At the end of the day, we all want to read fiction that speaks to us in some way. When we find authors and books that do, they become a part of our own story. In JJ Eden’s book, Thrive, I found a sense of camaraderie and wisdom in someone who had traversed the abyss and was building a bridge over the chasm for those behind her.
With Thrive standing strong as one of my all-time favorite poetry anthologies to date, I was hugely excited to ‘sit down’ with her to hear about her history and process.
(If you haven’t yet, you can check out my book review of Thrive as well.)
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi! I’m Jen and I live just south of Manchester, UK. By day, I work for a small public relations consultancy as a writer and project manager and by night I read, write, spend way too much time on Instagram and Animal Crossing and enjoy time with my husband and our crazy springer spaniel, Luna. I published my debut book in December 2019, under the pen name J J Eden. My choice of pen name was largely sentimental – JJ is what my family called both me and my cousin when we were little and Eden is my maiden name, which I have always loved.
Tell us about your poetry and short story anthology, Thrive.
Thrive was an almost accidental book! I had actually been working on a novel for some time but it just wasn’t working or coming together as I wanted it to. I have written poetry and short stories for as long as I can remember but always treated them as just for me, sharing occasional bits on my blog. When I was feeling bogged down in novel-land I turned to poetry and short fiction to keep my love of writing alive and I suddenly started wondering why I was treating the writing I loved the most, and that came most naturally to me, as a side project. I started to put more time and energy into it, revisiting and editing older pieces and writing new ones, and the idea for an anthology that combined them with simple illustrations started to grow in my mind.
The title of the anthology, Thrive, is taken from the name of my blog, Thrive in Chaos. I started blogging about 6 years ago at a point when I was struggling with my mental health and I wanted to create a space that would help me remember that I could survive and thrive even on the darkest days. That purpose – that truth – has really driven so much of my writing that it was a no brainer to have the name and theme carry through to my first book.
You talked a bit about your blog, Thrive in Chaos. Between the blog and your book, has it been difficult to be publicly open with your struggles with mental health?
It’s definitely been a long journey. I’ve struggled with mental illness since I was a teenager but for many years I didn’t recognise that that was what it was. I first received a diagnosis of anxiety and depression when I was 18 and it took a very long time for me to come to terms with it – a combination of there being so much stigma around it, me not really understanding what it meant, and a significant amount of guilt because I really felt that I had no good reason to be depressed or anxious – and it took an even longer time for me to speak openly about it. It’s really only in the last few years that I’ve had the confidence to talk honestly about it and some days it’s still a struggle, but one of the most helpful things to me in my own mental health journey was hearing other people’s stories. Knowing I wasn’t alone in my experiences was a comfort, as was seeing people not just surviving but living joyful, fulfilled lives, despite their mental health struggles. It gave me hope. So once I reached a point of better accepting and understanding my own mental health, I wanted to share my experiences in the hope that others would find the same comfort in my story. It’s not always easy but it is important.
As well as the writing, you illustrated Thrive too. What is your process for this like?
Like my writing, my process for illustration is usually fairly unstructured. I play with ideas in rough until something captures my imagination and then I flesh it out until it feels ‘right’. With the illustrations for Thrive, I wasn’t originally planning on creating an illustration for every piece, I was just going to have a few scattered throughout the book, but once I got started I didn’t want to stop!
What is your favorite book, and has it inspired how you write? How?
This is such a difficult question for me because I have so many favourite books! I’m a mood reader so the books that inspire me and move me change from day to day and moment to moment. One favourite that I always come back to, though, is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I think it is probably the most evocative book I have ever read and each time I revisit it I am transported anew. It absolutely inspires me to write – the way she captures magic in the smallest of moments is incredible and I carry the way her writing makes me feel into my own work, in the hope that I might be able to convey some small semblance of it to my own readers. I love how imaginative her work is. She has a truly distinctive style that has come through in her other works as well – her second novel, The Starless Sea, is another book I adore and her Flax Golden Tales, which she published as a series on her blog, were the main inspiration for the format of the short stories that appear in Thrive.
What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book?
I really hope it gives readers space to breathe, reminds them of their own strength and magic and reassures them that even if things are dark or difficult or chaotic they can still thrive. I hope it helps them recognise that they don’t need permission in order to feel and be fully themselves. I hope it helps them feel less alone.
What is different about your book?
There are a few things, really. It’s formatted fairly unusually – none of the pieces have an explicit title, they’re listed in order at the beginning of the book by a single word or phrase from each piece, which creates a kind of contents page, except there aren’t any page numbers either so the contents reads a bit like a poem by itself. This was originally experimental, to see if I could capture the essence of the book as a whole in one place, but I liked it so it stuck! (I’ll admit it’s not the most helpful contents page but one of the nice things about self publishing is you don’t need permission to break conventions like that!)
It’s also slightly different in that it doesn’t really have one theme or style. There are some playful pieces that are pure escapism, some serious pieces that touch on real life experiences, some whimsical ones that don’t really seem to speak to much but somehow felt important for me to include. On the surface it might seem like a bit of a jumble but when I was putting it together I went over and over which pieces of writing to include and what order to put them in until I reached a point where the disparate parts felt like they hung together as one. Hopefully that comes across in the reading!
What are your plans for future releases?
My current work in progress isn’t anywhere near the point when I can decide whether it’s something I’ll release, and I have to admit that the current pandemic put a definite damper on my writing motivation so not much progress has been made. I am working on more poetry and short stories, though, and I hope to release another collection eventually! In the meantime, I’m sharing sporadic writings on my blog and wittering away on Instagram so there are snippets for anyone who cares to see them!
What inspires you to write?
All sorts of things! Nature has always been a big source of inspiration for me. A lot of my writing is also inspired by my feelings and experiences and how I process and reflect on those. Equally, books, music, films and art are all constant sources of inspiration, and at the moment I’m also finding myself drawn to folklore.
What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?
I enjoy having complete creative control over my work. What gets seen, how it’s presented, how it’s marketed – even down to how it’s priced! The biggest struggle is definitely time. Self publishing means you are responsible for absolutely everything and it is hugely time consuming to produce and promote a book – especially to do it well. After an initial push around the time of publication, I have to admit I’ve done hardly any promotion. Just the occasional post on social media, really. When I first published I wasn’t working, as I was recovering from surgery, so the book became my recovery project! It was great at the time because I could do it all from bed and I was really productive because I couldn’t do anything else! Once I got back to work it got a lot harder to give the time to promotion. It’s something I need to work on for my next release – whenever that might be!
What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?
The biggest struggle is the ever present imposter syndrome. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by doubt, wondering if your voice is really worth sharing. That also ties in with perceptions of success. You can get caught up in the figures – how many have I sold, how many reviews have I got, etc – but at the end of the day if you’re writing solely to make money or hit the bestseller lists it takes the joy out of it. I decided when I was finalising Thrive ready for publication that holding a copy in my hands would be success enough and anything else would be a bonus. When I started writing the pieces that appear in the collection I was writing just for myself, not for anyone else. I was writing because I felt compelled to and because it helped me, in a way, to navigate my life. I would encourage anyone struggling with doubt to focus on that. Write for the joy of it. Celebrate the success of putting pen to page, of finishing a line, a chapter, or a whole book if that’s where you’re at. Some people never get up the courage to start. So just starting is an achievement. Anything else is a bonus.
How can we purchase your book?
You can purchase Thrive through Amazon in ebook or paperback format (the paperback has more illustrations!) in all territories, or you can contact me directly through Instagram if you’d like to request a signed copy.