.”
With all the success – in her career, her children and grandchildren – she’s publicly spoken of her loss too, suffering multiple miscarriages.
“It’s only a conclusion I came to at the end of How it Was, without being a spoiler for those who haven’t read it – it’s about surviving yourself. I think we’re quite hard on ourselves generally, and we do ask a great deal of ourselves. And even if you go through things that are possibly upsetting or tricky, we kind of want to know we survive it, to get through and then tell everybody who’s still in that particular trench, listen I’m here, I made it. I might be damaged or bruised or it might not exactly be what I wanted to happen, but that is the message in both books really; that we survive ourselves. There are some things in my life, if someone told me that’s what’s going to happen I would have thought there’s no way I’m going to get past that, that’s just too awful to think about, and then you do. And I think that’s heartening ultimately, because I am optimistic by nature. Things might not work out as you planned but you will find a way through, you will survive.”
Mothers, Daughters, Sisters with Emma Kennedy, Janet Ellis and Amita Murray, Saturday 12 October, 1.30pm, All Saint’s Church, Ilkley.
Book online to see Janet Ellis at the ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk Box Office: 01943 816714