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A Life Less Ordinary but no sympathy, thanks Interview - Joanna Traynor

Suicide attempts, drug abuse, sexual assault. Author Joanna Traynor's life has been a series of triumphs over adversity, says Lilian Pizzichini
Joanna Traynor made a name for herself last year when she won the Saga Prize for her first novel, Sister Josephine. As is the case with most first novels, it drew largely on her early life; the book begins with nine-year-old Josie, a mixed-race child in a white foster family, who performs oral sex on the eldest boy in the house in return for protection from his skinhead brother. Now her second novel, Divine, has come out, her publishers have decided to highlight Traynor's harrowing life.

Yet Traynor doesn't use her childhood experiences of abuse as a marketing tool, and she doesn't want anyone's sympathy. Asked about her many near- death experiences, she rattles them off perfunctorily. For instance, she nearly drowned once - "too many drugs" she says. Then there was dehydration ("too much drink"), alcohol poisoning ("self-explanatory"), an acid-induced suicide attempt ("tripping in Cornwall and it was so beautiful I flew off the edge of a cliff"), eight car accidents ("or was it seven?"), a "normal" suicide attempt ("just one"), a stabbing ("a mugger held a knife to my throat"). And so it goes on.

For Traynor, it's all par for the course: "I would say I've had a normal life. Kids who are unsure of themselves, and the parent-figures around them, will force these situations on themselves." Traynor is softly spoken, with a gentle, Northern burr to her voice (she grew up largely in Liverpool and Wales). Talking to me in the faux-grand confines of the Groucho Club, she was open and unaffected. But she is media-savvy enough to put up an evasive front when necessary. Whereas her traumas are firmly in the public domain, she'd rather we didn't take them seriously.

Now that she is 38, and has been living with her antique-dealing boyfriend in the bosom of his family ("his Mum's my number-one fan," she enthuses) for 12 years, she is sufficiently distanced from these experiences for them to become powerful, riveting fiction. She looks the part of the successful author, swathed in a beige jersey trouser suit, until we come to take her photograph: "I hate having my photos taken; I don't have any at home." It takes a few roll-ups to settle her down. This is something passed on to her latest heroine, Viv, whose face is badly disfigured from a childhood accident, and who lurches in a druggy haze from one crisis to another. There are no safe havens. People continually let her down. Again, Traynor insists that's normal. Like her heroines, you get the impression she simply can't afford to indulge in self-pity.

"I was three and a half when I was taken out of the children's home in Liverpool, and taken to my foster family," she says. "I remember the day I arrived at this place. They stuck me on a chair, and all I remember is people prodding me. I don't think they'd seen a black child before. I had a bright red coat on with big, black buttons. And I wanted them to stop prodding me. It was my first coat and I really liked it. I'd never had one before; probably because I'd never gone anywhere!"

From reading Sister Josephine, it seems fair to assume that her new parents didn't have much love to give. "I think it harks back to Victorian philanthropy. They thought they were doing a good deed. They were very poor, with lots of children. And children were there just to be fed and clothed."

As she was growing up in this repressive and cold household, Traynor kept a diary in which she wrote nothing but lies, about boys, parties and all the things she wasn't allowed to do. "I lived in North Wales when I was about 14, but went to school in England, which was an hour and a half away by bus," she says. "I never had friends at home because it was too far. But it was good really, because at school I was cool. At home, I had to wear sandals and brown cardigans, and go to church three times a week.

"So I used to get back from school and hide in my room, and write down what I'd tell my friends the next day. My friends used to go out with boys and that. So I used to make all these romances up. They never guessed because I lived so far away. School had no idea what was going on at home. I'd turn up and read my diary to them. They'd gather round and say, 'Ooh! Then what happened?'"

