Jess Richards’ third novel, City of Circles, tells the story of Danu, a tightrope walker who loses her parents in an epidemic that devastates her touring circus group; at first, she subsumes her grief in elaborate high-wire acts of her own devising, but gradually Danu finds herself drawn back to her birthplace, the mysterious city which gives the book its name. The novel’s magical realism is infused with a strong political sensibility, and Richards vividly captures Danu’s grief at the loss of her parents, the sense of anger and alienation which shapes her view of the world around her. As in her previous novels, Snake Ropes and Cooking With Bones, City of Circles plays with invented languages, isolated communities, and wisdom passed on down through generations of women, marking Richards out as a distinctive and powerful voice in modern fiction.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
My rebellion first started when I was a teenager and the school’s career officer told me that I should be a hairdresser rather than an artist. I ended up making a portfolio up in the back of a lovely teacher’s classroom and in my bedroom at home. I got accepted at Art College, and found that I had much in common with all the other art students, as we were all highly rebellious by nature. I’ve never rebelled too loudly, and never intended to hurt anyone, but I do always look for alternative ways of doing things. Writing novels is an introverted way to rebel against the ‘real’ world – and I constantly write rebellious characters who will always do whatever they want to.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I left a long term (and sadly impossible) home environment so that I could be allowed to keep writing. I dumped all my possessions in a charity shop and was voluntarily homeless for two years. I missed my friends, and still do, but I’ve never felt so free. I’m more settled now, but my partner is an artist and understands obsession! I now realise that freedom comes from being with people who understand us, and using money to buy time, rather than possessions.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
All three of my novels were difficult to write in some ways, so I’m most proud of them. Snake Ropes was written after a long period of illness, Cooking with Bones was written in just one year, while still working full time. City of Circles was written in more houses than I’ve ever lived in during my life so far. So each one had its own struggles to be born. But the real pride comes in simply seeing my words taking form on real pages inside beautiful covers, and in acknowledging the people who have helped me to write these books into existence.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
My whole childhood, rather than just one thing. I read folk tales and fairy stories, and grew up in south west Scotland where there were rock pools, jagged shore lines and woods to get lost in. I would constantly be half-inside dreams and imaginings. Even the optician who checked my eyes when I was about eight asked me if I was a dreamer. My eyes were blurring in and out of focus, because I was trying to change him into a tiger.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
I would rather die than ever do this.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
Being freezing cold while house-sitting on Kintyre was difficult. I was looking after five holiday cottages through the winter. There were times I wanted to give up, but I’d promised the owners I could be what they’d advertised for: ‘a couple with a car’. I didn’t drive, and was there alone. I needed time to write, and to work out who I was again after a particularly difficult period of time in my life. I was determined that no matter how many chilblains I had, I could still keep typing, and the cottages would be kept free of damp.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
I’d like to be Batman, and I’d hate to be Trump. I think the reasons are obvious.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
The flute my grandma bought me when I left school, a sketchbook so I could draw pictures and write about the next world, and the pounamu (green stone) pendant my partner gave me when she first came over from New Zealand to see me in the UK.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
I like ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and also what its reversal would be: ‘words can paint a thousand pictures.’
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
Hokusai’s series of woodblocks: Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji are utterly beautiful – they’re like portraits of a muse that is a mountain, and simultaneously, a series of poems.