Jo Furniss is the author of dystopian best-seller All the Little Children. Originally from the UK, Jo has lived in Singapore, Switzerland and Cameroon. As a former BBC journalist, with more than a decade of experience, Jo switched gears to become a freelance writer and seasoned expat. Abbie Pumarejo asks her about her latest novel, The Trailing Spouse, a psychological thriller.
Welcome, Jo. In your new novel, The Trailing Spouse, you give a very visceral and accurate impression of Singapore, so much so that the reader can feel the humidity. Was it a place you enjoyed living?
I loved Singapore and wanted to do it justice on the page, so I’m pleased that you could feel the heat! Of course, people often think of stereotypes about Singapore—it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s strict—and I wanted to go deeper. So I tried to surprise the reader with its contradictions; there is jungle as well as high-rise, there is freedom amid the conformity, and there is darkness behind the shiny façade of expat life.
I really relished your insertion of behind-the-scenes information that helped place the reader in Amanda’s world. This quote says it all: “The lingo conjured up fake friends with fake nails and fake smiles, slurping down drama like cheap Chardonnay.” Were some of the queries and quotes taken from real life?
There are several Facebook forums for expat women in Singapore, which have thousands of members. I’m sure people all over the world are familiar with these kinds of online communities; they are everywhere. The ‘hive mind’ is a tremendous resource and can be a place of sisterhood, but I was always surprised at how willing some people are to air their dirty linen in public. Even a ‘closed’ Facebook group is public when it has 18,000 members! As soon as I started writing the novel, I knew that these forums offered an opportunity for social satire, and the examples in my novel are fictional but don’t stray far from the truth.
Is Amanda based on someone you know or a variety of women you met during your time abroad?
Amanda is what I think of as a ‘constructed character’, by which I mean that I first pictured her as she is in the ‘now’ of the novel, and then I had to go back and work out where she came from and how she got to the moment where we first meet her. She’s not based on anyone in particular, but over the years I have met expats who don’t engage much with the host country—they live in a bubble. Amanda’s problem is that she had no real purpose in life before she became an expat, she was running away from something rather than running toward something, and her new life in Singapore only exacerbates that sense of emptiness.
All of the characters in The Trailing Spouse have some secrets. Who was your favourite person to develop and why?
That would be Ed, the husband. The whole novel hinges around him and the perception of his true nature. Everyone makes assumptions about this rich and handsome man. At one point in the novel, I describe him as a circus master; he’s the centre of attention and yet an enigma, hidden despite all the lights being trained on him. It was a challenge to write because I had to make the reader see different sides of him through two women’s eyes. One day, when I was living in Singapore, I saw a performance of Bian Lian—Chinese opera—with a dancer who wears many masks, changing them by sleight of hand so that the audience can’t see how it’s done. This so perfectly captured Ed that I put the dancer into the novel.
Your ability to portray Amanda and Josie’s relationship was a real snapshot of how a stepmother and stepdaughter might dance around each other. The teen angst, (lack of) communication and reading between the lines are spot on. How much did you pull from your own experiences or memories?
I don’t have any experience of teenagers, only interactions with my friend’s kids, and the relationship between Amanda and Josie went through many changes. It was one of the hardest elements to write. Ultimately, I simply had to imagine myself into that situation. What would it feel like to suddenly become stepmother to an independent young woman? I felt that both parties could easily be left unsure of the ‘ground rules’ and that insecurity might flourish between them. Added to the fact that it’s a household in crisis from external pressures, there was plenty of room for conflict, which is what every author wants!
Camille is a bit of a mystery, having lived a life with so many questions herself. She’s someone I wanted to get to know better. Will we see more of her after this novel, as part of a series perhaps?
I’m delighted that you’d like to spend more time with Camille because I really like her. In a way, she’s a mystery to herself because she’s been so obsessed with her missing parents all her life. So I imagine that she blossoms after the end of the novel. Camille is one of the strangest experiences I’ve had as a writer because she popped into my head one day and I knew absolutely everything about her—she was ‘whole’ and I just had to write her down. I don’t have any plans for a series, but she is a complex young woman so maybe she’ll pop into my head with another mystery one day!
In your acknowledgements, you mention the parents of Arina Skye. Can you tell us more about this young woman and why it was so important for her parents to have her named in your novel?
In 2016, I attended the Africa Society Ball in Singapore, which held a charity auction to raise money for World Vision. I offered an auction prize: to have someone’s name immortalised in The Trailing Spouse. Arina Skye’s generous parents won and then, because she’s only a young girl, I tried to find a nice character to name after her—which isn’t easy in a thriller!
How long did it take to get The Trailing Spouse written and published?
I started writing The Trailing Spouse in 2015 while I was pitching my first novel, All the Little Children, to agents. It meant that by the time my agent went out to publishers, I had a well-developed second manuscript and ultimately I was offered a two-book deal that saw them released in 2017 and 2018.
Was it easier or more difficult to write the second book after achieving success on the Amazon charts with your debut, and why?
After working on All the Little Children with the insecurity of never knowing if it would be read, it was lovely to complete The Trailing Spouse safe in the knowledge that it would be published. But that also brought a certain pressure; I was working to deadline for the first time, and there was a weight of expectation. The two books are rather different, so I hoped the audience I’d found with the first, a raw dystopian novel, would welcome an urbane domestic noir.
How has the transition from journalist to novelist been? Which do you prefer?
In some ways, the discipline of journalism set me up for being an author. I rarely miss a deadline, and I welcome being edited. Journalists also tend to write with an audience in mind and have a natural sense of storytelling. But journalism—at least, the kind of news reporting that I did when I worked for the BBC—is short-term and transient. So working on a novel can feel overwhelming—the duration of the project, also the effort to hold the whole story in my head while working on individual scenes. But there is a great joy in creating something tangible and less fleeting than a radio report—a book that will sit on my shelf (and hopefully other people’s!) for a long time.
Finally, The Woolf special question: What’s your favourite work of fiction and why?
That’s a really tricky question because my honest-to-goodness answer—The Handmaid’s Tale—suddenly feels hackneyed. But that story was formative to me as both a reader and a writer. I’m trying to think of another work of fiction that represents a ‘perfect storm’ of style, content and long-lasting impact: this is a favourite, rather than the favourite, but I recently re-read Days by James Lovegrove. The story is set in the world’s first giga-store—kind of like Harrods gone to the dark side—and it’s an extremely prescient, scary and all-too-imaginable vision of our materialistic future, a world of haves and have-nots. As well as being blackly funny and brutally satirical, it’s got excellent characterisation. It’s a great example of speculative fiction with a heart, and it totally stands the test of time. If you like Black Mirror and, indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll love Days.