Q&A with Dancer, Novelist Joanna Marsh

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Two adult ballet novels: Cantique and La Follia.
Photo by Hannah Holmes

Author Joanna Marsh stirkes a pose en pointe outside.
Photo of Joanna by Jana Carson

I recently asked author Joanna Marsh a few questions about her life as a dancer, her upcoming novel La Follia, and much more...

Her answers were thoughtful and often surprising. Here is the full Q&A...

You wrote both Cantique and La Follia for the adult ballet community, and you are a recreational ballet dancer yourself. Tell us about your experiences with ballet. Why do you dance, and what inspired you to write these novels?

I dance for many reasons, the simplest being that it seems to be an innate impulse that brings me a lot of joy. I love those moments of complete presence, when it’s just me and the music, and I feel an intuitive connection to it. Dance is a way to express myself without having to speak, and it’s therapeutic for me physically, mentally, and spiritually. Basically, I just really love it!

I was inspired to write Cantique from a scene that popped into my head one day — of Colette and Sammy at the barre — and I felt compelled to write it down. Gradually, I kept adding to it, with no particular plan, and I found that I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about ballet that were being worked out through these fictional characters. Eventually, I realized I could write an entire novel about this, and I knew there would be other people out there who would appreciate a story told from an adult beginner’s perspective. Knowing that it might help other dancers feel more understood is what convinced me to publish it.

For La Follia, I felt like I owed Colette a performance experience and that it could also be cathartic for my Cantique readers. Plus, I wasn’t quite done with the characters. I wanted to see what they’d been up to.

Last March, the world shut down for COVID-19, impacting every facet of our lives. How did it affect your writing process for La Follia? Did you find yourself with more time to write?

I had actually already written a full manuscript for La Follia at that point, but I wasn’t happy with it. I spent most of 2019 slogging through the first draft during my spare moments and, to be honest, last March I was on the verge of exhaustion. The shutdown gave me the time, solitude, and energy that I needed to go back through La Follia scene by scene and elevate it into the story I originally set out to tell. I was very fortunate to have that precious time at home while also being able to keep my job. I know many people were not nearly as fortunate, so I made sure to at least use my time wisely. I thought, if you’re going to finish this book, here’s your chance. Now or never.

Writing a novel is a laborious undertaking, and in an increasingly digital society, it can be difficult to break away from distractions (even during a global pandemic!). How do you stay motivated to keep writing, and how do you make time for it?

It is difficult. Motivation comes and goes, so I’ve learned to rely on discipline. To deal with distractions, I will literally put my phone in a drawer and go write in another room. I’m not a very structured person by nature, so I have to impose a structure that I know I’ll stick with. For example, on a first draft, I’ll map out the story and divide it into one chapter per week. (With my schedule, a weekly goal is much more realistic than a daily goal.) Then it’s a matter of blocking off time to work on that week’s chapter, whether I feel like it or not. Usually that means sacrificing something that’s ultimately not that important. (Ahem, Netflix.) Lately I’ve discovered that I have really good writing sessions while on the treadmill, so that’s a win/win situation as far as making the most out of my time!

As a dancer, writer, and visual artist, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about creativity and what it means to live a creative life. Tell us about your process for creating — where do you find inspiration and how do you get into a creative flow?

Every project starts with a spark of inspiration — an image, a piece of music, or anything that happens to fascinate me. Since I was young, I’ve cultivated a habit of jotting these things down and keeping a file of ideas, quotes, etc., and eventually I’ll return to the one that intrigues me the most.

Turning these ideas into a fully formed work of art is a different matter. It requires discipline in cooperation with inspiration. Like most writers I know, I never actually feel “inspired” until I’m already deep into writing, which is when that flow state might happen. It doesn’t always happen, which is okay. I know if I keep showing up to do my work, I will eventually encounter all of the elements that my project requires — serendipitous details and connections I never could have planned beforehand. Writing is like improv in that way and often feels more like discovery. I write best when I approach it with playfulness, curiosity, and a lot of patience.

If I feel myself getting off track during a project, I’ll re-read one of my favorite books on creativity, like The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert or 5 Creativity Killers and How to Avoid Them by Stephen Roach. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is also a good one for dancers.

Tell us about your research process for both Cantique and La Follia. What kind of sources did you use? Did your experience as a professional librarian and archivist help you in this respect?

I actually didn’t do much research as I had already spent many years immersing myself in the ballet world. For Cantique I do remember consulting some obscure dance encyclopedias to see if there was a record of a ballet based on Song of Songs. (Sidenote, I never found one, but I recently discovered that San Diego Ballet staged one last year.) To be honest, I do so much research and historical writing at work that writing fiction feels very freeing — I can just make stuff up!

