Novelist draws inspiration from teen years in Horsham
A writer who grew up in the Horsham district has just had her first novel published.
Jennifer Nadel, a qualified barrister who became ITN’s Home Affairs Editor, has written Pretty Thing, a dark coming-of-age drama about two schoolgirls who are forced to grow up fast.
The story, which takes place during the scorching summer of 1976, follows a 15-year-old girl called Becs who becomes convinced that a much older man is her soul-mate.
However, a series of sexual assaults in the area have everyone in school talking and the plot takes a sinister turn when Becs’ best friend becomes the latest victim.
Jennifer, who attended Horsham High School for Girls (now Tanbridge House School) and Collyer’s Sixth Form College in the mid to late ’70s, says she drew inspiration from her time in the Horsham district.
Her time at Collyer’s was especially important.
“It influenced me in two ways,” Jennifer tells the County Times. “The first was that I had the most extraordinary English teachers there who were absolutely inspirational. They made me fall in love with literature and writing and made me long to be a writer myself.”
“I refer to a sixth form college in the novel,” she continues. “The novel I have set in Essex but the sixth form college I’ve used in the novel is definitely moulded on Collyer’s and on my first impressions.”
Other memories have found their way into Jennifer’s book too with much of the tale’s action taking place on a school bus.
“I used to catch the school bus from Warnham into Horsham High School,” she explains. “A lot of the things that influence all of our lives most keenly happened on that bus so I’ve taken it and put it in the novel.”
Jennifer was also fascinated by the visible class structure of rural Sussex in the 1970s.
“There was a very clear social hierarchy,” she says. “If someone was posh there were different levels of poshness. There were people who had a lot of money but didn’t necessarily have a history of having wealth and they were different from the ones that had had wealth for a very long time. My family was American so we kind of sat outside of the class system.”
She continues: “I didn’t really understand it but I could see that there were all these rules according to where you lived. One of the things I look at in the novel is just how if anyone had any kind of signs of poshness then that was social death, just like being a swot was social death.”
Social issues aside, Pretty Thing is, at its core, a novel about a girl’s transition to adulthood and should strike a chord with anyone who has experienced the highs and lows of young love.
Jennifer explains: “My starting point was taking that moment of first love where you fall in love and you feel absolutely invincible. It’s as if you know everything there is to know about love and think it can never, ever end. What I wanted to do was take that moment and then see what happens when it collides with real life – social issues, class and gender – and how it can get dismantled very quickly in the face of reality.”
Jennifer sat down to write, intending to craft a novel that dealt intelligently with ideas about first love and first sex, as well as the role that pornography plays in influencing both male and female expectations.
But something strange happened when it came to creating the characters.
“Well, the weird thing was that I didn’t really come up with them,” Jennifer states. “As soon as I sat down this 15-year-old girl called Becs started trying to dictate the story. I didn’t want her to tell the story because she was really awkward and quite irritating and quite self-obsessed as most 15-year-olds are.”
“So I spent a lot of time wrestling and trying to tell the story my way,” Jennifer continues. “But in the end this very strong character emerged and she wanted the story told in the first person.”
“I didn’t really do any planning,” Jennifer admits.
“I just kind of listened to what the characters were saying and let them dictate the novel. But, of course, that means that you have to spend a lot of time going back over it, trying to shape it and mould it and make it into something.”
This unconventional process means that Pretty Thing doesn’t fit easily into any genre.
“It feels like it’ll be in a young adult genre,” says Jennifer. “But there are quite a few adult issues in there.”
“A lot of people who were around in ’76 will probably enjoy the music,” she continues, explaining that there’s a playlist at the back of the book – the soundtrack for the novel – as well as a Spotify playlist online that people can click on.
Jennifer attended the Faber Academy in 2011 and now, at the age of 53, writes fiction full time. But what motivated her to write in the first place? And why did Jennifer drop the idea of becoming a barrister to pursue a career in journalism?
“I went to do my pupillage for four months and realised that there were far too many rules,” she says. “I wanted to make a fuss about what was wrong in society and it was easier to do that as a journalist.”
Pretty Thing may be Jennifer’s first novel, but it’s not her first book ever. In the early ’90s Jennifer met Sara Thornton, the woman who went to prison in 1990 for killing her alcoholic husband. Sara was jailed for life, but in 1996 her murder conviction was changed to manslaughter and she was given her freedom.
Jennifer wrote Sara Thornton: The Story of a Woman Who Killed in 1993, feeling that there was an injustice in the way women who are victims of domestic violence are treated by the law.
She makes it’s clear that she’s interested in social justice and her next book is a fictional tale about how easy or hard it is for a journalist to tell the truth.
“I think the thing that links being a barrister, a journalist and writing fiction is the desire to seek out the truth and express the truth in some way,” Jennifer says.
But, as she explains, fiction definitely gives writers far more freedom to express important ideas. It also removes the somewhat bizarre risk of missing the truth while trying to find all the facts.
“What’s lovely about fiction is that you can try to tell a higher truth that isn’t as dependent on factual information,” she states. “You don’t need to make sure you have the facts to fit your story, you can just write the story.”
Pretty Thing is out now in paperback for £7.99 and is published by Corsair.