Headshot of Jane Campbell

Jane Campbell was born in Hoylake (Wirral) in 1942. In 1948 her family moved to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and four years later Jane went to boarding school in Cape Town. In 1959 she spent 18 months at Cape Town University before reading English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. After marrying a fellow undergraduate, she moved to Bermuda. In 1980 she returned to Oxford where she took a post-graduate degree in Applied Social Science and trained at the Institute of Group Analysis. She has had a Private Practice in Oxford since then and for 20 years worked as a co-director of a part-time postgraduate training leading to an MSc Group Psychotherapy (OBU). Her debut collection ‘Cat Brushing’ was published by Riverrun / Quercus in July 2022. The stories explore the emotional worlds of thirteen older women and confront the tragic misconceptions of aging. ‘Cat Brushing’ is currently shortlisted for The Edge Hill Short Story Prize. 

What do you love about the short story?

That you can create a character without needing a lot of backstory or context or history and then provide them with a dilemma and watch them deal with it, all in a few thousand words. I say ‘create’ but, truthfully, I do not know where the 13 old women in my stories came from; it would not be untrue to say, “they just turned up in my head”. My only regret about the way I introduced them is that a lot of attention has been focussed on their ‘sexual’ activity while all I wanted to do was to illustrate their ongoing human qualities. Young women fall in love or want to “have a relationship” and usually sex is or becomes an aspect of it. I wanted to say it is the same for old women: the primary need is for someone to care about, secondarily there may be a sexual aspect too. It is, after all, as in the most famous speech about dispossessed human beings ever written, “Hath not an old woman eyes? Hath not an old woman hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food…etc etc.” Physically, they alter while the essential woman remains the same.

Is there a particular story in your collection you are proud of and why?

I am very pleased with Lamia. I was not at all trying to preach but sometimes I think of these stories as fables: Lamia illustrates the fact that you can be a good person who does or at least tries to do all the right things and that still your heart’s desire can remain out of reach. Quite why I like this little fable I am not sure but I know that often when people fail in love they think it is because they don’t deserve to be loved and I think that is rubbish. In terms of complexity, The Scratch is, I think, a very clever story since the reader always knows more than Nell does. And I like “Kindness” which draws on Guy de Maupassant’s story “Une Vendetta”; I had not read it since I was at school (in French) but it obviously made a deep impression!

Do you have any writing habits and how do they help?

No writing habits except that once I start writing something it is in my head morning noon and night. Sometimes I dream about the characters and wake up knowing what they will do next. I never start with a plot but just the character, who turns up in my head, as I said, and then I watch what they do. I seldom know the precise end of the story when I begin it. I guess the stories are character-led. The only other “habit” is that I have found that I have a memory stuffed with quotations which I draw on freely. The most dramatic is probably the statement attributed to K in “Cat Brushing.” Years and years ago I read an article on the Mafia and the author described a curious “primness” operating alongside an uninhibited preparedness to murder etc. He quoted a tough guy saying, “If you’ll suck pussy, you’ll suck anything…” (latent homophobia, I guess) and that stayed with me.

Were there any surprising or unexpected moments that arose while you wrote your collection?

To some extent they were all surprising for I had never written short stories before. The subject of “The Scratch” was a total surprise. I had found a small scratch on my hand that I could not recall injuring and as I thought about it, since therapists are accustomed to the phenomenon of “cutting” as a means of expressing or dealing with acute psychological distress, the story began to take shape and Nell emerged. The red curtains (seen years ago in a neighbour’s house) then turned up and I am, of course, familiar with the fact that our salient memories may be forgotten by our conscious mind but rattle around in our subconscious until a prompt occurs and retrieves them. Nothing original here. cf Proust. The idea of the subconscious sexual desire was then inevitable….

Are there any characters in your collection you would like to spend time with and why?

I would like to spend time with all of them but not at the same time: one on one. I am not very good with social groups, anyway, and I am confident they would not all like each other and then I would feel required to provide a solution. I do feel very sorry for Pamela and for the unnamed heroine of 183 minutes. There is no-one to console them. Also, of course, ‘Lamia’ but she has a toughness that these other two lack.

What writers or stories have influenced you and why?

Bleak writers. Truthful writers. Clever writers. Excellent prose writers. In the past these were, for example, W G Sebald. Joseph Conrad. Kurt Vonnegut. I have never thought of the short story as requiring a different language from the novel. I think Saul Bellow’s story, “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” is one of the best things I have ever read. Since writing the stories I have been introduced to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Shirley Hazzard and Leonora Carrington.