Juliette Forrest: How I Found the “Voice” for my Debut Novel

Juliette Forrest portrait
Category: Writing

Twister, the protagonist for my debut novel of the same name, first spoke to me when I was sitting on the sofa one evening. I had a short piece to submit for a writing class and I’m sure it was the fear of a fast-approaching deadline that made me hear her. I knew she was American, lived on a farm, believed there was magic floating around in the air and was upset because her father was missing.

I wished to create a place that didn’t exist

Setting the story in the USA, even though I’m Glasgow-based, didn’t worry me too much. I was certain I didn’t want the backdrop to be a real town or during an identifiable period in history. I wished to create a place that didn’t exist but was so animated and vivid, it felt real to the reader.

It was difficult to know how to pitch her voice, so I studied books where the protagonists had distinctive accents. I reread Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, The Dustlands trilogy by Moira Young and After the Snow by S.D. Crockett. The book that influenced me the most was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I loved how you were right inside Holden’s skull to the point it felt uncomfortably claustrophobic.

I wanted Twister’s voice to be so distinctive it lived on in your head long after you’d put the book down. It’s still hard to believe Catcher in the Rye was banned because of the vulgarity of Holden’s language. Twister is much younger and rarely cusses, but she sometimes muddles up her words and phrases. I think such imperfections make her all the more real, and she is no less of a heroine because of it. It took me seven drafts of the novel before I finally felt happy with how she was coming across and, in the end, I toned her right down. I didn’t want how she was talking to distract from what was happening in the plot.

Many people have asked why Twister was American and not Scottish. I did think long and hard about this at the very start, but her voice was so strong I decided to run with it.

I don’t even recall hearing many Scottish voices on film

My ears have been tuned into American accents for most of my life. When I was a girl, my dad always said that if I disappeared, he would find me watching old black-and-white Hollywood movies on TV. I thought the actors sounded so friendly compared to the British, who were terribly ‘stiff upper lip’. I don’t even recall hearing many Scottish voices on film.

At school, I was introduced to the writing of John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, two of my all-time favourite authors. Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret paved the way for puberty and I went on to devour Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Jack London, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Sylvia Plath, Judy Budnitz and another great hero of mine: Tennessee Williams.

In my twenties, I travelled across America by Greyhound bus. Astonished by its vastness, I met a whole cast of wonderful characters all the way from the dizzying heights of San Francisco to the frenetic streets of New York. I fell hook, line and sinker for the mysterious New Orleans, wrapped in its cloak of Mississippi mist.

I think it must have been all of this that got under my skin and bubbled back up as Twister. Without it, I doubt she would have appeared when she did.

Juliette Forrest

Juliette Forrest has worked for some of the UK’s top advertising agencies, as both a copywriter and an art director. Luckily for children everywhere, a couple of years ago she decided to turn her talents to writing middle grade fiction, and her debut novel, Twister, is out from Scholastic UK now. As well as winning several industry awards for her TV, radio, press, poster and ambient media campaigns she was a New Writers Awardee in 2014.