Jacqueline Crooks in conversation with Francesca Baker


Fiction and fact – two sides of the same coin? Ahead of her Fusing Life Writing and Fiction workshop on Tuesday 16 October, writer Jacqueline Crooks chats to Francesca Baker about finding stories from life, and turning them into fiction.


Francesca Baker: I’m here with Jacqueline Crooks, who is running a workshop with us on Fusing Life Writing and Fiction. It’s taking place at the Idea Store in Whitechapel on the 16th of October.

You’re quite an expert in blending these things together, aren’t you? You’ve written lots of short stories about your experiences.

Jacqueline Crooks: Yeah. The short story collection really is a mix of fact and fiction. It can be very difficult to unravel what is fact and what is fiction, but the starting point was very much writing about my life, and my family’s life and their experience of migration, and just using fiction to magnify certain events, a way of exploring and getting a deeper understanding. I think that’s where the two come together. But yeah, primarily it is a real mix of fact and fiction.

Francesca Baker: Were you fascinated by those stories that you wanted to tell, and then it was a way to bring them out?

Jacqueline Crooks: Yes. For me, life writing is an exploration. It’s a questioning. I certainly went into this thinking I need to understand my family and their experiences. But there’s also those questions you don’t know, you’re searching for. It’s a search for something. That was the aim.

That then led me to learn more about my family members and their experiences, and then just putting that out and using the fiction to elaborate more to certain situations.

Francesca Baker: It sounds like it had a real purpose and value for you as well. Who is life writing for? Sometimes I think it can be a quite cathartic experience for the writer, or it might allow the subject’s story to be heard or invite the reader to a new world.

Jacqueline Crooks: I think the starting point for me was it was cathartic. It was about a search for connection, exploration of identity. My heritage is so mixed – African, Jamaican, Indian, German. Who am I? Where do I belong? Where do I come from?

So it was an exploration of identity and connection. I certainly got that. By the end of writing those stories, I felt a connection to my female ancestors. I felt connected to them and discovered things that were common to us, things that we used to get through life. I found a connection. So for me, it was very cathartic. Life writing is the starting point.

Francesca Baker: Have you always written life writing, or some fiction? Or can you really not untangle the two?

Jacqueline Crooks: I think predominantly my writing is rooted in life writing. I started writing in 2000, and that’s when I started writing these stories. That was definitely rooted in my life, my family’s life.

I think I’ve only ever written one short story that was I would say grounded purely in fiction. But even that had elements of my life within it.

Francesca Baker: It’s always there. Is there a particular style or genre that’s more suited to life writing?

Jacqueline Crooks: Let’s use the example of my book The Ice Migration. It started off as a biography of my Indian grandfather. I wanted to find out about his life and my Indian ancestry. I couldn’t get much details about where he’d come from in India.

Then it broadened out to other members of my family, and then it switched from a biography to a novel. Then it shapeshifted again to these linked short stories. As it stands, it can be read as a collection of linked mini vignette biographies. It can be read as a novel. It can be read even as my autobiography because I’m in most of these stories in some shape, whether directly or indirectly.

I do believe that life writing suits any genre. Everyone’s life is so unique and individual. You’ve got to find the genre that suits you. It could be one genre; it could be a fusion, as mine is, of genres.

Francesca Baker: Kind of bringing everything together.

Jacqueline Crooks: Yeah.

Francesca Baker: In your workshop, you said that participants will be using multisensory aids, which sounds incredibly interesting. Do you think writing is a multisensory medium?

Jacqueline Crooks: Yes, I think we rely on our senses. I think our senses drive our behaviour, don’t they? What we hear, what we smell, what we touch and feel, I think it can be really used to conjure up authentic characters, drive their motivation and behaviour.

I rely a lot on my senses when I’m writing, particularly the sense of smell. I get to know people who I like and trust through my sense of smell, so I’m fascinated by the senses. I think they’re just another tool that we can bring in to get that creativity flowing in an unusual way.

Francesca Baker: It just adds more colour to the writing as well. It’s not really a way to trail it off, but actually keeping it in the writing.

Jacqueline Crooks: Absolutely. Colour is a great way of bringing that in.

Francesca Baker: You work quite a lot in the community. Do you think giving voice to stories is really important in community cohesion or individual wellbeing?

Jacqueline Crooks: Absolutely. I think 70% of what I do is my community engagement work, and the rest is writing. The two are very interlinked. I wouldn’t do, or couldn’t do one without the other.

My starting point for writing was the benefits to me and understanding and connection, but secondary to that is giving voice. Once I got to know my characters, my ancestors, I really wanted to bring their voices out.

In my community work, I’ve realised that actually that’s a lot of what I do. It’s about giving voice to socially excluded people, the voiceless. I find that connection, and that really is increasingly important to me in my writing.

The interesting people are the silent ones who we don’t hear from, because I think that that silence speaks. It’s loud, isn’t it? It speaks so much, and I want to bring that into the creative process.

Francesca Baker: Give that opportunity to people.

Jacqueline Crooks: Yeah.

Francesca Baker: Other than coming to your workshop, what top tips would you have for budding life writers out there?

Jacqueline Crooks: I think drawing on your life, you’ve got a wealth of material out there. Tap into that. Speak to your family members. Keep a journal of your experiences. In writing The Ice Migration, a lot of that material came out from my daily writing journal and diary. So draw on that. Draw on that which you already have.

Then go to lots of small workshops like the Spread the Word ones to polish and use them as little nuggets of gold that you can shape into stories.

That’s the starting point. Start speaking to people, your family members, talking to them. Hearing from other people really, I think, infuses your own writing. It shouldn’t be all about you. Life writing I don’t think is just all about me. It’s about the people I’m connected to and the people that affect me and the people I affect as well.

Francesca Baker: Brilliant. Thank you so much for coming.

Jacqueline Crooks: Thank you.

Fusing Life Writing and Fiction is on Tuesday 16 October, 6:15-8:30pm at Idea Store, Whitechapel. Members of the London Writers Network get discounted rates. Book here