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Joanna Nadin: Conjuring Characters From Different Decades

Joanna Nadin: Conjuring Characters From Different Decades

The first flicker of a story, for me, is always a character. Plot is character after all – events only occur in the way they do because of specific choices the protagonist makes – and that character will drive the narrative forward and make the story sing. So, before I’ve written a single word of story, I will have spent months with a character – hanging out with them in my head, working out what they’d do in the various sticky situations that I fling at them, having conversations with them, even. I cast them too, choosing actors or, occasionally, people I know, to flesh them out, so that I can hear them better when they talk to me, describe better how they move through scenes. Next comes the rather harder task of rendering that fully formed person on the page – nailing their unique voice, with its specific rhythms, unique lexicon, markers of class, geography, age and, in this case, period in history.

My Teeth in Your Heart follows two seventeen-year-old girls: Anna, who falls in love with a Greek-Cypriot boy in a bookshop in Varosha in 1974 and finds herself pregnant, and Billy, her granddaughter, who, upon Anna’s death in 2024, goes back to Cyprus to trace her real grandfather. The timeline switches chapter to chapter between the two protagonists, as they both negotiate difficult mothers, problematic best friends, and falling in love at the worst possible time. As such, it was essential for me to find two very different ways of telling their stories, two unique voices that ring true for their background and, crucially, 1974 and 2024 in turn.

Usually, finding a voice comes after several aborted attempts as I switch between past and present tense, and first person (I), third person (he/she/they) and sometimes even second person (you). Here, though, both voices came to me almost immediately, suiting, I felt, both their character and time. Anna, thus, is told in third-person past. Past because her story happened five decades ago, is already complete by the time the reader comes to it. Third-person because she is a more reserved character, slightly more distanced from her own emotions, tending to hold her cards close to her chest. Billy’s story, on the other hand, is unfolding as the reader comes to the novel, hence present tense. And she’s very much an oversharer, happy to talk about ‘me, me, me’. Anna rarely uses contractions; Billy always does. Anna never swears; Billy uses ‘fuck’ like a comma. Anna’s sentences tend to be measured, lengthy; Billy’s speech is scattergun, staccato.

There are other time-specific differentiations as well, of course: Billy dresses in a chaotic mix of vintage, her hair bleached and chopped by a mate in her bedroom, while Anna wears the demure dresses her mother has chosen for her, and her hair, as she laments, hangs in unattractive, mousey hanks. But these aren’t character; they’re just set dressing. It’s the voices that make them real and believable: two seventeen-year-olds fifty years apart, but both of whom, I hope, will keep you turning the page.

(And, in case you’re wondering, the two actresses I cast were a young Carey Mulligan from An Education for Anna, and Isis Hainsworth from Red Rose as Billy.)

My Teeth In Your Heart is published by UCLan Publishing on 4 July 2024

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