Alcemi: Why is architecture such a passion for you and how did you set out to convey this in the novel?
We moved around a lot when I was little, so I was used to spending time figuring out how best to organise my things, sometimes in a huge room, sometimes in a small one; wondering whether to sleep by the window or by the wall... It's what we all do, and discovering the best use of the space you're in and how best to accommodate yourself and whoever else you live with is really quite an adventure. Above and beyond that, I suppose I draw a lot on my experiences living variously in Kenya, China and Japan – and the sheer excitement of seeing very different kinds of architecture close up, and different ways of living, of viewing space and how to inhabit it – all of these experiences in various ways have fed my passion for architecture.
Later on in Japan and then back in the UK my journalism and non-fiction pursuits led eventually to ghost writing on architecture in Japan, in Germany and the UK; and to keeping notebooks on my travels, jotting down observations about the ways different cultures live, what people seem to benefit from in order to achieve some kind of psychological or spiritual ease in the way they live, and what makes good sense in terms of physical comfort and managing the available space, light and temperature conditions.
So what I set out to do in the novel was to work alongside a character who doesn't seem to know what might suit them best, and allow them to explore their sense of self in order to figure out how to determine what they need and how to work towards this place that might be called home. In order to make it exciting, and partly because of my own fascination for contemporary architecture, I decided to set it in the world of the star architect. Why not? It was a crazy amount of work for me, lectures, interviews, study, but I loved every minute of it. At one stage I even gate-crashed a very elite party in order to meet Daniel Libeskind. But I have to say, it was worth it. And eventually, star architects, a competition, exciting new building materials and the fantasy of the perfect dwelling all seemed like good and wholesome ingredients.
A: Why did you decide to include letters in your novel?
JJ: Letters! Don't you just love getting real mail? With all the social networking, web mail shenanigans, doesn't a handwritten letter feel like the most precious thing to receive? For me it does, and having lived such a nomadic existence myself I am fortunate in having a few wonderful friends who still keep up the 'real mail' end of things. I think that letter writing is a great skill, and one we don't want to lose. In Japan letter writing is still highly regarded as a talent (though I imagine its popularity has waned as much as it has everywhere), and putting together a considerate and balanced piece of writing is quite an art.
In terms of the novel, I realised that 'the letter' would enable the characters to speak in a more formal and possibly more elegant tone at times, and in a form of address that wouldn't work at all in straightforward dialogue. I knew there was a lot I could do with this – no small part being that it can vary levels of intimacy between characters and between characters and the reader. The letters could also happily facilitate how some characters get to know one another and could accommodate my desire for them to meet or delay them meeting. And best not forget that the art of writing also has its romantic implications... I will say no more....
A: I have heard that architects tend to be immensely egotistical. How does your novel explore this area?
JJ: Ah yes, I've heard that too [laughing] – and the idea of the big ego is wonderful terrain for an author! I suppose I visit this in several ways, most obviously perhaps in the character of Alessandro, who despite his brilliance and sophistication, displays a truly dismissive arrogance at times, often operating in terms of stereotypes, particularly of women, and never being entirely accurate about where anyone comes from.
But such ego, while it is easy to see the downside, is also a fabulous area in terms of exploring the personalities in society that are sometimes the most passionate and oftentimes the most dedicated to their work. So I think the novel, alongside its dealings with the personal and private landscapes of the architects' lives and how their self-obsession impacts on those closest to them, also delves into their passions, inspirations, and their drive with regard to their own projects, personal philosophies and how these affect their work. I guess what's common to each of the architects is an unflinching desire to design well, and so Perfect Architect is largely about artistic obsession, what motivates the architects, how they deal with things that get in the way, and who they need alongside them in order to have these ambitious projects realised. So you get to see big egos with big desires and ambitions taking on the 'little house'.
A: How does Tom the postman's story fit into the scheme of things?
JJ: Tom's own story is a counterpoint to the exotic and often extraordinary lives of the architects in the novel. Tom and his family hopefully offer up a contrasting social and economic perspective and a different dynamic. Tom and Cara's relationship, coupled with their individual acts of mischief, also add in a measure of humour – though I hope some of the architects themselves will earn a few warm chuckles of their own. It's hard to guess at – but if a few smiles are raised that will be a great.
In terms of how Tom's story fits in, it is woven into, or at least, laid gently under the main thrust of the novel which is Gaia Ore's decisions as to how she will map out her life following the death of her star architect husband.
The reason for making Tom a postman (a raised-in-the-US postman) is in no small part a homage to the figure of the postman in the modern American novel, and I believe both William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski as well as being great writers were actually mailmen themselves along the way. Hurrah to the delivery folk of the world, to parcels and real mail, for where would be without them?
A: Tell me about the novel's varied settings
JJ: People are so mobile these days, and I wanted to reflect that, so you have a whole mix of nationalities – people born in one place, studying in another and then often continuing to move about from place to place, from country to country for work, love, inspiration, for safety. I find that all fascinating, and it's always interesting to see how different places and cultures influence one another; and since the novel is centred around a creative process, it was ideal to draw on a cast of international characters and settings. Why not? Let's take it to Spain, Italy, the US... and be influenced by the Far East or the 'near to home'....
A: Latest film?
JJ: I've just seen Buster Keaton in The Cameraman –possibly the funniest film I've ever seen, genius!
JJ: I don’t have an Ipod, but if I did... maybe Gogol Bordello's Super Taranta; Aretha Franklin; and an album called Pomegranates, recommended by a good friend; it's a fab collection of Persian pop, funk and folk from the 60s and 70s.
A: Three famous people who impress you (contemporary or historical)
JJ: Zaha Hadid, George Eliot, Edith Piaf...
A: Best place to work when things get tough
JJ: Does anyone work when things get tough? Better batten down the hatches until things ease up.
A: Current bedtime read –