In effect, Traynor's double life was the spur to her storytelling, as she wrote her stories down to keep up with her lies. "I remember one particular episode when I'd met this bloke outside the Tiffany ballrooms in Buckleigh, and I almost feel as if I did meet him; but it was a complete lie." As a self-defence mechanism it paid dividends, until her foster-mother found the diary, and went mad. They were strict Catholics," she shrugs. "There was a lot of abuse - physical, emotional, sexual. We gave up the pretence that they were my parents when I was 16. I went to another family; they weren't much better."

That's all she's prepared to say, and I'm certainly not going to push her. Traynor may not identify with the victim scenario, but terrible things have happened to her. It's just that her way of dealing with it is to write more stories. So Josie (like her creator) grows up to become a nurse, and contends with the human body at its most gruesome; amputated limbs, cancerous tumours and incontinence. "Everyone has a piss identity," is how she neatly sums it up. Viv, with three-degree burns masking one side of her face and body, is more concerned to heal her psychological scars. This, for Traynor (whose own face is smooth, round, and framed by curly, soft brown hair), goes back to "the primal wound" inflicted on a baby when it's born and whipped away. "They know something's wrong inside," she says, "But then, everyone's got a wound of some sort." Although Traynor's is strictly off-limits, it left her attempting suicide, which she attributes simply to being "pissed off". She had been forced into nursing by her foster parents, against her will. "I saw what life had in store for me: old people, people dying, not getting visitors from one day to the next. It wasn't, 'Oh poor me, I'm a nurse and I don't want to be'. That was how I saw life," she says. "I thought, 'I could go on being a nurse, become a Sister, get married, have two children. If that's going to be my life, I don't want to know'."

Hence the suicide attempt, in the classic combo of pills and booze. Luckily, she was found and put in a psychiatric ward. She found it so terrifying, she promised not to kill herself and was let out. But a night nurse had planted a seed, suggesting she go to college. And her psychiatrist suggested she take up smoking grass. "He said, 'Off the record, go out and have a joint,' and it saved my life. For the first time I realized you could just enjoy yourself. So I went as far from Liverpool as I could, and went to poly in Plymouth to study psychology." She smoked dope every day from morning till night for three years. "I had no interest in psychology, I only chose it because it had the fewest lectures per week."

Which is where Divine takes up the Traynor story: rape, rejection, bad trips, a catastrophic brush with the law. Casual cruelty is endemic, and always shrugged off. "You just run into these things. It's a reflection of society, and that's why they're in my novels. There are always mad things going on in my life. But not always bad."

The latest mad thing for Traynor was finding her father on the Internet. Having typed in his name on the search engine, a single hit led her to an American company. "I sent an e-mail asking for him. A woman sent a message back asking what I wanted. I told her: 'I'm looking for a Nigerian man who was based in London around 1959; he could be my father.' And she said 'Yes, he is. And you're not the first of his children to find him on the Internet!' It turns out that six weeks ago, a bloke called Kim had e-mailed her from Australia, and he's my father's son! So I got in touch with him, and we clicked. We're going to try and meet halfway, in Bali."

At this stage in her life, Traynor seems calm and in control. She's working on her next novel, this time about a man, "a tramp, who's been done over by everyone in his life." She's happily ensconced in Devon, and has finally given up her day job in computer sales. "I'm reading books now. All sorts, but encyclopaedias mostly. I read about interesting places. The stuff you should learn as a child. I learnt what causes rain the other day." No more near-death experiences, and no more drugs either: "I don't smoke spliff anymore. I don't need to."

'Divine' is published by Bloomsbury, pounds 10.99


On her foster family:

"They stuck me on a chair, and all I remember is people prodding me"

On her psychiatrist:

"He said, 'Off the record, go out and have a joint,' and it saved my life. I realised you could just enjoy yourself"

On her family:

"There was a lot of abuse - physical, emotional, sexual"

On her choice of degree:

"I had no interest in psychology, I only chose it because it had the fewest lectures per week"

On her life:

"There are always mad things going on in my life. But not always bad"