A Man of Genius, Q&A with Janet Todd


To celebrate the highly praised, A Man of Genius, we decided to go ‘behind the scenes’ as it were to interview, internationally-renowned scholar and author, Janet Todd!

We got up close and personal to discover her inspirations, hardships and secrets as a writer and individual. A truly mesmerising character herself, it is not so surprising that she produces such eloquent and engaging literature.

If you haven’t already read my post on A Man of Genius find out more here!

You’ve said that you’ve been inventing stories your whole life. What kind of stories have you created previously? What inspired you to write those stories?

Mainly adventure stories with a lot of travelling across oceans and dangerous deserts. I am an only child and I had a remarkably isolated childhood. We moved very often around the edges of the shrinking British Empire – living in many pleasantly unspoilt and untouristed places. Some of my stories were about escape to the next place or finding a ‘home’ that was usually a bit magical and often pastoral. Not having experience of England except through English Literature, I think my pastoral world was a sort of Milton-inflected Home Counties.

Why did you want to be a writer from a young age?

I changed school thirteen times and needed to make alternative worlds for myself to get out of some disliked situations. Also, with so many moves, I had many chances to reinvent myself, to give myself different pasts and backgrounds.  The habit led to some difficulties if we didn’t leave smartly or if my parents had some reason to show up in the new school, but I enjoyed the invention while it lasted.  Writing more staidly followed from this experience!

Do you have a writing process? If so, can you tell us a bit more about it?

I write a great deal very fast and then throw out or edit and cut. I make absolutely no comparison with Jane Austen in any area (!), but I think she wrote quickly and ebulliently and then edited a lot.

When writing A Man of Genius did you have in mind what readers would want or did you let the writing flow freely?

I have spent many decades writing criticism since it was part of my academic job and grant-getting requires ticking conventional boxes for success. In writing novels, I write what I want. Perhaps if I actually knew what readers wanted I might do things differently, but I have no idea.  (The books that win literary prizes always surprise me.) There are so many constituencies nowadays that, in any case, not all could possibly be served.

Have you hidden any secrets in your books that only certain people will be able to find?

Not secrets. But those who know well the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley may hear echoes. These are not in the fictional characters themselves, for Wollstonecraft’s beloved did not treat her quite so badly as my Robert treats Ann and she was no ‘hack’, while Shelley was by any definition a ‘genius’; instead the echoes are in some of the expressions used by my protagonists.

What was your hardest scene to write in A Man of Genius?

The scene of physical cruelty. I have always found it very painful to witness the spectacle of the strong threatening and exploiting the undefended weak.  Some readers have suggested that my main character should simply have left before there was any repetition.  I doubt that it’s so easy – but this is not a popular point to make.

Many speculate on why Ann stays with Robert and find it difficult to understand why she can’t leave him. Why do you think that Ann finds it hard to separate herself from Robert?

We tend now to see so much through a lens of psychotherapy; we label states that were not pathologised in the past or were seen differently. So we have stalking and borderline personality disorder for what in the late 18th and early 19th century would be seen as obsession, perhaps addiction, and often unexceptional, if painful, romantic behaviour.   (After all, Ann chose the genre of gothic fiction which touches on many strange states.)

She stalks Robert and feels a thrill of the chase even as it distresses her. When he starts to withdraw, indicated by harsh words and acts, the emotion of the chase is resurrected. I see my character Ann, isolated and without roots or family, hooked on Robert and on her own dramatic need for him.

Love in literature thrives on impediments. The relationship I show has the impediment of two uncongenial temperaments. The problems a self-regarding ‘genius’ causes are obvious, but Ann too has a difficult nature that makes her love where love won’t be easy. I showed her recoil from her first relationship in the commune, while she quite harshly treats an admittedly harsh mother. And of course the feelings Ann had for Robert, whatever his treatment of her, were exaggerated by the culture’s worship of literary celebrity.

What did you decide to edit out of this book and why?

I had a lot of information about early 19th century Venetian and English culture (mainly from editing the volumes of Jane Austen). I originally included more of this historical detail about politics, clothes and food, and then reluctantly (and sensibly) left it out. Originally I also wrote more conversations on passions and aesthetics – Inspired by the novelist I have most admired since my teenage years – Dostoevsky.  Humility and commonsense made me cut much of this as well!

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I was not a great linguist and was very frequently in situations where I didn’t understand the prevailing language – Tamil, a (to me unintelligible) Scottish accent, and above all Welsh. I conceived a profound sense of the power of incomprehensible words.

What is your favourite under-appreciated novel?

This may be special pleading since I am about to republish my biography of Aphra Behn, but I think it has to be her Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister. Not an easy book since its interpretation is helped by knowledge of a little 17th century history, but it is a truly great dramatisation of a young woman learning of the reality of woman’s place in a patriarchal world and of the great power of gender even over class.

What is your favourite childhood book?

More than one. I loved the Little Grey Rabbit books especially when the animals went wandering to the North Pole and heard stories from Jack Frost.  Alice in Wonderland, of course. Then, when a little older, I settled into romantic Scottishry-Kidnapped, Flight of the Heron, Waverley (the last in comic form!). I didn’t have access to a public library, so I read a few books very often.

What do you think are common traps for aspiring writers?

I can’t answer this. I know that, as an older reader, I feel a little bombarded by writers who have come through the new creative writing courses. They seem to have learnt that every item mentioned must be specific and branded, and every emotion receive multiple adjectives.  Also the stories unwind rather oddly in the present tense.  But, as I wrote above, I don’t have much sense of present literary fashion!  (I’m still reading with pleasure women writers closer to my generation: Elizabeth Jane Howard, Jane Gardam, Rose Tremain and Margaret Drabble.)

If you haven’t already read my post on A Man of Genius find out more here!

A Man of Genius is published by Bitter Lemon Press on 9th March 2017

(£8.99, p/b, 352pp, 9781908524829)

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