La Follia focuses quite a bit on performance opportunities for adult ballet dancers. Typically, ballet training for adults is not performance-focused, but even so, many adult students love ballet dearly and dream of performing. What would you say to encourage adult ballet dancers who want to perform but are struggling to find opportunities?

I would say to initiate your own opportunities. Start by asking around (if you haven’t already) because, even if there are no opportunities at present, people first need to know that you’re interested, and they’ll keep you in mind. If you’re at a large studio, try seeking out smaller studios that might be more open to recitals, and bring friends with you! Personally, I don’t feel the need to perform to an audience as much as the need to learn and work on choreography. That idea — learning a piece in-studio just for the fun of it — will be more accessible to most studios than staging a show. Start small, then go from there.

I’ve also had to get creative and start choreographing my own little pieces to work on. Just recently, my friend and I rented a studio to rehearse one of them, and one of my teachers saw our footage and asked me about it. After our conversation, she immediately set up a variations workshop for us and our classmates. Many teachers will be up for new ideas like this, but they first need to know that the desire is there. So, don’t give up! Keep asking and getting creative.

Many books and films (such as Black Swan or Netflix’s recent series Tiny Pretty Things) take a dark approach in their depictions of the ballet world, focusing on eating disorders, cutthroat competition, racism, and corruption. Both Cantique and La Follia, while they delve into many deep issues about life and creativity, offer a lighter approach to ballet.

Do you think we need both kinds of ballet stories — both the darker and the brighter? What impression of ballet do you hope people take away from your books?

I honestly don’t think we need any more depressing ballet stories right now. They’ve been done. We all know the tropes. And, unfortunately, we all know that there’s truth to them. There are a lot of horrible and unbelievably antiquated things that are still occurring in ballet culture, and I’m glad that people are coming forward to expose them in real life. But when real life is already difficult enough, I don’t think we need more fiction to perpetuate it.

I would rather my work focus on the more redeeming aspects of ballet that I’ve experienced firsthand. When I started dancing, I found a studio full of the kindest, most fascinating, hard-working, and intelligent people I’d ever met. And these were recreational dancers. This was quite the departure from the back-stabbing ballerina movies I had seen. I realized that ballet is largely under-appreciated partly because the general public does not often see representations of healthy, flourishing ballet communities.

In a sense, I’ve felt the need to reclaim ballet through my novels and depict it in a more accessible, uplifting way. I tried to do this while still acknowledging some of the difficulties dancers face regarding identity, self-doubt, and perfectionism. My hope is that non-dancers who read my novels come away with a new appreciation and interest in ballet (and that it doesn’t have to be like Black Swan.) For dancers, I hope it encourages them to keep dancing for their own joy on their own terms, despite the obstacles they might be facing.

Of course, we have to ask: Will this be the final installment of Colette's story, or can we expect more from the series?

I’m not sure yet. I’d like to write a third book and I have some ideas for it, but only time will tell. I need to recover from La Follia first!

And once you're finished with Colette and James and Westmoreland Ballet, any ideas on what kind of book you'll be writing next? Will it be dance-related or do you plan to explore other genres?

I always have a few ideas floating around but nothing currently in the works. As much as I love writing about dance, I’m looking forward to writing something completely different.

One last question, just for fun. What's your favorite ballet-related book, and why?

It’s been about 10 years since I’ve read it, but definitely Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans. Studying history is a significant part of my life, so naturally I’m interested in ballet’s past. Homans did an amazing job of assembling a concise history of ballet that is both engaging and easy to follow. She has received a lot of criticism for her epilogue in which she claims that ballet is dying or — at the very least — asleep and in need of a reawakening. Many people are quick to be defensive about this, but I agree with her. When you look at ballet from a broad, historical perspective, there is no doubt that it is on the decline.

Rather than despairing about this, it gives me a lot of assurance and hope about my place in the ballet world. I believe people like us — who may not have grown up embroiled in ballet culture and are engaging with it in new ways — are playing an important role in its reawakening.

Interestingly enough, I just pulled my copy of Apollo’s Angels off the shelf and saw this passage, which articulates exactly what I mean:

“If artists do find a way to reawaken this sleeping art, history suggests that the kiss may not come from one of ballet’s own princes but from an unexpected guest from the outside — from popular culture or from theater, music, or art; from artists or places foreign to the tradition who find new reasons to believe in ballet.”

That could be us.

Joanna's newest novel, La Follia, the sequel to Cantique, is currently available for pre-order and will be released in March 2021. You can follow Joanna on Instagram. You can also visit her author website and Etsy shop.