As part of my ongoing series with experts from the publishing industry, last week I hosted Jayapriya Vasudevan, Founder of the Jacaranda Literary Agency. Today, I bring you Julia Bell, Senior Lecturer, teaching the MA in Creative Writing at the prestigious Birkbeck College, UK. I’ve had the good fortune of having her as my mentor under the Writing the City Programme, and I have to declare that she’s the best thing that can happen to you if you’re a noob like me attempting a novel.
Today I ask her a few questions, and encourage you to add yours in the comments– I hope to get you your answers. So without further ado, here goes:
1. Hanif Kureshi recently said that Creative Writing Courses are a waste of time. As a Senior Lecturer of Creative Writing at one of the most prestigious creative writing programs in the UK, what is your comment on that? What do you look for in a potential candidate for your program?
Julia Bell: Creative Writing Coursebook
Hanif Kureshi sounds like part of an older generation of writers who preserve their position through adopting an attitude of superiority. Creative Writing programmes have created a new democracy in literature where anyone with a story can learn how to tell it and I think it’s evident now that Creative Writing can be taught. This is an interesting article from Publishers Weekly explaining exactly how and why MFA programmes are a necessary part of the Literary Culture in the US.
I would say that CW MA/MFA Courses are a vital part of finding and developing new voices in literature. I can’t teach boring people to be interesting, but I can help interesting people to write better, to develop their work into a voice. I’m looking for openness to feedback, a sense of the experiential nature of storytelling and a felicity for language. Raw talent can always be shaped through editorial feedback and there is nothing more exciting than watching someone finding their real voice, their point of view on the world.
2. How does your experience as an author feed into your teaching? What do you like best about teaching creative writing and what puts you off? (The lecture she links to is fab– give it a listen if you’re an aspiring author)
I would teach by example – I write every day and I try to encourage students to do the same. Being a ‘daily artist’ is what it takes to sustain a career as a writer. There is quite a bit of my teaching available for free on the Birkbeck website Writers Hub – here is a link to a lecture I gave on a writer’s territory.
3. If you had to give just three pointers on ‘writing technique’ to aspiring authors, something general creative writing books don’t tell them, what would they be? (Here are a few she’s already spoken about)
It’s hard work. It demands your full and complete attention. And sometimes you write crap but there is always something good even if it’s only a sentence in a bad day’s work.
4. If you had to choose three of your favorite authors and their best works, which would they be? Why did you choose these in particular?
I don’t know if these are ‘best’ works but these books have hugely influenced my thinking about writing and my life itself:
George Orwell – The Clergyman’s Daughter His prose is so clear and clean I would aspire to the same clarity of vision, but the story of a vicar’s daughter who is oppressed by the faith of her father was both a warning and a portrait of what I didn’t want for myself.
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – I was jealous when I read this it seemed to articulate something about my own life, and I wondered what I could add to the story. It’s interesting how she returned to the subject in a memoir 25 years later – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal – the two are companion pieces to my mind and make up her best and most interesting work.
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway – Oh I how I love her – what a writer – she understood that good prose also contains good poetry. Her essays are also a delight in the fluency of articulation and the way she approaches her subjects. Clarity and rhythm are for me what I want out of good writing. Something that sings in my head.
5. For those new to your work, which of your novels would you recommend they start with?
Massive, by Julia Bell
I write novels which are the equivalent of British Indie films. I want them to have a realism like Orwell and a voice that has the a poetic flourish – but these effects must be earned – too much poetry and the prose becomes dense, not enough and it’s too plain, too staccato. I’m very proud of my first novel, Massive which is to be republished next year in a revised edition with the cultural references updated from 2002 to 2015. It’s a real privilege to get to do this – there will then be two slightly different editions of this book out in the world which I think is a delight for a writer. You can find out a bit more on my website.
6. Tell us about your forthcoming novel.
My new novel is called The Dark Light and is the story of a girl who has grown up in a strange religious cult. It’s a bit like a reworking of the Wicker Man with a bit of Lord of the Flies thrown in. It comes out in May 2015 from Macmillan. Follow me on Twitter @juliabell for updates as the process moves towards publication – first I’ve got to do some editing . . .
7. What was the spark of the story, and what was the writing process like? Who is your target audience?
I think it’s a story about my childhood, but also it’s been inspired by an increasing sense of religious fundamentalism in the world. I’m interested in how rigid religious thought can become like a trap even as it purports to set people free. Ironically my upbringing fostered a sense of fairness which rails against religious fundamentalism where women are seen as subordinate to men and sexuality is seen as something to be feared rather than enjoyed. I’ve also been writing a memoir in verse which I see very much as a companion piece to the novel. You can see me reading some of it here.
Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck College, London where she teaches on the Creative Writing MA and is Project Director of the Writers Hub website. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in May 2014, the co editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night In Yer Ear.
Do you have questions for Julia Bell? Have you come across the Creative Writing Coursebook? Read Massive? Have you done an MFA/ MA in creative writing, or taken any other creative writing course? Would you recommend it?