How and when did you get started as a published author?
I was ten years old and sent a cowboy story to Mickey Mouse magazine. They did a little news story about it, headed ‘Budding Author of Bililngshurst’. Then I had poems in school magazines – if only all schools had them now! Come on, English teachers! It’s such an encouragement to see your work in print (or of course now they could be online). In terms of ‘real’ publication, I wrote my first novel aged 19, but did not get one into print until I was 31. It was a long apprenticeship, and that true ‘first novel’ was never published. It still sits in my garage, typed blackly – on thin paper and stapled together in batches. It should never be published, not good enough, but I learned so much by writing it – writing (and reading) is the only way you ever learn to write.
How did you find the reception from your critics to your novels early on in your career?
The first novel I published, Dying in Other Words, got an ecstatic reception, so, after a long bleak wait, suddenly I was overwhelmed with praise, and was chosen on the strength of it for the first ‘best of British Novelists’ campaign. But I see it as partly luck – the novel came out in July when nothing much was published then, the first review was a rave in The Observer, then The Times ran an extract and everyone fell into line, because critics are easily influenced. Sometimes I have been lucky, sometimes not – you have to be tough and determined to be a writer.
In ‘The Blue’ you move away from novels to focus on the short story. Did you enjoy using the short story format? How did it differ from writing a novel?
Last year I wrote a science short story for Litmus, a Comma anthology edited by Ra Page. My period of immersion in the form began when Nii Parkes and Courttia Newland asked me to join their “Tell Tales” – tour back in 2004 – a great experience for me. We wrote short stories which were then set to music and we performed them like that on tour. I enjoyed it so much I then wrote more short stories and published a volume. But if you look at the front of The Blue, you’ll see many of them were written for specific commissions – for Radio 4, for a festival, for a magazine, etc.
In a short story, everything is about the ending – it is the reason, after all, why this IS a short story, not a novel: because it ends here. So the ending is the hardest part to write, and determines everything that precedes it, and must justify everything that goes before. As you will know, the endings of short stories get rewritten and rewritten and sometimes NEVER come right! There is one story in The Blue, ‘Mornington Crescent’ I think I called it, which I first wrote when I was three decades younger – I never liked the ending, though it was published – and even now I’m not sure, and I have changed it yet again.
Other obvious differences between stories and novels: stories are useful for making art from what happens in your everyday – whereas novels are much bigger, longer projects, into which you can’t import extraneous things: also, short stories can only hold a very limited number of fully-fledged characters (a rule I happily violated in my story for The Sunday Times). Stories are unforgiving – novels are big enough to survive flaws, though we novelists try very hard to make them perfect, but in short stories, everything lies open to the reader’s minute scrutiny, and a tiny flaw looks large.
Is there another novel in the pipeline?
There is always another novel in the pipeline. My new one will be called Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, but in fact half of it is set in Turkey. Woolf comes back to life in Manhattan because all her manuscripts are there, though she herself never went there. I try to show what she might make of the 21st century – including America itself, and the modern world of books, and her posthumous reputation. Halfway through she flies to a conference about her work in Istanbul, where she did go, though she would have called it Constantinople, as a very young woman. I want to set Turkey and the USA in apposition to each other to say something about modernity and the overlapping of different historical periods on the same planet – about different values, too. But actually a lot of it is comedy, like all my work.
Turkey is a totally fascinating country and culture or rather succession of cultures. I am only just starting to get any grasp on it. The people are many things – courageous, full of hope and energy; their roots in the confidence of a long past, something I have also found with Egyptian friends, Britain is actually quite a new culture.
Do more creative writing courses make it harder or easier for aspiring writers?
If you have no money at all, it must be a bit depressing because you can’t afford them. To those people I would say: most writers of my generation never went on one, because they hardly existed then, yet somehow or other we learned to write all on our own. If you can’t write in the first place, creative writing courses can’t help you, and if you are brilliant, you don’t need them other than for practical tips on getting published for example, (And there are books about that – also, look out for one-off workshops from people like London’s “Spread the Word”, who keep things affordable, that’s part of their mission.) It’s the people between ‘brilliant’ and ‘hopeless’ at writing who benefit most from creative writing teaching, because the best creative writing teaching is really about teaching people to edit themselves. I would say to people on restricted budgets who want to be taught: there ARE bursaries at places like Arvon. The Arvon foundation runs the best, not to mention the least economically driven and competitive, creative writing courses around. They really are about the art, not the commerce, but people do learn a lot there as well. And believe it or not, not all the bursaries are taken up, so apply, people! I believe that your most famous Durham author Pat Barker went on an Arvon course and was taught by Angela Carter so, if you know either of their work, there is a very big recommendation, though of course there is no guarantee that you will win the Booker Prize like Pat. And novelist Lesley Glaister went on one and was taught by Hilary Mantel which lead to a real writing friendship, and of course, was a moment in two successful careers. I will be teaching again in January on the Faber Academy Novel-writing course, which I think is a good one because it is totally hands-on. However, it isn’t cheap.
On the whole: don’t be intimidated by the creative writing industry. It’s mostly like everything in the literary/ educational economy, a form of activity that provides a living: in this case, one that supplements the income of, writers/teachers (like me! Thanks, industry!) If an agent or publisher likes your work, they are NEVER going to ask you whether or not you have been on a creative writing course. And they are not going to take that much notice of the fact that you HAVE been on one, conversely.
Should a writer be political? Do they have a duty to write about important issues?
There are no ‘shoulds’ or ‘duties’ for writers. Each writer has to work that out for him/herself. It’s hard enough to write and be truthful. Just write from what’s in you. If it’s politics, go for it.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write. Go on, get on with it.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A dancer. I dance in my dreams. And whenever I get the chance, at parties, but there’s too much talking at literary parties. Plus round the room at home.